How to Build a Balanced Physique (Upper Body Edition).

A well-balanced physique not only looks great, but it can also help you with common aches and pains, as well as helping your strength.

For example, someone who does mostly chest and then sits at a desk all day you can expect to have some sort of imbalance aesthetically and strength-wise.

This will cause problems now and down the line.

I’ve been there before, I used to hit my chest at least 2-3 times per week and skip out on things like my pulling movements and legs.

This led to frustration with my physique as well as aches and pains in my shoulders.

So to fix that it’s important you get your basic movement patterns in, and then sprinkle in everything else based on your time and goals.

The basic movement patterns are your foundation. Once you have these dialed in, then you can decide where to allocate the rest of your time.

But without this foundation, you will be on shaky ground throughout your training career.

Here are the 4 basic upper body movements patterns I program in for online clients:

  • Horizontal pressing
  • Vertical pressing
  • Horizontal pulling
  • Vertical pulling

The goal is to pick at least 1-2 exercises from these 4 movement patterns and program them into your routine based on your goals and time.

Horizontal Pressing:

Think of this as pushing things away and straight out in front of you.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Incline Bench

Barbell Bench

Other common horizontal pushing exercises programmed for online clients:

  • Db incline bench
  • Db flat bench
  • Close grip bench press
  • Smith machine flat bench
  • Smith machine incline bench

My favorite for myself and online clients is an incline press. This really helps develop your upper chest and gives your chest that armored look. If you are choosing two exercises from this list, make sure to do a flat variation and an incline variation.

When doing horizontal pressing, work through a full range of motion. This means bringing the bar down in a controlled fashion all the way to your chest. One of the most common mistakes in the gym is guys doing wayyy too much weight for their bench presses.

Vertical Pushing:

Any exercise that involves moving a weight up vertically in relation to your torso so that it goes straight over head or at least in that direction.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Standing shoulder press

  • Seated shoulder press
  • High incline bench press

*Side note:

The more experience I get, the more I shy away from vertical pressing, especially if muscle growth is your goal. In my opinion, it adds a lot of wear and tear and fatigue for not much benefit. You can get most of your shoulder growth from horizontal pushing and hitting more delt work.

I do, however, like programming overhead presses more for female clients. A few reasons:

  • Most female clients don’t care about getting a muscular chest, so that frees up more space for overhead pressing. They do want more developed shoulders though.
  • Females rarely ego lift. So they are more likely to stick to more appropriate weights for overhead pressing.
  • Females can also handle more volume than men on average.

However, it still is a basic movement pattern, so if it’s something you enjoy then by all means keep it in your routine.

Horizontal Pulling:

This is any exercise moving a weight in towards your torso horizontally from straight out in front of you.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Bent row

Other common exercises programmed for online clients:

  • Db Bent row
  • Chest support row
  • Smith Machine row
  • Underhand bent row
  • Cable row

Focus on incorporating some type of barbell or dumbbell row into your routine. Cable rows are fine, but they should NOT be the foundation of your horizontal pulling exercises. Nothing will grow your back like a barbell or DB row. Even a smith machine row is a great option.

If you decide to pick two exercises from here, doing a DB or barbell variation and then a cable row is a GREAT option.

The biggest thing when choosing pull options is your technique. Don’t make the mistake of loading up the weight to fuel your ego. Start light and develop a fantastic mind-muscle connection to your back muscle.

A good coaching cue is to think about using your hands as hooks and then drive your elbows up.

Vertical Pulling:

This is any exercise that involves moving a weight down vertically in relation to your torso so that you are pulling down from over head

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Pull ups

  • Lat pull downs
  • Chin ups.
  • Machine assisted pull up/chin up.

*Side note:

An extremely underrated exercise is the machine-assisted pull-up or chin up. As I mentioned earlier, your technique is super important when it comes to your pulling movements. Vertical pulling is no different.

If you cannot do a proper bodyweight pull-up, don’t stress (most people cant do a proper one). Instead, use the machine-assisted pull up/chin up to work on your strength and technique.

Again, this is the most underutilized machine in the gym.

A good coaching cue to engage your back more for pulling movements is to think about driving your elbows down and into your sides.

These are the basic exercises of your training routine. If you are short on time, doing these 4 movement patterns will be a GREAT foundation and will get you fantastic results.

If you have more time to dedicate to the gym or maybe you just want some bigger arms then you can also incorporate the accessory movements below.

How to Program

6-12 sets per week on each movement pattern is a great starting point and then go from there.

For most online clients, I like to use either a 3 day full body routine, or a 4 day upper/lower split.

If you have more time to dedicate to the gym, then doing a 5 day or 6 day split is also great. The only potential issue with a 5 or 6 day split is some people have trouble consistently getting to the gym that many times week after week. They do something like 5 one week, then 4, then 3, then 5 etc.

The reason being is that if you program for 5 days, but make 4, there is a chance that you will be missing out on baseline volume for certain muscle groups.

It would be better to stick to a 4 day split if you know thats how many days you can for sure make it to the gym each week. This ensures each muscle group gets a sufficient amount of work and then if you can make an extra day on certain weeks, you would then throw in a workout that hits a body part you want to build.

Accessories

Bicep:

Think of this as any curling. It is also called elbow flexion.

The biceps will get hit indirectly with any pulling movement you do. So if you are short on time your foundation will be covered here. However, if you have more time or want bigger arms, it’s a good idea to throw in some curling exercises to build bigger arms.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Standing dumbbell curls


Standing straight bar curls
Seated bicep curl
Incline seated curl
Cable curl

Make sure when training your biceps you are using a full range of motion. Too many times you will see people go way too heavy with their curling.

Using a strong mind-muscle connection is a great idea for curling. Think about really squeezing your biceps and feeling the muscle working.

Studies show that a strong mind-muscle connection is more beneficial for upper body training than lower body (Schoenfeld, 2019).

It’s best to work in the 10-20 rep range for your curls.

Tricep:

The movement pattern that is associated with tricep exercises is elbow extension.

The triceps will indirectly get hit with any pressing movement. So if you are short on time, your baseline will be covered. However, if you want to get bigger arms and have the time, its a good idea to throw in some tricep exercises into your routine.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:


Dips

  • Skull Crushers
  • Tricep Rope pressdown

To limit other muscles taking over, really focus on just moving at your elbows. This allows you to place more emphasis on just the triceps.

Delts:

When people want to grow their shoulders, they think of overhead presses and front raises. While those will help build your shoulders, you instead need to place more emphasis on your side and rear delt training.

Focusing on exercises that hit those muscle groups will really get your shoulders to pop and get that 3D look.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Side delts:

Db lateral raises

  • Machine lateral raises
  • Cable lateral raise
  • Seated lateral raise

The cool thing with lateral raises is there are a ton of variations you can do within them.

Rear delts:

  • Facepulls
  • Cable facepulls
  • Rear delt rows
  • Rear delt fly

Upright rows (will also work side delts, this is a great exercise)

Most delt work requires fairly light weight and higher rep ranges. Think more 10-20 reps per set.

I hope this helps you program for your upper body to give you a more balanced physique.

If you have any more questions on this topic send me a message on Instagram @Jeffh91_ .

You can also apply for online coaching here.

Stay tuned next week as I dig into building a balanced physique for your lower body.

References:

Schoenfeld, B (2019) Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.

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