How to Build Upper Body Strength

 In Blog

Are you in need of upper body strength? I always get asked from my female clients – along with some of my male clients who may have spent too much time with a Playstation controller in their hand and not enough time working out – about how to build upper body strength. If you’re trying to figure out how to get that powerful and sleek looking upper body don’t worry; genetics may not be in your favor, but a little bit of hard work can go a long way.

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First things first though: I apologize to my female audience, but life dealt you a bad hand in terms of upper body strength. Compared to your male counterparts, thanks to their wider shoulders and extra muscle mass, you’re upper body won’t be as strong as a man’s. It’s nothing to worry about though: I currently have several female clients that can knock out several reps of unassisted chin ups. My male clients conveniently schedule their appointments long after these young ladies have left the studio. Female gymnasts are proof that smart training can close the gap, or even surpass it, between the strength of men and women’s upper body.

So here are some ways to build that strong upper body you’re looking for:

Combine Methods

                The last thing you want to do is just go the gym and try to lift more weight…..over and over again. Your body isn’t going to respond. But you can try a smarter approach: combine an explosive move with a heavy strength movement. For instance, perform a heavy dumbbell bench press with an medicine ball chest pass, or a chin up with a medicine ball slam. This teaches the body how to produce more force and become powerful. When a group of subjects used this same method, they increased strength significantly more than a group who just trained with heavy weights (1).

Slow it Down

                Do you ever see someone at the gym swinging weights around like they’re on a golf course? They get an A for effort, but slowing things down can help build strength. When you lower a weight it’s called the eccentric portion of the lift. It’s hard to do but it’s also more than 50% responsible for your gains in strength. Simply count in your head the number of seconds of how long it takes to lower the weight (this works great for chin ups). For example:

Week 1 – 5 seconds to lower the weight

Week 2- 7 seconds to lower the weight

Week 3- 10 seconds to lower the weight

Week 4- Move the weight fast


Use Some Toys

                Strength and conditioning studios are always filled with unique toys. Some of those implements are used to make us stronger and more powerful (other toys are designed to make our lungs burn and force grown men to tears…..but that’s a story for another day). In order to improve strength, you can attach jump stretch bands (think a big, thick rubber band) or chains to the end of a barbell. You should have two years of strength training experience before you use these. They force you to use more strength as the weight gets farther away from you. Research proves this: when working with a group of football players, researchers found that using bands and chains allowed subjects to perform more power when performing a bench press (2). Once again though – be careful with these implements, especially the bands. It’s best to use these with a qualified trainer.

Think you don’t have upper body strength? Give these techniques a try and see how strong you are in 12 weeks.

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1. Mangine, G.T, Ratamess, N.A., et al. “The Effects of Combined Ballistic and Heavy Resistance Training on Maximal Lower and Upper Body Strength in Recreationally Trained Men.” (2008) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22;1. 132-139

2. Ghigiarelli, J.J., Nagle, Gross, E.F., et al. “The Effects of a 7 Week Heavy Elastic Band and Weight Chain Program on Upper Body Strength and Upper Body Power in a Sample of Division 1-AA Football Players.” (2009) Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23.3 756-764 [/toggle]


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