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5 Rules for a Powerful Upper Body Workout
Let’s face it, who doesn’t want a jacked upper body? There’s no shame in it, and by following the points in today’s IIFYM article you create both a powerful and sculpted upper body in no time!
While following the basic lifts and rules is important, if you truly want to optimize your upper body muscular adaptations you need the latest and great scientific techniques discussed in this article.
(Remember, your diet must also be optimal to get any noticeable muscle gains, you can use our IIFYM macro calculator right HERE to see exactly how much you should be eating!).
Here are 5 scientifically backed techniques we use at IIFYM to help you craft a powerful upper body workout along with practical examples to get you started!
1.) Focus on Mechanical Tension to Maximize Upper Body Power
While there is an ongoing debate within the fitness industry to decipher the exact mechanisms of muscle growth (hypertrophy), one factor that is not debated is mechanical tension.
Mechanical tension occurs when you move moderate-heavy loads with high levels of force output. Mechanical tension disrupts muscle integrity, this ‘shocks’ the body and causes several cellular mechanisms which activate MTOR, the key pathway that stimulates muscle protein synthesis and new muscle growth (1).
To optimize mechanical tension in your upper body workouts you’re going to want to perform heavy compound movements. These force your muscles to generate lots of force while also increasing training volume, another key factor in muscle growth!
Here are some great upper body exercises to maximize mechanical tension:
- Barbell Bench Press
- Bodyweight Dips
- Incline DB Press
- Weighted Push-ups
- Overhead Barbell Shoulder Press
- Seated DB Press
- Bent over barbell row
- DB Single arm bent over Row
- Lat pulldown
All of our personalized programs here at IIFYM utilize strategic compound movements to optimize mechanical tension and muscular growth, you can learn more on these here: IIFYM.com
2.) Use Metabolic Stress to Stimulate New Upper Body Growth
Metabolic stress is another key factor in muscle growth and is the perfect addition post focusing on the compound mechanical tension based lifts.
High levels of metabolic stress may increase cell swelling, anabolic hormone production, and alter motor unit recruitment patterns. Combined, these can increase upper body power and growth (2,3)!
The easiest way to picture metabolic stress is to an intense ‘burn’ and ‘pump’. If you’ve ever done high rep training or used drop sets/supersets then you can be sure you’ve stimulated some metabolic stress.
…it is important to strategically manipulate your volume loads and allow for appropriate recovery.
Often people also have days where they typically focus on either mechanical tension (heavier loads) or metabolic stress (lighter loads).
However, if you’re going to add both into your workout I recommend focusing on the mechanical tension in the beginning of your workout and metabolic stress in the end!
Some great upper body exercises to maximize metabolic stress are listed below:
Chest (Reps 15-30)
- Cable fly
- DB Fly
- Machine chest press
Back (Reps 15-30)
- Reverse body weight rows
- Low cable row
- Straight arm pulldowns
Another rule for a powerful upper body workout is ensuring proper amounts of Volume within a workout and within a week or month!
Training volume is essentially the amount of work your muscles perform. Training volume can be quantified by multiplying your Sets X Reps X Weight = Total Volume.
Recent research suggests that there is a dose response relationship between total volume load and muscle growth! In short, greater volume loads will result in increased upper body muscle growth and power.
One group of researchers found that 10 sets per muscle group per week was optimal. However, these loads may vary person to person. For example, greater volume loads have not been researched as extensively in a trained population.
If you are currently doing more than 10 sets per week for each muscle, try adding 20% more sets/reps next month and see how you benefit (4).
One way to increase the volume of your workouts is to provide sufficient rest periods between sets. Longer rest periods will allow you to sufficiently recover between upper body exercises and allow you to train with greater loads which will increase your overall training volume!
Increased Training Frequency
Another great way that we recommend here at IIFYM is an increased training frequency. For example, if you currently just train your chest once per week, adding in a second chest session (even if it’s short) will cause noticeable improvements in upper body muscle growth and power.
While volume is a key driver for muscular growth if not periodized properly chronic high volume loads may lead to cumulative fatigue and potentially even over reaching. Therefore, it is important to strategically manipulate your volume loads and allow for appropriate recovery.
In all of our plan here at IIFYM, we systematically vary volume to optimize both recovery and growth. Lastly, one final way to deal with the increased stress from training with high volume loads is to dial in on your nutrition.
One way to make sure you’re consuming and an efficient number of calories are by using one of our many personalized calculators that we offer on IIFYM.com. Yet, if you’re looking for a customized diet plan, one our coaches will build your Macro Blueprint!
4.) Vary Your Exercises
Another principle of training that we believe to be essential here at IIFYM is exercise selection, which basically promotes the use of multiple upper body exercises rather than the same 2-3 every week.
All our work out protocols from IIFYM provide sufficient exercise variation to maximize results, while also reducing overuse injuries, boredom and continually keep your body adapting to avoid plateaus or slow progress.
Several pieces of research have supported this method, showing that varying your upper body exercises may create different activation patterns and promote uniform muscle growth (1,5)!
