Lately, there’s been a tendency in fitness to look past the upper body and focus down on the legs and the posterior chain.
It’s a recent one. In the before times — say, 2006 — folks might program leg day twice a week, and skip it half the time. But things have changed.
In the past decade or so, functional powerlifting routines have taken over to tax our legs and posterior chains daily. Leg day has become most of the week.
Programming has improved. Which makes sense: lots of information is free, our quads are our biggest muscles, a healthy back is needed for good posture, and squats are the best exercise in the world. But does all this leg day observation ignore upper body strength? What functional purpose does strengthening our upper bodies — our backs, shoulders and arms serve? And how should we do it?
Unlike the old days, you don’t need to skip squats for bench press and bicep curls. Regular routines make a difference. And focusing extra on your rhomboids and trapezius muscles — the upper back muscles that connect your shoulder blades to your spine, and the ones that connect your head to your shoulders, respectively — helps. In addition to protecting the shoulder, these muscles help regulate posture, prevent text neck and keep the body working as one moving piece.
Consider your shoulders
Upper body strength is easier to spot than posterior or lower-chain capability. Big biceps and defined shoulders get seen first, or at least ahead of pretty big quads. A healthy, strong upper body — functioning, switched-on lats, boulders for shoulders, a lifter’s neck — marks you as “strong.”
Good powerlifting programs target the upper body about as well as they do the posterior chain and the legs. The compound lifts — squats and deadlifts — that make up these programs require the upper back to be active on them and tax the arms and hands. On squats, lats get flexed, and the grip on the barbell needs to be tight. Following a standard powerlifting routine, even without adding assistance work, should develop the upper body decently.
Packing on additional muscle doesn’t hurt, though, and has benefits on top of aesthetics.
Take cyclists — huge legs, smaller everything else. Most of their weight training is meant to improve their leg strength and stamina and help them to ride faster. But upper body work also helps cyclists grip the handlebars better, and feel stronger on the bike. (While a 2020 study found intense arm workouts before cycling can affect finish times, doing such exercises with enough of a buffer between rides, and less intensity, should strike a balance.)
Olympic lifters, who mostly focus on legs and back, also see benefits from drilling down their upper bodies. For those of us who don’t compete, but just lift, the benefits are even easier to see and more necessary. Shoulder health is one benefit, as is general strength overall.
Focusing on a neglected upper half means being especially mindful of the shoulder — the most mobile joint in the body. It’s complicated: A ball and socket joint, the shoulder can go through an insane range of motion, which means more opportunities for it to get out of place. Weak shoulders without enough muscle connecting them to the spine can get loose. If they get worked out hard, it can throw the spine out of whack. This can mean injury.
But building up your shoulders correctly — getting the right muscle around the joint, and drilling down good movement patterns — ensures not only muscle stability but better movement.
Exercises for upper body strength
You can catch up your upper body up to the rest of it with targeted exercises that focus on a full range of motion.
- Exercises like rows and pull-ups isolate the upper back and get it stronger.
- Banded YTWLs — making those letter shapes with your arms — and overhead carries drill down scapular retraction, which allows the shoulder blades to move more freely and stably.
- Done right, scapular retraction — basically, squeezing your shoulder blades together — is like turning your glutes on before a squat: turning them off and on. Doing so improves neural pathways between the brain and muscles. These pathways, attended to well in the lower body thanks to powerlifting programs’ focus on legs, might need some help up top switching on.
Other exercises, like face pulls, wake up the rhomboids and lats, and have been recommended here in the past. With a band, they’re pretty easy. Full range of motion is important on pull-ups. Focusing on extension — getting the chest up to the bar, and going down, slowly, to a dead hang — stretches out the lats.
Overhead pressing is also worthwhile. Pressing a barbell overhead while standing is not that far off from a bench press — it’s just better since it uses more muscles. A 2011 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found overhead lifts involve core muscles better than seated variations. Such presses sort of invert the squat: They’re mostly upper body, with a little bit of everything else. Some legs, some core, some back, mostly shoulders, and traps.
Stretchers for upper body mobility
When new muscles get used, they get tight. You can help them loosen up with rest, water, and stretching.
Thoracic mobility — the available movement in the upper part of the spine — is important, and can sometimes be overlooked as strength builds. Poor thoracic mobility can impact athletic performance — you won’t be able to reach as high, or stand as straight, or extend — since the body is stiffer.
Myofascial release, like foam rolling, helps loosen it up, as do dead bar hangs — holding the lowest point of a pull-up. There’s a long checklist of stretches that help open up the back and shoulders. The overhead opener — a lifter, facing the wall, presses their hands against the wall and pushes their chest down and their butt back — is one of the best.
External shoulder rotation is also important. Sometimes called a good front rack position, it’s when the hands can just about touch the shoulders, with the elbows in front, perpendicular to the body. Front rack positions vary from lifter to lifter, but good, open ones are necessary for Olympic weightlifting and the front squat. Those exercises require the shoulders and chest to stay up enough so that the barbell weight is held on the clavicles. They also build up quad strength and produce serious power.
A front rack can be mentally cued — “elbows up!” gets you part of the way — but most lifters with tight shoulders and thoracic spines need to work on it. Exercises like prone bench stretches and scapular push-ups help limber up the shoulder girdle. Front rack holds, where a lifter stands and holds the barbell in that position, help grease the groove.
That the best upper body work seems to involve the whole body — getting all the way up on a pull-up, being super straight on a squat — shows how it’s all one moving piece. We ignore it sometimes, but we shouldn’t. Leg day should be observed, of course. But not at the expense of the other work that builds up overall strength.
LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.