Lesson 9: Exercise Technique – Chest, Shoulders, and Triceps

Table of Contents


Introduction

We have discussed most of the components of creating an effective exercise program. This includes training frequency, the number of sets and reps, how hard to push yourself during a set, how to perform each rep, as well as other relevant aspects for resistance training as well as aerobic training. However, we have not actually discussed the key aspects of performing specific exercises. We will address this topic in this and the following three lessons. By the end of this lesson you should feel comfortable that you have the necessary knowledge to perform a variety of different exercises related to the chest, shoulders, and triceps. The basic movement patterns that these exercise address include:

  • arm adduction (moving the upper arm across your chest as if you were giving someone a hug (transverse plane adduction), can also describe moving the arm downwards to the side of you (coronal plane adduction)
  • arm abduction (the opposite of arm adduction)
  • arm/shoulder internal rotation (if you’re standing with your arm down by your side this entails rotating your arm so your elbow points away from you to the side)
  • arm/shoulder external rotation (the opposite of internal rotation)
  • scapular depression (moving the shoulder blades downward)
  • scapular protraction (moving the shoulder blades to the side and forward, as if you are punching forward as far as possible)
  • shoulder flexion (moving the arm upwards in front of you)
  • shoulder extension (moving the arm downwards in front of you)
  • elbow extension (extending the arm from a bent position)

Note: There are easily hundreds, and possibly thousands, of variations of different exercises. We obviously will not go through every single one. Instead, I will go through examples for each of the major body parts and movement patterns. After you understand the principles of a handful of exercises you will be able to apply this knowledge to many additional exercises.

Additionally, there are several exercises that do not feat neatly into any one muscle group category (ie, the Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, snatch), push presses, Turkish get-ups, etc) as well as many exercises done with more athletic purposes in mind (ie, various plyometric movements). I will not discuss these exercises in detail in this course as this course is focused more on general health. While all of these exercises are suitable for safe and health-promoting exercise routines, in general it is better to develop a solid base of exercise technique and strength with the more straightforward lifts prior to incorporating the more complex and explosive movements.

Having said that, I do briefly discuss these additional exercises in Lesson 15 for those who are curious and want to utilize them.

Tip: While most exercises will target similar muscles between different people, at times depending on one’s anthropometry and their technique (ie, an overhand vs underhand grip for some movements) the exercises may target muscles slightly differently. For exercises that do not have to be done explosively (which applies to most of the exercises I am listing in these lessons), you can use a relatively light weight and do a lot of reps. As you get close to failure the lactic acid and fatigue will accumulate in the muscles that are being targeted and you will feel which parts of your body are being used most for the exercise you are doing.

This is not a perfect strategy to know exactly how an exercise is affecting your muscles, and when you use heavier weight your form may change some which will also make this less accurate. Nonetheless, this can give you a general idea of which muscles are contributing to each movement. Similarly, if you do a new exercise and feel sore the next day the soreness will also indicate which muscles you used.

Having said that, it is important to realize that if you perform an exercise and do not feel it working in the targeted muscles that does not mean the exercise isn’t using those muscles. The exercise almost certainly is. The point is you can use this strategy if desired (light weight and high reps) to see how variations of exercises may affect you differently.

PLEASE READ THIS

These 4 lessons covering exercise technique are designed as follows:

  • The major muscle groups are divided into sections.
    • Each section starts with the key points of the function of the relevant muscle groups.
    • I then provide links to articles that describe the anatomy in more detail.
    • I then provide links to YouTube videos that describe the anatomy in more detail.
  • After the exercise sections are complete I then include sections with similar exercises.
    • Each of the exercise sections includes links demonstrating the specific exercises.
    • For some exercises I include additional links to tutorials on YouTube.
    • For all of the exercises I include various descriptions of the set-up, technique, variables you can manipulate, tips, and safety aspects.

Regarding the sections describing muscle function, it is not necessary to understand all of this in detail and you do not need to look at the articles or the YouTube videos. However, watching the anatomy videos can be especially helpful as they will show you where the muscles are connected. Then, if you remember that muscles always shorten when they contract and you know a muscle’s attachment points, you will be able to visualize the muscle’s function. With this knowledge it is easier to understand why specific exercises target specific muscles.

You do not need to read all of the exercise sections, but feel free to scan through them and read ones that are relevant to exercises you intend to perform. Additionally, you do NOT need absolute perfect form on each exercise; many times there is an “ideal” form but not being “ideal” does not mean you are putting yourself at significant risk of injury or that the exercise is a waist of time. Ideal form for one person may look different than ideal form for another person due to differences in body size, limb length ratios, hip socket depth, clavicle length, etc. Understanding the main principles and striving to follow them is a good idea but do not limit your ability to make progress out of fear that your form is not “perfect”.