…optimize your upper body training, make sure you vary your rep ranges within a workout or at least on a weekly or monthly basis (8).
In fact, one study examined the effects of different workout regimens with different levels of exercise variation. They compared the growth of the quad (front leg muscle) using just one exercise versus multiple exercises. Interestingly, they kept training volume (sets) the same to solely investigate the effects of exercise selection.
After the trial, these researchers discovered that increased exercised variation resulted in more overall muscle growth in all four heads of the quadriceps (6).
Based on this, switching up your upper body exercises may allow you to develop your upper, middle, and lower portions of your muscles, or, hit all the heads/muscle fibers within that muscle group. You can vary the exercises within a week along with total program re-designs every 4-8 weeks.
Below are some variations of upper body exercises that you can add into your routine:
- Incline push-ups
- Decline bench press
- Incline machine press with resistance bands
- DB fly’s
- Cable fly’s (Varying your stance, closer to the machine and stepping further away)
- DB seal row
- Single arm cable row
- Barbell Deadlift
- Standing T-Bar Row
- Pull-ups (Vary your grips- wide, narrow, supinated)
5.) Vary Your Rep Ranges
If you’ve ever had a workout designed here at IIFYM you will see we vary the rep ranges within a session. As discussed, there are greater benefits by using both heavier and light loads into your upper body workouts. By combining the two, we can focus on both upper body power and growth.
While the common ‘8-12’ rep range is effective, research suggests that higher and lower rep ranges can still be beneficial, it also reduces boredom and works multiple aspects of performance (such as strength, power and muscular endurance) (7)!
On top of that, one study showed that varying your rep ranges within a given workout or given week may provide you with some added benefit for muscle growth. Therefore, here at
Therefore, here at IIFYM we believe in order to optimize your upper body training, make sure you vary your rep ranges within a workout or at least on a weekly or monthly basis (8). Yet, remember that without a dialed in diet, muscle growth (hypertrophy) is tough!
One of our coaches can create your Custom Macro Blueprint to help you put on slabs of muscle with minimal fat gain!
Here are some example rep ranges to implement each week:
- Day 1: 6-8RM
- Day 2: 12-14RM
- Day 3: 18-20RM
Example Workout Applying All 5 Power Rules!
|Barbell Bench Press* 1||1||4||8||2 min.|
|Barbell Bent Over Row *1||2||4||8||2 min.|
|Incline DB Press *2||3A||3||10||90 seconds|
|DB Seal Row*2||3B||3||10||90 seconds|
|DB Cable Fly’s *2||4||3||10||90 seconds|
|Single arm cable row *2||5||3||10||90 seconds|
|Pushups *3||6A||3||20-30||90 seconds|
|Bodyweight reverse rows *3||6B||3||20-30||60 seconds|
*1 = Mechanical Tension
*2 = Exercise Variation/High Total Volume
*3 = Metabolic Stress / Varying Rep Ranges
Wrapping it all up
There you have 5 rules for a powerful upper body routine that can help you increase both upper body power and growth!
- Start your upper body routine with compound lifts that use heavier loads and target mechanical tension!
- Next, make sure you add in high rep metabolic days or burnout exercises/sets at the end of your workouts to maximize metabolic stress or the ‘pump’.
- Volume is another primary driver of muscle hypertrophy. You can increase volume by taking longer rest and doing more reps per set, or, simply adding in more sets per workout or training days per week.
- Exercise variation may alter muscle activation patterns and promote more overall muscle growth over the long-term. Try to alter your exercise selection within a workout or on a weekly/monthly basis.
- Lastly, to optimize these adaptations it is essential you are consuming the right diet, specifically calorie intake and the correct amounts of protein. If you are unsure how much protein or total macros/calories you need in each day check out this article here: Protein Requirement, Macro Split, and IIFYM under a Microscope.
- 1.) Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
- Grant, A. C. G., Gow, I. F., Zammit, V. A., & Shennan, D. B. (2000). Regulation of protein synthesis in lactating rat mammary tissue by cell volume. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-General Subjects, 1475(1), 39-46.
- Goto, K. A. Z. U. S. H. I. G. E., Ishii, N. A. O. K. A. T. A., Kizuka, T. O. M. O. H. I. R. O., & Takamatsu, K. A. O. R. U. (2005). The impact of metabolic stress on hormonal responses and muscular adaptations. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 37(6), 955-63.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-10.
- Bloomer, R. J., & Ives, J. C. (2000). Varying Neural and Hypertrophic Influences in a Strength Program. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 22(2), 30.
- Fonseca, R. M., Roschel, H., Tricoli, V., de Souza, E. O., Wilson, J. M., Laurentino, G. C., ... & Ugrinowitsch, C. (2014). Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(11), 3085-3092.
- Zourdos, M. C. (2017). Physiological responses to two different models of daily undulating periodization in trained powerlifters.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Ogborn, D., Galpin, A., Krieger, J., & Sonmez, G. T. (2016). Effects of varied versus constant loading zones on muscular adaptations in trained men. International journal of sports medicine, 37(06), 442-447.