motions or are you focused on both efficiency and power? A great fitness trainer is always focusing on movements that maximize muscle group efficiency with better form while also increasing overall muscle power.
Use these strategies to bring these two elements into every chest and back workout. Clients will leave feeling stronger and you’ll know you did all you could to run a powerful workout that drives results.
Keep Reading: A Dynamic Upper Body Warmup for All Clients
Focus on Efficiency
A more efficient upper body workout is all about getting the form right and understanding the anatomy of the area. In his book, The Physics of Resistance Exercise, Doug Brignole explains that mechanical advantage should drive exercise choices. Mechanical advantage can admittedly be a confusing concept, but understanding how muscles operate help make sense of the topic. For example, muscles do not push, they pull, and when muscles pull on a lever at an angle of 90 degrees or perpendicular, a mechanical advantage occurs. Apply this principle to your client’s chest and back workout to ensure they’re both safe and effective with each exercise performed.
Efficiency For the Chest Muscles
With this in mind, how can we program efficient upper body exercises that use the proper form to create a mechanical advantage during a workout? Here are a few examples to consider for common chest exercises that your clients may enjoy or often request.
Barbell Bench Press
Because the chest muscles originate on the sternum and run laterally to attach to the humerus (upper arm), any exercise where this muscle group pulls the humerus (arm lever) inward is a safe, efficient exercise. This is why choosing a wider grip as the starting position in the barbell bench press exercise activates the pectoral muscles best. And, the wider the grip, the longer the lever of resistance and force demand. Therefore, this creates a more of a challenge on the muscle during this chest exercise.
However, a wider grip puts tremendous strain on the shoulder joint and may cause injury. Also, bringing the bar too low (touching the chest) can move the humerus to a position closer to parallel from the origin. Therefore, it’s key to keep the bar as close to perpendicular to the muscle origin as possible.
One way to ensure efficiency in this exercise is to pause 1 to 3 inches short of the chest. As seen in the picture below, pins stop the lift short of the chest. Having a spotter place a board (also known as a board press) on the chest is another way to execute this technique.
Efficiency For the Back Muscles
The same reasoning applies when working the back musculature. Here are some examples to consider for these upper body strength training exercises.
The latissimus dorsi muscle, arguably the most popular of the back muscles strengthened during a chest and back workout, originates on the spine and attaches to the humerus. As many of you have probably experienced, the lat pulldown exercise can cause posterior shoulder discomfort.
In this exercise, the lats pull on the upper arm, bringing it closer to parallel. This is a mechanical disadvantage. This may be why well-known physical therapist and performance coach, Jon Rusin, recommends a 2 to 1 ratio in horizontal pulling to vertical pulling. For more efficient training, choose more horizontal rows with a wider grip, focusing on pulling the elbow inward.
If you don’t have access to cables, consider using bands. The following exercise could be the most mechanically advantaged back exercise you could execute, and it only takes one set to feel the difference.
Focus on Power in Chest and Back Exercises
The most critical physiological need, particularly in older adult populations and athletes, is power. Power is the goal of strength training exercises in the context of improving athletic performance. It’s also the most negatively impacted physiological variable with age. This means, as you get older, the body’s ability to produce force quickly declines. And, power prevents falls in older populations while allowing athletes to make better plays.
So what is power? Force is any stimulus that causes an object to change acceleration while work is force exerted on an object and the distance that object moves in the direction in which the force was exerted. Power is work completed in a given amount of time. Thus, to improve power is to improve someone’s ability to do more work in less time.
To accomplish this task, an emphasis must be placed on moving moderately heavy loads very quickly. This will improve the central nervous system’s ability to discharge action potentials (also called, rate code) and displace weight quicker. In other words, moving moderately heavy loads very quickly will improve power.
Power For the Chest Muscles
Two movements that improve power in the upper body, but mainly the chest, are the bench throw and the lying med ball power press. The bench throw is best for athletes, while the former is better for older populations. Consider how you can bring more power to both on chest day.
The Bench Throw
The bench throw can be intimidating and with good reason. At the end of the concentric phase of the repetition, the barbell decelerates and transitions back into an eccentric contraction in the traditional bench press. In the bench throw, the bar leaves the hands of the client and is tossed into the air to be caught by them or you, the spotter. The starting position is the same as the chest press, with a wide grip. As seen in the video below, this exercise can be executed with free weight. However, a new exerciser who might not have the confidence or motor control can choose from two modifications. The first is to use a Smith Machine. This will keep the release tracking in the same direction, allowing the client to safely catch the barbell. The other option is to not fully release the bar. Instead the client explodes up as quickly as possible.
Medicine Ball Power Chest
The second movement to improve chest power is the beloved lying medicine ball power chest. In this exercise, the client lies supine with the trainer positioned near the head. The trainer will drop the ball into the client's hands and instruct the client to catch and push the ball as high as possible and as quickly as possible. For an older client, lower the drop height keeping in mind that most clients may need the ball handed to them. Alternatively, and for less advanced clients, you can do a medicine ball chest pass. This reduces the risk of the client missing the ball as it comes down. Instead, the client holds the ball in a standing position and pushes it away from the chest. You’ll be directly in front of them, ready to catch it and throw it back.
Power For the Back Muscles
One key movement to improve power in the back musculature is the explosive sled pull. Not only does this exercise improve posterior power, but clients of all ages also typically love it.
Explosive Sled Pull
To execute, put a moderately heavy load on the sled and attach carabiners to long straps on each side of the sled. Cue the client to take all the slack out of the sled and row, driving the elbows backward and moving as explosively as possible.
After each rep, have the client walk backward and continue to remove the slack. This is an exercise used to improve power in athletes. Not only is it practical, but it will also likely become a favorite exercise for your clients.
Keep Reading: A Dynamic Leg Day Warmup
Make Your Client’s Chest and Back Workout More Efficient and Powerful
Don’t just operate on autopilot during your client’s chest and back workout—or use the same blueprint for each one. Instead, choose exercises that create a mechanical advantage to keep the workout efficient and safe. Don’t forget to focus on improving power to help them get faster and stronger, not just build muscle. Use these techniques to keep clients coming back again and again.
Knowing the principles of exercise program design will help you build the most effective workout routine possible. And, you’ll be able to customize it to increase muscle mass, decrease body fat, improve power, and enhance functional fitness levels.
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