Basic structure-function relationships of the key muscles

It is helpful to understand the basic structure-function relationships of the muscles to better appreciate why specific exercises target them. We will go over that here.


Chest – pectoralis major, pectoralis minor, and serratus anterior

Key points:

  • The pectoralis major (“pec major”) attaches between the humerus and the medial half of the clavicle (the clavicular part), the sternum (the sternal part), and the rectus sheath (the abdominal part). This adducts the arm across the chest. It additionally helps to internally rotate the arm and can aid in both shoulder flexion and extension.
    • There are separate heads of the pec major going to the three different attachment points (the clavicular, sternal, and abdominal parts), and thus the angle you move your arm across the body (ie, from low-to-high or high-to-low) can influence different portions of the chest. Generally low-to-high will favor the upper portion and high-to-low will favor the lower portion.
  • The pectoralis minor (“pec minor”) attaches between the coracoid process and medial border of the scapula and ribs 3-5. This aids in scapular depression.
  • The serratus anterior attaches between the first 9-10 ribs, possibly the external obliques, and the scapulae. This aids in shoulder blade rotation and protraction.

More in depth articles if curious:

YouTube videos if curious:


Shoulders – deltoids, rotator cuff, and coracobrachialis

Key points:

  • The deltoid lies over the entire shoulder area and attaches to the upper arm.
    • The fibers that attach to the lateral portion of the clavicle make up the “anterior” deltoid. This aids in shoulder flexion and internal rotation of the arm.
    • The fibers that attach to the acromion make up the “lateral” deltoid. This aids in shoulder abduction. The first ~15 degrees of this movement are performed by the supraspinatus (see below), the lateral deltoid takes over after ~15 degrees.
    • The fibers that attach to the spine of the scapula make up the “posterior” deltoid. This aids in shoulder extension and external rotation of the arm.
  • The rotator cuff is composed of four muscles, the supraspinatus, the infraspinatus, the teres minor, and the subscapularis.
    • The supraspinatus runs from the top of the scapula to the humerus. This aids in abduction of the arm (especially the first ~15 degrees).
    • The infraspinatus runs along the middle of the scapula to the humerus. This aids in external rotation of the arm.
    • The teres minor runs from the lateral border of the scapula to the humerus. This aids in external rotation and adduction of the arm.
    • The subscapularis runs along the anterior surface of the scapula and attaches to the humerus. This aids in internal rotation of the arm.
  • The coracobrachialis runs from the coracoid process of the scapula to the anterior-middle portion of the humerus. This aids in adduction and flexion of the arm at the shoulder joint.

More in depth articles if curious:

YouTube videos if curious:


Triceps – triceps brachii

Key points:

  • There are three heads of the triceps brachii: the long head, the lateral head, and the medial head.
  • The medial and lateral heads attach to the elbow and the humerus. Their only function is to extend the arm.
  • The long head attaches to the elbow and to the scapula. Thus, it extends the elbow but also can aid in shoulder extension & adduction.

More in depth article if curious:

YouTube video if curious:


Compound Exercises

Here we will go over exercises that predominantly use the chest, shoulders, and/or triceps. They may incorporate other muscle groups but the chest, shoulders, and triceps are the primary agonists for these exercises.


Barbell bench press

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • Lay down on the bench. If you do not have a spotter your eyes should be directly under or a little behind the barbell. If your body is too far in front you will have to reach back too far to unrack the barbell and this can strain the shoulders.
  • Retract your shoulder blades as though you are pinching something between them while pushing your chest upward. You can additionally “arch” your back by bringing your hips closer to your shoulders; this will slightly decrease the range of motion and put you in a stronger position.
  • Place your feet firmly on the floor.
  • Grab the barbell with the bar in the lower part of the palms so your wrists are straight when you unrack it. You may find this easier if you turn your hands so that your index fingers point somewhat towards each other prior to closing your hand around the bar. For a demonstration of this, click here.
  • Unrack the bar and steady yourself.

Technique (specifically for the flat barbell bench press):

  • Take a deep breath while bringing the bar downward slowly to your lower chest (perhaps just below the nipple line). The second video above shows this while the first video above is an example of bring the bar down to a higher position on the chest. Going with the lower placement will generally put you in a stronger position.
  • Briefly pause with the bar on your chest (maintain all of the tension in your muscles while pausing, do not simply let the bar rest on your chest).
  • Drive through your legs as though you are trying to push your body backwards on the bench. Don’t actually move backwards. If you move backwards then do not drive as hard for the next rep. As you lift heavier weight you will be able to drive harder through your legs without your body moving. The bench may also be too slippery (see tips below).
  • Push the bar up (if you brought the bar to your lower chest it will move slightly towards your head as you push it up).
  • Exhale while pushing the bar up after it gets past the slowest portion of the rep.
Technique (specifically for the incline and decline barbell bench press):
  • With an incline bench press you can still use leg drive, with a decline bench press you generally cannot as your legs are hooked in the bench.
  • Bar placement on the chest is less variable with these movements as if you touch too low on your chest with the incline bench press it will put far too much strain on your shoulders to prevent the bar from rolling down your body. Similarly, touching too high on your chest with the decline bench press runs the risk of the bar moving towards your head. Warm-up with an empty bar to practice and see where it feels natural to touch the bar on your chest in both instances.
 

