Louie Simmons was famous for saying “a chain is only as strong as the weakest link.” He is exactly right! Your performance on the big upper body exercises will always be limited by your weak muscle groups.
The fastest way to increase your upper body strength is to identify these weak muscle groups and then to design your workouts to strengthen them. And by far the most effective way to do this is with upper body structural balance testing!
- Part 1: What Is Upper Body Structural Balance Testing?
- Part 2: How To Perform The Assessment
- Part 3: How To Interpret Your Results
- Part 4: How To Strengthen Lagging Muscle Groups
- Part 5: How To Train For Optimal Structural Balance
In this comprehensive guide I will teach you everything you need to know about how to use upper body structural balance testing to build a bigger, stronger upper body.
Upper body structural balance testing was developed and perfected by the Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin in the 1980s. The basic idea is that your total upper body strength will be maximized when the strength of all of your muscles are in balance with each other. I
f you have a weak muscle group such as a weak rotator cuff then it will prevent you from making progress.
In this guide I will teach you the exact structural balance testing protocols that Charles used with his athletes. I will also teach you how to interpret these results, how to strengthen your lagging muscle groups and how to design a full 12-week upper body training program to achieve optimal upper body structural balance.
Trust me, you don’t want to miss out on this cutting edge information! Now let’s get down to business…
Part 1: What Is Upper Body Structural Balance Testing?
Upper body structural balance testing was developed by Charles Poliquin in the 1980s. The idea is simple: when the muscles of your upper body are in balance with each other you will be able to make faster strength and size gains.
Charles figured out that there were actually precise strength ratios between different exercises that you should shoot for. For example if an athlete could bench press “X” amount of weight then they should be able to overhead press “Y” amount of weight and perform pull ups with “Z” total weight.
Charles didn’t want to leave anything to chance so he started performing advanced statistical analysis on the training logs of all of his athletes.
The results were impressive: Charles was able to identify the optimal strength ratios between 10 different upper body exercises. When his athletes achieved these optimal strength ratios their progress in the gym and their performance in their sport went through the roof!
Here are the exact strength ratios:
- Bench press (shoulder-width grip): 100% x 1 rep
- Free weight V-bar dips: 117% x 1 rep
- 45 degree incline barbell press (shoulder-width grip): 91% x 1 rep
- Seated behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip): 66% x 1 rep
- Seated DB overhead press: 29% per dumbbell x 8 reps
- Shoulder-width supinated grip chin ups: 87% x 1 rep
- Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip): 45% x 1 rep
- Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip): 36% x 1 rep
- Lying ez-bar extensions (to forehead): 40% x 8 reps
- Seated DB external rotations: 9.8% x 8 reps
- Unsupported trap 3 raise: 10.2% x 8 reps
Note: for testing purposes all exercises should be performed on a 4/0/X/0 tempo. That is, you must lower the weight over 4 seconds and lift the weight explosively.
The only exceptions are the seated DB external rotations and the unsupported trap 3 raise which should be performed with a 4/0/1/0 tempo. That is, you must lower the weight over 4 seconds and lift the weight over 1 second.
If you have the time then it is best to assess all of these lifts. This will give you the best information possible to design your upcoming strength training programs. If you are in a hurry then there is a more abbreviated testing protocol that you may want to perform:
- Exercise #1: Shoulder-width bench press x 1 rep
- Exercise #2: Seated DB external rotations x 8 reps
- Exercise #3: Unsupported trap 3 raise x 8 reps
- Exercise #4: Seated DB overhead press
Performing just these 4 exercises will tell you almost everything you need to know. Now let’s check out how to actually interpret these results.
Let’s take a look at some training videos for these last 4 exercises. After all, they are absolutely critical for the whole testing procedure.
Exercise #1: Shoulder-width bench press x 1 rep
It is extremely important that you be as strict as possible with your form while performing this exercise. If you are an experienced powerlifter then you do NOT want to excessively arch your back during this exercise. Doing so will skew the results for the testing protocol.
