Personal Trainer Programme Design

Exercise 101 – Upper Body Resistance Training

Pushing & Pulling Exercises

In this post, I’ll discuss the basic movement patterns used to train the upper body when performing traditional resistance training exercises. And how to follow a basic classification system to ensure your training does not miss key movement patterns and muscle fibres and help avoid plateaus in your training.

Most gyms and exercise programmes are heavily influenced by bodybuilding, and therefore, the desire to target as many different muscle fibres as possible in a muscle to overload the tissues to create a stress response and the subsequent adaptation of either muscle growth (hypertrophy), metabolic adaptation (muscular endurance) or neurological adaptation (strength), or a combination.

It’s worth noting that it is impossible to create only one adaptation within a muscle, but varying the tempo (speed) of movement and the number of repetitions, sets and exercises performed, these can make training biased towards one outcome but not exclusive to the others.


The classification of upper body movements relates to compound movements, which simultaneously incorporate shoulder and elbow movements.

The determining factor that allows us to understand which muscles are dominant in the movement patterns is to look at the angle of the forearm or where the forearm points in relation to the torso during an exercise.

Forearm Angle

In line with torso / vertical overhead

  • Push = Shoulder Press (Shoulders)
  • Pull = Pull Up / Chin / Pulldowns (Lats)

At a 45-degree upward angle in relation to the torso

  • Push = Incline Press (Chest)
  • Pull = Pulldown / High Pulls (Lats)

At a 90-degree angle in relation to the torso / facing forward

  • Push = Flat Chest Press / Push-Up (Chest)
  • Pull = Seated Row / TRX Row (Traps & Lats)

At a 45-degree downward angle in relation to the torso

  • Push = Decline Press (Chest)
  • Pull = Low Row (Traps)

In line with torso / vertical pointing down to hips

  • Push = Dips (Chest)
  • Pull = Upright Rows (Traps)

Written in brackets in the dominant muscles, but this is a simple analysis. The triceps, shoulders (anterior & lateral deltoid), and chest muscles are involved in all push movements. The biceps, shoulders (posterior deltoid), traps and lats are involved in all pull movements.

What changes is the bias towards each muscle from different movements, and therefore which muscle will be most stressed, fatigue first and the limiting factor to how much weight is lifted and how many repetitions that can be performed.

Who should use the five variations of Push & Pull movements

Training for health & fitness

To keep training varied and reduce the risk of boredom from doing the same exercises repeatedly.

To help maintain function (strength, flexibility & mobility) through various ranges of shoulder motion.

Training to build muscle mass (hypertrophy)

To stress all muscles involved in pushing and pulling movements (i.e. traps or lats, which are both active in pulling movements).

To stress as many muscle fibres within a muscle as possible (the nervous system can partition a muscle).

To allow the body to be broken down into different training splits without overtraining and allow recovery of certain muscle fibres whilst others are being trained (i.e. training the chest one day and the shoulders another, which are both involved in push movements).

To reduce the risk of training plateaus.

Training to build maximal strength (neuromuscular)

To complement and create carry-over to the main lifts that traditionally measure max strength (i.e. pull movements for the Squat and Deadlift and different push movements to complement to flat bench press).

To reduce the risk of training plateaus.

Click the page links below for further information specific to:

How to Perform Pushing Exercises

How to Perform Pulling Exercises