In the chaotic world of competitive sports, upper body power is required to successfully strike, block, throw, and absorb the high-impact forces that occur throughout the upper extremities. If these areas aren’t adequately prepared, it can lead to consequences down the road, increasing the potential risk of injury to the wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
Although the body should be trained as one system, specific upper-body-focused training may sometimes be necessary. Combat athletes (such as boxers and mixed martial artists), football linemen, and baseball, softball, and volleyball athletes may require additional attention due to the dynamic actions required of the upper limbs in these sports or positions.
Upper body power development should receive a similar amount of focus as the lower body. Programming upper-body-specific power exercises in training programs is a start. This article will lay out exercise options with that goal in mind and explain how to implement them into a training program.
The upper body will follow the same training principles that apply to the lower body: progress movements from slow to fast, general to specific, low to high intensity, and so forth.
The force-velocity curve and breakdown of extensive- or intensive-based movements still hold the training accountable. Differences between their two body segments will determine how your athletes respond to the training and the rate of their exercise progression.Even if you’re not purposefully training the lower body for power, chances are high that athletes already have a much better base build in comparison to their upper half. Click To Tweet
Even if you’re not purposefully training the lower body for power, chances are high that athletes already have a much better base built in comparison to their upper half. Considering that we live our lives on our feet, play sports with high impacts on our lower body, and hopefully had great childhoods where we played and jumped off tall structures…our lower body has already been exposed to high demands.
When prescribing upper body power exercises, start at a lower training volume and intensity. Progressing exercises only when appropriate will help keep everyone injury-free throughout the training process.
Extensive Upper Body Training
Extensive-based movements are performed at submaximal levels with the intention of fluidity, rhythm, and quality of exercise execution. Think of these exercises as building up the training base. This is done to build resiliency and robustness in the upper body and to prepare better for the more aggressive intensive exercises to come.
Medicine Ball Extensive Series
Training extensive qualities of the upper body can be challenging compared to the lower body. As mentioned, you cannot load the upper body with as much volume, and there aren’t as many viable options, such as skips, hops, and jumps, as performed with the lower body.
Medicine balls will be the star when training these qualities—specifically, rubber-encased, hard-shelled medicine balls. One that, when you forcefully throw it at a wall, bounces back at you with equal force for you to absorb.
Video 1. Athletes can perform these throws to the wall from the chest, overhead, or forehead position, as well as with various starting positions and speeds. They can perform them for repetitions or for time. These movements are fantastic to help create upper body rhythm and timing.
Regardless of the exercise, when performing it, stand around an arm’s length away from the wall and maintain a strong body position—nothing should be moving except the upper extremities performing the exercise.
Perform with a lighter medicine ball of 4–6 pounds before progressing, but even then, these movements aren’t intended to be done with a heavy medicine ball. Keep the repetitions around 5–10 per exercise and 2–4 sets per session. When performing for time, I saw these first through Mike Tucker’s annual Sprinttember plan. Perform them off the clock: 10 seconds on, 20 seconds off, for 3–5 rounds.
Intensive Upper Body Training
Intensive-based movements are performed maximally, in lower volumes, with the intent to increase power outputs. When programming these more powerful exercises, it’s important that athletes perform them as violently as possible.When programming these more powerful intensive-based movements, it’s important that athletes perform them as violently as possible. Click To Tweet
Medicine Ball Intensive Series
Medicine balls will be used again here, but this time focusing on throwing maximally as opposed to making fluid and rhythmic throws.
Still, use a lighter medicine ball—6–8 pounds, depending on the exercise—and focus on releasing the ball as violently as possible. The throws here will be done for 10–20 total repetitions per workout. You can progress to heavier medicine balls, 10–15 pounds, but don’t forget that the ball must be blasting out of the throws.
Video 2. Several throws will be performed from a kneeling or supine position to ensure that the upper body is the primary mover, but don’t feel you need to be limited. You can utilize countless variations; the video demonstrates a few commonly used exercises.
Sled Training Options
Using the sled to train upper body power with movements such as presses and rows can be beneficial to isolate the upper half. However, if I had to choose only one exercise with the sled, I would go with sled throws.
Video 3. Essentially, use the sled the way we did with the medicine balls: starting on the knees, focus on pushing the sled away from the body as explosively as possible. You can progress this by performing the throw as you fall into a push-up position.
Follow similar training recommendations for these exercises, 10–20 total repetitions per series.
Push-Up Depth Drop Series
Similar to depth drops, the push-up depth drops should only be programmed for individuals who have built up a strong base of training and upper body preparation. If the athlete struggles to perform bodyweight push-ups, this would not be an appropriate movement.
