What I've Done for My Upper Body

I’ve gotten a fair number of compliments on my “leaning out” in the last few months. I love to say that I’ve actually been in the process of bulking up, putting on about 10 lbs in the last three months, and working my ass off to make sure my upper body is filling out.

Apparently, it’s working. I’ve gotten several strangers ask if I was a powerlifter or body builder. (I just say yes so I don’t have to continue the conversation.)

So I thought I would highlight the things I’ve done, particularly in the last two months, to make this happen:

Multi-Joint Movements

I only have so much extra time in the gym, and I can’t dedicate time to something that won’t have a direct effect on my performance. And while I love a good bicep curl as much as the next person, it’s purely dessert. I’m going to dedicate myself to multi-joint pulling and pressing moves that will have my muscles work in conjunction with each other, allow me to move more weight, and as such, I’ll grow faster.

The main movements I focus on:

  • Overhead strict press (barbell and dumbbell)
  • Push press (barbell and dumbbell)
  • Dips
  • Pullovers
  • Pull ups/ chin ups
  • Barbell rows
  • TRX rows
  • Dumbbell rows

But, Newman, what about bench pressing?

Bench pressing WILL help get you big faster. But. I’m not a powerlifter and don’t need a big bench press. Plus, I found that when I did bench, it made my shoulders really tight and made doing the explosive overhead moves (jerks, push presses, even snatches) that much harder to get in the groove. So I ditched them and added more dips for my chest, which don’t seem to have the same tightening effect.

Volume and Frequency

As much as I hate the idea that my biology holds me back, the simple fact is that as a female, I’m not going to put on upper body mass as easily as a guy. I can’t get away with pressing once a week for a few sets of 5 and expect to grow. I just don’t have the testosterone for it.

So I do some sort of pressing every day. I merely change up the rep scheme and the direction of action.

For instance:

Tuesday: After my terrible squats, I’m doing 3-4 sets of max effort (7-10 reps) strict press superset with a max effort pull up/TRX row burnout combo.

Wednesday: After my Olympic lifting and front squats, I’m doing dumbbell push presses, dumbbell rows, and dumbbell pull overs.

Thursday: This is my terrible push press day, after which I do more strict presses alternating with a pull up/ chin up combo.

Friday: After my Olympic lifting and squats, I’ll do 3-5 sets of barbell rows and dips.

Eat to Grow!

This is the hardest one to get through to women. If you want your muscles to grow, you have to provide the stuff your body needs to make that happen.

If you’re not already using a whey protein powder, get on that train. I recommend Optimum Nutrition, MyProtein, and Max Muscle’s house brand. Protein is the building block for muscle. Aim for 0.8-1g per pound of body weight.

Also, you’re probably going to spend more time exerting yourself. Eat your damn carbs. I have a Rice Krispie treat before I train, and lots of rice and chicken after, plus a bowl of cereal before bed. (Don’t forget your glass of wine or beer!)

No. Shut it. Eat your damn carbs.

Make Yourself Uncomfortable

The only way to progress is to really push it. If you’re doing sets of ten, but your last rep has you smiling and chatting, you’re not going heavy enough. If you don’t occasionally fail or make awful noises, you’re not going heavy enough. It’s in those edges, where you lose form a bit, where you scrunch your face and turn red, where you’re thinking “can’t that be enough?” That’s where adaptation happens. So go there.