Upper Push/Pull

Upper Push/Pull

Training Notes

A: Note the angle of the bench. Try to keep it shallow in order to better bias pecs and triceps versus the delts. Also adhere to the tempo and hold the pause at the bottom an inch off the chest. Though the ROM is intentionally reduced, the difficulty of this movement is generally higher than a traditional press so keep that in mind when selecting initial weights.

B: Add load to your lap if able. Make sure to wear straps. Only pull to 90º of elbow flexion at the top of the movement to ensure that the focus stays on mid/low traps and rear delts rather than trying to make it a lat movement. Get as much scapular elevation in the stretch and depression at the top as possible. The whole goal here should be based around max scap movement.

C1: The setup for these is going to be key so take the time to ensure you can find a comfortable position with which to perform sets. Don't try to make these a lat movement. Keep the elbow slightly flared, row into your upper abdomen and think about scapular retraction and protraction. Adjust your hips and stance in order to find the most comfort. Limit trunk rotation while performing these. Rest for 60 sec before C2.

C2: Adjust load as needed from C1. Keep your hips square on these. The upper arm should be tight to the midline throughout the press. Reach through the top of the ROM and allow your scaps to upwardly rotate. These should feel very good on your shoulder joint rather than jamming. Perform C1 and C2 on the same arm before switching.

D: Note the tempo on these. The execution here is VERY specific so start light/slow and ease in once you get it down. Maintain slight flexion through the spine (hold a small crunch) and sit your weight back into your hips to take the load off the low back. You can use a rope, strap, individual handles, etc for this but the main goal is to keep the upper arms tight to the midline and "drag" your elbows along the bench to maximally engage the lats. Try to get the lats as shortened as possible and aim for cramp-like contractions.

E1: Maintain a slight bend in the elbows and adhere to the slow eccentric. Pay very close attention to the rotation of the shoulder joint and relation of forearms to upper arms. It's crucial to line everything up with the desired force vector to keep the tissue safe under heavy stretch. Only work in the bottom 2/3 of the ROM here to maintain constant tension. No rest before E2.

E2: Using the same DBs, bring them into your chest with a neutral grip and press them together hard. Maintain this pressure while performing the presses. You should feel VERY strong pec contractions though do your best to keep your upper arms tucked rather than flared. Full rest before returning to E1.

F1: Keep these strict and controlled. Raise the DBs in a "2 and 10 o'clock" pattern (scapular plane) in order to get more ROM and avoid jamming at the shoulder joint. Take the last set to failure. Rest 15 sec before F2.

F2: Bilateral. Keep these strict and controlled. Pump the reps out here and aim for as much blood flow and metabolic stress as possible. Full rest before returning to F1.


Goals of this session

Because we are aiming to target mostly our pecs, delts, mid back and lats, the presumption is that there will be other sessions within the week to more heavily bias the smaller, ancillary muscles of the upper body (biceps, triceps, etc) or there is an active avoidance of them due to pre-stated macro goals. Within this session, we are going to overload each major upper body movement pattern (horizontal and vertical push and pull) with at least one heavier, compound exercise and then fill in the gaps with more specific metabolic or tension-based work.

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 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 pushups against a bar, single arm half kneeling cable pulldowns, and band cuban presses.


Common exercise modifications

Slight Incline Spoto Press- Slight Incline Bench Press, Slight Incline Smith Spoto Press, Slight Incline Swiss Spoto Press, Slight Incline Paused DB Press, Incline Machine Press

Wide Pronated Rack Pull-Ups- Wide Pronated Cable Pulldowns, Wide Pronated Machine Assisted Pull-Ups, Wide Pronated Band Assisted Pull-Ups, Wide Pronated Machine Pulldowns

Meadows Rows- Single Arm Pronated DB Rows, Single Arm Pronated Machine Rows, Single Arm Pronated Cable Rows

Single Arm Standing Landmine Press- Half Kneeling Single Arm Landmine Press, Single Arm Standing Neutral DB OHP, Single Arm Half Kneeling Neutral DB OHP, Single Arm Standing Barbell Viking Press

Dante Rows- Neutral Pulldowns, Chest Supported High to Low Neutral Cable Rows, Supine Cable Pullovers

Flat DB Flyes- Pec Deck, Seated Cable Flyes, Ring Flyes

Flat DB Hex Press- Flat Neutral DB Press, Banded Neutral Pushups, Neutral Machine Chest Press

Standing DB Laterals- Seated DB Laterals, Standing Lu Raises, Bent Over Neutral DB Y Raises, Lying Cable Laterals, Machine Laterals

DB Upright Rows- EZ Upright Rows, Hybrid DB Upright Rows, Cable Upright Rows, Band Upright Rows, Standing Overhead Plate Front Raises


Common program modifications

Advanced trainees- Add a set to A and increase intensity to 2RIR. Increase intensity to 1RIR on B and then take the last set to failure. Increase intensity of C1 and C2 to 1RIR. Take the last set of D to failure. Increase intensity of E1 to 1RIR and take each set of E2 to failure. Add a set to F1 and F2 and alter the rest periods to 30 sec between variations. 

Intermediate trainees- Keep the program as is

Beginner trainees- Reduce intensity of A to 4RIR, change B to just bodyweight and maintain 3RIR, perform C1 and C2 separately with full rest between them, D should be changed to neutral cable pulldowns, sub out E1 and E2 for high to low cable flyes at 2x12-15 (2RIR), and remove F2 completely. 

