by Ben Bruno T-Nation
Every year, shortly after Thanksgiving, my Mom starts asking me what I want for Christmas. When I was younger I'd rattle off a list a mile long, but as I've grown older, I've gotten progressively quieter because I'm not much of a "stuff" guy.
So that leaves her to guess, which means I usually get a new pair of winter boots that I end up returning, or 12 pairs of socks. Sound familiar?
One Christmas, though, about six years ago, she asked me what I wanted just as I was perusing the Elitefts Christmas sale. As I scanned the various goodies, a pair of blast straps caught my eye. Mind you, this was before suspension training was all the rage and well before you could sign up for full-body "TRX classes" in commercial gyms.
At the time I didn't know much about suspension training and thought it looked pretty lame, but I figured it'd at least be a good way to supercharge push-ups, so I asked for them.
Had it been my own money I definitely would've passed but hey, kick-ass push-ups beats getting another ugly sweater.
It proved to be a good investment because I still have those blast straps today and have since expanded my suspension training arsenal well beyond just push-ups. I don't see them as a "be all end all" by any means, but I definitely like them a lot for certain exercises, particularly for the upper body.
Just to be clear, when I say blast straps, I'm referring to all suspension training systems: blast straps, rings, TRX, jungle gym, etc.
With that in mind, here are my favorite blast strap exercises to build the upper body.
I'll start with push-ups because it's the first exercise I ever used the blast straps for and they've been a staple exercise in my program ever since.
It was really a love-at-first-try type of thing. I always love a good challenge, and the blast straps definitely provide that. The first few times I tried them I was shaking and could only muster a few reps, but after a little bit of practice, my stability improved rapidly to where I could start to crank them out more easily. Once I got better at them, it quickly became one of my favorite upper body exercises, and still is today.
The one problem I've continually had, though, with both push-ups and dips on the blast straps is that when the blast straps are set up at just outside shoulder width (i.e., the way most people do them), they tend to chafe my triceps. Wearing long sleeves helps, but who wants to wear long sleeves when it's hot in the gym?
As I got stronger and started to load the exercises more, the chafing got worse, to the point that after every time I did the exercise I'd have people asking me, "What happened to your arms?" because there were massive red marks, similar to a rug burn.
A little chafing certainly isn't enough to stop doing a good exercise though, just like you wouldn't stop deadlifting because it can bruise your shins or stop front squatting because it can hurt to hold the bar – at least I hope you wouldn't.
I guess when you're in love, you're willing to put up with a little pain and bull****.
The chafing started to bug me though, so as a way to eliminate it, I started hanging the blast straps wider. I do all my blast strap work in a power rack, so rather than hang them straight down from the pull-up bar on the front just outside the shoulders, I hung them from the sides of the rack.
What a difference that small tweak makes! Not only did that eliminate the chafing, it also enhanced the exercise significantly from a chest-building perspective because it forces you to actively squeeze your pecs like crazy throughout the set to keep your hands in tight to your body.
The key is not to allow the wider ring position to alter your arm position, so you still want to keep your elbows tucked in close to your body.
Keep in mind though that the wider the blast straps are, the harder the exercise becomes, so start at shoulder width and move out gradually over time as you feel more comfortable.
You may want to elevate your feet slightly as well to account for the straps being raised off the floor. Other than that, perform them just as you would a normal push-up.
I alternate between doing them weighted in the beginning of a workout and unweighted at the end for a massive pump that also doubles as a good core exercise, killing two birds with one stone.
If you've got push-ups down and are one of the masochistic types looking for a way to punish your pecs even more, flyes might be something to consider. They're not for everyone – especially people with shoulder issues – but if your shoulders can handle them, you'd be hard pressed to find an exercise that fries the pecs like ring flyes do.
Just like with push-ups, you can make them harder by setting the blast straps wider.
Be warned though, regular ring flyes with the blast straps at shoulder-width are tough enough as it is, but setting the blast straps wider makes them downright brutal. As a point of reference, several months ago I could do regular flyes with my feet elevated and a 50-pound weighted vest for sets of 8-10, but couldn't even do one full rep with the blast straps wider unless I did them from my knees – and even that was a struggle.
With practice I can now do 6-8 unweighted wide flyes with my feet on the floor when I'm fresh, but if it's at the end of the workout, I can't even do one. So if I do them at the end, I'll do them on my knees, which is still an awesome finisher.
Like blast strap flyes, dips are one of those "off-limits" exercises for people with shoulder issues, but if you can handle regular dips okay, using the blast straps makes them that much better. And in fact, a lot people that have problems with parallel bar dips find they can do them on the blast straps pain-free.
However, prepare to be humbled the first time you try them because it's a whole different ballgame than regular dips. When I first tried them I could do regular dips with four plates for reps so I'd figured it'd be a breeze.
I made a complete fool of myself and couldn't even do one rep. After about an hour of practice I could knock out a whooping 3 reps while shaking so badly it probably looked like I was being electrocuted. And that's with no weight. Talk about embarrassing.
Looking back, though, I don't feel too badly because every one of my buddies that tries to work in when I'm doing them now goes through the same humiliating experience, so I think it's just part of the process.
Swallow your pride and stick with it because after a few times of getting acclimated to the blast straps, it gets much easier and your performance will shoot right back up. At this point, my weighted blast strap dips are almost as strong as my bar dips, and when I rep out I'm within 4-5 reps. Not only that, but they just feel much better on the blast straps, meaning they feel safer and seem to work the chest more.
Just as with blast strap push-ups, start with the blast straps set just outside shoulder-width so your triceps can press against them for support. As you improve, try moving the blast straps wider to increase the difficulty (and chest stimulation) and eliminate chafing of the upper arms.
