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Proper Performance of Upper Body Exercises

By Gary F. Zeolla

There are a wide variety of upper body exercises that can be performed. One of the best, bench presses, are described in the article Proper Performance of the Powerlifts. This article will describe the proper performance of various other upper body movements.

Proper Performance of Chest Flyes

Chest flyes isolate the chest (pectoralis major). However, they are that great of size and strength builders. Also, chest flyes can place quite a bit of strain on the shoulders and elbows. Bench presses are a much better exercise. However, if chest flyes are done, they should be performed as follows:

Lie supine (flat, face up) on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. The dumbbells should be held parallel to the body. The elbows should be slightly bent (about 10 degrees). This bend should be maintained throughout the movement.

Slowly and in a controlled manner, lower the dumbbells to the sides. Lower them as far as is comfortable, but no farther than the arms being parallel with the ground.

Pause, and then slowly raise the arms to the starting position by concentrating on and visualizing using the chest muscles to pull the upper arm across the chest. Do not bang the weights together at the top.

Inhale as the weights are lowered and exhale as they are raised.

Variations of the chest fly include the following:
1. Incline chest fly - to emphasis the upper pectoralis major.
2. Decline chest fly - to emphasis the lower pectoralis major.
3. Cable cross over flyes - to enable a full range of movement and more work the inner pectoralis major.

Proper Performance of Seated Presses

Overhead presses are the most basic and productive shoulder exercise there is. They work the primary shoulder muscles (the deltoids), along with the upper chest and triceps. However, lifters should not perform this exercise if they suffer from back, neck, or shoulder problems.

Also, it is generally best, especially for beginners, to perform presses while seated, using a chair designed for this purpose. Such a chair will have a high back. This will prevent the lifter from bending backwards during the movement. It should also have a racks extending from the back to place a barbell on.

Sit in the chair with the back flat against the back pad, the shoulders back and the head neutral (looking forward). The buttocks should be kept against the back pad throughout. Allowing the buttocks to come forward will place stress on the lower back.

Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip that is slightly wider than shoulder width grip. Take the bar off of the racks and raise the weight so that the arms are extended straight overhead. Given the somewhat awkward angle on some seated press stations, it might be best to have someone hand the weight off to the lifter using a three count.

Slowly lower the weight down to in front of the shoulders. Pause, then raise the weight slowly in a controlled manner, straight upward until the arms are straight overhead. Exhale while the weight is being raised. Pause, then lower the weight back to the front of the shoulders, inhaling during the downward movement. After the last rep, return the weight to the racks, using a spotter if necessary.

The most common variation of the seated press is to use dumbbells. These can be held so that they are in a straight line with the body, with the palms facing forwards or in a parallel fashion with the palms facing each other.

To get them into position, it is easiest to “clean” the dumbbells from the floor to shoulder level. By this is meant using the legs to lift the weights as an Olympic lifter does for the “clean and jerk.”

Proper Performance of Lying Triceps Extensions

Lying triceps extensions isolate the triceps brachii. They are a quality exercise, but some lifters will find that such movements place too much strain on the elbows and are best avoided.

To perform lying triceps extensions, lie supine (flat, face up) in a flat bench. The back should stay flat, the feet on the floor, wide apart for support. As with benches, the shoulders, head, and buttocks should be flat on the bench, and these, along with the feet, should not move throughout the movement.

The barbell should be grasped with an overhand grip, hands shoulder width or a little less apart. Start with the bar over the shoulders, arms extended. Slowly and in a controlled manner, bend the elbow to lower the bar. Only the upper arms should move. The elbows should maintain the same position throughout. The upper arms should stay perpendicular to the body.

Lower the bar until it almost touches the nose, inhaling during the downward movement. Then using only the triceps, and again, not allowing anything to move other than the upper arms and keeping the elbows fixed, slowly extend the bar to the starting position, exhaling during the upward movement.

Proper Performance of Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns primarily work the latissumus dorsi (the “lats”), the largest muscle in the upper back, and secondarily the biceps brachii. It is preferred that pulldowns be done to the front. Pulldowns to the back are too stressful to the shoulders and spine.

Start by sitting on the seat, with the knees placed under the kneepad. If a kneepad is not available, then the spotter should hold the lifter down. Grip the bar with an overhand grip wider than shoulder width. In the starting position, the arms should be fully extended, scapula raised, shoulders back, and arms pulled back so that a stretch is felt in the lats as well as in the shoulder/ upper arm area. The feet should be flat on the floor.

The body should be slightly angled backward, head neutral, rib cage raised, and a slight arch in the back. This position should be maintained throughout. Only the arms should move. Most especially, the lifter should not lean further back utilizing the lower back during the movement.

