Having a strong and powerful upper body is extremely important for volleyball players. Volleyball players express most of their power movements while in the air. This makes upper body and core strength uniquely critical for success at the net.
Intelligent upper-body training will also help volleyball players be more resilient to injury. You need to consider your shoulders, elbows, and wrists in every movement that you perform.
Upper body training for volleyball is not about getting jacked up like a bodybuilder.
Training the upper body for volleyball should be about functionality that will directly carry over to the court. And functionality doesn’t mean standing on one leg on a balance ball doing a single-arm cable press while juggling tennis balls.
What it does mean is utilizing compound exercises to develop strength and power to improve movement patterns used on the volleyball court.
In this article, I will be sharing my 10 favorite upper body exercises for volleyball, why I like each one and instructions on how to do them.
Volleyball Upper Body Exercises
I’m a big believer in utilizing the Olympic lifts to develop power with volleyball players. The Push Press requires coordinating the hips, core and shoulders to generate power and drive the weight overhead.
An upper body lift that can help improve vertical jump? If you want to train like an athlete (and not a bodybuilder), exercises like Push Press should be in your volleyball workouts.
Pro Tip: If you’re not comfortable with the technique, you can do the exact same movement with a medicine ball instead (Med Ball Power Jerk).
- Multi-purpose lifting rack
- Bumper Plates (technically possible to do with Iron Plates, but Bumper Plates are highly recommended)
- Set the barbell at the height you would normally front squat with. (Barbell 1-2 inches below the flexed elbow, still on the hooks).
- Grab the barbell with your index finger on the knurling or just outside the knurling. (Flexibility and what feels comfortable are important here).
- Flex the elbows up slightly and keep your knuckles fairly vertical to the ceiling.
- You are not taking a “Front rack” position here. The elbows will be slightly up but the bar is not resting on the anterior delts.
- To unrack the bar, take a deep breath and brace the abdominal muscles and upper back. Use a staggered stance to unrack the bar.
- Take 2 steps backward and be sure that you will not hit the hooks or anything above your head when you start to press.
- Initiate the movement with a “dip” or bend of the knee that will help you propel the barbell up with momentum. Do not bend the knee forward onto the toes.
- Think about how you initiate a squat. The knee bend should be very similar to this movement.
- This is a quick movement that helps get the barbell moving upward.
- As you extend the legs, push the barbell up. Be sure not to hit your chin. Lock the rep out by holding the barbell overhead for about 1 second.
- Some coaches use the queue “push your head through the arms” to help lock out the rep and stabilize the bar overhead.
- Slowly bring the barbell back down to prepare for the next repetition.
This lift is very technical, uses the whole body, and requires patience and persistence. Never sacrifice technique to add more weight to the bar.
Single Arm Dumbbell Snatch
Another explosive exercise that I love for volleyball players is the Single Arm Dumbbell Snatch. (It’s really more of a total body exercise, but it’s close enough.)
It’s easy to learn, it’s unilateral (one side working at a time) and is a great Olympic lift variation to develop power that can help improve your vertical jump. What’s not to love?
- Grab a dumbbell and stand with feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Stand with knees slightly bent, brace the core and set the back – shoulder blades pulled back, lats engaged, chest out.
- Hinge forward by pushing the hips back and let the dumbbell slide down right in between the knees, coming at a stop just below the knee.
- You are now in the ‘power position’.
- From here, drive the feet through the floor and aggressively extend the hips, driving the shoulders up and slightly back.
- As you reach triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles – use a quick, powerful shrug and allow the elbow to break and begin the pull with the arm.
- Keep the dumbbell close to the body as it travels up.
- Once the dumbbell reaches the highest point of the pull, rotate at the elbow to catch the dumbbell overhead while simultaneously dropping the hips into a quarter squat and shift the feet slightly out.
- Finish the rep by standing tall and lowering the dumbbell down to the shoulder first and then back to the starting position under control.
- Repeat until all reps are completed and then switch arms.
