Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
As many of you know I’m an ardent advocate for improving body mechanics, technique, & muscle function. The best way to do this is by performing the basic foundational movement patterns consistently & frequently with eccentric isometrics. These foundational movements include what I refer to as the “Big 7” which I discuss in my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED and consist of the squat, hinge, lunge, horizontal pull, horizontal push, vertical pull, and vertical push. In fact, most of my clients perform each of these basic movement patterns 3-6x per week in conjunction with some form of eccentric isometric protocol.
With that said, it can be tricky finding enough time & recovery resources to train all of the big movement patterns frequently while also periodically incorporating isolation movements such as curls, shoulder raises, tricep moves, & more. It’s for this reason I like to combine foundational movement patterns particularly lower body ones such as the squat, lunge, and hinge with upper body isolation movements.
I refer to these as upper-lower combos or ULCs. Not only do ULCs essentially kill 2 birds with 1 stone, many of these upper lower combo exercises produce an incredibly intense stimulus that’s even more strenuous and difficult than their traditional isolation counterparts.
In fact there are multiple reasons why ULCs are so effective.
For instance just the simple modification of performing bicep curls while standing on one leg can oftentimes produce greater mechanical tension and metabolic stress to the biceps for reasons I’ll explain throughout the article.
10 Reasons For Using Upper-Lower Combos (ULC’s)
1. Kills 2 birds with 1 stone by targeting foundational lower body movement patterns with upper body isolation exercises.
2. Requires motor control and neuromuscular efficiency in order dial in 2 very distinct and different activation patterns at once. This can be quite effective for improving quality of movement due to the higher level of cognitive engagement required (a necessary element for movement mastery).
3. Produces greater mechanical tension and metabolic stress to the upper body muscles since the level of control needed to maintain balance and positioning in the lower body (particularly during single leg variations) requires the lifter to use smooth and strict mechanics while eliminating momentum.
4. Involves greater core activation as the entire abdominal musculature and spinal stabilizers are working overtime to synchronize movements occurring in both the upper and lower extremities, very similar to how the oblique sling functions during rotational movements as well as sprinting.
5. Teaches the lifter to stay tight and create full body tension which can have tremendous transfer to heavy compound movements.
6. Requires heightened levels of foot and ankle activation. That’s because performing upper body isolation movements while holding a lower body isometric forces the feet to work overtime to maintain balance and hold one’s position particularly during unilateral variations such as lunges and single leg squats.
7. Reinforces eccentric induced co-contraction of reciprocal muscles groups in the 90 degree position. Besides crushing the upper body, these upper lower combo drills inevitably require the lifter to hold an intense eccentric isometric position for the lower body. Not only does this crush the legs with high levels of constant tension and increased time under tension, it also reinforces significant co-contraction of reciprocal muscles groups in the lower body during the eccentric isometric holds. That’s because the lifter will gradually start to drift up from their lower body hold unless they aggressively continue to pull themselves into the bottom of the eccentric isometric via heightened co-contraction. This is a critical element of proper muscle activation during any movement as well as something I’ve advocated for years with eccentric isometrics. Fortunately, this is something that is literally required during upper lower body combos in order to maintain one’s 90 degree eccentric isometric for the lower body hold.
8. Triggers a greater endocrine response and increased boost in testosterone. Although a point of contention among researchers and practitioners, there are various studies as well as anecdotal evidence suggesting that compound movements and exercises that involve larger muscle groups and more overall mass trigger the strongest endocrine response such as elevations in testosterone. If this is the case then most isolation movements would fail to elicit this response due to the lack of larger muscle groups involved. However, combining upper and lower body movements helps remedy this by allowing us to perform upper body isolation movements while still triggering a similar endocrine response believed to be associated with larger compound movements such as squats.
9. Allows individuals to train lower body movements with high intensity effort yet light loads, ultimately making it a win win for the joints and central nervous system. If you’re looking to deload your joints while maximizing intensity on lower body movements, ULC’s can’t be beat.
10. Provides a great method for employing biomechanical drop sets. Simply perform the ULC then proceed to simply performing the same lower body exercise without the upper body isolation move. In other words you might do a set of 4-8 bicep curls while holding a squat position. After failure, continue holding the weights and blasting out additional squats as your legs will have plenty left in the tank.
What Other Coaches Are Saying
It should be noted that other trainers and strength coaches are using ULC’s with great success as well. Expert strength coach and performance expert Vince McConnell weighed in on the topic saying
“ULC’s may be the most under appreciated variation(s) for most any client, from youth athletes, general pops, and even pro athletes. It’s one of best ways to teach Eccentric Isometrics from from any level including beginner as most ‘anyone’ connects with “arm training” and when you can integrate such a demanding aspect such as EI lower body movements, great things happen” Check out Vince’s website here.
With that said, here are some of my favorite full body (upper/lower combination) exercise variations that not only help you master your body mechanics but also build phenomenal functional strength and hypertrophy.
SQUAT PATTERN Variations
Squat & Curl
Performing kettlebells curls while holding an eccentric isometric squat position produces incredible levels of tension in the biceps particularly in the top contracted position of the curl.
