The 11 Best Upper Body Exercises For Football Players
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.
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.
- Multi-purpose lifting rack
- Bumper Plates (I do not recommend Iron plates because if you miss the lift or want to drop the weight to the ground from overhead, you can damage the plates, the bar and your floor)
- Set the barbell at the height you would normally front squat with. (Barbell 1-2 inches below the flexed elbow, still on the hooks).
- Assume your front squat grip also known as the “front rack”.
- What this looks like is your elbows will point more toward the ground. If you’re gripping the front squat with 2 fingers, you may find it more comfortable to perform the jerk with 3 or 4 fingers.
- To unrack the bar, take a deep breath and brace the abdominal muscles and upper back.
- Take 2 steps backward and be sure that you will not hit the hooks or anything above your head when you start the movement.
- Initiate the movement with a “dip” or bend of the knee that will help you propel the barbell up with momentum.
- Think about how you initiate a squat. The knee bend should be very similar to this movement.
- Explosively drive through the legs and hips, shift the feet from hip width to shoulder width and catch the bar overhead in an athletic position.
- In the catch, your knees will be slightly bent, hips back, and bar stabilized overhead. Stand tall with the weight.
- If you are attempting multiple attempts, lower the barbell back to the starting position, brace, and bend the hips and knees as you receive the weight back in the front rack.
- If you are done with your final attempt you can guide the barbell back to the ground.
The Power Jerk is a compound movement specific to Olympic lifts. This is also a great movement for field and court sport athletes that needed overhead power. This movement should be trained and programmed according to goals, injury history, athlete readiness, and time of year.
When it comes to building upper-body strength, nothing beats Pull-Ups. Pull-Ups are one of my favorite exercises for football players, period, regardless of upper or lower body.
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.
- Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
- Weight belt (For weighted variations)
- 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 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.
- Grab a dumbbell and stand with feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Put a slight bend in the knee, 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.
Almost every football player’s favorite exercise also happens to be one of the best movements for developing upper body strength. 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).
- Multi-purpose lifting rack
- Bumper or Iron plates
- Set the height of the barbell so that when you unrack the barbell, you are only doing a very short upward concentric movement.
- Lie flat on your back on the bench. 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.
- Take a thumbs-width grip from the knurling and completely close your grip.
- Later in this article, I will go over other popular grips and why they are used.
- Unrack the weight and take a deep breath.
- Control the barbell down during the eccentric movement and draw the barbell in, keeping the elbows at about a 45-degree angle away from the torso.
- The barbell will make contact with your torso right at the nipple line on the chest.
- Once contact is made, drive the barbell back up to the starting position.
Always have a spotter, regardless of the weight. Yes, even for the lighter sets.
When you bring the bar down, lightly tap the chest and then press back up. Do NOT bounce it. I can’t tell you how many guys I’ve watched Bench Press like they were mad at their sternum.
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.
- Very light dumbbells (typically 3lb or 5lb) OR Weight Plates (typically 2.5lb or 5lb)
- Adjustable Bench
- 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.
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. Overhead 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.
- Bumper Plates or Iron Plates
- The grip should be shoulder-width apart.
- Elbows should be under bar.
- Torso should be erect.
- Move the bar off the rack.
- Keep your chest up.
- Push the bar up to full elbow extension.
- As soon as the bar passes the head – ‘pull the head through’ – so that the bar is being locked out directly over the ears.
- Keep elbow pointing out to the side until arms are fully extended.
- Do not forcefully lock out the elbow.
- Lower the bar slowly and under control to shoulder level.
- Do not jerk or bounce at the bottom.
Coaching Points (Common Mistakes)
The biggest mistake I see with Overhead Presses is overarching the back and leaning back way too much (hyperextension of the spine). This places too much unnecessary stress on the low back that should be avoided.
