How To Program Upper Body Training For Athletes

Many people overlook the importance of upper body training for athletes. They believe that as long as they’re jumping higher and sprinting faster, they’re good. But this is simple not the case.

Upper body training is absolutely crucial for athletes for many reasons. For one, you need adequate strength to battle with more physical opponents. Also, building muscle in the upper body can help you avoid injury (and help you look good with your shirt off). Finally, upper body training done right can help prevent injury in the shoulder complex by bringing balance the body and improving posture.

One of my most well-recieved posts was on how to program for lower body training. Since then, I’ve received a lot of questions asking about how to program upper body for athletes. These templates are straight from the programs available on my website. But I want to cover some of the basics here if you’re not able to get your hands on it.

I’m going to go over each section of my program, share examples, and hopefully give you a clear picture on how you can program for yourself.


POWER: The first part of your upper body workout is your power section. The power section contains the fastest performed movements you’ll do on a given day. This may include some type of ballistic movement such as a med-ball tosses or slams may go here. You could also program something like clapping push-ups or explosive landmine presses. You could even do some type of kettlebell snatch or strength-speed movement. This is a great place to experiment with your workout and try different pieces of equipment in order to produce more explosiveness.

The volume stays low and the movement is quick in this section. You can program anywhere from 5-10 sets with 1-5 reps.

The power section comes first because powerful movements are the most neurologically taxing. We want to be fresh when we perform these movements so we can perform each and every rep with maximum intent.

STRENGTH: Next, we move into the strength section. This section contains your heavy lifting for the day. The standard strength lift on upper body days has become the bench press. You can plug in any kind of variation here. This may include floor press, dumbbell bench, accommodating resistance, or even adding some kind of tempo to your movement.

I typically suggest performing some kind of vertical press on your second upper body day of the week. This may include a push press, military press, log press, or landmine press.

Program 4-10 sets of 1-5 reps for movements in the strength section.


In this section, I’m going to go over how I select auxiliaries. Auxiliaries are your support lifts. They’re programmed to chip away at weaknesses, balance out the body, and build muscle and strength.

I’m going to share the types of supersets I use and examples of each.

Superset One: Vertical / Horizontal Pull

Example of a Vertical Pull: Think of anything where you’re pulling down and engaging the lats such as Lat Pulldowns, Chin-ups, etc.

Example of a Horizontal Pull: This is a big row movement such as a one arm row, cable row, or inverted row.

Superset Two: Horizontal / Vertical Push

Example of a Horizontal Push: Pressing from the chest such as DB bench press, incline press, pushups, etc.

Example of a Vertical Push: Pressing overhead using anything such as dumbbells or barbells

For one of the upper body workouts of the week, you’ll superset a vertical pull with a horizontal push. For the next workout of the week, you’ll then hit a horizontal pull with a vertical push.

The superset you program depends on whatever your previous strength movement is. For example, say you completed a heavy bench press. You’d want to pair this with a vertical push since you’ve already completed a horizontal push at such a high intensity.

So this day would look like:

  1. Plyometrics
  2. Strength: Bench Press
  3. Horizontal Pull with a Vertical Push

The sets and repetitions of each superset movement can vary depending on where the athlete is in their season. If you’re in an offseason and are looking to gain mass, you can increase these repetitions to a range of 8-20 depending on what results you’re looking for and how your body responds to that sort of stimulus.

An athlete in season should stay in the 6-12 rep range.


Shoulder / Arm Complex: For athletes that aren’t necessarily dependent on size such as swimmers or even some baseball and basketball players, I’ll include a shoulder and tricep complex. Working on the shoulder complex through basic movements like ITY’s may help to balance out the athletes posture.

The arm complex is one of my favorites to use with power athletes such as football and especially baseball players. Here we can work across the elbow joint for strength and stability that help in both throwing situations as well as in pressing movements. Here you can also be creative with the rep ranges to make it more of a hypertrophy style if you’re looking for growth.

Core: I like to have athletes finish off working on core stability as well as activation through twisting movements. I don’t often work on things like crunches with my athletes. Lifting heavy weights makes your core far stronger than crunches ever will.

Here’s a quick summary of what we talked about above:

Movement  Sets, Reps Examples
1. Power 5-10 sets, 5-1 reps Med Ball slam, clapping pushups, landmine press, split jerks, snatches, ballistic med ball throws, top speed work
2. Strength  3-10 sets, 3-1 reps Day 1: Floor press, bench press, DB press, neutral press, close grip bench press, single arm dumbbell press, alternating dumbbell press, etc

Day 2: Push press, military or log press, split jerks, landmine variations

3. Vertical/Horizontal Push Varying, 8-20 repetitions (hypertrophy) Vertical Push: military press, push press (DB or BB), landmine press

Horizontal Push: DB bench press, incline press, pushups, incline neutral press, MB pushups

Horizontal/Vertical Pull Varying, 8-20 repetitions (hypertrophy) Vertical Pull: Lat Pulldowns, Chin-ups, hammer grip pull-ups, 

Horizontal Pull: one arm row, cable row, inverted row, Yates row, barbell row, bird dog rows

4. Shoulder/Arm Complex ITY’s, Reverse Flies, Dump the Buckets, Y Raises, Face pulls, lateral raises, plated front raises, hammer curls, tricep extensions, skull crushers, upright rows, banded push downs
5. Core Palloff Press, Barbell Russian Twists, stir the pot, suitcase carries, woodchops, banded rotations, plank variations, sprinter sit ups, hip lifts

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