The dumbbell should travel close to the body all the up until it gets about head height, then rotate the elbow, drop the hips and catch. Don’t allow it to swing forward out away from the body.
The second technique flaw is not staying braced through the return of the dumbbell to the starting position, oftentimes from being in too big of a hurry to knock out reps.
Letting the dumbbell, especially the heavier you get, yank the shoulder down at the bottom of the rep is asking for trouble.
Pull-Ups are one of my favorite upper body exercises for almost any athlete (almost any human being really) and this is especially true for volleyball players.
The lats are extremely important for generating upper body power for spikes and no exercise will build strong lats like Pull-ups.
If you’re a volleyball player, you should be doing Pull-ups at least once a week in my opinion.
- Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
- Weight belt (For weighted variations)
- For modification purposes:
- Lifting Band (To assist in completing the pull-up or doing more repetitions with full range of motion).
- Lifting partner (To assist in getting your chin over the bar)
- Approach the pull-up bar and grab the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away).
- Use a bench to get to the bar if it is too high.
- Later in the article, I will talk about variations, alternatives, and modifications where the supinated (palms facing in) grip will be discussed.
- Squeeze the bar and engage the core muscles and do not cross your legs.
- Engage the upper back and pull up until your chin is over the bar.
- Pause for 1 second with your chin over the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.
Take your time and master the pull-up. The benefits of doing sound pull-ups will pay dividends for your shoulder health and the potential to maximize your upper body strength.
Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press
For the record, I do have volleyball players Bench Press and think it’s a great exercise for building upper body strength. However, there is a Bench Press variation that I like for volleyball players even more – Single Arm Dumbbell Bench Press.
The reason is that SA DB Bench is an anti-rotational exercise.
That means that as you bench, the core has to work to keep you from rotating and literally falling off the bench. This utilization of the core is so beneficial for volleyball players who need to be able to maintain core stability while generating power in the air.
- Grab your dumbbell, sit on the edge of the bench, and sit the dumbbell on your thigh vertically.
- Take a deep breath, lie flat on your back on the bench, and get your dumbbell in position ready to press.
- Lay your free hand on your stomach. Placing your hand on your hip (as shown in the featured image above) will help balance you more is a more beginner-friendly hand placement.
- Keep your feet flat on the floor.
- Keep your butt on the bench.
- Pull your shoulder blades together and keep the back of your head on the bench. You will slightly arch your back. Keep your core tight and keep the shoulder blades pulled back tight.
- The dumbbells should be slightly angled at roughly a 45-degree angle to the torso. (representative of the path you are descending with your elbows).
- Press the dumbbell up.
- Control the dumbbell down during the eccentric movement and draw the dumbbell in, keeping the elbow at that 45-degree angle from the torso.
- The dumbbell will make contact with your torso right at the nipple line on the chest.
- Once contact is made, drive the dumbbell back up.
- Complete the designated number of reps and then switch sides.
- When your set is done, do not freely drop the dumbbell without checking your surroundings. You could drop the dumbbell and it might hit a person nearby. Or your could drop your dumbbell and crush your fingers on a dumbbell that was left next to your bench.
- The best way to finish a set is to bring the dumbbell back to your thigh and stand up with it. Or have a lifting partner take it from you.
If you’re familiar with Dumbbell Bench Press but are new to this single-arm variation, you’ll probably be pretty surprised by just how much you need to brace your core to keep from literally rotating off the bench.
For this reason, start light and then work your way up in weight.
This is a very shoulder-friendly pressing movement. Because the implement is a dumbbell, the range of motion is increased, the shear force on the shoulder is decreased, and the shoulder stabilizing muscles are engaged.
A, Y, T
Exercises that can help develop shoulder stability and, ultimately, shoulder health are important aspects of a volleyball player’s strength and conditioning program. One of my favorite groups of exercises is the A, Y, T combination.
Volleyball players are really no different than baseball pitchers with the amount of power generated through the shoulder.