Variables:

  • You can choose different grip widths.
    • A narrower grip will focus on the triceps more.
    • Too wide of a grip can be dangerous for the chest and shoulders, generally you should not put your hands beyond the rings on a typical barbell.
    • If unsure, start with your hands a little outside of shoulder width and then adjust based on feel. In general the more narrow your grip the lower the bar will touch on your chest if you keep your forearms perpendicular to the ground.
  • The incline variation will focus on the upper chest and shoulders more. Most people are weaker in the incline position.
  • The decline variation will focus more on the lower chest. Most people are stronger in the decline position.
  • You can choose to not use leg drive. Instead, you can keep your feet on the ground to aid stability without pushing them into the floor hard while lifting. Alternatively, you can also keep your feet up in the air, though this requires more balance and I recommend learning how to bench press with the feet on the floor first. If you do not use leg drive you will not be able to use as much weight but you will still be able to emphasize the appropriate muscles. In general using more weight will lead to more muscle growth over time.

Tips:

  • If the bench is too tall it can be difficult to set your feet on the ground well. If this is an issue consider bringing blocks or some other base you can put under your feet. Using weight plates found in the gym can work well for this purpose.
  • If the bench is too slippery and you do not feel stable consider putting chalk on your back, purchasing a shirt with extra grippy material, putting a yoga mat on the bench, or wrapping a couple of resistance bands around the bench to add traction.
  • Try to set the height of the bar such that you only have to press it a couple of inches to clear the hooks when you unrack it.
  • Using a spotter to help you unrack the bar is helpful for maintaining a good set up position and avoiding unnecessary strain on the shoulders.

Safety:

  • It is imperative to be prepared in case you fail on a lift. You can use a spotter to assist if you do fail, or you can lift in some sort of power rack or half rack set up such that there are spotter arms that you can rest the bar upon if you are unable to lift the weight. If you do not do this and you fail you will need to roll the bar down to your waist, sit up, and then hold the bar while standing up before putting it on the ground. Alternatively, you can lift without collars on the barbell; this will let you tilt the bar sideways so the plates slide off if you get stuck. Beware if you do this that once the plates come off one side the bar will jerk hard to the other side and this will strain the body as well as make a lot of noise. You may get in trouble for doing this in a commercial gym and ideally you will avoid this situation.
  • Holding your breath during the concentric portion of the rep while bearing down (as if you were trying to have a bowel movement) until you pass the sticking point increases one’s strength due to increased intraabdominal pressure (this helps make the body more rigid so that force transfers through it more easily). This is called the “Valsalva” maneuver. I have not come across any evidence indicating this leads to significant health risks, despite that being a commonly stated concern. For individuals without significant vascular abnormalities, uncontrolled hypertension, and retinopathy, it is likely safe to engage in the Valsalva maneuver. If doing so leads to significant light-headedness or other undesirable effects:
    • breathe throughout the rep without holding your breath
    • time your breathing such that you complete inhalation just before you perform the concentric phase of the rep
  • Avoid using too wide of a grip as this can increase the risk of a chest or shoulder injury.

More information:

If you would like a much more in depth discussion of the bench press, read this: https://www.strongerbyscience.com/how-to-bench/

Note: The principles described above apply to many of the pressing exercises that exist. I will not repeat the same information each time but if for any reason the above information does not apply I will state this.


Machine/Cable chest press

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • If the handle height and width are adjustable, set the height close to your nipple line and set the width so the handles are slightly outside of shoulder width.
  • You can play around with different settings to see if something else feels better.
  • Grab the handles and bring your shoulder blades together.

Technique:

  • Unlike the bench press above, here you start with the concentric phase of the rep instead of the eccentric phase.
  • Push out fully and then slowly bring the weight back to the starting position.
  • Pause briefly and then repeat.

Variables:

  • If you can adjust the angle of the machine or cables then you can turn this more into an incline or decline movement.
  • With the cable handles you can choose to pronate your forearms (turn them such that your palms face down), have your palms face each other (a “neutral” grip), or supinate your forearms (turn them such that our palms face up). You can attempt it in each way and see what feels best.

