DB Only Upper Pull

DB Only Upper Pull

Training Notes

A: Perform on an elevated flat surface with enough clearance to allow arms to fully extend. Grip should be semi pronated. Focus on controlled eccentrics, full stretch at the bottom, and explosive concentrics into hard scapular retractions at the top. Take your time during and between sets.

B: Use your off arm to brace. Position your torso angle so your terminal end range will allow the DB to settle on the floor each rep without having to rotate through your trunk. Perform the concentric powerfully and control the eccentric. Make sure to not bounce the DB off the floor and instead fully pause for a count. Take rest between each arm as needed.

C: Lie long ways on a flat bench. Get a comfortable arch in your low back. Aim to keep tension in the lats by getting a full stretch and then only pulling the DB to eye level on the concentric. The tempo should be very slow and controlled to ensure the range-of-motion is not forced. Keep elbows slightly bent the entire time.

D1: Keep the reps here fluid and continuous if possible. Pull the DBs up along your body leading with the elbows. Once the upper arms are parallel with the floor, quickly rotate/flip the DBs into a "catch" position with arms at a 90º angle. Return to the start by slowly dropping the DBs down your body rather than reversing the concentric. This movement is intended to be light! Rest for 20 sec before D2.

D2: Pump these out and keep them strict. Aim for max blood flow and fight through the burn to get high reps. Only pull until upper arms are parallel with the floor.

E1: Note the tempo and angle of the bench. Keep your chest up and shoulder blades retracted to place a stretch on the biceps. Allow your arms to hang straight down at the bottom while keeping palms up (supinated). Load will have to be moderate to accommodate the tempo and muscle fiber lengths that this movement will prioritize. Rest for 20 sec before E2.

E2: Keep these strict and controlled. Get a full ROM by attempting to touch your front delt at the top and getting full elbow extension at the bottom.


Goals of this session

Without being able to rely on modalities outside of DBs, our main objective here shifts to simplification over complexity especially when overloading. We will have to shift more towards mid-back biased rows rather than lat due to the inherent resistance curves presented by DBs being more favorable for the former. We must attempt to work WITH the modality we have.

Warm-up recommendations

- 5-10 minutes of steady state cardio such as incline walking, elliptical, rowing, or ski erg

-Soft tissue manipulation in the form of 3-5 min of light foam rolling the low back, mid-back, lats, and teres major. More specific work can be done using a small lacrosse ball (or something similar) and working through bound up tissue in the pecs, rear delts and scapular region. 

-Specific mobility with single arm dead-hangs, quadruped Tspine openers, and scap push-ups.


Common exercise modifications

DB Seal Rows- Incline Chest Supported DB Rows, Bent Over DB Rows 

Single Arm Deadstop DB Rows- Single Arm DB Rows, Single Arm Bent Over DB Rows, Single Arm Chest Supported Incline DB Rows

Flat DB Pullovers- Dual DB Pullovers, Decline DB Pullovers

DB Upright Row to External Rotations- Incline Chest Supported Cuban Press, Prone Overhead Press

DB Upright Rows- Standing DB Lu Raises, Incline Chest Supported Neutral DB Y Raises, Bent Over DB Facepulls
Incline Supinated DB Curls- Standing Supinated DB Curls, Incline DB Curls (with rotation), Incline Alternating Supinated DB Curls

Standing Alternating Hammer Curls- Standing Hammer Curls, Standing Reverse Curls, Standing Alternating Zottman Curls


Common program modifications

Advanced trainees- Increase volume of D1 and D2 by adding a working set. Increase intensity by pushing A to 1RIR and then taking the last to technical failure, push B to 1RIR on the last set, take each set of C to 1RIR, D1 should be to technical failure, and E1 should be to 1RIR on each set. 

Intermediate trainees- Keep the program as is

Beginner trainees- Switch B to Single Arm DB Rows with no deadstop. Remove D1 and E2. Reduce volume of A and E1 by dropping a working set from each. Pull back on intensity by shifting A to 3RIR, B to 3RIR, C to 4RIR, D2 to sets of 15-20 with 3RIR, and E1 to 3RIR. 

Male trainees- Longer rest between sets and more feeders before working sets on A, B and C. Take full rest between D1 -> D2 and E1 -> E2. Volume may need to be decreased depending on strength level and recovery capacity (stronger trainees may need less working sets).

Female trainees- Shorter rest between working sets and less feeders/warmup sets will generally be needed. Add a set to B, D1 and D2 and remove a set from E1 and E2. A might need to be modified if pressure on the chest is bothersome. Volume may need to be increased depending on strength level and recovery capacity (better conditioned trainees may need more working sets).


