My Blueprint for Building Upper Body Strength from Scratch
With over a decade personal training clients and creating customized programs, I’m well-versed in progressions that build upper body strength safely. Having endured my own shoulder injury from poor push-up form before changing careers, I’m adamant on proper joint alignment over lifting the heaviest weight. Now I coach each client through a sequential roadmap targeting posture, stability and control prior to adding load.
When tackling push-ups, most dive straight into the floor version struggling to complete a few shaky reps. But I’ve found seated variations much more effective for creating mind-muscle connections first. In the “thigh push-up” kneeling upright, I cue clients to “push the hands into there and...feel your chest muscles working.” Then “drop the shoulders away from the ears and pull them back” to engage lats and serratus muscles stabilizing the shoulders. This builds neural activation before adding challenging body weight.
The “high chair push-up” introduces a plank angle, training the core to “squeeze the glutes and push the lower back towards the sky.” This protects the spine. I also coach clients to keep “elbows towards the ribs” when lowering down which reduces shoulder strain compared to flaring them outwards. Progressing to a low chair then floor develops strength through full ranges in safe positions.
The second essential move I teach are chair dips - again starting seated before attempting full body weight. With arms extended perpendicular to the torso, I have clients “karate chop the ground” flexing and extending the elbows. Cueing them to squeeze triceps and draw shoulders down builds that mind-muscle link with the backs of the arms first in isolation.
Adding the “chair lift” engages the whole body, scooping hips up while still firing triceps using the chair resistance. Weights shift gradually from arms to legs throughout the levels, before finally attempting a full dip range maintaining upright posture as flexibility allows without rounding forward.
This systematic progression from activation to body weight through incrementally challenging angles transforms flimsy upper bodies plagued by poor mobility. By re-patterning proper positioning early on, clients develop visible tone and strength that carries over into daily life.