Tips:

  • Machine chest press:
    • If you cannot adjust the seat height adequately you can place something on it to raise your body.
    • If the handles start too far in front of your chest, you can place a pad on the upright portion of the seat rest to help move your body forward relative to the handles at the starting position.
  • Cable chest press:
    • Try to adjust the handles so you do not need to pull them very far to get into the starting position.
    • The first few times you use the cable set-up it will be much harder due to the extra stability component that comes with using the cables. If you keep using this you will initially improve rapidly.

Safety:

  • If you attempt to lift a weight that is too heavy you may contort your body in an attempt to complete the lift. Avoid doing this if possible.

Dumbbell bench press

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • Ensure there is sufficient space around you in case you need to drop the dumbbells at some point.
  • Start by sitting on the bench while holding the dumbbells on your lower thighs close to your knees.
  • Incline dumbbell bench press: kick one dumbbell up at a time so you are holding them at your shoulders. Pull your shoulder blades together and lie back on the bench
  • Flat dumbbell bench press: do the same as the incline dumbbell bench press or kick both dumbbells upwards while you lay back at the same time so they end up in the starting position. Pull your shoulder blades together as you lay back. Based on the weight of the dumbbells you may prefer one method over the other.
  • Place your feet firmly on the ground.

Technique:

  • Press the dumbbells upward while exhaling.
  • During the lift your hands will naturally come close together (if the dumbbells touch in the middle at the top this is fine).
  • Take a deep breath as you bring the dumbbells back to the starting position.

Variables:

  • You can experiment with different amounts of forearm pronation and supination and see what feels best.

Tips:

  • If you use plate-loaded dumbbells that do not have flat ends, consider putting something on your thighs as a platform or even putting a tennis ball on the ends of the dumbbells so they do not cause pain on your thighs. This is shown at 10:45 in this video.
  • Expect to use considerably less weight with these exercises than the barbell bench press as dumbbells require significantly more stability.
  • The first rep may be considerably harder since there is no eccentric phase for the first rep. You can get around this by quickly pushing upwards after leaning back in the seat without pausing.

Safety:

  • When you are done with the set you can sit up and put the weights back on your thighs, then stand up and move the weights. This is better than dropping the weights on the floor.
  • If you fail during the rep let the weights fall back into the starting position rather than try to contort your body to finish the rep.
  • At times you may need to drop the dumbbells on the floor; try to ensure nobody is directly next to you if you do this.

Overhead press

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • When grabbing the barbell use a bulldog grip as shown in the flat bench press section above (this involves rotating the hands so the index fingers point more towards each other prior to grabbing onto the bar). This helps the wrists stay straight throughout the movement.
  • When you unrack the bar it can rest on your upper chest/clavicle area or it can be above this but below your chin; go with whatever feels most natural.
  • Feet can be shoulder width apart and parallel or you can attempt to use a staggered stance (feet around shoulder width but one foot in front of your body and one foot behind your body) and see if this allows you to feel more stable.
  • Take a big breath prior to initiating the press.

Technique:

  • The more in depth video above demonstrates how to use hip movement to initiate the shoulder press. This entails slightly extending the hips (imagine pushing them slightly forward) and then bringing them back to fully upright while then using this rebound effect to begin pushing the barbell upward. This is not necessary but can be helpful.
    • For clarity, this hip motion is absolutely not required. I’m including it simply to show it as an option. You can try doing this with and without the hip motion and see which you prefer.
  • Push the bar upward in a straight line just past your face and keep pushing all the way until your arms are locked out overhead with the barbell in line with your shoulders. At the full lockout position at the top your head will be in front of the barbell.
  • At the top of the movement shrug your shoulders upward for a complete range of motion.
  • Bring the bar back down just in front of your face to the starting position to complete the rep.

Variables:

  • Grip width is one variable; you can try different widths and see what feels best.
  • How much you lean back is a variable.
  • You can vary how far you bring down the barbell. Generally I recommend using as full of a range of motion as possible with good form.
  • You can use dumbbells instead of barbells.

Tips:

  • It can take considerably longer to make progress with the overhead press compared to other pressing movements as this only minimally uses the upper chest while relying more on the shoulders and triceps. Thus you may find more utility in increasing the total reps you perform with a specific weight significantly prior to increasing the weight.
  • Make sure you contract your abs and your glutes hard throughout the set when doing standing presses to help prevent lower back strain.

Safety:

  • Leaning too far back can put unnecessary stress and strain on your back.
  • Be careful to avoid bringing the bar down directly on your head.

