Any time we are designing exercise programs, we need to first look at how our bodies function. Now, this term “functional training” is often overused or misused. My use of that term simply means improving the body toward movements that actually accomplish something such as bending over, squatting down, pushing and pulling, etc. This is where the upper body must be physically adequate.

A chest and back routine is vital here. In fact, the human body is best divided into three parts: Upper Body-front / Upper Body-back / Lower Body, so the Upper Body (and its muscles) obviously constitutes a major portion of our total body.

Pushing and pulling movements are a part of our daily lives all day long, so it makes good sense to have a routine for these movements.


Pushing motion uses the pecs/chest and anterior shoulder. If you examine the pecs, the main fibers run virtually laterally from the sternum area across the shoulder to the upper arm. A flat bench press-type movement hits these fibers directly. The upper fibers attach to the collar bone so a slightly upward push or incline press hits these fibers more directly.

The back is designed for specific movements. We typically use three: Bending Over, Pulling Down, and Pulling Back.

For bending over and back upright, a bent-leg Deadlift works wonders. Pulling Down can be done with a high cable, wide bar Lat Pulldown or a simple Chin-Up. Finally, Pulling Back is a rowing-type of motion which hits the mid-trapezius right between the shoulder blades. Great for good posture! A mid-cable, wide-grip row is ideal.

Here is a good routine along with tips for each movement:

Flat bench dumbbell press

Lie flat on a bench holding dumbbells near the shoulders, palms facing down toward your feet. Push dumbbells upward allowing the arms to arc inward near the top but don’t lock out arms. Reverse downward until elbows are at-or-just-below shoulder level. Keep forearms straight up and parallel to each other throughout. Don’t allow them to fall forward or back.

Incline bench dumbbell press

Same as above but incline the bench upward slightly. One common mistake is too steep an incline (45 degrees). Keep the incline at 25-30 degrees. This hits the upper fibers without loading the shoulder too much.

back and chest workout routine_02

Bent-leg deadlift

Stand upright holding a barbell down at arm’s length with a slightly wide grip, slightly wide stance. Begin bending over by moving the hips back. Keep chest up, shoulders back, head straight, belly button tucked in (good posture!) As you bend over, allow the bar to descend straight down until it softly touches the top of the kneecaps.

If your posture is correct, this will result in approximately 90 degree bend at the hips. This is plenty to work the lower back muscles and it keeps the movement safe. Avoid letting the bar slide down your thighs or allowing the bar to move forward, away from the body. If your hips are moving back while you’re bending over, the bar will drop straight down to the knees.

Lat pull-down

Grab a wide bar from high cable. Use a wide grip, palms forward. Scoot forward under the bar, then lean back slightly. Look up at the cable and pull the bar toward you, aiming just below the chin.

Avoid aiming for the sternum that’s too low and doesn’t allow for slight shoulder blade retraction (the Lats pull the arms downward, but also slightly backward towards the spine too). Also keep the chest thrust upward as the bar approaches the chin. This keeps the abs from crunching and causing the chest to collapse.


From a mid-height cable (chest height) grab handles out in front, palms down, elbows out to the side. Elevate the chest and chin. Pull back towards the chest while at the same time exerting a slight outward push of the hands. Try to “pinch” the shoulder blades together during the movement.

A major problem many people face is the fact that their backs are too weak. This causes pain while picking things up and also allows stooped-shoulder poor posture. We sit too much! We need to counteract this. In fact the Bent-Leg Deadlift, when done properly, provides as much benefit as any movement I can think of.

There are other beneficial movements too, of course, but these five Upper Body movements will keep you feeling good, looking good, and physically adequate to live your life!

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Pollyanna Hale Health and Lifestyle coaches
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