Male trainees- Add a set to A and remove a set from D. Potentially add a set to E1 and E2 to get in more pec volume. Longer rest between sets and more feeders before working sets on A, B, C1 and C2. Volume may need to be decreased depending on strength level and recovery capacity (stronger trainees may need less working sets).

Female trainees- Increase the angle of A to ~45º to get more delt work in. E1 and E2 can be subbed out for more delt-specific work as desired. Add a set to C1 and C2 as well as F1 and F2. Shorter rest between working sets and less feeders/warmup sets will generally be needed. Volume may need to be increased depending on strength level and recovery capacity (better conditioned trainees may need more working sets).


Common injury modifications:

Shoulders- This is going to be a very shoulder joint intensive day just due to the goals of the session. Priority should be on proper warmups and getting the joint primed to handle load/stress. Once this is done sufficiently, err on the side of safely by sticking with mostly neutral grip pressing and pulling. A, E1, F1 and F2 are the most likely culprits to cause potential issues so liberally modify them with more joint-friendly exercise selection, slower tempos and adjusted angles.

Elbows- We're most likely to get some negative feedback for the elbows with A and C2 (the heavy presses) though, depending on the mechanism, heavier pulling movements can also cause some issues. Step one is soft tissue work around the joint with focus on biceps, triceps and brachioradialis. This can be done manually with a moderate load KB. Step two is going to be staged isometrics (especially for triceps tendon issues). At different angles of elbow flexion, try to extend against an immovable object, slowly ramping up the intensity to ~80% and holding that for ~10 sec. This will do a good job of stressing the tissues without causing additional problems. In the actual session, a move to neutral grip work is an easy modification, similar to the shoulder injury recommendations. From here, reducing the ROM to limit extreme elbow flexion should help as well as potentially regressing to machine work to increase control. 

Low Back- For low back injuries, we can look at the most obvious culprit first which is C1. This movement is somewhat awkward inherently and can easily be subbed to a chest supported pronated machine row to take the low back stabilization out of the equation. Additionally, we also have C2 and D which have their own potential sets of issues. With C2, it's going to be exclusive to trunk rigidity due to the demands on the abs, glutes, and low back with standing overhead pressing. Moving from standing to half kneeling is an awesome and easy way to circumvent this issue. And with D, the actual execution pattern asks for a flexed spine which is pretty contradictory to our goal here if limiting low back stress. Due to this, I wouldn't recommend anyone with pre-existing low back issues to try to perform D. They should instead regress to a neutral pulldown variant or even a unilateral pulldown.


Additional notes:

As mentioned in the stated goals for this session, we're going to be looking to build sufficient volume and intensity for our primary upper body movement patterns while balancing the "overload vs metabolic stress" dynamic as well as limiting the direct exposure of secondary patterns/muscle groups. 

Because of how taxing and arduous this goal can be to perform on a single training day, my typical default is to split heavy upper push and pull into separate days, similar to how one might split up heavy squats and deadlifts. Doing this allows much more direct focus and energy to be applied to each exercise, set and even rep. For the higher level athletes that are actually looking to bring up the accompanying muscle groups or build strength within these patterns, it might be a better idea to shift into some modification of a PPL (push/pull/legs) split. 


So why are we even bothering with this condensed work then? Why would we not look to immediately specify our training split?


Let's answer this in case studies...

Case Study 1- We have a trainee who is sufficiently muscular up top but is really trying to bring up their lower body. In this case, condensing the heavy upper body work and disregarding the secondary upper patterns will allow for more frequency, volume and intensity to be directed towards the leg training. They can aim to maintain the upper body musculature (even the biceps, triceps, upper traps, etc are going to keep their size due to indirect stimulus) through focusing on higher ROI movements which will then increase recovery capacity for their ramped up lower work.

Case Study 2- Our trainee is a novice or even lower level intermediate who is just looking to improve general muscle mass and strength. They aren't advanced enough to begin worrying about the specifics of prioritization; they just need more experience and time under the bar. In this scenario, we can imagine that they would be best served running some sort of non-specific split like ULUL (upper/lower repeating) that focused on movements that are relatively low skill, allow for technical practice, and have a favorable SFR (stimulus to fatigue ratio). Their volume requirements for smaller muscles will be sufficiently filled by second-order effects and they can direct all of their focus towards improving on main movement patterns then recovering HARD in order to solidify the neural pathways. 

Case Study 3- Here, our trainee is actually looking to bring up their upper body. Imagine a relatively advanced male bodybuilder who has tried all of the tricks over the years. He knows his body and is technically proficient across the board. You may be thinking that this is the perfect candidate for a hyper-specific body part split, and you wouldn't be wrong. But let's think deeper. We can construct a 5 day training split of upper-lower, arms-accessory upper, heavy legs, off, heavy upper push, heavy upper pull. This split satisfies all of our needs including aspects of that desired isolation work. There are multiple ways to skin a cat with program design. 


Beyond the nitty-gritty of micro exercise selection, sequencing, rep/set schemes, and progression models lies a vast world of possibilities. One of the biggest downfalls I see with most programming is a dearth of imagination. I can't even blame the programmer; we live in a world where "he who shouts the loudest is right" and there are a lot of really loud people shouting really dumb shit. Dogmatic thinking is creativity's ball-and-chain. 

When you can break past "This is wrong because..." to "Under x circumstances, this could work..." then your ascension has begun.

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