Make sure that you are lowering the weight over 4 seconds the entire way down. The barbell should be lowered at the same speed all the way to your chest before exploding back to lockout.
And yes, getting a liftoff for this exercise is acceptable and even preferred.
Exercise #2: Seated DB external rotations x 8 reps
This is one of the most important exercises for the entire upper body structural balance testing protocol. It is very important that you perform this exercise correctly! You want to use nothing but the external rotators of your shoulder to move the weight. That means you cannot use “momentum” or any other tricks to hoist up the weight.
Here is Nick Mitchell coaching a personal training client through this exercise. I strongly recommend you watch the video:
Many of you reading this will have to use the 2.5 – 5 pound dumbbells for this exercise on your first attempt. Don’t worry, that is OK. Shoot for 8 reps on this exercise but perform your set to just shy of failure. If you are a little above or below 8 reps that is OK.
Exercise #3: Unsupported trap 3 raise x 8 reps
This is another extremely technical exercise. You want to initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades back and down. This may be difficult to perform if you are a newer lifter. Just think about tucking your shoulder blade back and then into your back pocket.
Once you have that position locked in you will raise your arm up at an angle until it is straight out in front of your body. If you perform this exercise correctly you will have a relatively painful burning sensation in your mid-back area. That is your lower trap working!
Once again most of you will have to resort to using extremely light weights your first time trying this exercise. Don’t be surprised if the 5 pound dumbbells feel heavy!
Exercise #4: Seated DB overhead press
This is a relatively straightforward exercise to perform.
For testing purposes you actually want to use a neutral or hammer grip rather than the more popular pronated or palms facing forward grip. The neutral grip tends to be a little bit easier on the shoulders and will give you more accurate results for the testing protocol.
Once again select a pair of dumbbells that you believe you can perform about 8 reps with on a 4/0/X/0 tempo.
Part 3: How To Interpret Your Results
Once you have completed the testing procedure you should compare your results to the optimal strength ratios identified in part 1 of this article. Let’s take a look at Average Joe’s results from the upper body structural balance testing protocol. Check it out:
- Bench press (shoulder-width grip): 300 x 1 rep
- Free weight V-bar dips: 360 x 1 rep
- 45 degree incline barbell press (shoulder-width grip): 250 pounds x 1 rep
- Seated behind the neck press (shoulder-width grip): 140 pounds x 1 rep
- Seated DB overhead press: 60 pounds x 8 reps
- Shoulder-width supinated grip chin ups: 255 pounds x 1 rep
- Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / supinated grip): 135 pounds x 1 rep
- Preacher ez-bar curl (wide / pronated grip): 80 pounds x 1 rep
- Lying ez-bar extensions (to forehead): 120 pounds x 8 reps
- Seated DB external rotations: 5 pounds x 8 reps
- Unsupported trap 3 raise: 5 pounds x 8 reps
The most important thing is to identify improper strength ratios between the lifts. In this case Joe Average has four major strength imbalances:
- Overhead pressing strength
- External rotator strength
- Lower trap strength
- Brachialis strength
Joe Average’s overhead pressing numbers are quite a bit lower than they should be. With a 300 pound bench press Joe should be able to use 200 pounds on the behind the neck press for a single.
However, Joe is only able to behind the neck press 135 pounds! This is a massive discrepancy. His seated DB overhead press is also extremely weak compared to what it should be.
The next major strength imbalance is his reverse curling strength. Reverse curls primarily target the brachialis. With a 300 pound bench press Joe Average should be able to reverse curl 108 pounds but he struggled with just 80 pounds on this exercise!
Finally Joe’s numbers for the seated DB external rotations and the unsupported trap 3 raise were WAY off. Joe should be able to use 30 pound dumbbells for these exercises but he struggled with just 5 pounds!
The good news is Joe now knows which muscle groups are weak. This means he can specifically design his net set of routines to strengthen these weak muscle groups.
