It's way too easy to get stuck in the same gym routine for years.
You know - doing the same movements, for the same reps, month-after-month.
Now, the reality of training is - a program that consists of "the boring basics" WILL get results.
When I first started coaching, ALL I would focus on with clients were the boring basics.
Clients got results... until they got sick of: squat, deadlift, squat every. single. week.
Since, I've learned a big part of creating a program that is truly effective for clients also means it will be fun and engaging programs.
When you're having fun with your program and are excited to see what new challenges await you at the gym this week - while also following a program rooted solidly in the principles of smart program design - THAT'S when you'll get amazing results.
This is a HUGE part of my philosophy for program design, and a big part of why my online clients get such great results.
Now, every program I design for clients puts a major emphasis on training all of the foundational movement patterns at least twice per week...
...Which is why this article breaks up each muscle groups into the movement patterns first. If you stray too far from this principle, your program will be less effective.
Another big emphasis whenever I write training programs is unilateral work (training one limb at a time). So, for every muscle group, I've included my favorite bilateral (training with both limbs at the same time) and unilateral option.
Finally, I've included a metabolic stress option for each muscle group. Think of this as your "finisher" at the end of a workout, when your goal is pumping up and feeling the burn. (Finishers are another great way to make programs unique and engaging.)
Realize, this is far from a comprehensive list - it's simply what I would pick if I had to choose a bilateral, unilateral, and metabolic stress option for each muscle group - with the above taken into consideration.
Upper Body Pull
Bilateral Vertical Pull: Wide Neutral Grip Lat Pulldown
The lat pull down is a GREAT movement for building your lats (obviously).
The main benefits of the neutral grip over the traditional pronated grip are:
- It's easier on your shoulders.
- Anecdotally (I have no science to back this up), clients seem to "feel" their lats better with the neutral grip, and have an easier time with proper scapular movement. (E.g initiating the movement by pulling the scapulae down, following through with the elbows.)
Unilateral Vertical Pull: Tall Kneeling Lat Pull-In
Despite doing tons of lat pulldowns, pull-ups, and the like... most of us can't build our lats.
We can't feel 'em working.
The ability to activate a muscle is key to generating the required tension to grow said muscle.
Enter: Tall Kneeling Lat Pull-Ins.
I like to program these as a primer to activate the lats before doing heavy pulls (e.g. weighted pull-ups) OR as a high-rep lat pumper to finish off an upper body day.
Bilateral Row: Pronated Grip T-Bar Row
When it comes to upper back training, any t-bar row variation is hard to beat.
That said, performing thing movement with a shoulder-width, pronated grip really allows you to master the mechanics of the move. It's easy to understand (and feel) how to start the movement by pulling your shoulder blades back and down. The elbow positioning at the top of the move allows for a hard squeeze between the shoulder blades at the top.
This is a great mass builder for the upper back, and is a staple rowing movement for most of my online clients.
Unilateral Row: Dumbbell Row
You've probably done thousands of reps of this movement already.
I know I've programmed it thousands of times - because the reality is, it's just that effective.
The dumbbell row has earned it's place in strength training lore for good reason - it's one of the absolute best movements out there for hitting your lats and rhomboids with a strong growth stimulus.
Lower reps or higher reps - it lends itself super well to either, and is one of the easiest movements to "feel" your back working.
Metabolic Stress: T-Bar Row - 50 Reps As Fast As Possible
Load the chest supported row machine up with a weight that you would normally use for 12-15 reps.
The goal here is to crank out 50 reps in as few sets/little rest as possible.
Bonus: Face Pulls
If there's one movement everyone could stand to do more of, it's the Face Pull.
These are my all-time favorite "shoulder prehab/rehab" movement.
Face Pulls help strengthen your upper back, rear delts, and rotator cuffs - the key muscles to stabilizing the shoulders. Training lots of these is a must if you're doing lots of pressing.
I program these at some point most every time a client trains upper body.
When training biceps, you need to take a couple things into consideration:
1. What you think of as your "bicep muscle" is actually two different muscle groups.
The biceps brachii, and the brachialis. The brachialis is the muscle underneath the bicep, pushing your bicep up to appear bigger.
Thing is, the brachialis doesn't contribute to supination of the wrist (e.g: palms facing up), so it's important to train both neutral and supinated grip bicep curl variations to target both muscle groups effectively.
2. Changing your shoulder angle changes where during the movement the bicep is under the most tension.
Basically, for movements where your elbows are behind you - your biceps are under peak tension near the top of the movement.
When your elbows are by your sides, peak tension is experienced directly in the middle of the move.
When your elbows are in front of you, peak tension occurs at the bottom of the movement.
Knowing all this, it makes sense to vary your shoulder angle when training biceps, along with your grip.
Standing Barbell Curl
Another classic that's too good to pass up.
For most, this will be your "bread and butter" bicep movement - it's likely the one you "feel" the best, and is well suited to progressively overload over time.
Barbell Drag Curl
Similar to the classic barbell curl - but so very different at the same time.
Here, you're allowing your elbows to drift back as you curl the bar up. The bar is staying right next to your torso through the entire movement with a much straighter bar path than a traditional barbell curl.
At the top of the movement, your elbows are way behind your torso, and you'll feel TONS of tension on the bicep.
Here, you have the elbows in front of the body.
Similar to the preacher curl, peak tension here is at the bottom of the rep.
I'd choose the Spider Curl over the preacher curl, because people have a tendency to cut the range of motion short on preacher curls by not fully extending the arms - and entirely skipping the portion of the movement where the bicep is under the most tension.
Spider Curls are much more conducive to full range of motion, and a killer bicep exercise.