Rather than leaning back at the top of the movement (a common tendency to subconsciously release tension from the biceps), the squat position forces the lifter to stay slightly leaned over. This slightly angled position combined with the hanging nature of the kettlebells provides continuous levels of significant tension throughout the movement thereby creating occlusion and cellular swelling of the biceps. In addition the rigid squat position leaves little to no room for cheating or using momentum to help lift the weight. This forces the lifter to rely solely on smooth yet forceful contractions of the biceps to complete the movement. The resulting levels of intramuscular tension and metabolic stress turn this simple squat and curl motion into an incredibly potent stimulus for eliciting growth in the arms. Read more about proper squat form here.
These can also be done with a single kettlebell as shown here by my awesome client Leslie Petch which is an exercise I stole from Kyle Arsenault
Single Leg Squat and Curl
If you want to take the stimulus and intensity up several notches, try this eccentric isometric single leg squat & curl combo. In fact this might be one of the first times I can remember where my arms & legs literally gave out at the same time as the level of intramuscular tension to all the working extremities was enormous.
Besides blasting the legs & upper body, this also acts as a therapeutic mobility and stability exercise for the lower body as eccentric isometrics are one of the most therapeutic protocols there is for improving muscle function, joint health, & body mechanics particularly when performed with very strict technique.
If you want to further increase the stimulus try using the bottoms down kettlebell protocol as my awesome client Leslie shows here. There’s literally no cheating allowed on these as the level of motor control and full body tension is incredible to say the least.
For many folks the single leg squat variation may be too difficult particularly in terms of maintaining balance. If this is the case you’ll be unable to overload the biceps with adequate weight. To reap similar benefits of unilateral leg training while also assuming a position that’s significantly more stable, try the kickstand squatting position combined with curls as my awesome client Leslie shows here. Read more about kickstand variations here.
Other Squatting Variations
In reality the squat or any squatting variations (bilateral, single leg, kickstand, wide stance, close stance) can be combined with a number of unique upper body drills including cable curls, cable tricep pressdowns, lateral raises, front raises, chest fly scoops and more.
Lunge & Split Squat Variations
Lunge and Bicep Curls
Similar to the squat, the lunge can also be applied to the same upper body isolation drills discussed above. When combined with the bicep curls these blast the arms and legs simultaneously.
Additionally, there’s incredible tension on the biceps particularly in the contracted position since the lifter will need to maintain a slight forward lean throughout as this represents optimal lunge mechanics. Read more about proper lunge form here.
Bulgarian Squats and Curls
A very similar effect can be achieved with Bulgarian squats however these tends to provide even greater elongation to the hip flexors due to the elevation of the back leg. If you’re looking for a bicep exercise that also helps reduce tightness in the hip flexors, this is it.
Lunge and Lateral Raises
The lunge and lateral raise is actually one of my favorite ULC combo exercises. Besides forcing the lifter to use strict & controlled motions which torches the delts it also helps reinforce proper lateral raise mechanics.
Most lifters use significant momentum, excessive ROM, lumbar extension/back rock, biceps, arm supination, and too much trap activation. The forward lean produced from proper lunge mechanics combined with the dumbells helps remedy all these issues while also producing a lateral raise where the arms move slightly to the front of the body. This represents optimal lateral raise mechanics for any variation. It just so happens the lunge variation promotes these optimal mechanics even more so than traditional variations.
Bulgarian Squats and Lateral Raises
Similar to bicep curls, you can also combine lateral raises with Bulgarian squats for one brutal combination.
Here I have physique competitor Eric McIntyre performing lateral raises with a plate pinch protocol, which has several benefits as well. For instance, grip strength & shoulder mechanics are directly related. Improving grip strength & forcing a lifter to activate their hands & forearms intensely during upper body movements almost always promotes greater shoulder packing and centration of the glenohumeral joint via irradiation and concurrent activation potentiation. Simply put it helps to promote increased neural drive & activation throughout the kinetic chain.
Biomechanically it also keeps individuals from using sloppy mechanics & excessive ROM as these form degradations cause the grip to slip with loss of pinching or crushing strength due to faulty wrist mechanics. Fat grips, & hex dumbbells has similar effect eliminating many forms of upper body dysfunction while simultaneously crushing the grip & forearms.
Lastly, most lifters pull the weight straight out to the sides rather than allowing them to drift slightly forward at a 20-30 deg angle. This plate pinching protocol promotes these optimal mechanics as anything less feels like the bumper plates are going to slip out of the hands. Besides improving lateral raise mechanics these crush the lateral deltoids due to increased constant tension, metabolic stress, and mechanics tension.
A similar protocol can also be applied to the isolateral barbell method. If you use excessive momentum, cheating, or poor mechanics the bars will tilt and twist.
Another similar protocol which also requires incredibly dialed in mechanics involves placing the back foot on a stability ball or medicine ball.
Lunge and Chest Scoops
Here I have several of my NFL athletes and GSP sponsored pros Marcelis Branch, Joe Horn, Austin Larkin, and Julian Williams performing a great upper-lower body combo.