Common injury modifications:

Low Back- Depending on the mechanism of discomfort, the Single Arm Deadstop DB Rows and the DB Pullovers may be somewhat problematic. For the former, try to resolve this by squaring up your feet/stance to create even hips and elevate the deadstop height by using blocks/mats. Avoid rotation when performing the movement. You can also just modify to Single Arm Chest Supported DB Rows to completely take the pressure off the low back. For the pullovers, control the low back arch by bringing the feet up onto the bench and placing them flat to allow the lumbar to press into the bench. This will restrict the ROM of the movement but won't allow hyperextension of the low back and potential problems that could come along with that.

Neck- There are some potential issues arising here from overuse of the upper traps causing pulling on the neck. In this case, just remove the D1 and D2 superset in favor of Incline Chest Supported Neutral DB Y Raises. These will allow you to adjust the angle of your upper arms and take pressure off the traps/neck. Depending on the severity of the injury, it may make sense to regress further to unilateral.

Shoulders- We should start by ensuring our shoulders are warmed up properly through all planes, including free scap movement. We could run into some issues with pullovers and upright row derivatives. For pullovers, we're going to be looking at shoulder flexion mobility and potentially limiting the ROM by performing them lying in the floor instead of a flat bench. This will do a good job of simulating the pattern without stressing the shoulders. Alternatively, we could move to a dual DB pullover (holding a DB in each hand) to allow each arm to move independently and prevent jamming. As for the upright rows, these are notoriously hard on the shoulder joints when done improperly (especially for those with prior shoulder concerns) so it is best to just remove them from the beginning and not test it. Subbing in Y raises, shrug variants and even incline chest supported upper back rows would be much safer options. 

Elbows- Again, we could potentially have some issues with upright rows just due to the stress that's being applied across the forearms within this pattern. There won't be traditional elbow pain like we see with heavy presses or extensions but placing tension and load across the anterior elbow can still create problems. Moving to similar patterns that we see with the shoulder modifications will be a good bet for the upright row changes. It would also be a good idea to try some soft tissue manipulation in the biceps and forearms to relieve some of that tension beforehand. 

Wrists- The major red flag for the wrists is going to be supinated movements. If there is any medial pressure/pain when attempting to perform the supinated DB curls, switch to hammer curls or try DB curls with rotation from neutral to supinated through the concentric.


Additional notes:

Without a doubt, the limitation of equipment severely handicaps our ability to navigate a well-rounded "pull" session. Though it is relatively easy to cover our horizontal rowing bases, vertical pulling presents an issue. Not being able to rely on pull-up and pulldown variations means that the only way for us to properly stimulate those muscle fibers is through the, somewhat complex, pullover. By extension, we will have to shift our priorities and goals for the session to account for these restrictions. 

Luckily, we can get a ton of productive volume out basic, heavy DB rows. They are going to form the foundation of this session and provide our medium of progressive overload. It should not be too challenging to scale the Single Arm Deadstop DB Rows up over time due to the short-term execution improvements facilitating longer-term increases in power expression. The Seal Rows can be expected to have a longer tail of progression because of the more rigid execution parameters (chest support and bilateral) leading to less aggressive load and rep increases. Both of these movements are relatively safe to train close to failure as long as technique is locked in and maintained early on. 

The DB pullovers present a few nuances that make me a bit more cautious in my approach, comparatively. The biggest potential issue comes from the resistance curve of the movement and how the maximum tension is being applies to the lats, teres major, and triceps when they are lengthened (and vulnerable). Because of this, it is prudent to be a bit more careful with intensity and proximity to failure though overloading should still be the intent. Without our modality restrictions, a cable variant for pullovers tends to be a much safer alternative even though the mechanism of action is slightly different. 

Upright row and curl variations should be scaled and progressed with metabolic stress and time-under-tension in mind. Though we can easily utilize these patterns for progressive overload, using DBs to do so is generally not the most optimal approach because of the instability and inability for micro-loading. Focusing more energy on perfecting the execution, tempo, and mind-muscle connection will be more logical especially if variability is added into the equation (through cycling different exercises in place of these specific movements). 

While it may seem somewhat unnecessary to program based on a hypothetic scenario like this, 2020 taught us that it pays to be flexible in training styles. Being limited to just using DBs is obviously suboptimal when it comes to training our lats (and back in general), but we can still easily create a program that "crosses our Ts and dots our Is" by shifting the focus to the basics. 

Barbells are great, cables are cool, and machines are useful but too many people rely too heavily on these modalities, often to a detriment. By learning how to get "more out of less", as is the case here, it makes it much easier to later get the "most out of more" when there is once again a surplus of equipment options at our disposal.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.