In my last article—Best and Worst LOWER BODY Strength Exercises for Athletes—I describe which lower body exercises are safe and functional and which exercises lack function and potentially contribute to injuries.
Most athletic movements draw power and support from BOTH upper and lower body. As examples: In the process of throwing athletes engage the core and lower body; For motions like sprinting and kicking athletes draw additional power and strength from the upper body.
Boosting the ability to coordinate athletic movements with speed and precision requires a spectrum of exercises to enhance neuromuscular control, power, mobility, balance, strength, and technique. The focus of this article is to point out the Best and Worst Upper Body Exercises for Functional STRENGTH. Before pointing out the BEST upper body exercises, let’s begin by looking at the WORST exercises—movements that lack function and can contribute to injury.
WORST Upper Body Exercises for Athletes
Chest Fly and Pec Deck Machine (Instead: DO Push Up, Band-Assisted Push Up or Elevated Push Up, Alternating Dumbbell Chest Press, and Band or Cable Chest Press)
Chest Fly—with free weights or on a Pec Deck Machine—is performed by bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts to create definition in chest muscles. Not only is the Chest Fly inefficient at targeting chest muscles, it can increase the risk of shoulder injuries. The Chest Fly overstretches muscles and connective tissue in front of the shoulder and leads to tightness in back of the shoulder—a combination that often leads to irritated or damaged connective tissue within the rotator cuff. In addition, the movement has zero crossover to movements performed in sports or in day-to-day activities.
Overhead Press on Machines or with Barbells (Instead: DO Landmine Press, Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry or Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Exchange, and Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Overhead Press)
Straight overhead pressing of any kind can pose risks to certain populations—individuals with limited shoulder mobility as well as those with a history of shoulder pain or injury. The exercises shown above—Barbell Overhead Press (in front of and behind the head) as well as the Machine Overhead Press—can be unsafe exercises for even those with good mobility and healthy shoulders.
The overhead presses shown above, all with forced lines of movement, present hazards for shoulders, whereas kettlebells, dumbbells, bands, and cables allow freedom of movement. Inhibiting the natural action of shoulders—especially under load—can lead to poor shoulder mobility, which in turn can lead to shoulder impingement and damage to connective tissue in shoulder joints.
Also at issue with overhead presses is the use of a pronated (overhand) grip, which puts shoulders in external rotation while pressing overhead. An externally rotated shoulder under heavy load is in a vulnerable position for shoulder joint injury.
Additional risks specific to Overhead Presses above:
Photo 1: Barbell Overhead Press (in front of the head)—As shown in the photo, overhead pressing in front of the head forces the back to arch and head to tilt backward, which compresses cervical and lumbar vertebrae.
Photo 2: Barbell Overhead Press (behind the head)—Overhead pressing behind the head puts shoulders in EXTREME external rotation. As stated, externally rotated shoulders under heavy load places shoulder joints in a vulnerable position for injury.
Photo 3: Machine Overhead Press—Machines force an even more fixed line of movement than a barbell. In addition to shoulder injury, the seated position poses risks for the low back, the result of not engaging support from stabilizing muscles that would occur while standing.
Behind the Head Pull Down (Instead: DO Pull Up or Band-Assisted Pull Up, and Half-Kneeling Band or Cable Pull Down)
Similar to Behind-the-Head Overhead Press, Behind-the-Head Pull Downs put shoulders in EXTREME external rotation under load, which can lead to shoulder joint injury. Plus, this movement does not carry over to either athletic or daily activity.
Upright Row (Instead: DO Shoulder External Rotation, Hang Clean, Kettlebell Swing, and Kettlebell Clean)
Note: Hang Clean, Kettlebell Swing, and Kettlebell Clean are POWER exercises that are not included in “Best Upper Body STRENGTH Exercises” in this article. Stay tuned for more about POWER exercises in the upcoming article, “Best and Worst Power Exercises for Athletes.”
The Upright Row is a popular exercise among bodybuilders for developing shoulders and upper trapezius; however, the Upright Row is harmful to shoulders. This dangerous exercise forces the glenohumeral joint (ball and socket joint between scapula and humerus) into abduction and internal rotation, which can lead to rotator cuff impingement. Additionally, the Upright Row overdevelops muscles that are already chronically tight in most people—a result of poor posture from hunching over at desks, working from computers, or looking down at cell phones. As with previous exercises to avoid, this one has no crossover value to sports.
