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7 tips for upper body training

7 tips for upper body training

Today we're talking about 7 tips on how you can optimize your upper body training. And of course, these are not just any points that we address, but points that many people in the gym often get wrong, resulting in them missing out on a lot of muscle-building potential. So let's start with the first tip:

Do not do a specific arm day every week

There are exercises that are strenuous and there are exercises that are less strenuous.

Strenuous exercises are usually those compound exercises that use many muscles at the same time - e.g. bench press, pull-ups, or squats. Arm exercises, on the other hand, are usually much less strenuous, because only the biceps or triceps are involved.

If you consider your entire training week, then it makes sense to distribute the strenuous exercises as evenly as possible over the individual training sessions.

This is because if you perform too many strenuous exercises in one day, you will not be able to perform those exercises at full power - except for the very first exercise on that day.

Now think about what happens if you train ONLY your arms one day a week. This means that you don't do any really strenuous exercises on that day - you do all of them on other days. So you don't distribute your strenuous exercises evenly throughout the week. This is not optimal.

It would make much more sense if you spread your arm exercises out over the week so that you have at least one strenuous exercise in each workout. When you first start out, try to train your biceps and triceps with 1-2 exercises each on 2-3 days a week towards the end of the workout.

If that doesn't produce good results, then train your biceps and triceps with 1-2 exercises each 3-4 days a week towards the end of your workout.

And if that doesn't work well either, then train the arms earlier in the workout - in exceptional cases maybe even at the very beginning of a training session if you want to put a proper focus on the arms. Just please don't make an entirely separate arm day.

Planks are not a good ab exercise for most people

And there are two reasons for this.

The first reason is that you train the abdominals only statically during planks. The abdominal muscles are not in motion, but only hold your torso straight. You can set a muscle building stimulus through static training - this also works quite well with the lower back, which is statically stressed during squats.

However, you set a much greater stimulus for hypertrophy if you move a muscle under a load, and if possible in its full range of motion.

The second reason why planks are not a good ab exercise for most people is that it is very complicated, if not impossible, to use much extra weight.

We know that a set is only effective when we get close to muscular failure. If you don't use extra weight with the planks and you're not a beginner, you'll probably manage to hold the plank position for minutes before it becomes really difficult. That's not exactly time efficient.

Of course, you can try putting weight plates on your back, but that's pretty awkward - especially if you're working out without a training partner.

Even if you're training with a training partner, this is awkward because it's usually a very wobbly and awkward thing to have your partner stack multiple plates on your lower back. This setup is often quite unstable.

Better ab exercises would include, for example, crunches or leg raises. With these you can train the abs dynamically AND you have the option of using additional weight.

Train the lateral delts with exercises that emphasize the stretched position

Think about your quadriceps workout. You probably do a squat or leg press variation. With these exercises, the greatest stimulus on the quads is when you are at the bottom of the motion - that is, when you are stretching the muscle.

Or think about your chest training. Here you will certainly do a fly variation. Here, too, the greatest stimulus on the chest is in the lower part of the movement - so once again it's in the stretched position.

Now think about training your lateral deltoids: if you only do lateral raises with dumbbells, then you never have a big stimulus on the lateral delt in the stretched position. That's super unfortunate, and you're definitely not leveraging the full muscle-building potential of your delts.

For optimal muscle growth, we want to train each muscle in its full range of motion with a high load in as many planes of motion as possible. When doing lateral raises with dumbbells, you train the lateral delts in their full range of motion, but the stimulus in the lower part of the movement is almost zero.

So include exercises that train your lateral delts in the stretched position as well. This would include, for example, the lateral raise on the cable pulley, the dumbbell lateral raise on the incline bench, and the lateral raise machine.

Do not train your triceps with an underhand grip

If you stand at the cable pulley machine and grab the bar so that your palms are facing up, then this is an underhand grip. This underhand grip brings you no advantages for training your triceps, but it does bring a big disadvantage.

One potential benefit often cited is that by using a different wrist position, you're giving the triceps a different stimulus - just like the biceps. The thing is, that's just wrong. With the biceps, it works because the biceps attach to the radius and one of its jobs is to rotate the forearm.