The series will progress upon each movement, starting with just a simple drop and catch and then leading up to the full drop and rebound:
- Push-Up Depth Drop—Catch
- Push-Up Depth Drop—Catch, Rebound with Pause
- Push-Up Depth Drop—Rebound
Start with 8–10 total reps, and increase the volume before progressing to the next level. Ensure that the athlete can demonstrate control throughout the exercise.
Video 4. I recommend performing these exercises off a height of around a few inches. A pair of 45-pound bumper plates, or small boxes around a similar height, works great.
Increasing the height of the drop would not be my main priority with this exercise, but it could be appropriate in certain cases.
Drop-and-Catch Chin-Up Series
The drop-and-catch chin-ups follow the same guidelines as the push-ups. I would only use this exercise with those athletes who are fully prepared and have a high training age.
Video 5. Keep in mind that just because an athlete can do something doesn’t always mean they should—if the juice isn’t worth the squeeze for this exercise, there are plenty of other options.
Assisted Plyometric Push-Ups
If used correctly, overspeed training methods can be very effective: apply this to the push-up with just a resistance band. Loop the band across the safety pins of a power rack a few notches above the ground and start with the band slightly under the chest.
Video 6. When performing an assisted plyometric push-up, drop down explosively and focus on pushing the body away from the ground.
The amount of force required to withstand the return down will be beneficial enough, along with exposing the upper body to this higher output. This can also be introduced by first performing with a pause between repetitions or by performing off a bench to create a more advantageous starting position.
Perform for 10–20 total repetitions per series.
Barbells and dumbbells certainly have a place in this training guide. Performing some of our tried-and-true movements, such as presses and rows from a static position, is a fantastic way to isolate the concentric portion of the movement.
Video 7. For each exercise, set up the implement on pins or blocks around the starting position. This position can get more specific if necessary to meet the needs of the individual or sport.
Each exercise will be performed from a complete dead stop. Perform the concentric portion as fast as possible. Then, control the implement, returning it to the starting position. The movement should be at a complete rest, back in the dead stop position, before performing the next rep.
If performing a set of five, for example, break up the set so it seems to be five individual reps.
Understanding how to program these exercises with the larger picture in mind is important. Having exercises that can be solutions to a problem is great, but if not applied appropriately, they could do more harm than good. Start by assigning basic movements, and progress steadily throughout the year. If working with individuals one-on-one, you can tailor this specifically to their needs; but even in a larger team setting, these movements can be laid out efficiently.Some variables to consider when programming for upper body power are the individual, needs of the sport, and time of year. Click To Tweet
Every situation will be different, depending on several variables—when in doubt, though, err on the side of caution for exercise and volume prescription. Some variables to consider when programming for upper body power are the individual, needs of the sport, and time of year.
Time of Year
When training upper body power in athletes, keep these four phases of the year in mind.
The off-season is set up to make strides in developing for the upcoming season. This time ideally should be the longest period devoted to physical preparation (with less time dedicated to the technical and tactical preparation of the sport).
The off-season should be used to primarily train extensive exercises. There still needs to be some intensive training focus, but this time is to build the base for the future.
Train extensive qualities spread out 2–3 times per week, following the guidelines listed in the exercise. One to two intensive-based movements are appropriate but dependent upon the individual.
This is the final stage, ramping up to the season. By this point, training for upper body power should begin shifting to more intensive-based exercises. Focus on specific high-output movements that will prepare athletes for the demands of their sport.
Train intensive-based qualities twice a week, following the guidelines listed in the exercise. Train extensive-based movements throughout the warm-ups as necessary.
In-season training is unique to each situation. The focus is on maintaining health and keeping the athletes available throughout the season. While we want to keep a grasp on training for power, it is important to examine what the sport itself may be providing.The ability to perform all the dynamic actions of the upper body is vital to fully prepare our athletes for competition. Click To Tweet
For example, if working with an offensive lineman in-season—who is getting plenty of upper body reps on the field in the trenches of the line—then you should use your training program to aid the on-field work and not continue to pile on additional volume of the same.
Prescribing even 1–2 intensive- or concentric-based exercises per week can go a long way. The nature of the exercise will limit muscular soreness and help develop or maintain power qualities: a win-win situation.
Immediately following the competitive season, I recommend stepping back from training and allowing the body and mind to recover. If there is training happening, I would keep volume and intensities low and focus on extensive exercises.
These are just some very general training guidelines. Every situation will have its own unique set of problems to solve, but these are some guidelines to offer a start to your training layout.
The ability to perform all the dynamic actions of the upper body is vital to fully prepare our athletes for competition. Implementing upper-body-specific training doesn’t have to alter a program completely. Utilize the exercises and principles shown throughout this guide to develop power qualities in the upper body successfully.
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