// Upper body strength training for structural balance

by Tony Boutagy

Designing effective resistance training programs is one of the most important skills every personal trainer must master. In addition to writing programs aimed at improving various strength qualities, such as maximal strength or power, trainers must be able to prescribe suitable exercises to correct muscular imbalances.

The best strength tests for structural balance have been developed by strength coach Charles Poliquin. For close to thirty years Poliquin has kept data on the subject of muscular balance from the training diaries submitted at the end of each training phase by every athlete he has coached. This data enabled him to develop structural balance norms for the upper body, based on the athletes who have performed the best in their chosen sport, with the least amount of injury.

Of course, testing for structural balance is not a new idea. Weightlifting specialists, like Andrew Charniga, have written reports about weightlifting coaches who provided tables decades ago on the ratio between Olympic lifts and the assistance lifts. For example, every elite Olympic lifting coach will be able to tell you that you can’t snatch ‘x’ if your back squat has not reached ‘y’ level. To this mix, Poliquin has added data for the upper extremities and norms for different sports.

He has correlated the data obtained with various performance tests, such as a sixty metre sprint or an overhead caber toss. Personal trainers can use this data to ascertain whether a client has muscular imbalances, and if so, where those imbalances are. The tests involve real strength training movements, rather than subjective therapist-based strength tests. Poliquin has always found this to be more beneficial, with real-life application to the trainer, than performing passive range of motion tests on a therapist’s bed.

What Poliquin typically found after working with thousands of athletes over the years, was an imbalance in the strength of the shoulder stabilisers relative to the horizontal and/or vertical pushing capacity. It is extremely common to lack progress in various lifts due to muscular imbalances and insufficient stabiliser strength. Structural balance testing involves measuring horizontal pushing strength and comparing it to external rotation, upper trapezius and overhead pressing strength.

Determining the structural balance of the upper body

Step 1: test for 1RM in the shoulder-width bench press, using at least 8 warm-up sets to reach the true 1RM value.

Step 2: rest 10 minutes and select a dumbbell which weighs 9.8 per cent of the 1RM bench press and perform a single-arm external rotation from the knee on a 4010 tempo (meaning that the eccentric portion of the lift takes 4 seconds to perform, no pause, then a 1 second concentric, and no pause) with each arm. If the external rotators are in balance, you’ll achieve ten reps or more (see photos 1 & 2).

Step 3: select a dumbbell which weighs 10.2 per cent of the 1RM bench press and perform a single arm bent over trap 3 raise on a 4010 tempo with each arm. If the upper trapezius is in balance, you’ll again achieve ten reps or more (see photos 3 & 4).

Step 4: finally, select a pair of dumbbells which each weigh 29 per cent of the best bench press and perform a seated dumbbell shoulder press for as many repetitions as possible. If the ratio between overhead pressing strength and horizontal pressing strength is in balance, then you’ll achieve ten or more repetitions (see photos 5 & 6).

These four steps will provide you with excellent information on the structural balance of your clients, and therefore allow you to design balanced training programs with much greater precision. This test determines which limbs are out of balance and if this imbalance stems from the external rotators, upper trapezius or insufficient overhead pressing strength. Once this is known, programs can be designed to increase the strength of the weak areas. General advice includes:

• Perform unilateral exercises until the imbalance is corrected
• Always perform the weak limb first
• Set the weight and repetitions with the weak limb and perform the same on the strong limb, even if you can do more
• Focus on the weak areas twice per week.

Other movements in the upper body can be tested using the optimal
upper body strength ratios developed by Poliquin, as they relate to a 1RM
in the shoulder width grip bench press:

The use of structural balance testing for the upper body allows you to perform this testing protocol on your clients in order to assess their current level of structural balance. Once you’ve performed several blocks of corrective exercise programming, you can re-assess to confirm progress and to direct future program goals. This data can help you design more effective programs and achieve better results.


Tony Boutagy, BHMS

Tony is a strength coach and the director of the Sydney Sports and Athletic Performance Centre, a strength training facility located in Mosman, NSW. He is a lecturer in the Exercise Science Department at ACU National and was the recipient of the 2004 Fitness Industry’s Author of the Year Award. Visit his web site at www.tonyboutagy.com

• PP31-34