Dumbbell Hammer Curl
As far as training the Brachialis goes, honestly it's hard to go wrong with any hammer curl variation. I'm also a big fan of rope hammer curls.
Metabolic Stress: 28 Method Curls
Similar to the infamous 21's - but even more brutal. Here's what to do:
1. 7 normal curls
2. 7 curls with a 5 second eccentric AND concentric
3. 7 reps from the bottom halfway up
4. 7 reps from the top halfway down
The pump from these is absolutely insane. GREAT way to finish off your biceps.
Upper Body Push
Bilateral: Dumbbell Low Incline Bench
The unfortunate reality of being a dude that's lifted for at least a few years is - there was probably a span where you didn't know what you were doing, bench pressed way too much, and jacked up your shoulders as a results.
This is incredibly common with the guys I coach online (I've been there myself). This typically results in guys not being able to do any type of flat bench pressing without A LOT of shoulder pain.
Start pressing from inclines. Just a slight 15 degree incline drastically improves your ability to retract and depress your shoulder blades, and press from a pain-free position. The slight incline is also typically your strongest position (second to a flat bench).
This is a GREAT option to allow you to press heavy, without trashing your shoulders in the process.
Unilateral: Single-Arm Floor Press
The floor press is another GREAT option for anyone with shoulder issues. It allows you to train the portion of the horizontal press that works primarily the chest with a strong growth stimulus, while also eliminating the bottom range of motion that puts the most stress on the shoulders.
I program bilateral and unilateral floor presses (both dumbbell AND barbell variations) a lot for online clients.
The single-arm floor press is a winner here because of the degree it allows you to focus on one pec at a time, without putting unnecessary stress on the shoulder joint.
For LESS core emphasis (you use your core to stay stable here) use your off hand to hold onto a rec.
For more "functional strength", keep the movement as is.
Metabolic Stress: Cable Crossover / Cable Chest Press Superset
This one pumps up your chest like crazy, and is a great way to finish off an upper body or push-focused training day:
1. Select a weight you can hit 15-20 reps with on a cable crossover, and take it to failure.
2. IMMEDIATELY go into your cable chest presses, 15-20 more reps. (Again, you should end near failure.)
3. Rest 90 seconds and repeat for 2-3 rounds.
Bilateral: Barbell Overhead Press
As far as functional strength goes, I would argue that the barbell overhead press is one of the best movements you could train.
It requires a huge amount of shoulder, back, and core strength to be able to press hundreds of pounds overhead from the standing position.
Even more functional, getting strong at the overhead press means you're also a master of "the lift" from Dirty Dancing.
Now, if rebelling against your father's wishes by sneaking off to dance at night isn't your thing - this is still a GREAT movement for building strong, muscular delts.
For online clients that have the prerequisite mobility for the movement, this is almost always our go-to heavy overhead movement for the week.
Unilateral: 1/2 Kneeling Landmine Press
This is another GREAT pressing variation for anyone with banged up shoulders (~80% of clients).
The arced path the bar follows as you press makes the move much easier on the shoulders, AND requires much less shoulder mobility than a traditional shoulder press variation (e.g. DB Seated Shoulder Press).
Plus, the offset load also makes this a great core movement, training anti-lateral flexion.
Metabolic Stress: Shoulder Shocker
This shoulder finisher absolutely punishes your delts, with TONS of time-under-tension and lactic acid build-up.
Definitely put this at the tail end of an upper body workout, as you won't be able to do much shoulder-related lifting for a bit after finishing this.
We're going to change things up here. With triceps (and biceps) it makes more sense to focus on the best movements for hitting the muscle from different angles. That's the focus I take when building online coaching client's programs.
Tricep Crossing Pushdown
This is a variation you won't see often, but personally, this is my all-time favorite tricep exercise.
Training both elbow and shoulder extension allows you to hit the triceps to a much greater degree than most tricep isolation exercises (the long head of the tricep is involved in shoulder extension).
Overhead Rope Extension
I personally prefer this over the dumbbell overhead variation - the ropes allow clients with poor shoulder mobility to perform the movement easier AND give you an increased range of motion.
Another one you don't see in the gym often. Squeezing a medicine ball between both hands as you do push-ups significantly increases tricep activation.
I like to program this as an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) finisher, supersetted with a bicep curl variation.
Rectus Abdominis: Cable Crunch
The key here is to focus on flexing at the spine NOT flexing at the hips. Keep your hips fixed. Think: Pulling your ribcage towards your thighs.
Anti-Extension: Ab Wheel
The ab wheel is a crazy effective way to train anti-extension (resisting extension at the spine) AND the rectus abdominis simultaneously.
Most people absolutely butcher this movement by letting their spine fall into extension as they roll forward.
1. Maintaining a slightly flexed spine as you roll out. The further you roll out, the harder this will be to maintain. You're currently training anti-extension.
2. Keeping a flexed spine and crunching your abs together as you roll the wheel back towards your knees.
Anti-Rotation: Renegade Row
Ok, so this is a combo anti-rotation (resisting rotation at the spine) AND anti-extension exercise. Sue me.
I'm also a big fan of Pallof Press Variations - but this is way more fun and versatile, as it can easily be combined with a client's conditioning work.
Anti-Lateral Flexion: Chaos Suitcase Carries
Here, we're improving your ability to resist side-bending at the spine.
Honestly, any loaded carry variation is challenging and fun - but chaos movements like this take the amount of work you have to do to stabilize to another level.
Loaded carries are another core exercise that I love building into online clients conditioning work.
For upper body, those are a few of my current favorites. All super effective, fun, and challenging movements that will get you great results in a well designed program.
Coming next week: Part Two - Lower Body Edition