When it comes to building size and strength in your upper body you can't beat the basics. But you can definitely alter them!
Even foundational movements like the bench press and pull-ups can be tweaked to provide the necessary stimulus to kick-start newfound growth and boost upper body gains. What's more, there are variations that literally force you to adopt near-perfect form, allowing you to unlock strength and muscle gains while avoiding common injuries.
Here are four unique ways to modify your favorite upper-body mass builders, and make them superior to their traditional counterparts.
Head-Off Chest Presses
Over the years the head-off chest press has become one of my favorite chest pressing protocols for improving horizontal pressing mechanics. To perform the head-off chest press, simply slide back toward the end of the bench so that the base of your neck is at the edge of the bench, with your head completely unsupported. This can be incorporated into any chest press variation.
Yes, this unique positioning may look a bit odd, but the benefits it provides to your bench press mechanics, shoulder health, posture, and chest growth are significant. Many of my athletes end up preferring this version once they become accustomed to it.
Here's why it works: The head-off position promotes spinal rigidity and optimal thoracic spine extension. That's because the head is not fighting against the bench or floor. The benefits this has on posture, spinal positioning, and shoulder mechanics is incredible, as it's much easier to retract, depress, and medially rotate the scapula when the head and neck are unrestricted. The key is to maintain a neutral cervical position while producing extension through the thoracic spine. After you try this for a while, the traditional bench feels constricting and unnatural.
I've also seen this do wonders for shoulder injuries and upper-body movement mechanics due to improved shoulder centration and packing of the glenohumeral joint. These improved mechanics typically lead to increases in upper-body pressing power, strength, stability, and force production.
As an added bonus, this is one of the best neck-strengthening exercises there is, which happens to be a very underrated and oftentimes overlooked component of fitness—until you're in pain, anyway. For individuals who sit at a desk and spend excessive time in cervical flexion, this is of huge value.
Dorsiflexion-Loaded Pull-Ups and Dips
Although there are multiple ways to load pull-ups and dips, one of my favorite protocols is to load the feet using dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells in what is called "dorsiflexion," or a bent-ankle position.
There are several reasons why this is so effective. First and foremost, it forces you into incredibly strict mechanics. In fact, it's an excellent diagnostic tool for examining and correcting your pull-up and dip techniques. Any cheating, wiggling, twisting, or kipping will literally cause the weight to fly off of your feet.
Performing pull-ups and dips with dorsiflexion loading also promotes full-body tension and spinal rigidity. Unfortunately, most individuals look more like a limp noodle rather than a coordinated and athletic human when performing pull-ups and dips. The dorsiflexion-loading method eliminates this issue instantly.
And, dorsiflexion loading makes you stronger! The significant foot and ankle activation required to hold the load with your feet elicits a neurophysiological response known as concurrent activation potentiation (CAP). In technical terms, this means that activating the distal segments of the body, such as the feet, hands face, and neck, increases motor unit recruitment and maximizes force production. In layman's terms, once you master the dorsiflexion loading method, you'll notice that you can handle heavier weight with this method than any other loading protocol. That's because you'll have eliminated energy leaks and optimized neuromuscular potentiation.
If your legs are too long to do this method on your pull-up bar or parallel bars, you can also perform these using knee-flexion loading. Just be prepared to activate your hamstrings like never before. Similar to the above methods you'll also want to dorsiflex your ankles, not only to maximize neural drive but to keep the load from sliding off your legs.
Back Extension Rows
Whether your goal is to improve posture, reduce shoulder pain, or create a monster back you should incorporate more rows into your training. However, the best place to perform them isn't where you'd expect: It's either the 45-degree back extension bench or glute-ham developer.
Because you're forced to resist significant spinal flexion forces throughout this movement, you have no choice but to extend at the thoracic spine, which helps retract and depress your shoulders and lock you into perfect form.
In addition, it's nearly impossible to use excessive range of motion at the top or bottom positions—two common mistakes on rowing movements—as the steep angle and rigid spinal alignment keeps your arms from drifting too high at the top or over-stretching at the bottom. These adjustments do wonders for shoulder health and upper-body mechanics.
If you want to make the movement even more difficult, try using a glute-ham developer with a slight decline, so your feet are elevated several inches above your hips. This makes the movement more taxing on your lats and eliminates the ability to cheat. The decline also allows for a greater stretch of the lats at the bottom of the movement. This helps produce greater force output and lat activation during the subsequent concentric phase.
If you're looking to add in a rotary stability component, you can perform single-arm versions or alternating-arm row variations from any of these positions. Just make sure you don't excessively twist or rotate your body.
Pull-Overs with Hollow Body Position
Pull-over variations are some of the most underrated upper-body movements. Besides improving stability and mobility in the shoulder joint—when performed properly—they also tax nearly every muscle in the upper torso, including the lats, chest, triceps, deltoids, and serratus muscles. In addition, they're also incredibly effective for working the entire musculature of your core, as you're essentially resisting extension forces on the spine as you move from shoulder flexion to extension.
One subtle, yet brutally effective, modification I typically employ with pull-overs is to perform them in what's known as a hollow body position, with your legs slightly raised. The first thing you'll notice in this position is that it further exaggerates the stress to your core. However, it also helps to promote a more neutral spine during the eccentric phase of the movement. When performing the eccentric phase of the pull-over, most lifters produce too much range of motion and overstretch the shoulder girdle. This also tends to produce excessive lower-back extension, which can lead to back pain and decreased core activation. Holding the leg-raised hollow body position helps to eliminate both of these issues.
If you're looking for an added boost in coordination and stability, a kettlebell variation is a good option.
You won't need—or be able to handle—much weight, but like all of these variations, you'll feel the difference everywhere you should, and nowhere you shouldn't.