Upper Body Training: 5 Exercises and Stretches to Start ASAP

Author: Eric Botsford; Creative Director for Tough Mudder Bootcamp

From Funky Monkey to Leap of Faith, Tough Mudder obstacles demand a lot of your upper body strength and flexibility. The best medicine is preventative medicine. That means, starting today, you need to build strength and flexibility throughout your upper body so you will be ready for the 2020 Tough Mudder 5K or Classic.

When I created the programming design for Tough Mudder Bootcamp, I dug into my experience on the course as an OCR participant, as well as in the countless training sessions with athletes like you who have the same goal of accomplishing a Tough Mudder and helping others along the way. More often than not, training always came back to the upper body. We need to “bulletproof” the shoulders and grip strength because that is usually where the difference is made on the course.

Prioritizing the following stretches and exercises in your daily training will make a huge difference in how you perform on the course. I’ve provided you with step-by-step instructions on how to set up and execute these five moves and and how often you should be doing them.

1. Banded Lat Stretch

The range of motion in the shoulders is directly connected to how well the muscles of the upper back allow them to move. Because our bodies are all interconnected, often we need to look at what is connected to the joint instead of just trying to target the joint with stretches. The Banded Lat Stretch is one stretch that you can do every day at home or at the gym to help open up the back and improve range of motion in the shoulder.


  1. Begin with the resistance band anchored above head height.
  2. Reach up and through the band to capture the wrist and grab onto the band.
  3. Step back and relax the arm to allow the stretch to occur.
  4. Tuck the chin to the chest and reach the head forward until the ear is visible through the front of the shoulder.
  5. Send the hips backward to increase the stretch through the entire side body.
  6. Try different wrist positions. With the palm up to the ceiling, you get external rotation of the shoulder and with the palm down, you get internal rotation of the shoulder.

Tip: When in a stretch position, you have the choice to be passive and allow the stretch to happen or you can perform an active stretch by engaging the upper back and pulling the shoulder down away from the ear. This iteration is great for warm ups before pull ups or overhead pressing.

2. Banded Pull Aparts

Listen up, all of you! Make sure every training session begins with a warm up. I cringe when I see athletes show up at the gym and just jump right into heavy weights or some variation of upper body exercise without properly warming up the shoulders. If you are like me (over 40), then the warm up is especially necessary. Make sure you take at least five minutes to move the joints through full range of motion exercises and activate the muscles you wish to train.

The Banded Pull Apart is a great activation exercise. All you need is a light resistance band. This exercise can be performed every day you train upper body. I also use it on the days that I deadlift to ensure my upper back is firing!


  1. Grip the resistance band, either with two strands or one strand, depending on the thickness and your ability to stretch it.
  2. Raise the arms so that they are in line with the shoulders, both in width and height.
  3. Begin with the palms down and, holding the arms at the same elevation, stretch the band outward until the arms are open wide.
  4. Slowly bring the band back together. This is an activation exercise, so count to four as you slowly bring the band back in front of the body. You will surely feel the upper back start to heat up.
  5. Perform 10 reps with the palm down and 10 reps with the palms up.
  6. Do two rounds of this for a great upper back warm up.

Tip: I prefer to have athletes do this warm up with their backs against the wall to ensure that the shoulders and lower back are in a neutral position. When pulling the bands apart, you should aim to touch the wrists to the wall on each rep without the back or head pulling away from the wall.

3. Banded Pass Through

If there is one exercise that captures both range-of-motion stretching as well as activation, it is the Banded Pass Through. It can be very humbling to feel just how tight the shoulders are and to see where we lack the mobility in the shoulder. This exercise is wonderful to start with on upper body days or every morning if you have bands at your home.


  1. Using a light resistance band, grip the ends of the band. This hand position should be significantly wider than the shoulders.
  2. Press and lock out the elbows. This is a very important part of the exercise. We want to capture the range of motion in the shoulder and not have any assistance provided by a bent elbow.
  3. Push the band away as you pass it all the way over the head and touch the low back.
  4. Keep outward tension on the band so that the rhomboids, trapezius, and lats turn on.
  5. Perform two rounds of 10 reps.