Machine Bench Press (Instead: DO Push Up, Band-Assisted Push Up or Incline Push Up, Alternating Dumbbell Chest Press, and Band Chest Press or Cable Chest Press)
Bench pressing with a bar fixed in a Smith machine or other type of machine forces movement with the path of the machine rather than allow for natural movement. Fixed lines of movement—forcing joints to move abnormally under load—are especially problematic for shoulders. Machine Bench Pressing also lacks function because few stabilizing muscles are recruited. Another problem with Machine Bench Pressing is that—unlike a Push Up, Cable Press, or Band Press—the movement is performed with shoulder blades restricted by a bench or back support. To maximize shoulder joint stability and for shoulder joint health, movement between scapula (shoulder blades) and humerus (upper arm bone) must coordinate.
Tricep Dips (Instead: DO Push Up, Band-Assisted Push-Up or Incline Push Up, Alternating Dumbbell Chest Press, and Band Chest Press or Cable Chest Press. Using a parallel grip (palms facing) on these exercises will target triceps muscles.)
Tricep Dips—an exercise that bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts use to build size and definition in triceps muscles—can pose problems for shoulders. The exercise extends the upper arm far past neutral—a position that, under load, puts shoulder joints in an extremely vulnerable position. Loading the shoulder in external rotation—as during a tricep dip—can result in anterior instability of the shoulder over time. In other words, the connective tissues that support the front of the shoulder become loose. Anterior shoulder instability, never good for anyone, is especially a handicap for athletes who play volleyball, baseball, softball, and tennis, all of which require overhead arm movements.
BEST Upper Body Strength Exercises for Athletes
Push Up—When performed with proper technique and balanced with adequate horizontal pulling, Push Ups are excellent exercises for athletes. Push Ups not only engage chest, triceps, shoulder and core muscles, they also allow the scapula to move freely—unlike bench pressing from supine position. As described previously, scapular movement is crucial for efficient shoulder movement and health.
Push Up Requisites:
- Perform Push Ups properly. Push Ups performed poorly can do more harm than good, putting stress on the low back and shoulder joints. A standard Push Up requires athletes to lift about 64 percent of their bodyweight. Some athletes—especially at youth level—don’t have the strength to do even one proper bodyweight Push Up, yet coaches often require athletes to do multiple reps at a time. As alternatives, Band-Assisted Push Ups or Elevated Push Ups (below) decrease the weight for an athlete to lift. Push Ups from the knees, which minimize recruitment of stabilizing muscles and can put shoulders in a compromised position, are to be avoided altogether. A safe and functional Push Up requires placing hands slightly outside of and in line with shoulders. During descent, the spine remains neutral from neck to tailbone, elbows remain at a 30- to 45-degree angle from the torso, and shoulder blades retract (move toward spine). While pushing up to starting position, the spine remains neutral as shoulder blades protract (move apart and wrap around ribcage). A rotating Push Up grip (as shown below) is even better for shoulder and wrist health because wrists remain in a neutral position while shoulders rotate freely. During descent, palms face one another, then rotate to a pronated (overhand) grip at the top of the Push Up. Athletes who master a perfect bodyweight Push Up may progress to Feet Elevated Push Up (below).
- Balance Push Ups with Horizontal Pulling. Although Push Ups are often a go-to exercise for coaches to implement during training on field, court, track, or mat, without balancing the exercise with horizontal pulling exercises—such as Band or Cable Rows, Inverted Pull Ups, and DB Rows—athletes are at risk for imbalanced shoulder joints and increased risk of shoulder injuries. This is especially true for overhead athletes—in sports such as baseball, softball, volleyball, and tennis—who typically require a 2 or 3 to 1 ratio of horizontal pulling to pushing in order to adequately support shoulder joints during forceful overhead throwing and serving movements. (Watch for more information about special considerations for training overhead athletes in a future article).
Cable or Band Chest Press—A Chest Press using a band or cable is a safe, functional, and versatile exercise to develop strength and power for pushing motions used in sports. Because Band and Cable Chest Press are performed from a standing position, more core and stabilizing muscles are required to execute the movement, resulting in more functionality than machines or other chest exercises performed from a supine (lying on the back) position. Cable and Band Chest Press also allow for free, unhindered movement at elbow, wrist, and shoulder joints, which results in healthy, stable joints—and is safer than relying on barbells and machines. Cable and Band Chest press also encourage the scapula to move freely, rather than pinning shoulder blades against a bench.
Once Band or Cable Press is mastered with good balance and scapular movement, athletes can progress to a rotational press that incorporates additional hip and core engagement. Rotational power is the cornerstone to the athletic movements of throwing, kicking, serving, hitting, and more. (Watch for more information about Rotational Power in a future article.)
