If you’re not already training upper-body power, don’t sell yourself short.
If you’re not already training upper-body power, don’t sell yourself short. (Kaare Iverson/TandemStock)

6 Simple Moves to Boost Your Upper-Body Power

Round out your training routine with exercises to help build explosive strength

If you’re not already training upper-body power, don’t sell yourself short.

Muscular power—the product of force and velocity—is one of the most important fitness qualities, but it’s often misunderstood and neglected, explains Alex Bunt, a human-performance specialist for Red Bull (and ski racer Lindsey Vonn’s personal trainer up until her retirement). Developing muscular power is more nuanced than regular strength training, but that doesn’t mean you should leave it out of your routine. If you’re not already training upper-body power, don’t sell yourself short. Round out your routine with these moves, recommended by Bunt. 

How to Train Power

There’s a spectrum between force and velocity: on one end, there’s pure force, like isometric exercises where speed is negligible, such as a front plank or one-rep max lifts; on the other end, there’s pure speed, movements like sprinting or jumping. “When we train power, the goal is to generate as much force as possible in the least amount of time,” Bunt says.

The crux is to fine-tune the balance between these two components to optimize power. To make it even more complicated, different exercise methods and different loads, calculated as a percentage of an individual’s one-repetition maximum (1RM), target different areas along the force-velocity curve. (For a more thorough explanation of this concept, check out this earlier story.)

For everyday athletes, however, there’s no need to get bogged down with the details, Bunt says. “The absolute most important part of this training is the intent to move with maximal effort and as quickly as possible,” he says. Think of power training more like cooking, rather than an exact science. Aim for the right measurements, but rest assured, if you’re a little off on this or that, as long as you have all the ingredients and put in the effort, you’re going to see results. 

The Workout 

Bunt splits power training into two main categories: force-bias exercises (more resistance, slower) and velocity-bias exercises (less resistance, faster). The best way to program power work is to split these into separate training sessions that are two to four days apart from one another, he says, but it’s also reasonable to combine both categories in a single session, with reduced volume (eliminate one set from each exercise, and choose only one force-bias exercise per session, which should be done last). Either way, aim to target power two to three days per week.

You’ll want to become familiar with the concept of your 1RM, or the greatest amount of weight you can lift in a specific move. For example, if the heaviest medicine ball you can use for a single rotational throw is 30 pounds, and Bunt recommends you use between 10 and 60 percent of your 1RM, that means you’ll want to opt for somewhere between 3 and 18 pounds. 

Perform these moves at the beginning of your workout session, right after the warmup. “You want to be as fresh as possible,” says Bunt, “because if you have any fatigue, you’re not going to be able to produce the highest power you can, and therefore won’t stimulate the adaptations to push your potential.”

The rep ranges are low so you can keep the quality as high as possible. Rest for as long as you need to fully recover between sets. “The second you start performing submaximal reps, you’re not developing power,” says Bunt. “The key is to perform these moves with maximal quality and intention.”

Tools You’ll Need: 

  • Box or bench 
  • Pull-up bar
  • Resistance band
  • Medicine ball

The Moves

Plyo Push-Up Progression (Velocity-Bias Power)

What it does: Trains velocity-bias power in the chest, triceps, shoulders, and back muscles, while engaging the core for stability.

How to do it: Start with the first exercise in the progression below. Even though this might feel easy from a strength-building perspective, the purpose is to train velocity-bias power, and for that, you need to move as fast as possible while maintaining good form. If the resistance is too high, you’ll swing toward strength-bias power, which we’ll target later on. Progress to the next level once you can complete all four sets with a consistent pace and good form.

Incline Plyo Push-Up (Easiest): Assume a standard push-up position, with your hands on an elevated surface, such as a plyo box or a bench (the higher, the easier). Start with your arms straight, your hands below your shoulders, and your body in a rigid plank from heels to head. Then bend your elbows, keeping them tight along your sides to rapidly lower yourself until your chest is about an inch or two from the bench. Immediately push up with explosive effort to fully extend your arms and launch your hands off the bench. Land with soft elbows, and drop directly into the next rep. Maintain a consistent pace and a rigid plank throughout the movement.

Plyo Push-Up (Harder): Perform the exercise as described above, but with your hands and feet at the same level on the floor. Clap at the apex of the push-up for an added challenge.

In-Out Plyo Push-Up (Most Difficult): Begin in a standard push-up position on the floor, with your hands shoulder width apart and your feet together, or no more than 12 inches apart. Bend your elbows to rapidly lower until your chest is about an inch or two from the floor, then explosively push up to launch your hands and your feet off the floor. In the air, move your hands and feet out to the sides (around 6 to 12 inches), landing with soft elbows in this winder stance. Immediately drop into the next rep, push back up, and in the air return to the narrower position. Continue alternating between the standard and wide positions each rep. Maintain a consistent pace and a rigid plank throughout the movement.