Dips

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • For weighted dips you will need to either hold a dumbbell between your feet or use something (ie, a dip belt or a dog leash) to attach weight around your waist. Here is a video showing how to put on a dip belt.
  • With band-assisted dips you will need to loop a band between the handles that will support some of your body weight.
  • For machine assisted you will need to set the appropriate support level from the machine and then stand or kneel on it (depending on the machine model) while holding the handles. Typically, the more weight you use the more assistance you receive.
  • Get yourself into the starting position by supporting our body with your arms fully locked out. If you are able to vary how wide apart your arms are, start with them about shoulder width apart and then adjust to see which feels best.

Technique:

  • Descend slowly while leaning forward slightly and taking a big breath.
  • Pause briefly at the bottom.
  • Push yourself upward while exhaling.
  • If your body is swinging (this may occur with weighted or band assisted dips) pause briefly at the top to steady yourself.

Variables:

  • For band-assisted dips the number and types of bands you use determines the assistance level. The assistance will change throughout the rep as the bands lengthen & shorten.
  • For self-assisted dips you will determine how much assistance you give yourself throughout each rep. The assistance will vary based on the pressure you are placing on the floor.
  • With feet forward dips you can add weight by putting a weight plate in your lap.
  • For some of these variations, as well as based on your equipment, you can use a wider or narrower grip. Whatever feels comfortable is likely ideal.
  • If you keep your torso more upright the emphasis will shift more to the triceps. If you bend over more the emphasis will shift more to the chest.

Tips:

  • Depending on the width of the handles themselves you may be able to choose whether to keep your wrists straight or bent. Try both and see what feels best.
  • If you are adding weight with a dip belt, dog leash, or other similar device, consider adjusting the length to shorten the chain. This will decrease the swinging that occurs during each rep.

Safety:

  • Going too low at the bottom may cause the lift to become uncomfortable and increase the risk of injury by straining the cartilage and other connective tissues of the chest/clavicle/shoulder area. Typically if you feel any pain at the lowest point of the rep this is a concern for a potential injury. If this occurs then stop the reps before getting to this point.
  • Some people seem to get shoulder, clavicle, or sternum pain regardless of how they vary the set-up when doing dips. If this happens to you then stop performing dips; there are many other exercises you can do instead.

Push-up variations

Video link demonstrations (roughly in order from easier to harder):

Set-up:

  • Set your hands roughly shoulder width apart. You can move them outward or inward slightly based on comfort. The close grip variation will require your hands to be closer together.
  • Prior to beginning the first rep you should tense up your full body, especially your core. Ideally your core will stay rigid throughout the set and not sag down; you need to actively extend your hips with your glutes to maintain rigidity.

Technique:

  • Descend slowly to the bottom position. This will generally be as low as you can comfortably go without your body hitting something.
  • Pause briefly at the bottom and then exhale as you push yourself upwards.
  • For the regular push-up variations you will slow down as you get to lockout, for the plyo push-up variations you will continue to push and accelerate through lockout so that your hands move from the surface into the air.
  • With regular push-up variations you can pause briefly at lockout if you need to steady yourself. For the plyo push-up variations you immediately descend into the subsequent rep once your hands regain contact with the surface. It is important to control the descent phase; if you cannot do this then the plyo push-up is too advanced for you at this time.

Variables:

  • You can alter the height of your hands by placing them on a bench of different heights, a bed, a couch, a kitchen counter, etc. The higher your hands the easier the push-up variation will be.
  • You can alter the height of your feet (or even your knees) in the same way. The higher your feet (or knees), the harder the push-up variation will be.
  • The closer you put your hands together the more the push-up variation will incorporate your triceps as opposed to your chest; this will make it more difficult.
  • Regarding the pike pushup variation, the more vertical your torso is the more it will emphasize your shoulders as opposed to your upper chest.
  • If you are using handles as in the last example you will be able to get a more full range of motion; you can adjust the height of the handles (or stack of books or whatever else you are using to elevate the hands relative to the underlying surface).

Tips:

  • You can progress from the easier to harder push-up variants. A wall push-up (without the plyo portion) will be the easiest variant one can do. Start with your hands at close to chest level and your feet close to the wall to make this as easy as possible. When this is easy you can make it more difficult by moving your feet further from the wall and moving your hands downward.
  • With plyo push-ups be careful not to absorb all of the impact on your wrists when you come back down. You should smoothly absorb the momentum as you descend into the subsequent rep.
  • You can do a plyo approach with any of the variations if desired. Additionally, you can combine variations (ie, kneeling with an incline).
  • Putting your hands really close together (as seen in the above video) may strain the wrists; consider adjusting the rotation of your hands and even doing the push-ups on your fists instead of your open hands to decrease the strain. This also applies to plyo push-ups.
  • You can put your hands and feet on chairs. This will make it similar to a regular push-up if the chairs are the same height but then you will be able to get a more full range of motion similar to as if you were using handles.
  • You can wrap a resistance band around your back and hold it in your hands. This will mostly overload the triceps as the resistance increases close to lockout when the triceps are most active.
  • There are many other push-up variations as well; when you can do the above easily you will be ready to branch out to other types if desired.