This group of three exercises works to improve the musculature around the rotator cuff to help keep volleyball players’ shoulders stable and healthy.
- Very light dumbbells (typically 3lb or 5lb) OR Weight Plates (typically 2.5lb or 5lb)
- Adjustable Bench
- Mid and Upper Trapezius
- Posterior Delt
- Rotator Cuff Muscles (Infraspinatus, Subscapularis, Teres Minor and Supraspinatus)
- Adjust a bench up to about 30 degrees and grab two light weight plates.
- Lay on your stomach with your head hanging off the top of the bench.
- Set up in the starting position by engaging the lats and pulling the shoulder blades together.
- Now, keep the arms straight and raise the plates overhead (like the A in YMCA).
- Lower back down under control and complete 10 reps.
- Once all reps are done immediately begin doing Ys by raising the plates at a 45-degree angle, thumbs pointed toward the ceiling.
- Once you’ve completed ten Ys, finish with 10 Ts.
- Ts are done by raising the arms straight to the side, thumbs still pointing up.
Keep the shoulder blades pulled back, but do not shrug up. Shrugging up takes the emphasis away from the focus of A, Y, Ts. Stay in control of each rep. Do not allow weights to be swung up and down.
Push Ups get a bad wrap sometimes because they’re looked at as, well, not “advanced” enough. However, there are very few exercises that are as effective at building upper body strength as Push-ups.
They’re another bodyweight exercise (like pull-ups) that is easily modifiable based on the player.
And basic or not, I can guarantee you that a volleyball player that can do multiple sets of 25 quality push-ups, is strong enough to compete on a volleyball court.
For modification purposes though:
- Med ball
- Bench or box
- Lie face down on the floor.
- Pull your toes in so that you’re on the tip of your shoes.
- Eyes should be focused straight down or slightly up.
- Pull your hands close to about the nipple line of the chest and bring them out about 2-3 inches away.
- Take a deep breath, engage the core and brace.
- Push yourself up in one unit. There should be no sagging of the waist. The entire body from head to toe should move up and then back down in unison.
- Feel your scapula upwardly rotate and make sure the antagonist muscles (Back and biceps) are fully engaging.
- Lock out your push-up and pause.
- Slowly lower yourself back down and get ready for the next repetition from just above the ground. Do not fully relax at the bottom of the push-up unless your program specifies.
Take your time and master the push-up. The benefits of doing sound push-ups will pay dividends for your shoulder health and the potential to maximize your upper body strength. Keep the elbows at a 45-degree angle.
For maximal chest, shoulder, and rotator cuff engagement, do not let the elbows flare out away from the middle. Also, do not let the elbow hug right next to the torso.
Single Arm Farmer’s Walk
There are multiple exercises on this list that is just as much a core exercise as an upper body exercise and there is a reason for that.
Volleyball is played on the feet (and in the air) and any upper body movement is only as strong as the core that can brace, stabilize and help transfer power.
Single Arm Farmer’s Walk, also known as a Suitcase Carry, is a unique core stability exercise that emphasizes stabilization in the frontal plane. As you walk, the core has to continuously work to stabilize an upright torso, not allowing the body to bend to one side.
- Dumbbell or Kettlebell
- Quadratus Laborum (QL
- Gluteus Medius
- Core Abdominals (Obliques Externus Abdominis, Rectus Femoris)
- Erector Spinae
- Secondarily: Forearms & Trapezius
- Grab a single kettlebell or dumbbell.
- Brace the core and begin walking in a slow, controlled manner.
- As you walk, focus on keeping the core braced and the shoulders and hips square and level.
- Once you cover the assigned distance (or time), switch hands and repeat on the opposite side.
You do not need to grab the heaviest kettlebell you can find. Find a weight that you can walk with and maintain proper form. Don’t rush through. Single Arm Farmer’s Walk can be done for time or for distance.
If going for distance, it should not be a speed walk to cover the ground as fast as possible. Stay under control and focus on form.
