Each year I get to work with a large number of individuals who want to build as much muscle size as possible. While most of them are working hard and making decent progress, there are certain stagnant habits and training deficiencies that I see over and over again.
This article contains tips for improving your upper body, from abs to traps. They will help you to bring up lagging body parts and build a more massive, balanced and aesthetic body. I highly encourage you to incorporate them into your training protocol this week. Run them for several months and let me know what you think.
Tip #1 - Stop babying your shoulders
While most trainees beat the living snot out of their chest, they typically take the opposite approach with their shoulder training. Most shoulder workouts I see simply suck. There is really no other way to put it.
The typical gym lifter starts off with a Smith machine seated press, and finishes up with side laterals and usually the reverse pec dec to target rear delts. This protocol is not particularly effective if you are after full, round shoulders that cap off your torso and say "I actually lift."
Here's what I recommend. Start off each shoulder workout with 2 heavy-hitting shoulder exercises. Here are some examples:
- Seated barbell press and standing one arm overhead dumbbell press.
- Push press and upright rows.
- Seated Arnold press and behind the neck barbell press.
Follow this tag team of exercises with side and rear delt isolation movements, and you're done. This is a far more effective and balanced shoulder building workout.
Bonus tip - Set aside direct front delt work. Most lifters will never need it. The combination of heavy benching and overhead pressing builds beefy front delts. I've yet to see a seasoned lifter who hasn't built immense front delts from these 2 types of movements alone.
Tip #2 - Brutalize your chest with bench press cluster sets
Everyone loves the bench press. We all know this. It is the ultimate test of upper body manhood. With that said, most bench press workouts are rather bland and lifeless.
For a nice change of pace I want you to try cluster training. Start by loading up a weight that you could normally perform 10-12 reps with. Now knock out 8-10 sets of 4-5 reps, keeping rest between sets to 30 seconds. When you are able to perform 5 reps per set, add 5 pounds to the bar they next time you bench.
Cluster training is brutal. I guarantee you will wake up the next day with a very sore chest.
Bonus tip - Finish off your bench press session with one to two 20 rep incline dumbbell bench press burn sets.
Tip #3 - "Rope" up your biceps and grow
This might seem like a ho-hum, boring tip, but don't discount this exercise.
Place a rope attachment on a low cable hook. Now, instead of bringing the ends of the rope to your chest, curl the ends of the rope up towards your face. Make sure to pull the rope attachment apart slightly so you aren't punching yourself in the face (obviously).
I have found that this bicep-building cable exercise to be extremely challenging, and a good exercise for those of you suffering from elbow tendonitis.
Bonus tip - Kick your rope cable curls up a notch by performing drop sets. Begin a set with 10-12 challenging reps. Once you near the point of failure, drop the stack weight by 10-20 pounds and hammer out a few more reps. Repeat this for as many drop sets as desired.
Tip #4 - Superset your forearms into submission and growth
Small forearms can make the most impressive upper body look weak. Ain't nobody got time for that. Unfortunately, 99% of lifters that have small forearms train them with a weight and regimen that wouldn't challenge an 8 year old girl.
The next time you hit the gym to train your lagging forearms, try this superset:
- Wrist roller, up and down.
- Static barbell hold for max time.
Set the pins of the rack about knee level and load the barbell with about 225 to 315 pounds. When the barbell is ready, begin your wrist rollers. Immediately after rolling the weight both up and down, jump over to the squat rack and perform a static barbell hold for maximum time.
If this doesn't get your forearms to grow, nothing will.
Bonus tip - If your back training is lagging because of a weak grip, use lifting straps. Never allow a weak grip to prevent you from building a better back. If your grip is weak, train your back with straps and then go train your forearms and grip.
Tip #5 - Trash your triceps with this simple workout
This is one of my favorite tricep workouts. It is simple, but a killer. You will be performing 3 exercises: skullcrushers (supersetted with close grips), high rep close grip bench presses and rope cable tricep extensions.
Here's what you do:
- Skullcrushers - Perform 3 sets by 10 reps of skullcrushers. Immediately after each skullcrusher set, bring the bar to your chest and knock out a quick 10 reps of close grip bench presses.
- Close grip bench presses - Now jump over to barbell close grip benches. Perform 3 sets by 20 reps. This high rep work is a killer, and a great way to stimulate tricep growth.