Safety:

  • With any of the plyo variations you need to be careful to avoid straining your wrists. If this seems like it will be an issue then you should stop doing the plyo variations; they are not necessary.
  • If using handles or doing pike push-ups or some other variant where you can get a full range of motion, you should descend slowly and in control as otherwise you will have a greater risk of injuring your chest or shoulders by straining them at the limit of their range of motion.

Upright rows

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • Initially place your hands around shoulder width apart on whichever implement you are using (barbell, dumbbells, cable, etc).
  • Try different hand placements and see which feels best.

Technique:

  • Pull the bar up while keeping it very close to your body. Your hands should stay underneath the height of your elbows.
  • If your shoulders naturally shrug upwards while doing this that is ok.
  • Stop the rep when your upper arm is parallel to the floor. If you develop shoulder discomfort, then stop the rep just below the height where this occurs.

Variables:

  • You can alter your grip width, the implement you are using, and how high you pull the bar.
  • You can alter how much you shrug your shoulders upward. The more you do this the more you use your trapezius muscles (the “traps”).

Tips:

  • Individuals with shoulder impingement or with certain shoulder anatomy may find this exercise uncomfortable. If this occurs, do not perform this exercise. There are several other exercises available. Watch the YouTube video on the rotator cuff muscles above for an overview of impingement.

Safety:

  • Many people feel this is a dangerous exercise due to concerns of shoulder impingement. This is because the shoulder internally rotates as the upper arm is abducted. By limiting how high you raise your arms you can minimize the risk of impingement occurring.
  • For a visual depiction of how high to pull the bar without significant concerns, please click here and look at Figure 2.

Note: The upright row does not strongly involve the chest or the triceps. I am listing it under compound exercises as it does strongly involve the trapezius muscle in addition to multiple parts of the shoulder.


Isolation Exercises

These are exercises that primarily work the chest, shoulders, or triceps individually.


Chest fly

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • When using cables stand such that you have a good base of support. You should feel a slight stretch on your chest at the beginning but you do not want the cables so far behind you that you are at the limit of your range of motion.
  • If you are using a machine variation then set the height so that your upper arms arm roughly parallel with the line of your chest.
  • If you are using bands then it is better to use one arm at a time and have the resistance come from your side than to use both arms at the same time and have the weight come from behind you. The point of flyes is to engage the chest at maximal contraction and this can only be done well if the resistance is coming from your side.
  • Bend your arms slightly so that your elbows are not locked.

Technique:

  • Take a breath and bring your arms toward each other.
  • Cross your arms at the front if the set-up allows this to obtain peak contraction of your chest.
  • Then move your arms back to the starting position. Be careful not to overextend when dong this as placing too much stretch on the chest may contribute to an injury.
  • Maintain the same elbow angle throughout the set.

Variables:

  • The more you bend your elbows the easier it will be for a given weight if the weight is in your hands (for machine variations where your elbows are pressed against the resistance pads this will not make a difference).
  • If you move your arms from a low-to-high position (such as in the incline version above), this will hit the upper chest more.
  • With cables when you cross your arms the weight is pulling them apart, so you have to actively contract your chest. With dumbbells at the end of the movement gravity is pulling the weight parallel to your arms and thus you are not contracting your chest against resistance. For this reason, dumbbells are inferior to cables for this movement.

Tips:

  • If you attempt to cross your arms at the end of the rep to reach a peak contraction of the chest, your hands may hit each other. You can aim to move one hand over the other to avoid this and alternate which hand goes over with each repetition.
  • Given this is an isolation exercise and can potentially put your chest in a compromising position, I would avoid going too heavy on these and stick to sets of at least 8 reps.

Safety:

  • The biggest safety concern comes from overextending at the bottom portion when the chest is stretched. It is important to avoid this. If you set up at the beginning such that the cables will go back to the pulleys before you get into an over-stretched position then you will not need to worry about this.
  • If you use dumbbells, which I do not recommend, the resistance will be highest at the peak stretch of the pecs as the resistance will be perpendicular to your arms at this point. Thus, this will especially increase the risk of injury if you attempt to obtain a peak stretch and are not careful to lower the weight in control.

Serratus anterior exercises

Video link demonstration:

In general there is no need to do isolation exercises for the serratus so I will not elaborate further. I am including the above link just to highlight its function. I actually do not recommend working the serratus with the above exercise though as it’s difficult to move the shoulder blades well while you have them against the bench. As indicated above it’s better to keep the shoulder blades together to add stability.

