By Casey Stutzman

The secret to upper body strength is two fold;

1) Trunk position/activation

2) Efficient positioning of the shoulders.

Most “athletic” strength programs fail to address one or both of these variables particularly because we choose exercises that are simply not designed to do the job.

So yes, I am now about to turn into “that guy” that picks on the bench press.  Full disclaimer, the bench press is not a terrible exercise but it does get undeserved credit for being the gold standard of upper body strength and that is just not the case.

Two main concerns for relying on the bench press to create upper body strength are;

1)     Zero core engagement.  Ok, 0 is not 100% accurate but it’s pretty darn close.  In natural movements we rely on the muscles of the trunk to stabilize the pelvis and rib cage relative to each other.   When lying flat on a bench that is pretty hard to do, not to mention our bodies are built to perform standing on two feet, so drastically altering that environment does not give us results that translate.

2)     There it too much focus on prime movers.  Each and every joint in the body is a complex dance of mobility and stability.  The deep muscles and supporting cast around the joint stabilize (create and hold efficient positons in the joint) allowing the big guys to move (create mobility).  In isolated exercise (like the bench press) we either force the prime movers to stabilize (not their job) or generate force with the movers without first activating the stabilizers.  For the sake of time let’s just say both are bad and will jack you up.

So what is the most effective way to create a strong, athletic and high performing upper body?

At our training studio we have been experimenting with using unstable loads to increase upper body performance for a few years now and have been delighted with the results.  In short an unstable load is a shifting and moving mass that has to be controlled through a range of motion.  We use the Surge® for the majority of our training, a large water filled cylinder with two different sets of handles for a number of grip options and usable positions.  The shifting water in the Surge® provides us with a number of benefits when developing truly functional upper body strength:

  • Core involvement – 95% of the exercises we program with the Surge® are in a standing position.  We use it as one of our favorite “core off the floor” tools.  In this environment we can teach people to set and maintain a braced neutral spine before pushing or pulling which not only leads to increased performance but massively decreases the risk of injury.  Some of the advanced progressions we can play with take this one step further and teach the user how to use a stable core to efficiently transfer energy from the ground up expressing power through the upper body.  This singular ability the one thing great athletes and performers have that others don’t.

  • Feedback – In my experience positioning is the key to unlocking strength.  What I mean by that is if someone has poor shoulder position, perhaps cannot set their scapula effectively it does not matter how “strong” their delts, pecs or lats are, they will always be “leaking energy”.  Optimal positioning of the joints is the cornerstone of strength and performance. The challenge for many trainers is getting clients and athletes to learn what optimal positions feel like and how to create them without you standing over their shoulder.  Verbal and visual feedback can be powerful tools but when I am telling a client how to perform an exercise that is “my movement”, effective coaching is making it become “their movement”.  They need to feel it so it will click and they can recreate those positions without me standing their watching them.  Enter the water.  If they lose spine positions, lose shoulder position, try to take a break and lose tension during the movement the water will instantly destabilize.  When it does the now erratic shifting load becomes 100 times more difficult to control.  This chain reaction creates a perfect feedback loop, much like a child learning to walk, they fall, learn from that experience and make corrections to improve the next effort.

  • Another massive benefit we have found in training with the Surge® has been how progressive and programmable the tool has shown to be.  Using the Surge® has allowed us to keep true to the variables listed above (core involvement and feedback on position) while finding a number of different ways to challenge a client/athlete at their current level of capability while still yielding positive results.  Having a “living”, moving resistance like water allows us to change the action of the fluid in the Surge® to create a number of different stimuli or challenges.  We can shift, crash, accelerate and transfer the load giving us an number of different progressions over a static weight such as dumbells, barbells or kettlebells.  The ability to move (or resist movement) of the water allows us to create a number of functional exercises that will much more realistically mimic the development, control and transfer of forces we might experience in everyday life, activity or sport.

When it comes to developing functional “upper body strength” the true secret is to focus less on the upper body and more on the entire body.  Bringing the legs and core into the conversation is not only effective but necessary to build high performing individuals.  The Surge® is one tool that will meet that demand in a progressive and scaleable fashion allowing you to effective program for every single client on your schedule/team regardless of ability and training experience.  For your higher end clients and athletes you know have a valuable tool with will teach them how to handle and respond to unpredictable forces which will have direct translation to increased performance.


Casey Stutzman, AFAA-CPT, ACE-CPT, FMS L2, is the owner of The Performance Locker Personal Performance Training Studio in Alpena, MI. He is a Master Trainer for Surge, BOSU, TRX, and RealRyder. Casey coached high school football for 3 years as a Varsity defensive line coach and a JV defensive coordinator. He was a walk-on with the Western Michigan University football team.