Optimizing Human Performance

Upper Body Strength Improvement

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When implemented properly, overhead strength development can add a lot of value to athletic performance without the normal 18-24 month plateau (stagnant progress). Increasing shoulder stability is a quick and easy way to enhance upper body strength thus adding constant progress to lifts such as the snatch, jerk, kipping pull ups (when prerequisites have been met), handstand push ups and more. The kettlebell is one of the best tools I have used to enhance performance in this area by implementing aspects of the Turkish Get-Up to learn and develop scapular stability and strength.

The Turkish Get-Up is a complex movement that starts with the athlete laying on the ground holding on object over their body with a singular locked out arm. The athlete then progressively moves to the standing position in a step-by-step sequence and then returns back to the ground while continuing to hold a load over the body in a stable, locked out position. The Turkish Get-Up (TGU) is used widely in many fitness programs as a basic movement for anyone who can follow directions. This specific movement is extremely complex that requires adequate mobility, scapular strength and stability, as well as an advanced level of kinesthetic awareness. Although complex, I also believe that all athletes and clients should have some version of this movement in their programming at one point or another because it teaches the client how to connect their upper and lower body together through the core, requires adequate thoracic mobility which is key for high level movements and also develops the lock out position in various different joint angles. Increasing strength through scapular stability exercises is an easy way to see constant progress in movements ranging from pull ups and handstand push ups to snatching, jerking and overhead squatting.

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When done correctly, with proper cuing, the TGU helps individuals understand how to truly activate and stabilize their shoulders in different positions. Many athletes over rely on their upper traps, shrugging upwards to "stabilize their shoulders", which results in a popular epidemic known as upper cross syndrome. When an athlete doesn’t know how to truly stabilize the scapula, the upper traps kick in and become overactive which results in extremely tight muscles of the upper traps, suboccipitals, and anterior pecs. This causes the shoulder to round forward along with a whole slew of other issues, performance being one and pain being another. Many individuals who have a desk job also suffer from this epidemic. We have to teach our bodies how to deactivate the traps and truly stabilize the shoulders and lock the scapula in the appropriate place by using our lats and other muscles throughout the mid-back. This is a two piece protocol that requires both strengthening of specific muscles in the back such as the rhomboids and lower trapezius muscles as well as creating stability around the scapula. Once you have the ability to optimize the position of the shoulder blades, stability increases dramatically which helps performance shoot through the roof. By focusing on pure upper body strength and stability, on-site training client, Mike Shorter, hit a 10lb personal record on his power snatch, which was actually muscle snatched due to the enormous amount of strength that he had acquired in a short time.

Before a client or athlete progresses into a full and even half TGU they must first understand how to compress their shoulder into the ground while laying in a supine position on the floor with the arm locked over the shoulders. Keeping the arm locked out is important to produce the stability of the scapula we are aiming for. When the arm bends, stability is no longer present and the weight is now supported by the muscles of the biceps and the elbow joint. We do not want this. Not having the ability to engage the scapula over time results in compensation of the biceps and will lead to elbow pain (think tennis elbow) that can effect not only performance but quality of life as well. Cue your client to “screw their shoulder into the ground” by teaching them how to activate their lats. Test your athlete by pulling on their arm. If the shoulder is engaged in the proper position then nothing will budge, but if they are not, you will see the shoulder slip forward in a “Rag-Doll” like motion. This is a great tool to help someone understand the different between a shoulder that is stabilized and one that is not. Once this has been mastered I like to add a dynamic aspect of the movement by having the client rotate their arm clockwise and counter clockwise under load to engage the scapula with more complexity. Continue to make sure that the arm remains locked out during this process. Not until now can the client move onto the half TGU and KB arm bars. For some individuals this progression occurs quickly during one session, but for most it takes proper progressions on how to engage the proper muscles to progress past this point.


Moving on to the Half Turkish get-up now allows the client to roll through on their opposite elbow with a 2 count hold and then progress to moving onto the hand, while still stabilizing a weight in the other hand over the shoulder. During these positions we must assess what the scapula is doing as the weight is held overhead. Are the shoulders shrugged and upper traps turned on? Or is the scapula depressed, activating the muscles of the lats, lower trapezius and rhomboids in an effort to stabilize the shoulder. Until the athlete can learn how to turn off the upper traps and activate the muscles of the lower back to stabilize the scapula, the full TGU shoulder be avoided. Be sure to implement other supplementary movements as well that will compliment the goal of increasing scapula strength and stability such as single arm DB rows with pauses, batwing holds, horizontal band pulls, single arm overhead carries, wall slides, etc. Depending on the client and their weaknesses will depend on which exercises you should choose to help support them in their fitness journey.

Struggling with seeing continuous progress in the gym? Contact Central Athlete for more information on how we can help you!


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