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3 Tips For Better Upper Body Workouts

sandbag fitness equipment

Several months ago we were at a neighbor’s dinner party. During that party, one of the well meaning people in our community was sharing with us how they are starting their own social media consulting company. Doing the pleasant nod that I’ve been known to do when I really don’t want to dive down into Pandora’s box, she was eager to tell me how she could help our company. “You know, I looked at your social media and what you guys should be doing is like an arm workout, a butt workout, you know, stuff like that.”

I’ve been doing this way too long to get upset by such comments, heck, I’ve heard much worse that weren’t nearly as well intended. It did make me realize, once again, that so few people really understand training or how to achieve the goals they say that are meaningful to them. Far too often the marketing machine of the fitness industry overwhelms the public and leads them to not knowing what to do, what is good for them, or how to be critical about the information about what is being said.

That is part of our motivation to keep doing almost daily blogs for the past 20 years. Hopefully we can be a trusted resource to offer you information that is really meaningful. While you won’t see me running a top 10 list of best arm exercises, or how to get swole (not because I think those things are bad, but they actually keep people from actually achieving their goals), I don’t mind making our DVRT information a bit more digestible for those that may be overwhelmed by the science we discuss.

upper body workouts

In that light, I thought highlighting 3 great ways to build better upper body workouts would be helpful. Partly because it is easy to look at what we do at DVRT and think our training is “nice” for some “conditioning”, but doesn’t really help in the realm of building lean muscle or making people actually stronger. You see, speaking about things like upper body workouts allows me to sneak in much smarter ways to train that most don’t realize is available to them.

To fully appreciate why we are talking about upper body workouts, let me give you my thought process. If having to train at home has taught us anything, it is that creating great workouts or programming to achieve our fitness goals can’t be just a matter of getting more equipment or just going heavier. The experience of training at home hopefully made many people realize that what we are often sold as “smart training” is really stuff to just distract from an inability to have a system that allows sustainable progress without breaking the bank.

Sure, we are all for using different tools and trying new exercises, but both have to fall under the guise of having a purpose. What you will see in just these 3 ideas for better upper body workouts that our results shouldn’t be dictated by the size of the gym we have, but how well we use the gym that we have!

#1: Altering Tempos

My first introduction to tempos during an exercise came in the late 90’s when I started following the late Charles Poliquin’s work. He had started using a rather intricate system of giving each phase of movement a prescribed count. The idea was that we could change the training effect of an exercise and the stress of an exercise to the body, by just changing the tempo. The concept of changing tempos could be traced by to Arthur Jones who was the inventor of Nautilus (most of the original machines in gyms were Nautilus). Coach Poliquin referenced Arthur Jones in his work as a major influence and chances are this was something that could be traced back even further.

It is fine to use such strategies, it can be hard to really differentiate a 4 or 3 count but the bigger point is being thoughtful about how we are using each phase of any exercise. 

Since in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s metal was incredibly expensive (it is actually still rather expensive now, but fitness has a much bigger market today than it did back then) changing the physical weight of equipment typically wasn’t the go to model of making an exercise easier or harder. Changing the speed of movement on a lift was far more accessible and cost efficient, plus it really worked!

Yes, changing tempos is backed by science and even most studies will point out some keys…

-Changing tempos of the same movement over time is a highly effective means of building strength.

-Emphasizing a phase of a movement can allow us to build specific qualities like power, muscle gain, and even metabolic conditioning.

-Focusing on intentionally trying to accelerate even a heavy weight will stimulate the muscle fibers that have the most impact on muscle growth and strength increases (Type II fibers).

At first I did use Coach Poliquin’s methods of assigning a number to each phase of a movement, but over time I found it not as important as overall if you were trying to move quickly, slowly, or pausing. This made the application of tempos far more feasible and accessible. So, what should you do?

Beginners are typically well off in just understanding a movement and build proficiency in the pattern. Generally encouraging one to “take their time” works well. A progression can be adding a strategic pause, typically during the end range like the bottom of a squat. Realize that increasing time under tension can be a huge stress to an individual so start small like a “brief” pause (1-2 seconds) and then allow them to finish the lift. Over time, you can work up to 5 second pauses (anymore seems to be about just obliterating the individual).

Once movement proficiency is achieved and we have added pauses, we can work on trying to accelerate the weight. As I stated above, even just the intent is powerful. Of course in our upper body workouts we don’t want to create poor movement so allow the quality of the rep to still dictate everything. You won’t see someone newer have the same ability to accelerate and keep good form as someone more experienced.

Lastly, you can take deliberate longer tempos on the descent in your upper body workouts. Why do I recommend this last? Well, this can create profound soreness so you don’t want to leave yourself or others hobbled in using these strategies in your upper body workouts.

When you see how we create single arm exercises and play with tempos and other DVRT variables you have so many options available to your training!

#2 1 1/4 Movements

I wrote about this idea with lower body training, but the same idea works for upper body workouts as well. An example could be a bent row where you row the weight up to the body, come down around a quarter of the way, row back up, and then go to the bottom of the lift.

This kinda works hand in hand with the tempo concept because in using 1 1/4 movements you do accentuate the time under tension. Therefore, you probably shouldn’t be thinking of 10-12 repetitions of 1 1/4 movements for your upper body workouts. Repetitions of 5-8 work better and 8 would be A LOT! Start with less and you can build up over time or add a bit of a pause in each. You will find this is also a great way to emphasize ranges of motion to your upper body workouts that many people may rush through.

DVRT Master, Cory Cripe shows how to do a great rowing movement and teases the last point. However, you could use any of these rowing variations to use 1 1/4 movements in your upper body workouts. 

#3 Body Position 

While the first two ideas for your upper body workouts isn’t really unique to DVRT (although most have forgotten about them), body position concepts is more unique. In fact, in our DVRT educational programs we discuss how when it comes to upper body workouts we change body position before load position. That is because it is a more incremental change to an exercise.

What this does is force more of the body to be active. If you have been reading our DVRT blogs for any time, you know we speak about how the core and lower body is just as important to your upper body workouts as the arms or upper toros. That is simply because everything is connected and by removing the core and lower from your upper body workouts you build muscle and strength that really only helps you in the gym and not in real life.

Changing body position, like tempo and 1 1/4 movements, allows us to make the same weight feel more challenging or lighter. So, you don’t need to have huge variety of weight to accomplish your fitness goals. You will see below that DVRT UK master, Greg Perlaki gives some great examples of using different body positions for the overhead press.

My hope in using upper body workouts as the context for this blog is that you see that you shouldn’t feel that you can’t accomplish a lot unless you have very expensive and a large amount of equipment. For centuries, great fitness and strength was achieved with things far more primitive and not nearly as broken down into 5 pound increments. Of course you do have to know how to work smarter, but that has amazing rewards in both getting you results and keeping your training interesting!

Want to find out more about how to have an edge in training? Don’t miss saving 25% on our DVRT Online Education or DVRT Workouts programs with code “fall25” HERE


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