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Maximize your Upper-Body Training - Optimization for the Athlete

While easier than the lower-body, you still need to commit full to this area.
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Upper-body training is at once easier and harder than working the lower body. It's easier because it doesn't require the same amount of effort as lower-body training; it's harder because, unlike lower-body work, it offers countless exercises and variations to choose from for each muscle group. How do you narrow it down? I also believe that it's easier to overtrain the upper body because so many of the exercises involve more than one bodypart.

I generally recommend that you train your upper body the same way you train your lower body-briefly and infrequently. As I suggested in the introductory paragraph, however, the specifics must be somewhat different. First off you have to be careful how you split up the muscle groups and schedule your workouts. If you want to keep your sessions very brief and focused, you'll probably find yourself splitting your upper body over two days. Even if you do only three or four sets per bodypart, by the time you've done five upper-body parts and, perhaps, traps and forearms, you've spent a long time in the gym.

Furthermore, since the upper-body exercises tend to overlap muscle groups, working all upper-body parts together, while it does offer some obvious advantages, can result in a work load that makes recovery very difficult, requiring several days or more. Even an extremely intense session that covers only two or three upper-body parts usually requires two days for recovery.

While the most common upper-body split involves push movements (chest, shoulders, triceps) on one day and pull movements (upper back, biceps, fore-arms) on another, I don't recommend this particular split for two reasons. To begin with, when you use the same muscles over and over in one workout, by the third or fourth exercise you can't use much weight. Moreover, because the work load is so great on a few muscles, you need a lengthy recovery period.

Training chest and back on one day and shoulders, arms and forearms on another is more productive because, when you train with contrasting movements, you can handle a lot more weight throughout the session. And because you use contrasting exercises, you don't overwork any one muscle. Thus, your recovery is quicker. Also, with this split you work the two larger bodyparts (chest and back) together, saving the three smaller bodyparts (shoulders, biceps, triceps) for another session.

The greatest problem with splitting upper-body workouts is the possibility of overtraining your shoulders. This is because the shoulders are involved in every upper-body movement, and they also do a fair amount of work during lower-body sessions, supporting a heavy bar when you're squatting as well as receiving some of the load when you perform deadlifts. In addition, if you do any whole-body aerobic exercises (for example, powerwalking), your shoulders get even more work.

Clearly, bodyparts adapt to work loads over time, but your shoulders include small muscles that are vulnerable to injury. You can't completely remedy this situation, but as I discuss below, you can alleviate some shoulder problems by taking certain precautions.

One way to make good gains with your upper-body training is to reduce your sets to one per movement and do four or five different exercises for larger bodyparts and three to four for smaller ones. Pick exercises that work a muscle group in different ways and from different angles; that way one hard set of each is enough.

The following are some more specific pointers for getting the most out of your upper-body workouts:

1) Perform your exercises so that you feel them and get appropriate muscle tension. This is in contrast to the act of simply "lifting weights" through various movements, and it's particularly important for upper-body work. For example, any upper-back exercise can be a moderately productive biceps movement or a very productive upper-back movement - it depends on how you perform it. It takes focus, the knowledge of how to stretch and contract your upper back and a willingness to use slightly less weight to make the exercise effective.

Likewise, the only reason to use dumbbells and cables is to train from different angles and with a greater range of motion. For example, on dumbbell bench presses you can make the movement virtually a duplicate of what you'd do if you were using a barbell or you can make it feel very different by emphasizing a greater range of motion.

2) If you switch to the somewhat-more-intensive, one-set-per-move-ment approach, you should make your overall warmup and the warmups for each movement more extensive. These are similar to the warmups I described for lower-body training.

3) If you train chest and upper back together, work your chest first. The upper-back movements hit the rear deltoids as well, and if your rear delts are fatigued, your ability do perform pressing movements is reduced.

4) Try the decline position for some chest movements. Years ago Ellington Darden said that the decline position provides a greater range of motion-which is why the original Nautilus chest machines used a decline position. You should feel the decline exercises across all areas of your chest. The bonus is that most people are stronger in the decline position; but even so, you'll want to hold back on the poundages and emphasize safety by primarily using dumbbells.

5) If you can slightly pre-exhaust your upper back, you'll get better results while using somewhat less weight. Therefore, one of the best upper-back movements to start with is pullovers. Machine pullovers are especially good, since they isolate the upper back while minimizing upper-arm fatigue; however, bent-arm barbell pullovers on a bench work well too.

6) Train traps with upper back, as rows and other back movements are already hitting your traps. The best movement (even better than the trap bar) is dumbbell shrugs because of the range of motion and hand position that exercise involves.

7) To prevent overtraining your shoulders, reduce your work sets. Put any rear-delt movement into your upper-back routine. This may result in your doing only three work sets for shoulders. Also, to reduce the risk of shoulder problems, try doing lateral raises while seated, with your upper body leaning forward at a 70-to-80-degree angle. The simplest way to do this is to sit in the reverse position on an incline bench.

8) Learn to do dips in the straight-up-and-down-triceps position. This is probably the most effective triceps movement if you do it this way and you fully contract and squeeze at the top. Dips also have a powerful effect on your shoulders. In the straight position you can isolate your triceps and reduce the effect on your chest. On other triceps movements learn to keep your elbows stable and to completely stretch and isolate the triceps. Also, you can achieve a much better isolation if you reduce the weight you use.

9) Try doing cable curls over a preacher bench or straight bench. This movement is particularly effective because it creates a continuous tension and it leaves you very minimal leeway to cheat.

10) Although those of us who have small wrists and elbows can't expect to develop much muscle mass in our forearms, you can do wonders for strength and definition by religiously working yours with a variety of movements. Forearm curls and reverse forearm curls are the mainstay of any program. For even better muscle action use dumbbells (you want to work harder to stabilize the dumbbells, since stabilization is an important function of your forearms). Also, include the following movements at various times in your forearm training: hammer curls, reverse curls and twisting, rolling and gripping movements.

My final comment goes back to the key point from the beginning of this discussion: Most upper-body movements are easy to do, and there's a great variety to choose from; therefore, it's easy to overtrain your upper body. So be selective. Pick those movements that really work for you, keep the number of work sets low and learn to focus on feel and muscle tension. Don't just lift weights.

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