Let me start by saying I don’t focus on training muscles specifically but rather focus on training and improving movement patterns. Because of this reason, I love to incorporate “full-body”, compound exercises into sessions such as turkish get-ups (TGU’s), crawling variations, and jumping drills just to name a few.
That being said, I do separate exercises out based on their muscle-area emphasis. I’m big on “templates” and “categories”…I love to have a menu of movements and then I just “plug & play” so to speak. Meaning, when I’m putting workouts together and creating a program, I will refer to this menu and plug the appropriate movements in to the routine based on the unique needs of the client.
The templates are forever evolving, however, there are main “categories”, or movement patterns, that have been the foundation of my routines for years.
The main categories include:
1. Lower Body
2. Upper Body
3. Torso Training
5. Extra – pre-hab movements that include activation, mobility, and stability drills
In this piece, we are going to focus on the upper body movements that I typically select from. These are split into pushes (anterior) and pulls (posterior), and of those two categories, there are 2 additional subcategories – horizontal and vertical.
Shoulder Press – This is an exercise that I only use with certain populations. If you have shoulder impingement issues, I will most likely leave the overhead shoulder press off your program until the problem is cleared up. For those I do use it with, I prefer using dumbbells or kettlebells and a neutral-grip hand position, as it’s the most shoulder friendly setup. Variations of this exercise can be part of a full-body compound movement as well such as the ‘clean & press’.
Med Ball Throws – This is a plyometric variation of a push press exercise. I like using this to work on full body power development – linking up the lower body with the upper body and get them working together to get the ball as high and as far as possible.
Handstand Variations – My favorite vertical pushing movement is the handstand pushup. This is an advanced movement and there are plenty of modifications that can be made when it comes to handstands. Here’s an article showing a few variations: ‘Handstand Progressions’.
Chest Press Variations – Like the shoulder press above, this is another exercise that I use with caution. I do use the bar for this exercise on occasion; however, I prefer the dumbbell variation, as it’s a more joint-friendly option for the shoulder, elbow, and wrist.
Pushups – My favorite horizontal pushing movement out there. It truly incorporates the whole body when done correctly and when trying some unique variations; of which there are hundreds. My favorite cues include keeping a neutral spine, keep your hands turned out about 20 degrees, and imagine “dialing out the floor” during your ascent. For the MMA athletes I work with, the ‘pushup w/sit-out’ and the ‘spider-man pushup’ are two of my go-to variations.
Med Ball Throws – From a supine position, this is a great exercise for developing upper body explosiveness while on your back. I like to couple this with a heavy dumbbell chest press to really challenge the anterior chain of the upper body.
Dips - Could be a horizontal/vertical hybrid exercise depending on your body position. Dips are another great bodyweight exercise that strengthens the chest, shoulders, and triceps. I utilize these a lot during outdoor park or beach settings if the proper equipment is available.
I push more than pull with all of my clients. The majority of folks have front side tightness and back side weakness due to their daily activities. To combat all the forward flexion your body is in all day (desk, car, dinner table, etc), include these pulling movements into the routine.
Pull-up Variations – If I had to choose one upper body strength training exercise to do for the rest of my life; the pull-up wins hands down. From the waist up, there isn’t an exercise with more “bang for its buck”. There are plenty of modifications and variations that can be made when it comes to pull-ups. Here’s a clip showing a few of my favorites: ‘Pull-up Variations’.
Pulldowns – I’m anti-machine for the most part. They definitely have their time and place and can be beneficial if your goals warrant their use. The pulldown machine is one I would use from time to time. A pulldown variation I use quite a bit is the heavy rope pulldown, which is included in the clip below. You can improve hand speed, pulling strength and endurance, and really challenging ones grip strength.
SkiErg - The SkiErg machine is one that I use with my MMA athletes often for improving full-body pulling endurance. This is a great conditioning tool and one that I use often at the end of a workout as a “finisher”.
Bonus #1: Med Ball Slam – Most people may not view the medicine ball slam as a vertical pulling exercise. I like to cue my clients and athletes to use their lats and “pull” the ball down from the top position as they go into the explosive slam to the ground. The video clip will provide the visual.
Bonus #2: Superband Snapdowns – This is a variation I use primarily with my MMA athletes. It is somewhat similar to pulling an opponent towards you or the ground. Using the band is a great way to explode and really “snap” the movement.
2-Arm Rows – Using a barbell or pair of dumbbells, this is a great way to work the entire posterior chain, both upper and lower body. While it is an upper body back exercise, I like to maintain a hip hinge position to engage the hamstrings, glutes, and erectors during the set as well.
1-Arm Rows – Unilateral exercises aren’t just for the lower body. 1-arm dumbbell rows are great for developing arm and back strength, as well as core rotary stability.
Equipment Rows - The two tools I use the most are the TRX suspension trainer and a heavy rope. The TRX allows you to gauge the intensity by adjusting your foot position and the rope is a great way to ramp up the grip strength intensity. And, if you have a group, a good old tug-of-war competition is an under-rated challenge that is both beneficial and fun.
Of course there are thousands of upper body exercises to choose from. I wanted to share with you my “go to” movements and one’s that I feel provide “bang for your buck”. If you are looking to change things up or just need a new upper body exercise, select one from this list and get pulling…or pushing.
Doug Balzarini, CSCS, MMA-CC, is the owner of DB Strength, which provides fitness training, education, and resources. He is also the strength and conditioning coach for Alliance MMA where he works with UFC Champion Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Brandon Vera, Travis Browne, Ross Pearson, Alexander Gustafsson, and more. Prior to starting his own business, Doug worked at Fitness Quest 10 as a personal trainer, strength coach, and Operations Director for Todd Durkin Enterprises (TDE).
He has completed some graduate work in Biomechanics at SDSU and has obtained multiple certifications including ACE, NSCA-CSCS, MMA-CC, TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, LIFT Sandbag Certification, and FMS training. He has produced his own 2-DVD set on strength training for combat athletes, appeared in many fitness videos and articles, and was recently a coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” TV show.
For more information please visit www.dbstrength.com.