Pull the bar straight down until it touches the upper chest. Concentrate on pulling the elbows back, pulling with lat muscles and not the upper arms, and “pinching” the scapula together. The lifter should exhale during the pulling phase of movement. Slowly and in a controlled manner, allow the bar to return to the starting position, and inhaling throughout.

If spotting someone on pulldowns, the spotter should stand behind lifter. Watch that the lifter is maintaining the proper position and utilizing proper breathing throughout the lift. If the lifter needs assistance, the spotter should use both hands, one on each side of the cable.

For a video of Lat. Pulldowns with a long bar, click here. For a video of Lat. Pulldowns with a "V" grip, click here.

Proper Performance of Cable Pulls

Cable pulls (also called seated rows) are an excellent exercise for working the muscles of the upper back.

To perform cable pulls, sit of the bench of the cable machine. Start with the legs slightly bent. The feet should be firmly on the footplates, back straight (perpendicular to the ground), shoulders back, and head neutral (looking straight ahead). This position should be maintained throughout the movement.

The grip will depend on what type of bar is being used and which muscles the lifter wants to emphasize. Most commonly a straight bar (or a bar that is straight in the middle but which bends slightly at each end) is used. For this, grab the bar about shoulder width or slightly wider than shoulder width or grasp the bar on the end where it bends. If using a “V” type of grip, grasp each parallel part of the “V” so that the palms are facing each other.

Where the bar is pulled to will affect which muscles are emphasized. If the bar is pulled to the chest, emphasis is placed on the muscles surrounding the scapula (the shoulder blade): the rhomboids, infraspinatus, teres major, upper trapezius, and rear deltoid. If the bar is pulled to the waist, emphasis is placed on the lats. Both variations also work the biceps brachii.

Also the type of grip when using a straight bar will affect which muscles are emphasized. An underhand grip more isolates the lower portion of the traps, the rhomboids, and the biceps. An overhand grip more isolates the posterior deltoids and the middle portion of the traps.

Pull the bar in a slow controlled manner, exhaling as the bar is pulled. Pause. Then slowly return the bar to the starting position in a controlled manner, inhaling as the arms are extended.

Some lifters will bend forward while doing this exercise. In this way the lats are stretched and a greater range of motion can be achieved. However, by doing so, some of the work is placed onto the spinal erectors (the lower back) and evne the hamstrings rather than the muscles of the upper back. There is also the tendency to move too quickly, thus “throwing” the weight rather than pulling it and reducing the effectiveness of the exercises. Such a rapid movement can also place undo stress on the lower back. So if a forward flexion is used, it should be done in a slow, controlled manner.

Proper Performance of Barbell Curls

Barbell curls are the most basic exercise there is for strengthening the biceps muscles. However, they are one of the most commonly mis-performed exercises there is. All too often curls are turned into a lower back exercise!

To perform curls properly, stand upright with the feet about shoulder width apart, knees slightly bent, shudders back, and head neutral. This position should be maintained throughout. The bar is held at arms length, in front of the thighs. Grip the bar with hands about shoulder width apart, palms facing up.

Slowly curl the bar up to the shoulders using only the biceps. DO NOT BEND BACKWARDS. The shoulders should not move as well. The only thing that should be moving are the forearms. The elbows should remain at the sides through most of the movement. Only near the top of the lift should they come forward slightly. But they should not flare outward at any point.

Pause at the top and then slowly lower the weight to the starting position. Exhale as the bar is raised and inhale as it is lowered. Again, only the arms should move. There should be no other body movement.

There are many common variations of the barbell curl. They can be performed using dumbbells, a curl bar, using a cable machine, or various curl machines. They can also be performed using a close or a wide grip.

For a video of curls done with a curl bar, click here.

As a side note, and to express one of my pet peeves, it is not necessary to use a “power rack” to perform barbell curls. Don’t be lazy. The weights used are not that heavy. Simply place the weight on the floor and bend down and pick it up. It is simply inconsiderate to tie up a power rack to do curls. Leave the power racks open for those who want to perform exercises that require the use of a power rack, like squats, rack pulls, and heavy shrugs. Sorry to sound a little angry here, but it is very frustrating for a powerlifter to have to wait for a power rack while someone is needlessly tying it up.

Bell, James T. and Karl M. Dauphinais. The Book on Personal Training. Tampa, FL: International Fitness Professional Association, 2001.
Delavier, Frederic. Strength Training Anatomy. Paris, France: Human kinetics, 2001.
Hatfield, Frederick, C. Bodybuilding: A Scientific Approach. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, 1984.
Schuller, Lou. The Testosterone Advantage Plan. USA: Rodale, 2002.

Proper Performance of Various Upper Body Exercises. Copyright 2003 By Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this site on September 17, 2003.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Proper Performance of Exercises

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