Tip: You can scale this exercise if you find that the low back begins to hyperextend when passing the band to the low back. Lay flat on the floor with the band and arms extended overhead. Pass the band to the low back and, as long as the belly is on the floor, the low back will stay supported. Once your mobility improves, you can choke up on the band to create more tension during the pass through, or perform the Banded Pass Through while holding an active squat position. Embrace your immobility and work every day to get better. I promise it will!

4. Pull Ups


You knew this was coming! A funny question athletes ask me all the time about pull ups is, “What is the best way to get better at pull ups?” I can tell you right now with 100% certainty that this Mt. Everest of goals is accomplished by… Doing more pull ups!

Don’t be discouraged or think I’m being flippant with this answer. The pull up is one of the best exercises for developing a strong, toned, and functional upper body, and it can also be scaled a bunch of different ways. Let’s break down some of the ways we progress athletes at Tough Mudder Bootcamp.


  1. The Banded Pull Up: Resistance bands on the pull up bar are a very accessible and scalable way to practice pull ups for form as well as strength. Place the foot in the band, grip the bar tight, and ensure you are starting with a straight arm and finishing with the chin over the bar. Grab a friend and get to work.
  2. The Australian Pull Up: Lowering a set of gymnastic rings, TRX straps, or even a barbell in a squat rack is all you need to set up for this modification. You begin in a seated position on the floor with the feet crossed. Reach overhead to the rings, straps or bar. Ensure whatever you have set up is just at the fingertips when arms are extended overhead. Using the outside of your feet pressing into the floor, pull the chin up and over the bar or rings. You can practice getting stronger by adding more assistance of the feet or allowing the upper body to do the work. Aim for sets of 12 to 15.
  3. Banded Pull Down: Loop two bands around the pull-up bar at shoulder width apart. Grasping the bands, sit down on the floor cross legged. Engage the upper back and pull the bands down in the same way you would pull yourself up to the pull-up bar. Choose light bands in the beginning and scale up to heavier bands as you get better. Remember to slowly release the arms back to full extension to train the back muscles right.

5. Push Ups


The push up is so much more than a chest exercise. When done correctly it targets the entire upper body as well as the core. On the Tough Mudder course you will be heaving your friends up and over obstacles and supporting weight overhead. To do this correctly, there is a lot that can be learned by doing push ups well.


  1. Begin in a support position with the shoulders over the wrists.
  2. Slightly turn out the palms and screw them into the floor, turning the elbow pits outward. This helps to engage the upper back.
  3. Lower the chest and thighs to the floor by dropping the chest in front of the fingertips. This is important to keep the elbow stacked over the wrist and turn on the triceps.
  4. Once on the floor, either press back up to support without arching the back, or drop your knees to the floor and press back into support. The key is to keep the midline straight the entire time.

Tip: For more muscle building, try to lower the chest and thighs to the floor slowly. I recommend counting four seconds to the bottom of the push up. You will feel the burn after only five reps. Work up to sets of 15 and then you can turn up the volume and try diamond push ups, one arm push ups, or my favorite… the clapping push up.

With winter time upon us, this is the perfect time to start building strength for the spring. These exercises will help keep you healthy and strong. Let’s rise together and support our teammates. Set goals for yourself and know that strength and mobility are built over time. Frequently check in with yourself and stay on track towards your goals. Have fun and I’ll see you at the Start Line!


Eric “ERock” Botsford is the Creative Director of Tough Mudder Bootcamp. As Director of Training, Eric has leveraged his extensive experience as an athlete, athletic trainer, and gym owner to design a completely unique training program that is proven to deliver real world results. The philosophy on training is rooted squarely in the interval training methodology, with a focus on reaping cardiovascular benefits without losing power, speed and strength. This emphasis led to the creation of the complementary fitness pillars: Endurance, Strength, Agility, and Power.

Original article found here, courtesy of Tough Mudder.

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