Alternating Dumbbell (DB) Bench Press—I have chosen the Alternating DB Bench Press over more familiar chest exercises—such as the standard DB Bench Press or Barbell Bench Press—because when performing a unilateral Chest Press (one side at a time), shoulder blades move freely forward and backward. You’ve probably figured out by now that SCAPULAR MOVEMENT IS REALLY IMPORTANT TO SHOULDER MOTION AND SHOULDER HEALTH.
Another advantage to alternating sides when performing a DB Bench Press is increased neuromuscular recruitment, as more muscle fibers surrounding joints activate to stabilize weights and coordinate movement.
Pull Up—When performed with good technique and as part of a balanced program, Pull Ups are an ideal exercise to develop Lat muscles (Latissimus Dorsi) in the middle back. These muscles are key to core stability, coordinating power from hips and core, and transferring that power through the upper body.
Pull Up Requisites:
- Perform Pull Ups Properly—When Pull Ups are done improperly, the ribcage flares upward and the back hyperextends, which indicates a lack of core recruitment and increased risk of back injury. Other signs of an improper Pull Up are rounded back, shoulders forward, and elbows driving behind the body, all of which hinder scapular movement and increase risks for shoulder injury and dysfunction. Also problematic is when the chin reaches forward at the top of a Pull Up; The forward head position leads to neck pain and muscle imbalance. A standard Pull Up requires athletes to lift 100 percent of their body weight. Because most athletes—especially at youth level—don’t have adequate strength to do a proper bodyweight Pull Up, the solution is a Band-Assisted Pull Up (see below). In a proper Pull Up, the spine remains neutral from neck to tailbone, the scapula rotates upward and downward on the rib cage, and elbows finish even with the body at most—never behind. The best Pull Up grip for shoulder health, and the only grip I use with overhead athletes, is a neutral grip—palms facing. The overhand and/or underhand grip may be appropriate for non-overhead athletes with good shoulder mobility and without existing shoulder pain or injuries.
- Emphasize Horizontal Pulling (Band or Cable Rows, Inverted Pull Ups, and DB Rows)—While Pull Ups can be a useful part of an overall program, they are frequently overused. Coaches often program Pull Ups in every workout as the primary pulling exercise; but Pull Ups are middle back dominant (not shoulder stabilizers) and don’t count toward the balance of pull to push. As stated, overhead athletes typically require a 2 or 3 to 1 ratio of horizontal pulling to pushing. Non-overhead athletes require at least a 1 to 1—and more often a 2 to 1—ratio of horizontal pulling to pushing. In addition, too much emphasis on vertical pulling can put the scapula in excessive downward rotation, eventually interfering with the ability to produce healthy upward rotation of the scapula. Scapular upward rotation is necessary for arms to move safely overhead.
Half-Kneeling Band or Cable Pulldown: The Half-Kneeling Band or Cable Pulldown targets muscles the same as a Pull Up and the same rules apply. Spine remains neutral throughout the motion and elbows finish even with the body at most. Like Pull Up, Half-Kneeling Band or Cable Pulldown is a vertical pulling exercise that should not be overused at the expense of horizontal pulling.
Band or Cable Row: The Band or Cable Row is another go-to exercise to teach athletes how to efficiently move the scapula during upper body pulling motions. With good scapular retraction (shoulder blades move together without flared ribcage), Band or Cable Row is strongly recommended to target shoulder stabilizers in the back.
After Band or Cable Row is mastered with good balance and scapular movement, athletes can progress to a rotational row that incorporates additional hip and core engagement. Rotational power is the cornerstone to athletic movements of throwing, kicking, serving, hitting, and more. (Watch for more about Rotational Power in a future article.)
Inverted Pull Up and TRX Inverted Pull Up: Unlike a traditional Vertical Pull Up, Inverted Pull Up is a Horizontal Pulling Exercise that counts toward the Pull/Push ratio to build shoulder stability. By adjusting bar placement (for standard Inverted Pull Up) or foot placement (for TRX Inverted Pull Up), athletes of all strengths and levels can perform this exercise.
DB 1 Arm Row: While I endorse the DB 1 Arm Row to train the upper back while also engaging core stabilizers in the low back, this advanced exercise is not recommended for everyone. Athletes must develop good form, strength, and endurance with RDL (Read Best and Worst Lower Body Strength Exercises for Athletes) before moving on to the DB 1 Arm Row.
