Upper Body Strength

Straight Arm Pulldown

Firmly plant your feet. Feel your tripod foot.

Find a neutral spine. Align your rib cage over your pelvis. DO NOT backbend as you pull the bar toward you.

Keep your elbows straight.

Keep the ball of your shoulder in the socket. In other words, keep the front of your shoulders back.

Initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blades down your back. Pull the bar to your body by using your armpits. DO NOT press the bar down with your arms and hands.

Can you feel your latissimus dorsi muscles? These are the big V-shaped muscles that run down your back.

Pause in the bottom position for a breath or two. Feel the muscles on the back of your arms engage. Draw your shoulders down and back. DO NOT back bend. Keep your ribs aligned over your pelvis. Stand tall. Engage your back muscles.



Start hanging on something low where your feet can easily touch the ground.

Grip the bar strongly with your entire hand. Can you feel the pinky finger edge of your palm hold as strongly as the thumb side of your hand?

Imagine that you are going to break the bar with the strength of your shoulders and grip.

Keep your ribs down and aligned over your pelvis.

Breathe easily.

How long can you hold?

Eventually move onto something high enough for your feet to dangle.

Bent Over Bench Row


Soften your knees slightly.

Find your neutral spine position. Engage your hamstrings, butt and core to support you as needed.

Grip the weight strongly with the pinky-finger edge of your hand.

Originate the movement from your shoulder blade, NOT from your hand.

Pull your shoulder back. Keep pulling it back throughout the entire row.

Allow a small gap between your upper arm and your body, about a 45 degree angle.

Pull the weight toward your hip as opposed to your chest.

Stop your elbow movement when your elbow just passes your body. Pause in this position and continue to pull your shoulder back.

Feel the muscles of your upper back working.

As with all shoulder exercises: Keep your shoulder blade on your rib cage (scapular posterior tilt) and keep the ball with the socket.

Lying Dumbbell Pullover


Anchor the back of your ribcage into the floor.

Keep your elbows in line with your wrists. Do not let your elbows move out wider than your wrists. Imagine you have magnets on your inner elbows.

Keeping your elbows bent will make this exercise easier. To increase your challenge, slowly begin to explore straightening your elbows as you take the weight overhead.

Pause in the extended position for a few beat.

Pull your shoulder blades down your back (away from your ears) to return the dumbbell to your starting position.

Choose a weight that allows you to do 10 - 12 repetitions.

Suitcase Carry

Pick up the kettlebell with good technique, as though you are performing a single hand deadlift. Do no round your spine as you bend down to pick up the kettlebell.

Stand tall and walk with upright posture. Imagine you are balancing a book on top of your head as you walk.

Seat your shoulder back in the socket.

Keep your elbow straight. Engage your triceps, the muscles on the back of your arm.

When you are ready to set the kettlebell down, do so with good technique. Do not round your spine. Instead, hinge at your hips and use your legs as though you are performing a deadlift.

Half-Kneeling Overhead Press

This overhead press variation allows you to monitor your ribcage position with your free hand. It also teaches you to activate your glute and hamstring muscles to stabilize your pelvis as you move your arm overhead.


  • Hold the weight on the same side as your kneeling leg.

  • Engage your butt muscles on your kneeling leg WITHOUT tucking your pelvis. This means no "bad dog!" tail.

  • Ground down strongly into your front foot.

  • Place your free hand on your lower, front ribs. These ribs should be flush with your abdomen. Your ribcage should not move during the exercise.

  • As you exhale, press the weight overhead.

  • Notice: Did you lose the contraction of the butt muscles on your kneeling leg? If so, engage them again.

  • Notice: Did you lose the position of your ribcage? If so, drop your ribcage down. DO NOT BACK BEND!

I am doing this exercise with a kettlebell in a rack position, but you can also hold it with the heavy side up (this will challenge your arm's steadiness and grip strength) or you can use a dumbbell or a heavy book or a sack of rice ~ anything that feels slightly heavy for you.

Self-Assisted Pull Up


  • Choose a bar that is about chest height when you are standing.

  • Hang directly under the bar, straight down. Your upper arms should be in line with your ears.

  • Initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades down your back, away from your ears.

  • Pull from your back, not from your arms.

  • Use your legs for assistance as you need.

  • Keep your ribcage down and back. Do not arch your back or back bend.

  • Pause at the top of the movement and emphasis the pull of your shoulder blades down your back.

  • Feel the muscles of your back working.

  • Keep practicing and eventually you will need less and less help from your legs.



Pull ups are one of the greatest exercises. They improve shoulder function as well as upper body and core strength. The ability to pull yourself up to a bar or climb a tree creates a feeling of empowerment and possibility. Of course, being able to do a pull up is major act of strength that most people (living in a culture that requires us to do very little with our upper body) cannot perform. This self-assisted pull up is an easy, accessible way to begin working your way toward the full pull up.