Shrugged Collective

How to Build Your Upper Body

I am new to weightlifting. 

I may not have a lot of experience in the sport, but I have had amazing opportunities to train with a wide variety of lifters and coaches from a wide variety of backgrounds. I can’t recommend that enough. If you really want to learn, hit the road.

My first coach was from Hungary and had a very classic view of weightlifting. He programed the clean and press in every single training session. There was always heavy abdominal work, and loads of accessory exercises like pull ups, back extensions, good mornings, rows. We did a lot of heavy pulls in all varieties and reps ranges.

The goal was simple – Be strong all over.

Travis Mash, my current coach, is well versed in pretty much all training styles. He also incorporates days where upper body strength work is the singular training focus. His emphasis on torso, back and upper body strength seems to be unique. Not many coaches focus on upper body strength. Why not?


One kilo at a time. 91kg/200lbs for a double.

A video posted by adeezukier (@adeezukier) on


Here are some facts about Olympic Weightlifting:

  • There used to be “one-hand” as well as “two-hand” events with no weight classes.
  • The clean and strict press was a contested event for many years.
  • At one time you were not allowed to make body contact with the barbell. There were plenty of notorious lifters who would “sneak-in” a brush to lift more. This technique emerged in Europe and eventually displaced the traditional technique.
  • The “one-hand” movements were removed and shortly after the clean and press. This was because the lifters began to use their legs and bend their bodies to generate momentum.

When lifters were not able to make body contact with the bar there was a clear and obvious need for upper back, shoulders, and arm strength, as the body is not at a biomechanical advantage without the ability to make contact.With the clean and press lifters needed strong shoulders, back, and core because they could not bend at the knee. It would be a severe understatement to say that the upper bodies of the lifters during this time were simply “strong.”

hint: add some no-contact cleans and snatches to your programming if strength is your goal. Get jacked!

Once the clean and press was removed from competition the Bulgarians began to dominate international weightlifting competitions and everyone speculated about their training methods. It is commonly thought in North America that “Bulgarian” training is simply snatch and clean and jerk with lots of heavy squats. This is a programing style that has now been adopted by many great weightlifting programs, which have built great lifters.

It is interesting to note that, today, we see the Chinese lifters taking some many records. They have extreme muscular development in their legs and upper bodies, even looking like body builders in some cases. This development in their physique isn’t from simply doing snatch, clean and jerk, and the squat over and over again.

Upper body development shouldn’t be the main focus of a training program, but it cannot be disregarded. Aside from the few lifters with a natural aptitude for lifting and perfect symmetry, most lifters would probably benefit from more upper body work. It would be difficult to over do it.



Benefits of Upper Body Strength for Olympic Weightlifters: 

Adding upper body strength and size is a great way to protect against injury. It is common for lifters to move up a weight class after experiencing an upper body injury. For example, Sa Jae-Hyouk, Mari-lou Dozois Prevost, and Janos Baranyai all returned to competition in heavier classes, with beefier frames, after experiencing horrific elbow dislocations. Moving up a class allows a lifter to put on size in the upper body to prevent an injury from occurring again.

Having a strong lower body and attempting weights that the upper body cannot “catch” is a bad idea.

At a certain weight technique will begin to break down for every lifter. With a weak back it is difficult to “stay over the bar” or maintain a tight and straight spine. This can lead to rounding of the upper back in the clean, forward lean in the “dip” of a jerk, or an early throw in a snatch/clean leading to a missed lift.  


Technique is number one, always. However, strength can help a lifter maintain technique when reaching a certain percentage. Upper body strength is important during the pull, the squat, the catch, and the jerk. So why not put some focus on making the upper body stronger?

Here are a few tips for programing upper body strength work in your training:

  • Add the work in slowly, one session at a time. If you press once a week for example, add a second light day later in the week. In time you can make that a moderate to heavy day, and eventually add more training sessions. Just remember that this takes some time. Be patient.
  • Use a very simple linear progression to drive up your numbers. There aren’t many technique tricks that will save you in the press. You have to get strong. And you get strong by adding weight to the barbell as often as you can, in little chunks. Programs like Starting Strength and 5/3/1 are great examples.
  • You will eventually hit a wall. When you feel beat up, back the load down for a few weeks and work on form and speed only. Keep the loads to around 50-70% of your best. When you return to your progression in the following weeks the heavy barbell will feel great in your hands.
  • When it comes to adding mass to the upper body, repetition work is where its at! One of my favorite things to do at least once a week is a high rep pressing set. Go for variety here. I love to use dumbbells, kettlebells, pushups, fat-barbells, cables, you name it. Do a few warm-up sets of 8-10, then do 1-2 RM sets where you get as many clean reps as possible. A target of 20-30 is great. Trust me, you’ll grow. You will also feel great after this!

Happy pressing,


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Mike Bledsoe

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