Upper Body Training Tips
Whether your goal is getting stronger or building more muscle definition, these tips will help you improve your upper body fitness.
Tip #1: Focus on compound movements.
This is especially important if you want more “toned” arms. Everybody thinks curls and kickbacks when training for arm definition, and while those exercises are part of the equation, they’re more like the cherry on top.
Unlike curls and kickbacks, compound movements engage muscle groups instead of isolating individual muscles. That means you can use heavier weights, allowing you to do more work, thus delivering more “bang for your buck.”
Pushing exercises work your chest, shoulders, and triceps; while pulling exercises work your back, rear delts (shoulders), and biceps.
Pushing exercises: push ups, bench press, overhead press, incline press, dips.
Pulling exercises: pull ups, chin ups, pulldowns, and all kinds of row variations.
Make these exercises the staple of your workouts, then sprinkle in some isolation work (bicep curls, tricep extensions, calf raises, abs). You’ll get far better results for strength, size, definition, and overall fitness than if you work the equation in the other direction.
Tip #2: Use a variety of rep ranges.
Train for strength even if your goal is definition and train for hypertrophy (definition) even if your goal is strength.
Why? Because the two are complementary. It’s easier to get stronger when you have more muscle fiber density (definition) and it’s easier to increase muscle tone when you’re stronger and can lift heavier weights.
Use a variety of rep ranges throughout your workout. I recommend doing a set of exercises with one of the first rep ranges from the list below, then doing different exercises with the next rep range, then still different exercises with the third rep range.
- Strength reps: 4×5, 5×5, 4×6, 3×6-8 with heavy weights
- Strength-hypertrophy: 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps with moderate/heavy weights
- Hypertrophy: 2-4 sets of 12-15 reps with moderate/light weights
- Endurance: Anything more than 15 reps using light weights or body weight
Endurance training is optional (if that’s your goal) and is especially good for ab training because our abdominal muscles are built for endurance. It can also make for a fun “finisher” at the end of a workout. For example: 1×30 bicep curls, resting as little as possible.
Tip #3: Incorporate “tempo” into your training.
“Tempo” just means the amount of time it takes to lift and lower the weights in an exercise. You can get fancy with pause reps, too, but the lifting and lowering is where the money is at.
Tempo is (generally) written as 4 numbers, where the first number is the eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise, the second number is the pause at the bottom, the third number is the concentric (lifting) portion, and the fourth number is the pause at the top of the exercise.
For instance, bench press 5×5 with 3-0-1-0 tempo means “lower the weight for 3 seconds, then immediately lift the bar for 1 second, and repeat until you do five reps.” You would then rest and repeat for five sets.
By tweaking the tempo of a lift, you can accomplish vastly different goals with the same exercise. Take the example above. That 3-0-1-0 tempo is great for strength. If we slow down the movement to 4-0-4-0, each rep would take a lot longer. More “time under tension” sends a signal to your body to build more muscle tone/definition.
If that sounds complicated, all you need to do is think about slooooowing down the speed at which you lift. This is a great technique for working out at home with a limited weight selection, too.
Tip #4: Control the weight!
This tip is (mostly) for the bros in the audience. Stop lifting with your ego! If you cannot control the weight on the way up and the way down, you’re cheating yourself of the benefits of resistance training and opening yourself up to the possibility of injury.
Bonus tip for push ups and pull ups
If you can’t (yet) do full range of motion push ups from the floor or unassisted pull ups, practice only the “eccentric” portion of the movement.
For push ups, practice lowering yourself to the floor – from the top of the plank position until your chest touches the floor. Then, drop your knees down and press yourself up. This is different (and better) than doing “knee push ups” because you have to control all of your body weight down to the floor. Resisting gravity on the way down builds strength that has functional carry-over to “real” push ups; the shorter lever length makes it easier to push back up into the starting position.
For pull ups, stand on a box, chair, or other sturdy object and jump your chin over the bar (make sure the box is tall enough to make this fairly easy). Once your chin is over the bar, lower yourself as slowly as possible into the bottom position. From there, reset, jump your chin over, and repeat. Keep sets small, as these are incredibly taxing on your muscles. If you cannot lower yourself slowly, you’re doing too many reps for now.
This technique works for the same reason it works with push ups: fighting against gravity builds muscular strength that will eventually help you do “real” pull ups on your own. Cool, huh?