However, this does not work with the triceps because they are attached to the ulna. The ulna does not move at all when you rotate your forearm. So you don't create a different stimulus when you change the grip during triceps exercises.

You can try this out for yourself: If you hold your elbow at a right angle, rotate your hand, and then feel the biceps, you will notice that the biceps are brought into a completely different position. If you feel the triceps at the same time, you will notice: ...exactly... nothing.

So we conclude: there is no advantage to the underhand grip for triceps exercises.

A big disadvantage of the underhand grip is that most of the time the grip strength will be the limiting factor for a given exercise, rather than the triceps. It is not unlikely that with a heavy weight, your fingers will come off the bar and your triceps will not be pushed to their limit.

So when doing triceps exercises, it's better to choose the overhand or parallel grip so that you're properly training your triceps, not just your grip strength.

If your ego is too big, do curls sitting down instead of standing up

You probably know this from yourself or from others in the gym: When doing curls - be it with barbells, EZ curl bars, or dumbbells - you usually put on way too much weight and use way too much momentum.

As a result, the curls you do are usually no longer a biceps exercise, but rather a full-body exercise. That this is not the point of the exercise is surely clear to you.

If you're prone to swinging when doing curls, it's better to do them sitting down, preferably even with the backrest. This is not because it's comfortable, but because the position will stop you from swinging too much.

Your lower body cannot contribute to the swinging because you are sitting and your upper body can hardly contribute to the swinging because you stay with your back against the backrest for the whole movement.

Of course, you will probably have to reduce the weight when you curl in a controlled sitting position. However, you must force yourself to do this. Once you've completed this step, curls will no longer be a full-body exercise, but a biceps exercise as they should be.

Do many different biceps exercises!

For example, if you only perform classic barbell and dumbbell curls with the same upper arm and wrist position every time, your biceps won't grow as well as they could.

As already mentioned, your wrist position is also relevant for biceps training, as the biceps not only lift the forearm, but can also rotate it.

So it's best to combine different upper arm positions with different wrist positions - e.g. preacher curls with dumbbells using outward rotation, overhead cable curls with an underhand grip, behind-the-back curls on cable with an overhand grip, and all sorts of other combinations.

Of course, this does not mean that you have to do 100 different biceps exercises per week. Decide on 2-4 different biceps exercises per week and always change a few exercises per cycle. Then, if we look at the whole year, you will have stressed your biceps with a lot of different exercises.

Don't just rely on the standard bench angles for chest training

0 degrees and 45 degrees. These are the angles most commonly used in the flat bench press and incline bench press, as well as for fly variations. While you stimulate your chest pretty well when doing exercises with these two angles, why not try to get the most out of your chest?

You train a particular muscle fiber most effectively when the force directed at that fiber is in line with the direction of the exercise.

The fibers of the upper part of the pecs run in such a way that they are highly stressed with incline angles, and the fibers of the lower part of the pecs run in such a way that they are highly stressed with more flat or even decline angles.

If you only train on 0- or 45-degree benches, then some muscle fibers - such as those at the very top of your chest - will not be optimally stimulated.

The solution is obvious: decline angle, 0 degrees, 20 degrees, 45 degrees, 60 degrees, etc. All angles have their uses when it comes to chest training.

It's best to do it the way we discussed for biceps training: Decide on 2-4 different chest exercises per week and replace a few exercises per training cycle with exercises that use different angles, so that you have a balanced workout of your chest across all angles throughout the year.


So, those were 7 tips on how to optimize your upper body training. Here they are again, briefly summarized:

1) Don't do an extra arm day each week, but spread out the arm exercises over the workout days.

2) Planks are not a good abdominal exercise for most people.

3) Train the lateral deltoids with exercises that emphasize the stretched position.

4) Do not train your triceps with an underhand grip.

5) If your ego is too big not to swing while curling, do your curls sitting down instead of standing up.

6) Use a wide variety of biceps exercises.

7) Don't just stick to the standard bench angles for chest workouts.

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