Personally, I like to use a staggered stance because I feel it helps me to keep from leaning back too far and placing that stress on the low back. It’s a technique I’ve used often with athletes as well experiencing the same problem. If that’s an issue for you as well I would definitely recommend giving a staggered stance a try.
The other common mistake that I see is bending the knees and using the legs too much. A slight bend is okay, especially when trying to squeeze out that last rep or two of the set. But, if the exercise starts to resemble more of a Push Press as opposed to a Shoulder Press then the weight should be lowered.
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.
- Weight Plates (either Bumper Plates or Steel Plates will work fine)
- Lifting Straps (optional)
- Set up a barbell on either J-Hooks, or preferably, on the squat rack’s safety bars (if your rack has them)
- Use an alternated grip, one hand pronated (overhand) and one hand supinated (underhand), about shoulder-width apart
- Place feet hip-width apart, brace the core and stand tall with the bar
- Now shrug up, visualizing touching your traps to your ears.
- Do NOT ‘roll’ the shoulders. Shrug straight up and down.
- Control the weight back down to the starting position and repeat.
Shrugs already have a short range of motion. Don’t shorten the range of motion even further by adding more weight than you can properly lift. (A mistake I see quite often)
An alternated grip, one overhand and one underhand, will dramatically increase your grip strength on the bar. This is due to the fact that a barbell has a natural tendency to want to roll out of your hands. By alternating your grip, you are basically counterbalancing that rolling tendency.
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 for building strength and muscle mass.
- Bumper or Iron Plates
- Lifting Straps (optional)
- Approach the barbell and take a shoulder-width stance. Your shins should be almost touching the barbell.
- Hinge at the waist and bend the knee until you can grab the barbell. Use a pronated grip (Knuckles facing the floor). I will talk later about the supinated grip (palms up) in this movement.
- Always keep a flat back, and a neutral spine, and keep your eyes focused slightly down about 1 foot in front of you.
- Take a deep breath, brace the abdomen, and pull the bar in until it makes contact right about the belly button.
- Pause for about 1 second. Squeeze the shoulder blades and lock in the rep.
- Slowly return the barbell back to the starting position (weights about 1-2 inches off the ground).
The initial setup and stance for this movement should be specific to the lifters deadlifting and Olympic lifting goals. Having identical setups and grips will be great for the lifts to carry over to the compound movements.
I typically recommend the pronated grip here for athletes. Especially athletes that are cleaning and snatching as the pronated grip will carry over to cleans and pulls.
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.
- Squat Rack
*I generally do Inverted Rows with a barbell in a rack, but if you have rings they work great as well.
- Start by placing a bar on the rack about waist height.
- The higher the bar is placed, the easier the rows will be. The lower the bar is placed, the harder the rows will be. (Just make sure to leave yourself enough room to fully extend your arms at the bottom of the rep)
- Set the bar on either the J-Hooks or the Safety Bars
- Lay down underneath the bar.
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip, brace the core and make sure your body is fully extended – including your legs.
- You should be positioned to where when you pull yourself up towards the bar, the bar touches the same spot on the chest as it would for bench press. Slide up or down to adjust accordingly.
- Now, keeping your body in a straight line, pull your chest up to the bar and lower back down until your arms are fully extended.
- Repeat until all reps are completed.
Athletes I coach love to either pull their faces to the bar or even raise their chin up and over the bar like a pull-up. These are both wrong.
You should think of the Inverted Row like a reverse bench press. Keep your head back, chest out and pull your chest directly to the bar. Pull the shoulder blades down and back at the top of the rep and squeeze the back.
The second mistake I see all too often is tired athletes that start to look like they’re doing the worm. They start rocking and rolling their entire body to try to get their chest up to the bar. Don’t do this! Maintain a rigid body posture and continue pulling yourself as high as you can each rep.
I honestly set out to make this a top ten list, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave 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.
- Squat Rack
- Dip Attachment
- A Dip Station can be used as well if you have access to one.
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 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.
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.