Athletes: Avoid These Four Upper-Body Exercises

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As an athlete, your number one goal is to safely improve athletic performance. Performing exercises that increase muscle size but offer little or no performance benefit can lead to stiff joints and slow muscles—the exact opposite of what you need as an athlete. Also, such bodybuilding exercises can put you at risk for injury, negating all of your hard work in the weight room.

Before you perform an exercise, ask yourself: "how will this make me a better athlete?" If you can't easily answer that question, it's probably an exercise you should avoid, to be replaced with a functional movement.

Exercises to Avoid and to Do
In this article, I reveal my top upper-body exercises that athletes need to avoid—and the performance-boosting ones they should do instead. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I will share my four worst lower-body exercises for athletes.

Avoid: Chest Fly
Bodybuilders have popularized the Chest Fly as a way to increase chest size. A big chest may look good on the beach, but the Chest Fly will not help you become a better athlete, since very few sports skills involve its movement pattern. Instead of building a bigger chest, aim for improving your horizontal pressing strength and power.

For athletic benefits, perform Push-Ups instead.

Do: Push-Ups
The Push-Up is an old school exercise that often gets dismissed by athletes as "too easy" since no weight is involved. But performing Push-Ups properly is an effective method for building upper-body strength, which is important if you want to tackle harder or throw faster.

  • Assume Push-Up position with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width
  • Bend elbows and lower until chest is two inches above ground; keep elbows to sides and core tight
  • Forcefully push up against ground to return to starting position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3-5x10-15

If you can do more than 15 Push-Ups, try harder variations, such as Suspended Push-Ups, Chain Push-Ups, Handstand Push-Ups or Decline Push-Ups.

Avoid: Triceps Kickbacks
This is another popular bodybuilding exercise, one that aims to increase triceps size. Like the Chest Fly, Triceps Kickbacks offer few performance benefits, and they can result in stiff arms, limiting your arm movement when throwing, swinging or catching.

For athletic benefits, perform Dips instead.

Do: Dips
Dips are a great bodyweight exercise that will help improve triceps, chest and shoulder strength, while ensuring your shoulder joints remain mobile.

  • Grasp handles of Dip machine and support body with straight arms
  • Lower body with control until chest is at hand level
  • Push body up until arms are straight; repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3-4x8-12

Avoid: Upright Rows
To perform Upright Rows, your shoulders need to be internally rotated. Try this without weight and notice how uncomfortable it feels in your shoulders. Upright Rows put unnecessary stress on your shoulders,and they should be avoided by athletes, particularly pitchers, quarterbacks and tennis players.

For athletic benefits, perform Military Presses instead.

Do: Military Presses
Military Presses not only strengthen your core when you perform an overhead movement. This helps you build a solid and balanced foundation for throwing or swinging with accuracy and power.

  • Stand with weight slightly under chin
  • Grip bar at shoulder width and lift off rack
  • Press weight directly over head until arms are straight
  • Bring back down to start position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3-4x6-8

Avoid: Lat Pulldowns
Some strength coaches argue that Lat Pulldowns have a place in an athlete's workout, but I completely disagree. This exercise isn't necessarily unsafe, but it does lock athletes into a machine and does not mirror athletic movement.

For athletic benefits, perform Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups instead.

Do: Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups
The ultimate bodyweight exercise, Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups target large muscle groups in the back and arms so you can grab rebounds, pull down passes or rip an offensive lineman. They also increase core strength and stability, which will boost your overall athleticism and even improve your speed and agility. If you can't perform Pull-Ups or Chin-Ups, use a resistance band or partner to assist you.

  • Place hands slightly wider than shoulder-width and grip bar with palms facing away from you (Pull-Up) or towards you (Chin-Up)
  • Pull up until chin is over or even with bar
  • Lower until arms are fully extended
  • Don't swing your body or use your legs for momentum

Sets/Reps: 3-4x6-12

If you can't do more than six reps per exercise, stick to Band Assisted Pull-Ups or perform high sets and low reps:  8-12 sets and 3-5 reps.


Joe Meglio is a strength and conditioning coach at the Underground Strength Gym in Edison, N.J. Mentored by one of the brightest minds in the strength and conditioning industry, Zach Even-Esh, Meglio has worked with athletes at the high school, college and professional level. He specializes in training baseball players. Besides being a strength coach, Meglio competed in his first powerlifting meet in 2010, setting the New Jersey state record for Squat, Deadlift and total in his weight class and division. He graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in May 2011, following his final season as captain of the baseball team. For more information, please go to

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