Thus, it is better to work the serratus anterior directly when doing push-up or dip exercises as you can freely protract your shoulder blades at the end of the concentric phases of those movements.


Shoulder raises

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • For all of these the set-up is fairly self-explanatory.
  • For cable reverse flys start with the cables around or just below the height of the shoulders.

Technique:

  • Regardless of the version you use you should attempt to move the weight by moving the arms in isolation.
  • Do not shrug your shoulders and do not move your torso. Both of these will generate momentum that defeats the purpose of the exercise.
  • Do not perform these explosively as you risk generating too much momentum; the concentric phase should be performed relatively quickly but generally not as quickly as possible.
  • With the shoulder raises that target the lateral and rear deltoids there may be a slight benefit to rotating your arm such that your pinky fingers are above your thumbs (this leads to internal rotation), but if this causes any discomfort (which may indicate shoulder impingement) do not rotate your hands in this manner.
  • The weight should be raised until the arms are at least parallel to the ground. You can raise them slightly higher if you would like assuming this does not cause discomfort.

Variables:

  • You can choose whether to do some of these with a barbell, dumbbells, cables, or bands as well as whether to lay down, sit, or stand.
  • Dumbbells will generate the most resistance when the arm is perpendicular to the force of gravity (generally straight out to the side).
  • Cables will generate more even resistance throughout the entire movement.
  • Bands will generate the most resistance at the end of the concentric phase when they are most stretched.
  • With lateral raises you can do one arm at a time and lean towards the side of the working arm; if this feels better you can stick with this method.
    • This is shown in this video (you can alternatively have the cable go between your legs or in front of your legs, you could also do this with a dumbbell).
    • By doing this you can actually start at ~15 degrees of abduction and thus the lateral deltoid will participate in the entire movement (recall above that I mentioned the supraspinatus performs the first ~15 degrees of abduction).

Tips:

  • This is one exercise where many people go heavier than they should and defeat the purpose. If you are doing a controlled lateral raise you will not be able to use a lot of weight.
  • For that same reason, it is difficult to make steady progress with these raises as it is not possible to add lots of weight to the lifts.
  • Thus, a good progression scheme for these will entail increasing the rep count significantly prior to increasing the weight.

Safety:

  • If you perform any of these with internal rotation of your shoulder you may experience shoulder discomfort, particularly if you have issues with shoulder impingement. If this is the case you can still do these exercises but avoid internally rotating the shoulders.

Rotator cuff exercises

The rotator cuff muscles get worked to some degree with any exercise that involves internal rotation of the arm, external rotation of the arm, or abduction of the arm. Nonetheless, to train them through their full range of motion will typically require a couple of dedicated movements.

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • The set-up for all of these is self-explanatory.
  • With several of these exercises you can use bands instead of the above implements.
  • You can play around with different upper arm angles to see which feels best.

Technique:

  • These exercises should be performed slowly and in control, not with any jerking movements.
  • You can pause at the end of the concentric phase briefly.

Variables:

  • Depending on your body’s orientation relative to the resistance the portion of the movement where resistance is greatest varies. You can try different variations listed above to see which feels best.
  • Based on your upper arm angle relative to the body the different external rotators of the rotator cuff will be hit to varying degrees.

Tips:

  • Use light weight and higher reps on these exercises.
  • The rotator cuff muscles are small; you are unlikely to be able to make progress by adding weight on a regular basis. Make progress by adding reps, pausing longer at the point of peak contraction, or extending the duration of each rep.
  • Most people get plenty of internal rotation work with the various pressing movements. It generally is not necessary to include the internal rotation exercises. The external rotation exercises are more valuable as most people do not fully externally rotate their shoulders with compound exercises.
  • External rotation can be incorporated into exercises that utilize the upper back muscles and rear deltoids such as face pulls and Y raises (discussed in the next lesson).

Safety:

  • As indicated above there is a greater risk of impingement if you do the raises with an “empty can” (internal rotation) position; thus I recommend not doing this.
  • If you feel any pain with any of these exercises then try using lighter weight. If you still feel pain then do not do these exercises.

Tricep extensions

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • When using either barbells or dumbbells, you will sit up or lay down with the bar or dumbbells in front of you and then raise them over your head.
  • With the overhead cable triceps extension, lean forward and ensure you have your feet solidly on the floor to maintain balance during the set.

Technique:

  • Simply extend your arms to perform the repetition.
  • You can move your upper arms forward during the concentric portion of the rep and then back during the eccentric portion. This generates a greater stretch with the eccentric portion. The long head of the triceps attaches to the scapula and will assist in moving the arms forward (shoulder extension) so this can actually better utilize the triceps.
    • You can see this done in the lying barbell triceps extension video above. Notice the upper arm moves slightly during the movement.

