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The Best Upper Body Exercises

When I fell in love with strength training at just 14 years old, I was the VERY typically young man falling in love with weights. Meaning that I did all the classic mistakes of training. My workouts were those ripped right out of the pages of the fitness magazines and there were far more days devoted to my upper workouts than there were my lower body. In those workouts I had to make sure to hit every fiber of the pecs, biceps, and oh yea, gotta get that long head of the triceps more as well!

I tell you this because I am definitely not one of those that claim they knew a better way to train their whole lives. In fact, I think experiencing the other methods, making mistakes is all part of you evolve faster and can speak more intelligently on what works and what doesn’t and for whom!

Since I had PLENTY of experience doing a lot of upper body training you would think I was a monster up top! Eh, not really. Being tall and not having the biggest bone structure I was far from huge. Don’t get me wrong, I had built some muscle and definitely some strength. Of course I had no idea that major drug use was part of what was needed to gain the muscle mass I would see in the pages of the magazines.

I’m sure most guys would HATE to have the physique of a wrestler;)

I bring this up because it is either insinuated or flat out said that functional training can’t really build muscle like bodybuilding methods. Those things are said with two major problems facing such a statement. For one, we have to know how you are defining functional training (you can read my post yesterday HERE where I outline where our definition stems from and how we think about it!). The second issue we don’t have really any studies trying to compare the two for such a purpose (at least not that I know of). That means either side is purely making assumptions, but I like to pose some ideas that may give us some idea.

Can Functional Training Build Muscle?

Skeptics of functional training and even some that actually say they believe in functional training are often quick to say you need to do other forms of training. My favorite story to tell is when I was teaching DVRT and kettlebells in Moscow (yea, I’ll let that set in for a second) a young coach asked me, “is this functional training or is this strength training?” I was a bit taken a back because I didn’t know why he thought it was NOT about strength training?

Let’s face it, there are still a lot of people that think functional training is about how you balance on squishy objects or perform “dance like” movements. Which when you peel back both means almost no load is used! Listen, we have been big that load is not the ONLY variable, but load is still a variable and an important one. We still need to apply stress to the body and how we do so is important to building strength, muscle, and yes, functional training. If we look at the bodies of wrestlers, gymnasts, many martial artists I think we have some strong evidence to suggest that accomplishing all these fitness goals is possible!

What Makes For Better Upper Body Workouts

How does this all translate to better upper body workouts and the point of this post? Well, we need to understand how functional training impacts our upper body workouts. Here are the key points…

-The body works as a whole!: This is usually a less controversial point of functional training, but it does get overlooked by even its supporters in how we use exercises. For example, many people still love to put their chest on a bench or be supported by something when they do an action like rowing. The idea is that our core is our limiting factor and if we minimize the “weak link” we can keep training the back.

functional fitness

That is true, however, that also means that our real world strength capabilities are related to how much our core can stabilize our body. For ease of example, let’s say you can produce 500 pounds of force when you are supported by a bench, then you can produce 375 when you are not supported. Guess how much force you will produce in pretty much every real life scenario, if you guessed 375 you would be correct! So, those muscles would end up being a lot of show and not much go!

Not only should we understand using the whole body is important, but so is pulling from different directions. Why? Dr. David Tiberio puts it so well…

“…it could be argued, since muscles are activated by neural sensors (proprioceptors), that training in only one plane will inhibit the utilization of the other planes during functional movements that require three-dimensional motion.”

That also means in our pushing exercises that integrating more of the TOTAL body works better than just trying to work the “pecs” or the “shoulders”

You see DVRT Master, Cory Cripe FORCING his wh0le body to work in this type of push-up and there are so many ways to manipulate push-ups to develop serious strength and muscle. Benching is okay, but I would prefer a properly designed stability ball (like Duraball) that are made for loading so you can integrate the whole body!


DVRT Master, Sean Lettero shows how advanced we can make push-ups though to develop both strength and muscle while improving how we move and perform!

Of course in DVRT our affinity for pressing exercises is going overhead. It is the old time strongman measure of strength (they did so because they had no other choice) and while they didn’t have the science they realized that it took the WHOLE body to lift a weight overhead! In today’s world though we see so many shoulder issues because people don’t move and use their bodies well.

Physical Therapist, Dan Swinscoe, breaks down some practical solutions. He hurt his rotator cuffs during a powerlifting meet on the bench press and how he has been recovering has really spoken to DVRT functional training concepts.

The Ultimate Sandbag offers three great reasons that it should be a powerful tool in your pressing programs.

  1. The position of the arm is in a friendlier position. The hands facing one another puts the shoulder in a less stressful position and allows us to integrate our lats easier.
  2. The load is unstable forcing us to integrate the entire body from “toes to nose” to hold our “plank” well.
  3. In DVRT we have many different body positions that teach these concepts and we can also alter how we use the load.


DVRT UK Master, Greg Perlaki shows how we can manipulate the body position to connect the entire body and add progression without changing the implement or load. Using MORE muscles to keep our body stable as we press! This results in a stronger, more mobile, and better muscle development because of how much of the body we are using and HOW we are using the body.

Our hope is when you better understand functional training you begin to appreciate how many fitness goals can be achieved by using a proper system like DVRT. Greg and our great DVRT coaches show how many layers of progressions we have in our training as you can see in how we can also use our Arc Press (a one arm press with frontal plane stability to it) in ways to help all these goals at once!

Don’t forget that our Ultimate Sandbags AND DVRT Online Education and Workouts are all 25% off with code “save25” HERE