Gaining upper body strength is really easy, here’s what you need to keep in mind:
- Stay below your muscle failure threshold
- Practice often
- Listen to your joints
- Track your progress to see what works
The two basic progressions which we’ve seen work really really well are “Recon Ron” and Volume Training.
Recon Ron Pullup Program
We came up with Volume Training based off poor memory and bad research of the Recon Ron Pullup Program (RRPR). RRPR was a technique I was familiar with from my time in the Marine Corps. It is used widely because it takes a very small amount of time, and works well.
RRPR couldn’t be simpler in execution:
- Pick a level on the progression that is challenging, but not impossible: meaning you are staying below muscle failure.
- Perform the progression once, 5-7 days per week, allowing yourself 30 seconds to 2 minutes rest between sets.
- Take a rest day if/when you’re elbows, shoulders, etc, start to get inflamed.
Like everything, test and retest. Do some shoulder warmup, then crank out one max set. Stick with RRPR for 4 weeks, be consistent, then retest. Guaranteed you’ll see big gains.
Use RRPR for anything: Pullups, Pushups, Handstand Pushups, Ring Dips, Muscle Ups.
We’ve found Volume Training an equal tool for improving upper body strength. Advantages of Volume Training versus RRPR are:
- Better recovery because of decreased frequency
- Flexibility of programming, i.e., you can do other movements within your Volume Training
- Flexibility of modalities, i.e., you can use this for any movement
Volume Training is also an easy way to track your progress. Even if you only get 1-2 more reps every session, at least you’re moving forward. One of the biggest issues we see with athletes and improvement in these movements is psychological. They practice so infrequently, and nearly never do a One Set Max (1SM), so they are easily discouraged by their perceived lack of progress.
Here’s how Volume Training works:
- Perform a set every minute on the minute, there should be some rest within each minute
- Perform 10-20 minutes (so that’s 10-20 sets)
- Ensure that your first set and last set differ by no more than two reps
- Do not do more than one upper body movement per session.
So a common example of a stand along upper body Volume Training session would be 20 minutes of Handstand Pushups. A typical progression over a few weeks would look like this:
We’ve seen significant progress with 10-15 minute sessions as well, so if you are strapped for time, this is a great way to build upper body strength in a short period of time. Most athletes can only handle two session of upper body Volume Training per week. Again, listen to your joints, but practice frequently.
“But I don’t have any Pullups/Handstand Pushups/Ring Dips/etc!”
This is where understanding general strength and conditioning comes into play, namely the role of eccentric and isometric exercises in building concentric strength.
Isometric exercises should be the baseline. Ensure that your athlete:
- has a handstand
- can hold the top of a ring dip
- can hold the top of a pushup
- can hold a flexed arm hang
If then can do these movements, then they can use them as the basis for their Volume Training. Simply set a goal time per minute and try to hold that exercise within that goal time by five seconds.
For folks with nearly zero upper body strength, we can assist them with the following exercises, but the principal of goal time per minute, delta no greater than five seconds still apply:
- Overhead barbell hold
- Band assisted ring hold
- Knee pushup or elevated pushup hold
- Band assisted flexed arm hang
If athletes are capable of the isometric movements, then we can begin work on eccentric movements. These are commonly called “negatives”. Start at the top of the movement, and move through the eccentric range of motion taking 3-5 seconds depending on the length of the movement (i.e., a pushup ROM is shorter than a pullup ROM).
Key to the eccentric movements is going beyond the normal ROM whenever we can. While this is difficult for Pullups and Ring Dips, this is easy for Handstand Pushups and Pushups.
Simply place a raised object (plates, blocks, parallettes, etc) under the athletes hands and have them perform a negative to the floor.
So remember, you are practicing the movements, not trying to puke in your shoes. So stay below muscle failure. These can and should be challenging, but if you burn out too fast, then MISSION FAIL!
Stick to the plan and you’ll be sure to see big progress quickly. Even for top level athletes, this is a great tool. What better way to feel confident going into a HSPU WOD then knowing that you can do 40 unbroken HSPU while the nearest competitor can probably do 20 on a good day.
Note however, that you’ll want to decrease the reps and add a load on many of these movements as you gain mastery. If you are getting to 3-5 reps per minute for 20 minutes, it’s time to decrease the reps and time and add weight. So take it down to 1-2 reps per minute for 10-15 minutes and add some weight: weighted ring dips, weighted pullups, weighted HSPU, weighted Muscle-Ups, etc. Again, listen to your joints, test and retest.
This is a great way to gain proficiency or gain dominance. Good luck!