To keep constant tension on the chest, stop an inch or two short of locking your arms out at the top. This may seem like it's cheating, but with the blast straps set wide it actually makes it quite a bit harder.
Wide Grip Chins
I've allows loved the way wide grip chin-ups (or pull-ups) feel in my lats, but when I do them on the bar they usually really piss off my shoulders and wrists. I know many people have had a similar experience, and I've also heard complaints that using a wide grip really bugs some peoples' elbows.
So usually I just avoid them and use a shoulder-width grip – that is, until I started using the blast straps.
Using the blast straps allows for a more natural rotation of the arms, so it feels much cleaner. I just wish I'd started doing these sooner.
Here's what they look like:
Beyond being more joint-friendly, setting the blast straps up wider than your wingspan makes it a lot harder – the blast straps will want to go out so you have to squeeze hard to counteract that force and keep them on the right path, which makes for a huge contraction in the lats.
The set-up is really easy. If you have blast straps, just set them up on either side of a power rack. If you have a TRX, just throw it over the top of the rack.
You'll probably need to bend your legs, but that's no big deal.
Keep in mind that they're a lot harder than regular chins – especially if you're strict on the form – so don't expect to hit your usual numbers, but expect your lats to be fried more than normal.
You've been warned.
I may've bought the blast straps primarily for push-ups, but I've gotten the most use out of them for inverted rows, which has become my favorite rowing exercise – meaning I like them more than barbell rows, dumbbell rows, t-bar rows, cable rows, etc.
I like them so much because it's an awesome way to overload the upper back without stressing the lower back. This is obviously appealing for people like me with lower back issues, but it's also valuable even for healthy folks because it allows you to keep your lower back fresh for your heavy lower body exercises like deadlifts and squats.
Even a healthy lower back can only handle so much abuse, so why not save it for the exercises that are inherently lower back intensive rather than use it up on upper body exercises? Especially since you can overload the upper back just as much in an inverted row as you can in a free weight row.
If you think that last sentence is malarkey, you probably haven't done inverted rows the way I do them. I've done more than my fair of heavy-ass free weight rows (and still do) and I'll say unequivocally that inverted rows can be made every bit as hard as anything else I've ever tried.
My favorite variations include:
Weighted: either with weighted vests or putting plates on your abs
1.5 reps: row up, come halfway down, row back up again, and come all the way down
Wide inverted rows: set the blast straps wider, as I've described for the chest exercises
Decline rows: elevate the feet higher than the head
Row/reverse fly combo: one arm performs a row while the other arm extends straight out the side
One-arm inverted rows: using one ring only
I have video demonstrations of all these variations on my You Tube page.
So as you can see, there are tons of effective ways to do this exercise. I usually do some variation of inverted rows twice a week, which alone has made buying the blast straps worth it.
3-Way Shoulder Finisher
All the chest and back exercises I've shared also work the shoulders quite a bit so you really don't need anything else – but if you want something to work them more directly, here's a quick three exercise finisher that I like to use at the end of upper body workouts when I'm looking to fry my shoulders, particularly the posterior delts.
The three exercises are reverse flyes, external rotations, and face pulls, done in that order. They're ordered from hardest to easiest and are done in succession as a mechanical drop-set, so don't rest in between exercises.
Here's what it looks like in action. I usually do 6-10 reps of each exercise, but I'll just show three reps of each for the sake of brevity:
While this is a high rep finisher, it's still important to keep good form and do each rep deliberately as opposed to just pumping them out. Trust me, you'll still get a huge pump.
1-2 sets (meaning 1-2 drop-sets) is all you'll need.
I don't do curls often (as evidenced by my puny arms), but when I do, these are on my short list of go-to's.
Set-up just as you would for an inverted row with a pronated or neutral grip and your feet on the floor, but rather than row to your sides, curl your hands to your forehead while supinating your wrists. Be sure to keep your body straight by squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs.
I could pull something out of my you-know-what and say I like them because they also double as a good core exercise to give you more bang for your buck and make them more "functional," whatever that means.
But that's not why I like them. I don't do curls to be "functional" in the athletic sense – I do curls to get bigger biceps. And if bigger biceps is the goal, it doesn't get more functional than curls.
Barbell curls tend to piss off my wrists and forearms, but using the blast straps allows for a more natural range of motion, much like dumbbells, which is not only more joint-friendly but also lends itself to a hell of a contraction.
Most importantly though, it's an excuse to do curls in the squat rack.
Bodyweight Triceps Extensions
Bodyweight triceps extensions are a great exercise no matter how you do them, however, doing them on the blast straps is better than using a bar in a power rack or Smith machine because it increases the range of motion. It does so by allowing you to extend your arms further out in front of your body (since you don't have to worry about your head hitting the bar), thereby increasing the stretch on the long head of the triceps.
The blast straps also allow you to rotate your hands naturally through the rep, taking stress off the elbows and makes for a stronger contraction in the triceps.
The lower you are to the floor, the harder it is. Start as low as you can go for 6-8 reps and then walk your feet up gradually and keep knocking the reps out for a brutal extended set, similar to the idea of a drop-set but not exactly (you're actually going upwards).
Keep your body as straight as possible and it doubles as a core exercise, or you can pike your butt up a bit towards the end of the set to get a few more reps in to really smoke the triceps.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of everything you can use the blast straps for, but it's certainly enough to get you started and give you a great upper body workout.
I wouldn't recommend using blast straps-only for upper body, but I think you could probably build a great physique doing so if you were so inclined and got really good at using them, as evidenced by gymnasts with their rings.
To me though, they're just a tool in the toolbox that I sprinkle in here and there with my other strength training.
But when you consider they cost my mom around 50-60 bucks six years ago, I'd say they've been well worth the small investment. Thanks Mom!