Training: Upper-Body Basics

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Fitness for the Outside Athlete, January 1997

Training: Upper-Body Basics

The elegant efficacy of push-ups and pull-ups
By Suzanne Schlosberg

Everything you ever needed to know about upper-body strength training, you learned in fourth-grade PE. Plain old push-ups and pull-ups, and variations thereof, are "the best exercises an athlete can do," according to personal trainer Holly Byrne, a corporate fitness center director for Frontline Fitness in New York City. "Rarely in a sport do you work your chest, back, or arms by themselves. Push-ups and pull-ups do more for you than lifting weights because they work several muscle groups at once."

Together, these two exercises hit all the major upper-body muscles: chest, back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps-and even get your abdominals and lower back into the act. You can tailor them to suit your own level of strength, and pull-up bars are cheap. Our favorite is the Door Gym from Creative Fitness, shown in the pull-up photos ($47.95; 800-318-9917).

To start your routine, do three sets of each exercise. Byrne recommends aiming for 15 reps per set, concentrating on proper form. Repeat the routine three times a week. Graduate to a tougher version when you can complete the 15 reps without muscle failure.


Muscles worked: Chest, triceps, shoulders, abdominals.

Form: Keep your abdominals and glutes tight, and look down. Inhale as you lower yourself, exhale as you push back up. Don't let your back sag or your butt stick up. Avoid bobbing your head and shoulders; move your entire body as a unit.

Beginner: The Modified Push-Up
Kneel with your feet flat, knees bent, and toes pointed. Place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Don't bend at the waist-your body should form a straight line from your knees to your head. Start with your arms straight, but not locked. Then, bend your elbows to the sides and lower your body until your chest brushes the floor (or comes close). Straighten your arms to raise your body.

Intermediate: Military Style
What you think of when you hear "push-up." Resting on your toes and hands, with your legs out straight, lower your body as described above. Keep your entire body, from head to toe, aligned and as stiff as a board.

Expert: Feet Up
Perform the military-style push-up with your feet elevated (not more than a foot) on something secure. This version is especially beneficial for the chest and shoulders.


Muscles worked: Latissimus dorsi, biceps, shoulders, abdominals.

Form: Complete the full range of motion. Slowly raise yourself as far as you can-try to touch your chest to the bar. Then lower yourself until your arms are straight but not locked. Keep your abdominals contracted, even while hanging. And no cheating-don't swing your body to generate momentum.

Beginner: Partner-Assisted Pull-Up
Grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing you, and thumbs wrapped firmly around the bar. (You might find it more comfortable to use a bar with parallel grips so that your palms face each other.) With your arms extended above your head, bend your knees and have your partner grasp your shins (A). Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull yourself up (B); use only as much support from your partner as is absolutely necessary. Touch your chest to the bar. Lower your body in five slow counts.

If you don't have a partner, use a sturdy chair underneath the bar. Place one foot on the seat, grasp the bar, and help yourself up by pushing with your leg.

Intermediate: Full Pull-Up
Space your hands about two to three inches wider than your shoulders. Slowly hoist yourself up on your own accord. For variety, reverse the grip so that your palms face away from you. This forces you to use your back muscles more.

Expert: Behind-the-Neck Pull-Up
With palms facing away from you, grip the bar with your hands apart about four feet or so; when you hang down, your arms should form a wide V over your head. Pull yourself up, ducking your head so that the bar is behind you. Try to have the back of your neck clear the bar. This version focuses almost completely on your back muscles rather than your biceps.

Copyright 1997, Outside magazine

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Get tips. Get stories. Get fit.

Looking for the best in fitness? We got you covered.

Thank you!