Part 4: How To Strengthen Lagging Muscle Groups
Now that you understand how to perform the upper body structural balance testing protocol let’s look at some of the best strategies for strengthening your weak muscle groups. Most trainees have massive weakness in the following muscle groups:
- External rotators of the rotator cuff
- Lower traps
- Overhead pressing strength
Let’s take a look at some of the best training strategies to attack each of these weak points.
Lagging Muscle Group #1: External Rotators Of The Rotator Cuff
There are four different muscles in the rotator cuff. All 4 of these muscles play a crucial role in stabilizing the shoulder joint during the big compound upper body exercises.
If your rotator cuff is too weak then your performance in exercises such as the bench press, overhead press, pull ups and rows will be negatively impacted. Trying to bench press with a weak rotator cuff is like “trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe.”
You need a solid foundation to fire a cannon from and you need a strong rotator cuff to stabilize and bench press big weights!
The rotator cuff muscles that tend to be weakest in most trainees are known as the external rotators. If your rotator cuff is too weak then the best way to strengthen it is with targeted isolation exercises. In my experience there are four different isolation exercises that work best for strengthening a pair of weak external rotators:
- Seated DB external rotations
- Standing cable external rotations
- Seated cable rope face pulls
Let’s take a closer look at each of these rotator cuff exercises.
Rotator Cuff Exercise #1: Seated DB External Rotations
Once again I recommend you watch this video with the audio turned up. Nick Mitchell does a wonderful job of explaining the importance of only using your external rotators to move the weight. This exercise was used to test your rotator cuff strength during the testing protocol but it is also a great option.
When you are first performing his exercise in your training you want to use relatively higher repetitions and slower tempos. For example performing 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps on a 3/0/2/0 tempo would be perfect. The slower tempos are necessary to make sure that you are recruiting the correct muscles.
As your rotator cuff strength improves you can transition to using relatively lower rep ranges.
Rotator Cuff Exercise #2: Standing Cable External Rotations
Cables work EXTREMELY well for isolating the rotator cuff. They allow for a much more natural movement pattern than dumbbells in many cases. There are two main rotator cuff muscles that externally rotate the shoulder: the infraspinatus and the teres minor.
One of these muscles is activated more when your elbow is hugged against your side while the other is activated more when your elbow is pointed out towards your side and away from your body.
One of the advantages of cables is that you can easily train both of these movement patterns. For example here is how to perform cable external rotations with your arm adducted:
This exercise is great for targeting the Teres Minor.
And here is how to perform cable external rotations with your arm abducted:
This exercise is great for targeting the infraspinatus.
Many of you reading this will find that these cable exercises are much more comfortable to perform than the seated DB external rotation exercise. If that is the case then you can make excellent strength gains by focusing more on these 2 exercises.
Once again you want to start out with higher reps and slower repetitions when you first start performing these exercises.
Rotator Cuff Exercise #3: Seated Cable Rope Face Pulls
Cable rope face pulls are an unbelievably effective exercise for improving your overall upper body structural balance. They work more than just the external rotators of the shoulder – they also train the scapular retractors quite hard. Unfortunately it is very rare to see this exercise performed correctly.
There are two parts to this movement: pulling back with your elbows and externally rotating your arms. Once your elbows are pulled all the way back and your shoulder blades are squeezed together you want to start rotating your hands up towards the ceiling.
In the fully contracted position your hands should be directly over your shoulders. If you do this correctly then your external rotators will get one hell of a workout!
I recommend you perform this exercise after you have started to make progress with the other rotator cuff isolation exercises covered earlier. If your rotator cuff is too weak then it is difficult to properly activate it during this compound movement.
Lagging Muscle Group #2: Lower Trap
The lower trap is another one of those muscle groups that is extremely weak in most individuals. Someone with a 300 pound bench press should be able to use 30 pound dumbbells in the unsupported trap 3 raise. However, the typical 300 pound bench presser will struggle with 5 pound dumbbells on this exercise!
The lower trap is so important because it stabilizes the scapula during the big compound upper body exercises. If your scapula is unstable then your rotator cuff cannot do its job of stabilizing the shoulder! This is obviously a big problem.
