Building a strong upper body may not be as important as developing a powerful lower body for football players, but that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.
When strength training the upper body for football, you need to address minimizing the chance for injury just as much (if not more) than optimizing performance. Shoulders in particular take an absolute beating during the season. You want to make sure to do everything in your power to help keep those shoulders strong and healthy.
I’ve been training elite-level football players and teams for 20 years and I’ve put together a list of what I believe are 11 of the best upper body exercises for football players to maximize performance and help reduce the risk of injury on the football field. (And don’t worry, Bench Press is on the list.)
If you’re putting together a football strength program, these exercises should be on the high-priority list.
Table of Contents
Upper Body Exercises for Football
I’m a big believer in using Olympic Lifts to develop power and Power Jerks are my favorite variation that focuses on upper body power.
There are also similar variations that can also work just as well and can be programmed in a progression. Push Press, Power Jerk and Split Jerks would all be worthy of this number one spot.
Not comfortable jerking from a front rack position? Not a problem. You can jerk from a front rack position or from the shoulders. Either will do the job of developing upper body power that will translate to the football field.
They can be done with limited equipment – all you need is a pull-up bar.
There are tons of variations you can do with Pull-Ups as well. Weighted Pull-ups, Chin-ups and Mountain Climber Pull-Ups just to name a few. You can also start with assisted Pull-Ups while you build your strength.
Single Arm Snatch
I love emphasizing explosive power with football players and even though Single Arm Snatches are arguably a lower-body hip extension movement, it’s close enough for me to sneak it in here.
Any exercise that you can train the hips through explosive triple extension is one that fits perfectly into a wrestling strength training program. As an added benefit, if you stick the catch (briefly pause) it will add a bit of shoulder stability to the movement.
Almost every football player’s favorite exercise also happens to be one of the best ones for them. Bench Press is an excellent upper-body compound exercise, meaning it works many muscles at the same time.
Obviously, Bench Press works the chest, but it also targets the shoulders and the triceps as well (even muscles like the Lats are involved in Bench Pressing).
A, Y, T
Exercises that can help develop shoulder stability and, ultimately, shoulder health are important aspects of a football player’s upper body training. One of my favorite groups of exercises for this is the A, Y, T combination.
This group of three exercises works to strengthen the musculature around the rotator cuff to help keep football players’ shoulders stable and healthy. A, Y, Ts can easily be included in a proper warm-up consisting of other shoulder stability and shoulder mobility exercises.
Front Press (Standing Barbell Shoulder Press)
I had a coach who loved to say, “If you’re bench pressing on the field then something has gone horribly wrong.” He was referencing the fact that if you’re bench pressing, it means you’ve found yourself laying on your back with another player laying on top of you. Not a great place to be on the field.
While I get his point, I still like Bench Press for football players.
However, football is played on the feet which is one of the reasons I also like the Standing Barbell Shoulder Press. Front Presses are second only to Bench Press when it comes to pressing movements and they have the additional added benefit of having to utilize and brace the core while pressing.
If you’re programming upper body exercises for football players, the Standing Barbell Shoulder Press should be on your short list.
Barbell Shrugs are on here because they are one of the most effective exercises for building strength and muscle mass to help protect the head and neck. This is an often overlooked, but very important part of any athlete’s strength training, especially football players.
Depending on what equipment you have access to I would also include a 4-way neck machine and/or manual neck strengthening exercises as well.
Bent Over Rows
There are plenty of great rowing exercises to choose from – One Arm DB Rows, Renegade Rows, Cable Rows, etc.
So, what makes Bent Over Rows so great? Weight. Bent Over Rows allows you to use more weight while maintaining a good athletic position. This means not only is the upper back being worked, but the lower back is being worked as well just by bracing and holding the rowing position.
There are many great rowing exercises, but Bent Over Rows are my favorite of the bunch.
Single Arm Dumbbell Incline Bench
Good news. There’s more Bench Pressing in my top 11.
This Bench Press variation is very specific – Single Arm Dumbbell Incline Bench. There’s a reason for this particular pressing version though.
For starters, benching at an incline is a much more relevant movement pattern for football players, especially linemen on both sides of the ball.
Second, there are many instances on the field where you’re engaged with another player with just one arm. Having that unilateral strength and the core strength to be able to stabilize while only pressing with one side can come in very handy on the football field.
These are the reasons I love this very specific Bench Press variation.
The last upper body exercise for football players is Pull-Ups little brother, the Inverted Row.
Inverted Rows are often given to linemen as an alternative if they can’t do Pull-Ups, but I’ve always felt that’s underutilizing this movement. Yes, Inverted Rows are great for big guys who will often be challenged by this bodyweight exercise.
However, there are also plenty of ways you can increase the difficulty of Inverted Rows for skill and combo players as well.
Elevate your feet up onto a bench, or a stability ball. Add resistance through a weight plate on the chest, chains or even a resistance band anchored to the rack. Even more simply add tempo – slow down the eccentric portion of the movement and/or add a pause at the top.
Trust me, there are plenty of ways you can make Inverted Rows challenging for every athlete on the team.
I honestly set out to make this a top ten list, but I couldn’t bring myself to leaving Dips off the list. In my opinion, if we’re just talking about building upper body strength, the three best exercises are Bench Press, Pull-ups and Dips.
If you get to the point where you can do sets of 20 quality reps, start adding weight for extra resistance with a weight vest, dip belt or a squat chain. Then, keep doing Dips.
Building a strong upper body can be very beneficial on the football field and these 11 exercises can help get you there.
Are these the only 11 exercises you can use for your upper body training? Of course not! There are hundreds of exercises out there that can provide all kinds of benefits. But, these 11 exercises should all be highly considered for your training program.
Just make sure that these exercises are part of a comprehensive program that also focuses on developing an explosive lower body and a strong core.