Aug 24, 2018
Back to Basics

Mike Volkmar, MS, CSCS, PES, is Strength and Conditioning Coach at the Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J. He’s a member of the NSCA New Jersey Advisory Board, wrote Tabata Workout Handbook, Volume 2, and co-authored The Mobility Workout Handbook: Over 100 Sequences for Improved Performance, Reduced Injury, and Increased Flexibility. The Peddie School received the NSCA’s Strength of America Award in 2016.

In the following, he answered our questions on developing upper body strength.

What is your philosophy on upper-body training?

Mike Volkmar: First, we go back to basics! This includes push, pull, carry, and rotate.

Secondly, we make our athletes earn the barbells and dumbbells. They have to pass a push-up test before they can use either piece of equipment. I expect our boys to complete two or three sets of 20 to 25 push-ups, and our girls need to do two or three sets of 10 to 15 push-ups. Next, both girls and boys work up to 50 percent of their bodyweight in dumbbells for the chest press. That is typically around 35- or 45-pound dumbbells per hand for the boys and 20- to 30-pound weights per hand for the girls. Once they’ve accomplished those two steps, they have earned the barbell chest press.

How has research shaped your upper-body training philosophy?

Volkmar: Every day, I read the research provided by the NSCA and articles written by the titans of our industry. If I uncover an exercise or new protocol I can bring to my athletes, I might give it a shot.

That being said, many of my athletes are new to exercise, with a training age of less than one year. They don’t need programs based on the latest research — they need the basic tenets and core principles of strength and conditioning.

I do add some of the newer, research-based, “sexier” movements and protocols with my third- and fourth-year kids, though. For instance, over the years, I’ve added resistance on their bench presses with bands and chains, and I’ve introduced cluster sets for those who have plateaued on the bench or shoulder press.

How do you schedule upper-body work into your strength and conditioning program?

Volkmar: The vast majority of my athletes operate on a three-day, full-body split. This allows me to accommodate my multisport and younger athletes who need to focus on movements, not muscles. When I program upper-body exercises specifically, I try to maintain a balance of push and pull within each training week. Then, each day emphasizes either chest or shoulder work. I also keep in mind the upper back and lat stress that accompanies our Romanian dead lifts, dead lifts, and power cleans.

Our swimmers and football players are the only athletes who get dedicated upper-body days because they are the only ones who train year-round and operate with annual planned performance regimens. Swimmers have a short offseason phase of upper-body work after their competitive season in the winter. Meanwhile, football players follow a four-day split in the winter session focusing on general physical preparedness and hypertrophy.

What upper-body deficiencies are you seeing most often in athletes? How do you address them?

Volkmar: My athletes sit for six to eight hours every day before coming to the weightroom, so I see a lot of Upper Crossed Syndrome — a muscle imbalance pattern in the neck, shoulders, and chest. For overhead/throwing athletes specifically, I see tight lats and chest muscles, limited thoracic spine mobility, and weak scapular muscles.

To fix these deficiencies, I use a joint-by-joint approach. Mobility and stability rely on each other, and each joint is affected by the ones above and below it.

For example, if athletes cannot keep their elbows or chest up during a front squat, I know they have some thoracic spine issues. So I will prescribe half-kneeling, kneeling, and lunging thoracic spine rotations, medicine ball thoracic extensions, and bench thoracic extensions. If I see irregular movement in the scapula during push-ups or know of an overhead athlete who has a pre-existing history of shoulder issues, I’ll have them do band scapula retractions, elbow push-ups, and push-ups plus a dumbbell superman press. We also do a lot of standing and unsupported exercises to reinforce core stability, and our warm-ups include shoulder and thoracic spine mobility to counteract bad posture. Of course, if an athlete shows really poor movement, I refer them to the athletic training staff.

How do you incorporate injury prevention/prehab into your upper-body work?

Volkmar: Going into my ninth year at the Peddie School, I have noticed the injury patterns of the young athletes in each sport. So I know to add rotator cuff strength and shoulder stability exercises for our swimmers to protect their shoulders and more core stability and thoracic mobility work for our rowers to protect their lower backs.

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