Up In Arms

You get down on a mat to do a pushup. After getting in position, you manage to force out 5 or 6 reps until a sharp pain occurs in your shoulders. No big deal, this happens every time so you decide to continue. It doesn’t really matter since you never can do more than about 8 or 9 reps anyway without needing a break.

You sit down to perform a row. You grab the handles and pull back just like the instructions on the machine tell you to. Afterwards, your elbows and arms hurt so bad you can’t bend them, but it’s probably just a sign that the workout was effective.

You stand up to do a shoulder press and thrust the weights into the air. The first set is alright but by the second set, your arms start wobbling and you begin to lean backwards to help get them up in the air. Like usual, you can’t do more than 2 sets of 10 without shoulder and elbow discomfort.

There is an obsession with arms which affects almost everyone who exercises at some point in time. Any day of the week you can always see people doing curls, pushdowns, kickbacks or overhead extensions. All of this is in good fun until it begins to affect how you perform other exercises.


Arms are not intended to be prime movers for compound lifts. If you do use them in such a way, at best you’re going to limit your progress and at worst, seriously injure yourself. Their main purpose is to transmit force from the chest, back and shoulders into whatever weight you happen to be holding. A fair comparison is that the arms are like the transmission of your car and the other major muscles are like the engine (for the automotively challenged, transmissions don’t power cars).

Sometimes the goal of finishing a movement overtakes the priority of utilizing the proper muscle group. Other times, the name of an exercise will mentally spur people to use their arms. Still in other cases, watching others perform the same movement leads to an incorrect assessment of how it’s done. My clients know first hand that I am a stickler for ensuring that form is a priority on all exercises. Of course if I’m not standing next to you, you’ll have to know where and how to position your body on your own. Books, magazines and videos are good source of information but some of them do not show or explain the proper positioning. Oddly enough, the textual depictions are often better since they’ll use more words to convey what needs to be done rather than just showing a photograph of a demo model.
Below are guidelines to help with the major movements for the upper body. Remember there are infinite variations of each lift, but the same basic rules apply:
Pushups and bench press are supposed to target your chest, not your arms. If your arms are vibrating during the lift, that is a sign that you have disengaged your chest. Once your elbows travel away from the midline of your body, elevate towards your ears or a combination thereof, you’re also transferring effort off of your chest. Set your position by looking in a mirror while standing up; your upper arms should be around a 45 degree angle with respect to your torso. This position while benching or doing pushups will ensure that your shoulders and arms are not taking over the exercise. While it is true that bodybuilders do sometimes flare their arms out to the side, you aren’t a bodybuilder, so don’t do that. Unless you have a very good mind-muscle connection, that technique can lead to injured shoulders if you don’t do it properly.

Pulldowns and pullups should be renamed squeezedowns and squeezeups (you heard it here first). When people hear “pull” they think “use arms”, which starts all kinds of problems. The idea of these movements is to use the muscles of the upper back to initiate and perform the majority of this work. On squeezedowns, relax your grip, release excess forearm tension, then squeeze your shoulder blades together and down, keeping the elbows in line with the vertical angle of your torso. For squeezeups, do the same thing but in the opposite direction. In both cases, keep the chest proudly out and maintain a slight arch in the back. And please, knock off all the kipping stuff. That crap is a great way for you to send a surgeon’s kid through college.

Rows are not meant to be done with arms. Yes, arms do help but the main movers are the large muscles of the upper back. Initiate the backwards motion with the shoulder blades, engage the entire upper back and finish with a tight squeeze. While a stretch to fully involve the lats is acceptable, this is not a sit-and-reach contest. Only go as far as your back will allow you to go without disengaging your shoulder blades. If your arms are exhausted afterwards, stop using your arms.

Shoulder presses are not intended to be done with arms leading the way. If your hands are steering where the dumbells go, you are not generating the force from your deltoids. Evidence will be vibrating arms, elbow pain and a lot of tension in the biceps. Relax your grip slightly and contract the shoulders upward (if that makes sense), ensuring that your hands don’t travel too far out in front of your head. Consider the angles involved; if you can easily see your hands out in front of you at the top of the press, you are no longer pressing vertically.
Use these guidelines to help you achieve more each time you lift, avoid injury and look so professional that people start asking you for advice in the gym.

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About the Author: Christopher Williams