- Rope cable tricep extensions - Finish off your tricep workout with this intense drop set. Start with a challenging set of 10-12 reps. Immediately drop the weight by 10 pounds and knock out 5 more reps. Continue this pattern of no rest between sets, working your way down the weight stack 10 pounds at a time until you can no longer take the pain.
Bonus tip - No matter how you work your triceps, make sure to include at least an extension and a press variation.
Tip #6 - Lock and load power shrugs into your deadlift sets
If you are a deadlifter, and you better be, try this insane little trap destroyer.
Instead of knocking out deadlift rep after deadlift rep, insert 3 power shrugs in between each pull. So if you are knocking out a 5 rep set, here's how the trap-destroying brutality would look:
- Rep 1, followed immediately by 3 power shrugs.
- Rep 2, followed immediately by 3 power shrugs.
- Rep 3, followed immediately by 3 power shrugs.
- Rep 4, followed immediately by 3 power shrugs.
- Rep 5, followed immediately by 3 power shrugs.
Bonus tip - Toss in a 20 second static hold at the end of each deadlift set. This will make your traps scream with muscle growing pain.
Tip #7 - Can't do pull ups? Try inverted rows
So many trainees struggle with pull ups. I must admit, I am a charter member of this club. I never really gave pull ups a serious run when I was young, and simply forgot about them for over 20 years.
If you can't do more than a few pull ups, try using inverted rows instead of lat pull downs. Hop over to the Smith machine (yes, it has one good and safe use) and set the bar around chest level. Now hang from the bar while propping your feet up on a bench or set of aerobics steps.
Proceed to perform inverted rows, driving your elbows back and chest towards the bar. You will feel a great quality lat contraction, likely better than the one you get from lat pull downs.
Bonus tip - If your lower back doesn't handle barbell rows very well, switch over the Pendlay rows. Pendlays allow you to take some pressure off the lower back for a split second in between each rep. This might be the difference that you need.
Tip 8 - Challenge your abs with non-spinal flexion ab work
It's time to put crunches and sit ups into a coffin and bury them. RIP spinal flexion ab work.
Instead of taxing and torquing your spine with hundreds of crunches and sit ups per week, try training and strengthening your core with the following challenging exercises:
- Side planks
- Rolling planks
- Ab wheel roll outs
Any combination of these exercises will provide more bang for your buck that high rep crunch and sit up sets. They are also better for your lower back and spine health.
Bonus tip - Stop overtraining your abs. You can't get a six pack from training your ab muscles for hours each week. This nonsensical myth will never die.
Seriously the power shrugs combined with deadlifts are awsome i work them since a few only and i already see the differrence it is way better that all traps workout ive tryed before
Glad! They have made all the difference for me.
you re helping us ...
Always read ur articles . most of the time you are right , if not always lol . i already began to do that
tang ina mo ka mag heavy ka palagi
I have to say the shoulder routine has two of the worst exercises for potential injury.
The behind the neck press and upright rows. Any good physical therapist will tell you
these are the worst for impingement and can cause permanent damage to shoulders.
I'm 63 and over the years I've been told the same about behind the neck press, and working traps, and leg extensions and had micro tears referred to as injuries. I still do behind the neck presses to extend my range of motion because of heavy frontal muscle, I still work my traps to give me better neck rotation and leg extensions with less knee pain than I was experiencing when I took a break from it. I listen to my body and its free rather than pay for advice from someone that uses the typical human as a reference.
I'd like to try your tricep workout this week , what would be a great bicep routine to work with these exercises ?, including the rope cable curl
Great article Steve as always, i should have read this yesterday so i could try #2 and #6 this morning but be sure i will try them all during the next weeks , thanks in advance for my future progress
Thanks and stay strong!
Hi there Steve, I'm struggling to drop the belly fat and total fat. I know it will take long but I'm looking for a good work out plan I can follow and the best supplements that go with the program. I'm doing well with the diet but I need the right workout so that I stay on track and motivated.... Please help and I hope the basic sups I can get them here in Italy as most of the stuff I have to go online and shop from there in the US..... I hate waiting on packages...LOL thank you in advance and I will continue to enjoy reading your posts.... Ciao
I did #2 and #5 over the weekend.....my oh my!!! Definitely feelin' it!!!!
Great article Steve.....lovin' this site!!
Nice! Stay strong.
Great article, I will use these tips to my advantage :)
Thanks Rev. Stay strong!