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3 Ways To Progress or Improve Your Upper Body Exercises

activelifestyle exerciseprogramming shoulderpain strengthtraining Jul 06, 2022

It is commonly said that we should do two times as many exercises for our posterior chain or back side of the body then the front but what does that really mean? As we move from our pushing exercise split into our pulling, we need to look at what are the key basics for pulling exercises and mechanics. 

As mentioned before, all muscle contractions can be considered a pull but what we do with that force constitutes what exercise or body part we will be working. The reason that it is highly recommended to do twice as many pulling exercises is that we live in a gravity based world that pulls us forward into rounded posture. We also live in a highly passive world today where overall activity is limited and we spend way too much time viewing screens. This double dip of force and positioning leads to a high number of issues that result in pain and injury over time. 

Most of us know that we should exercise and that there are great benefits but oftentimes simple basics are forgotten. If you have spent any time in a gym, you can observe that the majority of people are going through the motions and possibly you are one of them. It’s easy to get in the habit of checking the box and moving on through your day but sometimes we need to stop and look at what we are supposed to be getting from our training at this time. 

Exercise should be intentional and purpose driven. One of the main purposes is to recruit and stimulate our nervous system so we can maintain the ability to perform specific tasks through life as well as maintain as much lean tissue as we age. I commonly say that it’s not your skin that makes an older person look good, as much as it might help, it’s their posture and movement that keeps them youthful and vibrant. 

The king of all upper body pulling exercises would hands down be the Pull-up. The ability to pull oneself up to a bar or object takes great upper body strength. There are many ways to modify it if you cannot do pull-ups, which brings machines into the picture.  These tools can allow us to use specific weight for our intended purpose. Using a cable lat pulldown machine requires us to stimulate the back and lats in a modified position. These exercises would be working in a vertical translation where most other back pulling exercises would be in a horizontal position. 

Probably, one of the most popular exercises in the pulling category is the horizontal back row. This comes in all shapes and sizes using pretty much any tool you can come across. From a bench supported Dumbbell back row to a bent-over t-bar or landmine row to a suspension body weight row, the variety is endless to this category. We cannot stress enough the positional awareness of end ranges that will elicit the most significant results when it comes to posture as well as muscle development. This type of training should provide a stimulus that should position the end ranges of your mobility to a level where you build strength and durability. This will make everyday life feel that much better as well as if you are a weekend warrior playing and participating in sports, you can perform and stay more durable for the demands on the body. 

As we move into our pulling exercises, knowing our own individual end range is very important. A quick test to see and feel where our ideal position would be in our pulling mechanics is using some pattern recognition with a broomstick or pole. Place the stick overhead, pull Abs in and out to secure your ribcage, slightly lift chest to extend upper back and pull the stick down in front of your nose while you are trying to pull the stick apart at the same time. You should try to drive the elbows down and behind you which should fully retract and depress your scapula. At this point the stick should be touching the mid chest area, this is where your pulling mechanics should be. I know what your saying right now, I have to do a pull-up to there, “Yep!” Well hold up for a second, we know our range of motion changes under load but ideally that is where you should be bridging the gap between your strength and mobility. No matter where you are at, there is a progression or place to start. Let's look at a few questions that we should ask ourselves to help us think and start putting a plan together with our pulling exercises: 

 

Do I know where my Lat muscle is and can I activate it easily?

The Lat muscle is like the glutes for your lower body. It is the powerhouse that helps to control your shoulder. It produces a lot of force but also can help decelerate force with high velocity sports and arm actions. 

 

 

Can I fully control my scapula in 4 basic positions; Retraction, Protraction, Elevation, and Depression? 

These four basic positions can be inserted in many different positions with many different forces on the body. Try some of these to start and work up to higher progressions. Again, it’s not always about moving the body but stabilizing and controlling each segment. Try the shoulder dislocate with band or pole: 

 

 

 How strong is my grip strength? 

There are some basic standards that you can evaluate your overall grip strength as well as shoulder strength and health.  Can you hang with your body weight? If not, you can start using partial weight or assisted weight. Use a TRX or another version of a suspension trainer that you have to support your body weight versus a DB or KB. You will feel the difference when it comes to your grip. Hanging standards can be achieved as you are going through your training and do not have to be trained separately outside of your normal training program. The female standard for hanging is 60 seconds body weight where males should be 90 seconds hanging with body weight. Try hanging drills to improve all pulling mechanics: 

 

 

One more great upper body exercise that most people do not know about that will greatly help get your pulling mechanics in check is a hinge row. This is a coordination exercise that as you hinge, you retract and pull your shoulders down and back. The finish should be 90 degree position with your hips and torso and the upper body should be doing a W but instead of using a band or small dumbbells, you are using your body weight which will take a lot more lat recruitment to support. Try the hinge row:

 

 

Proper form in pulling exercises are critical to overall strength and upper body performance.  If you would like more information or to see how our team of PTs and coaches can help you break down movements and exercises, give us a call or click here to schedule a complimentary discovery session.  We can give you a new outlook of focusing your training on tasks, which gives a variety of movements with advancing complexity to build your skill, resiliency, and efficiency as you train

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