Load: Bodyweight.

Volume: Two to four sets of five to six reps. Rest for a minute or two between sets.

Medicine-Ball Side Throw (Velocity-Bias Power)

What it does: Develops rotational velocity-bias power in the core, with emphasis on the oblique muscles.

How to do it: Hold a medicine ball with both hands, and stand perpendicular to a wall, between three and six feet away (the closer you are, the easier). Enter an athletic stance, extend your arms in front of you at chest height, then rapidly rotate your torso to throw the ball into the wall. Catch it on the rebound, reverse the movement, and repeat. Complete all reps on one side, then switch to the other.

Load: 10 to 60 percent of your 1RM.

Volume: Two to four sets of five to six reps on each side. Rest for a minute or two between sets.

Medicine-Ball Overhead-Throw Sit-Up (Velocity-Bias Power)

What it does: Trains forward-flexion velocity-bias power in the core, with emphasis on the abs.

How to do it: Lie on your back on the floor in a standard sit-up position, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Have a partner stand a short distance from your feet to catch the ball. If you don’t have a partner, you can bounce the ball off a wall, but be prepared for a quick rebound. Hold the medicine ball in both hands, and extend your arms overhead so that the ball rests on the floor above your head. Then sit up quickly and throw the ball to your partner, keeping your arms overhead. Your partner should immediately return the ball. Catch it, reverse the movement, and repeat. Once you get the hang of it, have your partner toss the ball off-center to either side to train lateral core stability. 

Load: 10 to 60 percent of your 1RM.

Volume: Two to four sets of five to six reps. Rest for a minute or two between sets.

Assisted Pull-Up (Velocity-Bias Power)

What it does: Trains velocity-bias power in the upper body, primarily targeting the lats and the biceps, as well as the forearms, shoulders, upper back, and core.

How to do it: Girth-hitch a resistance band to the center of a pull-up bar, and place a knee or foot in the bottom loop to take some of the load off your arms. Grip the pull-up bar with your hands shoulder width apart, palms facing away. Hang with straight arms and engaged shoulders. Then, as fast as you can, pull up until your chin is over your hands. Pause for a second, then slowly lower back to straight arms. Repeat. Keep your core and shoulders engaged and your body still throughout the movement (i.e., no swinging or kipping to cheat).

Load: 10 to 60 percent of your 1RM. When calculating your 1RM for pull-ups, remember to include your bodyweight as well as any additional load. (So if a 150-pound woman’s 1RM for a pull-up is her bodyweight plus a 50-pound plate, the ideal weight range for this exercise would be between 20 and 120 pounds, meaning she should still opt to use a resistance band to alleviate the load.) Choose the appropriate type of resistance band for assistance, and even double up if necessary. Progress the exercise by switching to lighter bands.

Volume: Two to four sets of five to eight reps. Rest for a minute or two between sets.

Pull-Up or Weighted Pull-Up (Force-Bias Power)

What it does: Trains force-bias power in the upper body, primarily targeting the lats and the biceps, as well as the forearms, shoulders, upper back, and core.

How to do it: Grip the pull-up bar with your hands shoulder width apart, palms facing away. Hang with straight arms and engaged shoulders. Then, as fast as you can, pull up until your chin is over your hands. Pause for a second, then slowly lower back to straight arms. Repeat. Keep your core and shoulders engaged and your body still throughout the movement (no swinging or kipping to cheat).

Load: 50 to 70 percent of your 1RM. Wear a weighted vest or a loaded backpack, or hang weights off a climbing harness to achieve the appropriate level of resistance. Progress the exercise by increasing the load.

Volume: Two to four sets of two to six reps. Rest for a minute or two between sets.

Box-Drop Plyo Push-Up (Force-Bias Power)

What it does: Trains force-bias power in the chest, triceps, shoulders, back, and core. The elevated hand position increases the eccentric force when you drop into a push-up.

How to do it: Place two Pilates steps, four-to-eight-inch plyo boxes, or stacks of textbooks on the floor slightly wider than your shoulder width. Start in a standard push-up position, as described above, with your hands on the steps or boxes. Then drop into a push-up on the floor between the boxes, with your elbows tight along your sides. Rapidly lower yourself until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, then immediately and explosively push up, landing your hands on the boxes, back in the starting position. Repeat. 

Load: Start with bodyweight. If that feels too easy, wear a weighted vest. 

Volume: Two to four sets of five to six reps. Rest for a minute or two between sets.

sms