Here are three of the best exercises to strengthen your lower traps:
- Prone bilateral trap 3 raise
- Sternum pullups
- Klokov muscle snatch
Let’s take a closer look at both of these exercises.
Lower Trap Exercise #1: Prone Bilateral Trap 3 Raise
I strongly recommend you watch the above video with the volume turned up. Once again Nick Mitchell of Ultimate Performance does an outstanding job of teaching this exercise.
You are going to lay face-down on an adjustable incline bench. The bench can be set to anywhere from 15-45 degrees. You are going to initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades back and down.
Once your shoulder blades are locked in place you will raise your arms up at an angle until your arms are straight out in front of you. Then you lower the dumbbells down under control to the starting position. This is not an exercise where you are trying to move maximum poundages.
It is absolutely CRITICAL that you feel your lower traps working during this exercise. If you do it correctly you will feel an intense burning sensation in your middle-back area.
You can use a 45, 30 or 15 degree incline bench for this exercise. The 45 degree angle is much easier while the 30 and 15 degree incline bench variations are much more challenging. I recommend you start off with the 45 degree version for at least a few workouts before progressing to the more challenging variations.
You may also want to play around with using longer isometric pauses in the top position of this exercise. Charles Poliquin often had his clients start out performing sets of 6 on a 4/0/1/6 tempo. That is, they used a 6-second pause in the top position and a 4 second lowering phase.
Lower Trap Exercise #2: Pull Up Scapular Retractions
Pull up scapular retractions are one of the most effective lower trap isolation exercises that you have never heard of. You are going to grip the bar with a wide / overhand grip.
Your goal with this exercise is to lift your upper chest up to the bar WITHOUT bending your elbows. In order to do this you have to use your lower traps to pull your shoulder blades down and back. If you perform this exercise correctly you will feel a strong burning sensation in your middle back area – this is your lower trap working.
This is a great exercise to perform for people who have a hard time feeling their lower traps working. After all, the only way to lift your chest up to the bar without bending your elbows is to activate your lower traps.
I strongly recommend you use isometric pauses in the top position of this exercise. You can use pauses lasting as long as 3-8 seconds on every rep. Doing this will help you to accumulate enough time under tension to really fatigue the lower traps.
For example you may want to use 4 sets of 6 reps on a 1/0/1/6 tempo or 3 sets of 10 reps on a 1/0/1/3 tempo.
Lower Trap Exercise #3: Klokov Muscle Snatch
This is a more advanced lower trap exercise that was popularized by the Olympic Weightlifting superstar Dmitry Klokov. You are going to start in the bottom position of a deep Olympic squat. Yes, you need to have some flexibility to perform this exercise. No pissing, no moaning!
Grip the barbell with a snatch grip. You want this to be just about as wide as you can safely grip the barbell. You are then going to perform a snatching motion using nothing but your upper body. This is a very explosive movement – you want to accelerate the bar as quickly as you can.
Don’t worry about lowering the weight under control – just let it drop back down to the ground. If you perform this exercise correctly you will get a tremendous lower trap workout.
This exercise is also great for working the deltoids, the middle trap, the rhomboids and even the external rotators. It is right up there with face pulls as one of the best exercises you can perform for overall upper body structural balance.
Charles Poliquin used to recommend his athletes perform 5 sets of 6 reps on an X/1/X/0 tempo.
Lagging Muscle Group #3: Overhead Pressing Strength
OK, I’m cheating a little bit here. The overhead press is not a muscle group! Still I feel it is very important to talk about how to bring up your overhead pressing strength.
Most trainees are very weak at all forms of overhead pressing relative to the bench press. This is extremely bad for the health of your shoulders and will limit your upper body strength and size gains.
If you are serious about improving your overhead pressing strength then the first thing you should do is stop bench pressing. I recommend you take a full 2-3 months off of the bench press while you focus on boosting your overhead pressing strength.
