Try These Upper-Body Push and Pull Workouts

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A woman does a pull-up.
U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alexandranell Soto, a 354th Security Forces Squadron response force leader, completes a pull-up. (Senior Airman Beaux Hebert/U.S. Air Force photo)

You've heard the saying "don't skip leg day," but have you ever wondered why there isn't a similar saying for the upper body? It's probably because no one is tempted to skip that work. Upper-body weightlifting and even calisthenics are comparatively fun to do for most people.

But you still need a plan. So here is a list of classic upper-body days that include chest days, arm days and back days with what many split routines call push/pull days.

Push/pull split days refer to the actual movement you are doing with weight and your body. Are you pulling or pushing weight toward or away from your body? For those, you can opt to dissect the individual exercises and focus only on your pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) or your pulling muscles (back, biceps, rear shoulders).

Here are some classic ways to mix it up and add a ton of variety to upper-body work:

1. Push day: chest, triceps and shoulders. This can be a challenge when there are few ways to use an active rest. Personally, I like to rest with some form of core system activity between sets of pushing exercises such as bench press, military press, dips, push-ups, triceps extensions and triceps pushdowns. See more options under "arm day" below, with information on sets and reps you should do, depending on your goals.

2. Pull day: back and biceps. The pulling muscles as well as the grip will get worked well this day. Usually, this workout means pull-ups, pulldowns, biceps curls (variety of grips for all) as well as dumbbell, barbell or machine rows, pulldowns and rear shoulder exercises like reverse flies and shrugs. Some will add in deadlifts to pull day, so it is not just for upper-body events. See more options under arm day and back day below, with information on sets and reps you should do, depending on your goals.

3. Full upper-body day. It is easy to mix in all the upper-body exercises into push/pull circuits with weights or calisthenics. But you can make it a calisthenics-focused training day with classic programs like pyramids, super sets and max rep set workouts with pull-ups, push-ups, dips and overhead press (sandbags), using a variety of grips and placements to change the focus on the muscles.

Isolation workouts are very popular with figure or bodybuilding athletes, focusing specifically on growing muscle and reducing or burning body fat through specific exercises and diet strategies.

4. Arm day. Many people enjoy working the arms, and this push/pull arm day is a challenge. Big biceps, triceps and forearms is a look most people in the gym are chasing. Using dumbbells, barbells and cable machines are the typical go-to pieces of equipment for working the arms.

But you also should work in a variety of exercises like hammer curls, strict concentration curls, Arnold Press, EZ curl bar, cable curls and reverse grip pull-ups, which all can work the biceps effectively. Triceps can be worked with triceps extensions, triceps kickbacks, triceps pushdowns, dips, military press, close-grip push-ups and skull crushers. Working the forearms can be done with wrist curls and your standard grip exercises. See Operator Grip Workouts Series.

5. Chest. Just working the chest muscles is impossible without using the arms, but with some adjustments, you can make the chest muscles be the main muscle being used in any of the pushing exercises. It is often why many add in triceps to chest day, as that is the secondary muscle that also is getting worked in such movements: bench press, incline bench, decline bench (dumbbells, barbells, machine), cable chest press, chest flies, wide dips and wide grip push-ups.

6. Shoulder day. The shoulder is a versatile joint and can be moved in multiple methods and planes of motion. From dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, cables and calisthenics, the shoulders will be worked on any pull and push day. If you want to make the shoulders the focal point of the workout, mix in some moderately heavy weight, lightweight shoulder routines and calisthenics. Some classic movements are military press (overhead press), lateral raises, front raises, shrugs, handstand push-ups, arm haulers, high cable rows, reverse fly and a variety of plank poses that will engage both the shoulders and the entire core system.

Lightweight Shoulder Video: Six exercises in a non-stop circuit.

7. Back day. The back is a complex system that does not mean just the latissimus dorsi (lats or pull-up muscles); it also means the upper back and rear shoulders or trapezius muscles, as well as the lower back. A full back workout can involve shrugs, reverse fly, high cable rows, dumbbell rows, row machines, lat pulldowns, pull-ups and TRX rows, all of which focus on the top half of the back. The lower half of the back can be done with hip hinge movements like deadlifts, kettlebell swings, Romanian deadlifts, swimmers and other calisthenics of the PT Reset circuit.

Types of sets and reps options: Any of these days can be a variety of repetitions and set schemes.

Typical muscle growth sets and reps are 3-5 sets of 10-15 repetitions. You want to make sure you select a moderately heavy weight. For strength gains, typical set and rep schemes are 3-5 sets of 4-6 repetitions.

For improvement in calisthenics, the volume is much higher as you are focusing on muscle stamina and endurance. Depending on your abilities and the exercise, the volumes can be sets of 20-25 or more for total volume in the hundreds (see pyramid workouts). Try a four- to six-week cycle of each of the set and rep methods and see how you improve with size, muscle growth and PT tests.

If there is a type of day above that appeals to you, pick 3-4 exercises and one of the set and rep options, depending on your goals.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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