Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Upper Body Specialization: Who, What, When

by Chase Lindley | March 23, 2021

middle of a bench press

There is a lot of talk on when and how to start specializing the upper body movements. The question of “When can I do ‘X’ exercise like ‘Y’ lifter does?” consumes a new lifter’s brain like a pack of wolves devouring a elk calf. These types of questions become tiresome after being repeatedly asked, and the look of annoyance from the coach never changes. Instead of annoying the one person who wants to help you succeed in your strength training, or getting your questions shot down by Rippetoe on Starting Strength Radio, look at a few important guidelines to see if you’re ready to change your programming.

Number 1: Have you run your Novice Linear Progression to its end? And I mean truly run its course; not this 3-weeks-in bullshit with you feebly adding weight to the bar, and now all of a sudden, you’re ready to play with the Big Boys. Look, I get it: the program is monotonous, non-sexy, and dull. But the truth is that there is no other program that will get you stronger, faster.

The biggest waste of time is doing some silly-ass template you saw online from an advanced lifter who prescribes an ungodly amount of reps and sets, yet promises that in 6 weeks you’ll be benching 100 pounds more. To think using lighter weights for rhabdo-inducing volume will cause your bench to grow is the equivalent of saying Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide. It doesn’t make sense. The unflattering characteristics of the press: slow improvement, longest kinetic chain to overcome, and the small size of muscles being operated causes lifters to abandon ship prematurely. Pressing is hard, but don’t try to continue making progress by jumping to a new program. Milk the hell out of the training by getting all 15 reps in any way possible. Most importantly, be consistent with your training.

Number 2: If you’re an underweight male and below the age of 28, don’t bother asking if you’re ready for advanced programming. You are limiting the weight on the bar due to your bodyweight being almost non-existent, and the fact is that you’re wasting time in the gym. A 165-pound 21-year-old has so much potential to add weight to the bar, but handicaps himself with the mental fear of being “fat,” and by spending hours at the gym exercising, not training. Upper-body gains respond congruent with bodyweight; the more you weigh, the more muscle mass you have to move heavier loads. Simple as that.

Number 3: Determine what path you want to take with your training, it's either the bench or the press; you can’t have both. No matter which exercise you pick the other will make little progress, and you sure as hell can’t press to make your bench go up and vice versa. That’s the sad reality of training the upper body; the training has to be specific to the lift you want to get better at. Competing in a meet is a great way to make up your mind; whether it be a strengthlifting meet or a powerlifting meet, the experience will help you decide.

Number 4: This is more of a thought to keep in mind, not so much a factor you can control – some people are born to bench and others to press. Meaning, lifters who have a naturally large chest and short arms are more suitably built to bench heavier weights than someone who is not. Good pressers are people who are very flexible and have longer arms compared to their bench-press counterparts. These factors are heavily influenced by genetic traits. After a period of time with your program you’ll see which lift you’re naturally better at. Stick with what God gave you. Now, this isn’t to say you can't be strong in the non-genetically-suited lift, rather that it will be difficult making progress.

Okay, so you’re eating enough to gain weight, and have completed the program by making small strategic changes to get you to the point where you are now. But what the hell do you do with your upper body lifts? Here is where the fun, sexy, and revolutionary program that you keep annoying your coach about comes in.

The transition that takes place combines exercise selection, and frequency together, giving you another press or bench day in the week. Determining what exercise works best can be a difficult decision – there’s a laundry list of exercises out there that “target” the delts, tris, and traps; but don’t get caught in the web of bullshit. Pressing makes the press go up and benching makes the bench go up; we need exercises as similar as possible to the main lifts if progress is to be made. Some of the best assistance exercises are partial-range-of-motion overloads done inside the rack. Pin press and pin bench are great builders of lockout strength and are done without specialty equipment. Frequency is increased from the added exercises done in the week. Other various exercise slots can be modified to accompany a pressing session, for example: in an HLM program the light squat day can be substituted for a bench or press movement, since the squat responds positively with less frequency. A four-day split also allows more pressing sessions to be introduced.

Upper body specialization is controlled through the use of two main factors as stated above. Not a lot to work with, especially for lifts that have a hard time making improvements. Finish running the Novice LP before considering a “new” program change, and adjust all variables that you have control over before diving head first into something you’re not ready for.  

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