There are a variety of ways that you could design an overhead pressing strength cycle. One of my favorites is to focus on a new overhead pressing exercise once every 2-3 weeks. For example:
- Weeks 1-3: Seated DB overhead press x 8-10 reps
- Weeks 4-6: Seated barbell military press x 4-5 reps
- Weeks 7-9: Seated behind the neck press x 6-7 reps
- Weeks 10-12: Standing military press x 2-3 reps
Organizing your workings in this manner works extremely well for most trainees. If you are an extremely advanced or extremely strong trainee then you may actually get better results changing your exercises every single workout.
For example here is how an advanced powerlifter might organize their upper body workouts in the offseason to bring up their overhead press:
- Workouts #1/4/7: Standing 1-arm DB overhead press, sets of 8 reps
- Workouts #2/5/8: Standing behind the neck press, sets of 5 reps
- Workouts #3/6/9: Standing military press, sets of 2 reps
A lot of strongmen competitors have also had success using conjugate periodization where they worked up to a 1-3 rep max on a different overhead pressing exercise every week. There are many ways to skin a cat.
If you are looking for a more detailed discussion on customized training periodization then check out the following article:
I cover a wide variety of ways to periodize your workouts in that article. To summarize bringing up your overhead press is about 2 things:
- Dropping the bench press temporarily
- Specializing on a variety of overhead pressing exercises
At the end of this article I will give you a complete 12-week overhead pressing specialization phase that you can use to bring up your lagging overhead press.
Lagging Muscle Group #4: Brachialis
Most trainees under train their brachialis muscle. Actually that is an understatement: most trainees do not train their brachialis at all! The brachialis is an upper arm muscle located underneath the biceps brachii. It helps to flex (bend) the elbow and is especially active when you curl with a pronated or palms-facing-down grip.
Most trainees spend very little time curling with a pronated grip. This is a bigger problem than you might think. Charles Poliquin discovered that a weakness in the brachialis will actually limit your strength gains on all of the other upper body exercises.
If you are in optimal structural balance then you should be able to reverse curl 82% f what you can curl with a supinated grip. In other words if you can curl 100 pounds x 8 reps with a supinated grip then you should be able to curl 82 pounds x 8 reps with a pronated grip.
Most of you reading this will be nowhere close to achieving this strength ratio! In some ways that is a good thing: if you correct this muscular imbalance then your progress in the gym will shoot through the roof.
There are many exercises that you can use to train the brachialis but in my experience the Zottman curl is the king of all brachialis exercises. Here is a demonstration of the 2-arm seated Zottman curl:
And here is a demonstration of the 1-arm preacher zottman curl:
Yes, there are other exercises you can use to train the brachialis. But Zottman curls are by far the most effective. To perform a Zottman curl you simply curl the weight up with a supinated grip and lower the weight down with a pronated grip. You just rotate the dumbbells in the top and bottom position to do this.
When you perform zottman curls you are actually eccentrically overloading your brachialis muscle. As you already know you are stronger with a supinated grip than a pronated grip. This means when you lower the weight down you are lowering down a heavier-than-usual weight.
These accentuated eccentric contractions are an extremely effective way to train for size and strength gains. This especially true for a fast-twitch muscle like the brachialis.
For a more detailed discussion on the best brachialis exercises you can check out the following article:
You can also check out the following article for a more detailed discussion of accentuated eccentric training:
Part 5: How To Train For Optimal Structural Balance
By now you should understand how to perform the upper body structural balance testing protocol, how to interpret the results of your test and some of the best strategies for strengthening your weak muscle groups / exercises. Now let’s put it all together with a full 12 week peaking program designed to improve your upper body structural balance!
To review mos trainees have the following upper body muscular weaknesses:
- Weak external rotators strength (rotator cuff)
- Weak lower trap strength
- Week overhead pressing strength
- Weak brachialis strength
These muscles / exercises are usually weak relative to the bench press. Even if you do not have weaknesses in all of these muscles I am confident the following 12-week routine will do wonders for your overall upper body strength.
I recommend that you perform each phase for a total of 3 weeks. You can use an upper body / lower body training split performed 3-4 days per week for this program.
