3 Tips for Improving Your Upper Body Strength

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by KEN CROWDER|Co-Owner and Head Coach, CrossFit 77

3 Tips for Improving Your Upper Body Strength
Have you hit a wall in your upper body strength gains?
Are you stuck at a certain weight for your shoulder press or bench press?
Can you still NOT complete your goal number of push-ups?
Has your shoulder press been stuck while you’ve watched your back squat and deadlift continue to rise every round of 5/3/1?

Here are 3 easy tips – with some practical accessory work for each — to help you bust through your current upper body strength plateaus!

1. Prioritize the eccentric portion of each movement

Say what?

Many times we tend to focus on the concentric portion of the movement (i.e. the raising portion). Unfortunately for us, the studies show that we can gain more strength through training the eccentric portion of the lift.

But how, exactly, does one train the eccentric portion of the lift? Try out some of these exercises below.

Controlled Descents On Push Ups
  1. Start a the top of the push up and lower yourself as slowly as possible to the bottom.
  2. Once at the bottom, go to your knees and press back up to the top.
  3. Perform as many reps in a row as possible with PERFECT technique; when your form falters, your set is over.
  4. Rest 1 min and repeat for 3 to 5 sets.
Flexed Arm Hang + Eccentric Pull Ups
  1. Jump up from the top of a box to where your chin is above the horizontal plane of the pull up bar and hold for as long as possible.
  2. Once your chin starts to fall below the horizontal plane, slowly begin lowering yourself until your arms are completely straight and you are at a full hang.
  3. Rest 1 min and repeat 3-5 times.
Tempo Bench Press or Shoulder Press

“Tempo” is a cool way of saying: lower this long – pause this long – raise this long – pause this long. For example:

  1. Try a bench (or shoulder) press at 4 seconds lowering, 1 second pause with bar on chest (or in front rack), 1 second press to top, 1 second pause before beginning your next rep.
  2. Maintain the focus on a controlled descent with an explosive concentric push.

2. Focus on stabilizing your core with your movements

Does this mean I should do more sit ups?

This is one of the most common mistakes we see, especially in females and young athletes. They tend to drop their hips in order to gain stabilization through an extended lumbar spine versus a tight core. This is commonly diagnosed as a “weak” core or a “weak” upper body, but this is not the case. Many of these people have been doing “core work” for YEARS. This is a neural problem that needs to be trained, NOT a weakness problem that needs to be strengthened. Intensity is toxic for people with this symptom. They need to learn how to stabilize…NOT just survive and compensate for hundreds of reps or lots of weight.

How do I know if I have an unstable core?

Consider the following movement faults; if any — or all — of these sound too familiar, you have work to do.

a. Push up “sway” back: This is when you drop your hips and/or your knees during the descent of the push-up and are not maintaining a flat plank position (hips and shoulders aligned).

b. Overextended “arch backward” shoulder press: You know you have seen this… or you have done it!
c. Flailing core in bench press: If your feet come off the ground and/or you are generally “wriggly” during a bench press, you could use some core work.

Movements to help “teach” your core

Try some of these movements to help strengthen your core. Doing a million sit-ups is not the easy answer.

a. Eccentric Push Up – focus on keeping hips in line with shoulders. (see above)
b. Inchworm Walk Outs – focus on keeping a hollow body under tension.

c. Sorenson Hold – Focus on bringing belly button to spine and squeezing your butt.
d. Supine GHD Hold – Lock those legs out and hold on!

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