Medicine Ball Overhead Throws
Being able to brace the core and generate as much power overhead is about as sport-specific as you can get for volleyball. Med Ball Overhead Throws are an exercise that is a staple in my volleyball workouts.
- Medicine Ball
- Partner or solid wall
- Abdominals (Rectus Abdominus, Obliques Externus Abdominus)
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Serratus Anterior
- Secondarily: Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
- Find a partner or solid wall and stand a safe distance away*.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Reach the medicine ball overhead and brace the core.
- Now, throw the ball as hard as you can – aim for maximum distance.
*If throwing with a partner, stand far enough away so that the ball will bounce before it reaches your partner. Catching a medicine ball out of the air can lead to a jammed wrist or finger.
If throwing against a wall, allow enough space so the ball bounces once after it hits the wall before you catch it.
Medicine Ball Side Throw
Like Overhead Throws and Single Arm Farmer’s Walk, Medicine Ball Side Throws are as much a core exercise as an upper body exercise, but I think they’re too important to leave off this list.
Rotational power is incredibly important in the sport of volleyball and Med Ball Side Throws are one of the best movements for developing rotational core power.
So, whether you consider side throws an upper body exercise or a core exercise, it’s one that should be part of a volleyball player’s training.
- Medicine Ball
- Grab a medicine ball and stand perpendicular to a sturdy wall*.
- Distance away from the wall will vary based upon the type of medicine ball you have**.
- Stand in a good athletic position, feet shoulder width apart, hips and knees bent.
- Begin by rotating away from the wall, reaching the medicine ball toward the back hip.
- Now, aggressively rotate toward the wall, turning on the ball of the back foot, opening the hips toward the wall and releasing the ball into the wall.
- Catch the ball off the ball, reset and repeat. Once all reps are completed switch sides.
The biggest mistake I see athletes make is using their arms (and not their hips) way too much to throw the ball. Power for the throw should primarily come from rotating the hips and torso and the arms should be secondary.
*If you have a partner, you can throw to each other instead of into a wall.
**The distance away from the wall will vary depending on what type of medicine ball you have. If you have a hard rubber medicine ball then be prepared for the ball to bounce a good ways back off of the wall.
If you have a soft Dynamax-type medicine ball then you can stand much closer as the bounce off the wall will be much less.
I couldn’t possibly do a list of upper body exercises for volleyball players and leave off Dips. Dips, along with Bench Press and Pull-ups, are probably the three most effective exercises for building upper body strength.
- Squat Rack
- Dip Attachment
- A Dip Station can be used as well if you have access to one.
- Shoulders (Anterior Delt)
Step By Step Instructions
- Attach your dip rack to your rack. This process will vary based on your rack and dip attachment. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.
- Set your dip rack just above waist height. This will allow enough room for your feet not to hit the ground while doing reps, but not so high you feel you have to jump up into your first rep.
- Starting position is hands on bars, arms extended, knees slightly bent and feet crossed (crossing feet is optional but does help with unwanted swinging in my experience.
- Descend down by bending the elbows and slightly leaning forward.
- Lower yourself under control until the triceps become parallel with the ground and then drive yourself back up to the starting position.
- Repeat until all reps are completed.
The biggest mistake I see with dips is a poor range of motion.
If someone is struggling to be able to do reps, the easiest solution is to simply not lower yourself into a full rep, but this is incorrect. If a lifter cannot perform a full rep they should switch to one of the variations listed below.
The other issue I see my athletes run into is unwanted swinging front to back while doing reps. Stay under control, keep a consistent rep path, bend the knees and cross the feet.
These are all solutions that I have seen help eliminate swinging while doing Dips.
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Are these the only 10 upper body exercises I use when training volleyball players? Of course not. There are dozens if not hundreds of exercises that can be used to develop upper body strength.
These are simply some of my favorites and ones that I use over and over again in my volleyball workouts.
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like to check out my favorite core exercises for volleyball players.