Band 90-Degree Shoulder External Rotation: 90-Degree Shoulder External Rotation is typically implemented in rehabilitation programs for rotator cuff injuries as well as arm-care programming for overhead athletes. Because today’s athletes spend time hunched over electronics—with shoulders internally rotated—shoulder external rotation exercises are becoming increasingly important for all athletes.
Here’s how to perform it: With elbow perpendicular to shoulder, rotate the bicep and shoulder upward without dropping the elbow. Once this motion is mastered with bodyweight, progress to a very light band for added resistance. Very little resistance is called for to make the exercise effective. If form is at all compromised, the load is too heavy.
Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry or Single-Leg Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Exchange: Few exercises engage joint stabilizers as well as Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry and Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Exchange. While these two exercises are primarily shoulder and wrist stabilizers, muscle recruitment is also high in back muscles that stabilize the spine as well as deep abdominal muscles—both used for power and support in sports.
Landmine Press: Landmine Press encourages efficient scapular upward rotation and engages anterior (front) shoulder stabilizers—both key to preventing shoulder injuries. Landmine Press is safer and more functional than pressing directly overhead. (Read details about overhead pressing under Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press, below.) Form and scapular movement are crucial to Landmine Press.
To Perform Landmine Press: Cup the barbell in both hands, thumbs on the end of the barbell. Begin with the barbell at chest height, elbows even with or slightly in front of torso. Next push the barbell up and away, leaning forward, coming up onto toes, and fully extending arms (without locking elbows) as scapula rotates upward and wraps around ribcage to finish the movement (see photo below).
Landmine Press can also be performed unilaterally (one side at a time). Some athletes tend to allow the elbow to jet behind the torso during a Single-Arm Landmine Press; however, it’s important to keep the elbow even with or slightly in front of the torso—never behind—at the start of each repetition.
Half-Kneeling Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press: As pointed out in “WORST Upper Body Strength Exercises for Athletes,” overhead pressing with a barbell is harmful for athletes because it restricts shoulders in a fixed path of movement. All overhead movement is contraindicated for athletes who have limited shoulder mobility and for those who have a history of shoulder pain or injury.
Strength coaches sometimes exclude overhead lifting for overhead athletes. Although being an overhead athlete is not reason in itself to avoid training overhead, many overhead athletes, over time, experience shoulder joint wear and tear that can cause deficits in mobility and scapular upward rotation. Those deficits can make overhead lifting risky for shoulders. Only athletes who pass my overhead mobility tests are permitted to lift overhead. For those who have been cleared for overhead lifting, Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press is the primary exercise I endorse.
Why the Barbell Bench Press is Not on My List of Best OR Worst Upper Body Strength Exercises for Athletes
Wonder why one of the most historically used exercises by strength coaches—the Barbell Bench Press—is not included in my list of Best OR Worst Upper Body Exercises for Athletes? I’ll explain.
The Barbell Bench Press is an exercise that bodybuilders, power lifters, fitness enthusiasts, and strength coaches use to develop chest strength, size, power, and endurance. In 2019—after extensively studying functional movement of the shoulder joint—I excluded the Barbell Bench Press from my programming. I believe for athletes—especially overhead athletes—the risks associated with Barbell Bench Pressing outweigh the benefits. While bench pressing using a barbell versus a machine allows for some freedom of movement, the path of movement using a barbell remains fairly fixed. As stated, a fixed path can be awkward for shoulder joints and has less crossover to movements performed in sports. Barbell Bench Press can also be troublesome for shoulders because it is performed from a supine position (lying on back)—shoulder blades pinned to the bench. To repeat, coordinated movement between scapula (shoulder blades) and humerus (upper arm bone) is necessary for efficient arm movement and to maximize shoulder joint stability. Exercises such as Push Up, Alternating Dumbbell Chest Press, or Band or Cable Chest Press apply to movements in sports without the risks that Barbell Bench Pressing poses to shoulder health. Other experienced strength coaches who are versed in functional anatomy, have also excluded Barbell Bench Press for training athletes. Eric Cressey—co-founder and president of Cressy Sports Performance—is best known for his extensive work with professional baseball players. Cressey says, “It’s widely accepted in the baseball world that the reward of getting really strong on the bench press is outweighed by the risk the exercise poses to the shoulders and elbows.” Dr. T.J. Allan—Performance Specialist and USA Basketball article contributor—says, “Barbell Bench Press is not the best exercise for upper body training for basketball players because of shoulder injury risk and the lack of correlation between Bench Press performance and performance on the court.”