We all love to exercise our upper body, right?
Who are we kidding? I hate doing upper body exercises. I love working on my lower body because I know I have more strength in that area. The upper body has never been my strong suit, so why work on the upper body at all?
Importance of Upper-Body Strength
Upper body exercises are important in a workout program because they can help our everyday activities of reaching, pulling, pushing, and lifting. If your upper body deteriorates with age, you are more likely to get injured doing everyday activities. Have you ever heard of someone sneezing and their whole body just tenses up and they can’t move? Or they have a knot in their back for weeks and just don’t know how to get rid of it? A good blend of upper body strength exercises and mobility can help you avoid that altogether! Some other benefits of upper-body strength are improved posture, improved flexibility, balancing out major muscle groups, and can help relieve upper back, neck, and shoulder pain! Let’s get started!
How do I test my upper body strength?
There are tests you can do at the gym, at home, or with a personal trainer. I personally gauge strength by using a few different methods. Grip strength is an important one! It’s a great way to measure strength in the muscles of your hands, wrists, and forearms. Together, these muscle groups can help you hold on to something and keep it stable, which is most of the resistance training! Imagine holding onto dumbbells or an Olympic bar but not having enough grip strength. It would be good to know that before picking it up, right?! Grip strength is often underappreciated, even though it is essential to everyday life. Think of all the times you couldn’t open up that jar of pickles or carry the case of water into the house from the car? These all require grip strength, whether or not it comes to mind!
The first is a Handgrip Dynamometer: you squeeze the dynamometer with maximal effort for 5 seconds in order to retrieve your maximum grip strength.
- For men, you typically want to have a grip strength reading of 105 and above. A score of 105 puts you at an average grip strength.
- For women, you typically want to have a grip strength of at least 57. This is considered average. Anything above is considered excellent.
- If your score is below average, you can take steps to improve. You may want to consider adding in exercises to help strengthen your grip.
Another method is a Chin-Up test. This one is tougher because not everyone can do a chin-up. A close second would be to perform seated bicep curls with elbows supported using an EZ-bar. This is called a Preacher Curl! Shane and Marco from Outlift.com worded it perfectly:
- Our biceps are worked from a stretched to a contracted position. So even though curls aren’t as heavy as chin-ups, and peak muscle activation levels might not reach quite as high, curls might still yield more biceps growth per rep.
- Curls are less fatiguing than chin-ups, allowing us to do more sets more quickly, and with less risk of running into recovery issues. This means that curls are usually a better way to add in extra biceps work to our workout routines.
- With curls, our biceps are the limiting factor, and so when we take our sets close to failure, we can rest assured that we’ve challenged our biceps enough to provoke muscle growth.
They aren’t referring to testing their strength, but chin-ups use the same muscles as bicep curls. Curls are a great modification for those who cannot perform chin-ups or pull-ups at the moment. When in the stretched position, you would be hanging from the bar from your hands. As you contract your biceps and use your back and entire posterior chain to help you bring your chest to the bar, you are in the same position as a bicep curl!
1-Rep Max Test
The last way I like to test myself or my clients is a 1-Rep Max test (1RM). This test is usually done on a day when you know you’ve rested enough, eaten well, haven’t been drinking too much alcohol or coffee. I basically get myself and my clients to treat it as a competition day, but the only competition is themselves! There are many ways to prep for your 1RM, and I like the way that Jake Boly from Bar Bend describes it for those who are Beginners, Intermediate, or Advanced. Many beginners won’t know what their 1-RM is, and you need an estimate so that you know what you could potentially lift.
If you’re a beginner who has never tested their 1-RM before, it will look like this:
Warm-up (rest 3 minutes in-between sets) – I know the rest sounds long. The heavier the lift gets, the more you will realize why you need this rest time. Sure, your body doesn’t feel fatigued yet, but it’s important to remember that your Sympathetic Nervous System is activated when you workout. This is your fight or flight response during a threat or perceived danger, even though you may not feel like you are in danger.
Assuming you are doing a Bench Press 1-RM:
- 10 reps with only the bar
- 8 reps with a light weight
- 6 reps with a moderately heavy weight
- Then 5 reps with a heavier weight
- 5 reps with a heavy weight
- 5 reps with an increased heavier weight (assuming form is okay)
With your final 5-rep weight, multiply it by the “1.15” used in the chart below. That will give you your estimated 1-RM! You can use this for any exercise. Play around with this the next time you have access to a gym or heavy gym equipment.
- Always perform a lengthy warm-up to make sure your muscles and nervous system are ready!
- Rest up before a 1-RM day. You want to go in feeling optimal!
- Don’t worry if you don’t know the percentages. You can gauge how you’re feeling by using the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Exertion).
- This is always more fun to do with a buddy. It can be safer, too. I recommend finding a workout partner to help you out.
What if I don’t have access to a gym or weights?
No problem! If you are testing your upper-body strength, try out an upper body exercise like the push-up. This can be challenging to do with your body-weight, but I can guarantee you will find a way to make this accessible for your body, no matter your strength.
A great way to warm-up for this movement is to do scapular push-ups. This is how you initiate the push-up. In a tabletop position, keep your arms as straight as possible. Moving only from your scapulae, bring them closer together, also known as a retraction. Then push your hands into the ground and fill the space between your scapulae, known as a protraction. Initiating a push-up with a retraction and then ending the push-up with a protraction can help you use your upper back and take some of the weight out of your arms.
So now we’re ready for our push-up! Start lying prone (face down) on the ground or on a yoga mat. placing your hands next to your chest so that your elbows bend to 90 degrees. Bracing your whole body (activate the muscles in your legs, glutes, upper back, and pecs), push your hands into the ground, extend from the elbows and straighten your arms. Then, bend into the elbows to lower your plank all the way down to the ground. That’s one rep! How many can you do? This is a great way to test your upper body strength and still engage your entire body.
For those who cannot do a pushup, it’s basically just a moving plank. Your arms will need to bend and you will have to use your upper back to activate this movement. Paige from Get Fit With Paige has some great modifications on her website! I like the variation where you do your push-ups on a wall. This way you don’t feel the need to drop down to your knees right away. Keep working on this until you can slowly lower your upper body closer to the ground.
If this gets too easy, see how many you can do! Change the tempo, pause halfway down in your push-up, the possibilities are endless! Let me know what you end up trying out, or what your goal is in terms of upper-body strength. Do you want to be able to bench-press 1.5x your body weight? Maybe you want to be able to carry your grand-kids? Do you want to be able to do a handstand? Do you want to be able to walk your groceries home instead of taking the car? It’s a great time to start to think about how upper-body strength will improve your overall life. Why is improving your upper body strength important to you? Let us know!
Chelsea has been active most of her life, which led her to become a Personal Trainer and Yoga Instructor for the past 7 years. Health and Fitness are not solely dependent on movement, though, and with that understanding, she addresses her client’s other needs, such as diet, mindfulness, and stress management.
When she is not training clients or teaching Yoga, she is finding new activities that keep her mind and body active, such as rock climbing, hiking, listening to podcasts, or playing Board Games with friends. She is constantly working towards: Finding natural solutions to live as long as possible, creating inclusive Yoga for all body types, and aiming to find mindfulness in everything she does.