- Monday: Upper Body
- Wednesday: Lower Body
- Friday: Upper Body
- Saturday: Lower Body
I will leave the lower body workouts up to you. I will only be telling you what to do on the upper body workouts. Please note: if you have any trouble reading these routines then check out this article on how to read a training program.
Phase #1: Accumulation 1
- A1: Seated DB overhead press (neutral grip), 4 x 8-10, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A2: Seated Poliquin DB lateral raise, 4 x 8-10, 2/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
- A3: Narrow neutral grip pull ups, 4 x 8-10, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
- A4: Seated cable rope face pulls, 4 x 8-10, 2/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Seated DB zottman curls, 3 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest
- B2: Decline DB extensions, 3 x 10-12, 3/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest
- C1: Seated DB external rotations, 3 x 12-15, 3/0/2/0, 30 seconds rest
- C2: Prone bilateral 45 degree trap 3 raise, 3 x 6, 4/0/1/6, 30 seconds rest
Phase #2: Intensification 1
- A1: Standing barbell military press, 6 x 5/4/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- A2: Wide pronated grip pull ups, 6 x 5/4/3**, 2/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
- B1: Hammer strength overhead press, 3 x 7-9, 4/0/1/0, 45 seconds rest
- B2: Barbell dead stop row, 3 x 7-9, 2/1/X/0, 45 seconds rest
- C1: Standing cable external rotations (arm adducted), 3 x 7-9, 2/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest
- C2: Prone bilateral 30 degree trap 3 raise, 3 x 7-9, 2/0/2/2, 30 seconds rest
**Performed as a 5/4/3 wave. Perform 5 reps on your 1st set, 4 reps on your 2nd set, 3 reps on your 3rd set, 5 reps on your 4th set, 4 reps on your 5th set, 6 reps on your 6th set. Check out this article for more information.
Phase #3: Accumulation 2
- A1: Standing behind the neck press, 5 x 6, 3/2/X/1, 90 seconds rest
- A2: Narrow supinated grip chin ups, 5 x 6, 3/0/X/1, 90 seconds rest
- B1: Machine chest supported row, 3 x 8-10, 2/0/1/2, 60 seconds rest
- B2: Seated DB external rotations (arm abducted), 3 x 8-10, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- C1: Unilateral preacher zottman curl, 3 x 8-10, 4/0/1/0, 30 seconds rest
- C2: Prone bilateral 15 degree trap 3 raise, 3 x 8-10, 3/0/X/1, 30 seconds rest
Phase #4: Intensification 2
- A1: Standing barbell overhead press, 1 x 1**, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B1: Standing barbell overhead press isometric****, 4 x 1, 1/0/X/6, 120 seconds rest
- B2: Standing barbell overhead press speed set******, 4 x 2, 1/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- B3: Medium pronated grip pull ups, 4 x 4, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
- C1: V-bar dips (upright torso), 2 x 5-6, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- C2: T-bar row, 2 x 7-9, 2/0/X/0, 90 seconds rest
- D1: Cable external rotations (arm abducted), 2 x 6-8, 3/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
- D2: Prone unilateral unsupported trap 3 raise, 2 x 6-8, 2/0/X/0, 60 seconds rest
**Performed with your estimated 2-rep max for that day
****Press an empty 45 pound barbell into a set of safety pins. This is an all-out overcoming isometric contraction – press like you are trying to break the pins in half! Perform 2 sets in the bottom half of the motion and 2 sets in the top half of the motion. You will need to re-adjust the safety pins to do this.
******Performed with 75% of your estimated 1-rep max for that day.
If there is one thing I want you to take away from this article let it be this: “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”
If you want to build a bigger, stronger upper body at the fastest possible rate then you MUST identify your weak links and obliterate them. Upper body structural balance testing as popularized by Charles Poliquin is the absolute fastest way to do this.
“Remember the mind is your best muscle… Big arms can move rocks, but big words can move mountains…. Ride the brain train for success.”
Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!
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