Variables:

  • Choice of implement: barbells, dumbbells, cable attachments, or bands.
  • You can choose to use one arm at a time or both arms simultaneously.
  • You can adjust your arms such that at lockout the resistance is parallel to your arms or at an angle (see explanation below in “Tips”).

Tips:

  • You can purposefully keep your upper arms behind your head at lockout. The idea here is that if your arms are straight up and down (when doing the lying barbell triceps extension version) then the weight will be supported by the bones in your arms and there will not be much resistance on your triceps at lockout. On the other hand, if you keep your hands behind your head at lockout there will be constant tension on your triceps throughout the full range of motion.
    • In the video of the lying barbell triceps extension, he finishes with his hands directly over his shoulders; this takes tension off of the triceps. If he kept his hands behind his head at lockout the triceps would activate more significantly to keep the arms straight.
  • With the cable version you will want to keep your hands above your head at lockout to help achieve the same effect.
  • Using an EZ curl bar instead of a straight bar may feel a lot better on your elbows and wrists.

Safety:

  • If you fully bend your arms this may be uncomfortable for your wrists or elbows depending on how you are holding the weight. Try different hand/elbows positions with very light weight prior to building up in weight and if anything feels uncomfortable then attempt different hand/elbow positioning to fix this.
  • I recommend avoiding failure with this exercise. If you do go to failure consider if it will be safe to drop the weight on the floor; in general this is not good for the equipment if it is dropped from significant elevation.

Tricep pushdowns

Video link demonstrations:

Set-up:

  • Get yourself into the starting position. It is ok to be fully upright or to lean forward prior to beginning the first rep; if you choose to lean forward you will want to maintain your torso at the same angle throughout the exercise.

Technique:

  • Extend your arms while keeping your upper arms by your side.
  • Do not lean forward during the movement as that incorporates other muscles while you are attempting to isolate the triceps.
  • You can bring your upper arm back behind your body to more fully contract the triceps since the long head of the triceps assists shoulder extension.

Variables:

  • Several different attachments are viable, including a rope as shown in the above videos, a bar, an angled handle or others. Bands are an option as well.
  • You can do these with your palms facing downwards, towards each other, or upwards.

Tips:

  • With a bar or a short rope attachment you will be limited in how far behind your body you can extend your arms as your body will get in the way.
    • You can work around this by doing one arm at a time as shown above.
    • Alternatively, you can actually attach two rope attachments instead of one, pull them down so you have two longer ropes, and grab one with each arm. Then you can use both arms at the same time and there will be more space for you to extend your arms backwards behind your body. Here is a good video demonstrating this.
  • You can actually shift your body backward during the concentric portion of the rep to allow more resistance to stay on the triceps.
    • In the two-armed version above at the end of the concentric phase the rope is pulling in almost a straight line upward when the arms are locked out so there is not much resistance on the triceps as it is mostly on the bones/joints.
    • In the one-armed version shown above the actual rope begins in front of the body. Thus, when the arm is fully extended there is more resistance on the triceps.

Example: A sample routine focusing on the chest, shoulders, and triceps may include:

  • Flat barbell bench press: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Incline dumbbell bench press: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Lateral raises: 2 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Chest flys: 2 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Cable reverse flys: 2 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Overhead cable triceps extension: 2 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Cable lateral shoulder external rotations: 2 sets of 12-15 reps

This equals roughly 8 sets each for the chest, shoulders, and triceps and could be done twice weekly. You can do all of the isolation exercises in a circuit. The rep ranges can be varied as described in prior lessons, though frequently people use higher rep ranges for isolation exercises.


Conclusion

You should now have a good understanding of the basic aspects of the chest, shoulders, and triceps. We have briefly gone over the anatomy that is relevant for many exercises and we have discussed several different compound and isolation exercises to target these parts of the body. While the compound exercises alone can be sufficient, there are additional potential benefits from including the isolation exercises at times:

  • Chest flys – by adducting the arms to and beyond midline we can more fully contract the chest than we can with the typical compound exercises.
  • Shoulder raises – these can work the deltoid muscle through its full range of motion while the compound exercises do not, especially if we limit the top portion of the range of motion of the upright row.
  • Tricep extensions and pushdowns – by starting the extensions with our arms over our head we are putting the long head at a greater stretch, which may lead to better results. By finishing pushdowns with arm extension behind our body we are fully contracting the long head. Thus, both variations may work the long head more extensively than the compound exercises.
In the next three lessons we will discuss exercises for the remaining major muscle groups. After that we’ll use all of this knowledge to create detailed training programs.
 
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