Essentially this specific ULC involves an eccentric isometric lunge hold with a dumbbell chest scoop. This is a great full body finisher that blasts the chest, shoulders, & biceps while also improving lower body stability, mobility, motor control & overall function throughout the lumbopelvic hip function. Focus on maintaining a slight forward lean by keeping the hips set back (i.e. slight hip hinge which represents optimal lunge mechanics) rather than allowing the hips, knees, & low back to move too far forward. This position also helps maximize tension to the chest when performing this scoop exercise.
Additionally try to emphasize a strong muscle mind connection here by attempting to use your pectorals rather than your deltoids or arm to initiate the movement. Focus on keeping the shoulders down & back throughout and don’t try to drive the weights higher than lower chest height. Another great cue is to focus on pushing your body away from the weights as you drive them up (while still keeping the hips back) as this will help isolate the chest.
Hip Hinge Variations
Just like the squat and curl, the hip hinge can also be combined with a variety of upper body isolation movements. Technically every time we do a bent over row, we’re killing 2 birds with one stone as you’re actually performing a hip hinge and horizontal pulling/rowing exercise in one drill. However, other than the obvious combination such as single leg variations and kickstand variations which blast the posterior chain quite significantly, the hip hinge can also be combined with bicep curls, tricep kickbacks, lever rows, and lateral raises.
Core & Ab Variations
While not exactly a key movement pattern, the single arm plank (i.e. renegade row position) can also be combined with similar isolation exercises as shown with squats, lunges, and hinges. These make for absolutely brutal core variations not to mention upper body isolation blasters. Just make sure you’re comfortable with weighted single arm planks as these are several notches more challenging. Here are some of my go-to variations. You can also read more about renegade arm exercises here.
Here’s another great plank & arm combo. The traditional skull crusher plank is a great tricep and core combination movement. Unfortunately because you’re resting on the floor at the bottom, it involves little to no tension in the 90 degree stretched position which is really the sweet spot for maximal muscle activation and hypertrophy. Elevating yourself just slightly allows you to take advantage of the 90 degree eccentric isometric functional strength and hypertrophy stimulus with high levels of constant tension. Just be warned these are much more challenging than they look.
Glute Bridge Variations
Similar to the single arm plank, the glute bridge may not necessarily be a key foundational movement pattern. However it’s quite effective for isolating the glutes while in a semi-supine position which in turn makes it quite effective for combining with other upper body moves such as chest presses, pullovers, and tricep skull crushers.
If that still doesn’t provide enough challenge you can perform any of these movements in a single leg fashion on a stability ball as my awesome client and NPC national figure competitor Leslie Petch shows here.
Here’s another great bicep glute bridge/leg curl combination I refer to as inverted bicep curls. Similar to a renegade row you’ll be performing bicep curls rather than horizontal pulls. The key is to make sure you push and curl with your legs at the appropriate time to allow the natural movement and contraction of the biceps to occur. If you keep your legs stationary this not only feels very unnatural but it’s essentially impossible to reach a full contraction on the top and full elongation at the bottom.
Most of the variations and categories mentioned thus far include upper-lower combinations that involve lower body compound movements such as the squat, hinge, and lunge, combined with upper body isolation movements such as bicep curls and lateral raises. However, there are a number of variations that also involve lower body compound movement combined with upper body compound movement such as rows, pulldowns, chest presses, and overhead presses. Besides acting as another 2-in-1 exercise that covers 2 foundational movement patterns in one drill, each of these provide their own unique stimulus that can’t be replicated with other variations including their more traditional counterparts. Here are several of my favorites.
Squatting Lat Pulldowns
The squatting lat pulldown is not only a great way to crush the lats with a unique vertical pulling motion, it actually provides 10 unique attributes that no other pulldown, pullup, or lat exercise can provide. Read more in full article here.
Squatting Chest Presses
This looks quite simple but it’s without a doubt one of the most brutal chest presses in existence. Think of this as a total body pressing exercise that also happens to work the upper body pressing musculature.
The athletic squat stance position using multiple 90 degree joint angles also has tremendous carryover to athletic performance and sprinting performance particularly because the lifter will be forced to stay on the balls of their feet with a natural forward torso lean.
There’s also a tremendous level of balance and full body stabilization required here. If you’re shoulders protract and round over, your body will fall forward. If you lose core tightness or allow your elbow to drift significantly past the plane of your torso beyond a 90 degree joint angle, the weight will pull you backward. To maintain balance and keep everything dialed in you’ll essentially be forced to maintain multiple 90-degree joint angles throughout the body with perfect spinal alignment and full body tension. Read more in full article here.
Squatting Overhead Presses
The squatting overhead press is a unique yet brutal upper-lower combination exercise. It’s important to note that most folks will find a quarter squat stance most comfortable and natural here as it will feel nearly impossible to perform overhead presses when squatting too deep, at least for a majority of the population. In fact, the position is quite similar to the knee dip or leg drive position used during a push press.
Although at first glance some may feel this is an unnecessary variation that needlessly combines a partial squat with a vertical pressing movement, there are actually 10 reasons why this particular combination is so effective.
1. Besides acting as an upper-lower combination exercise that happens to work the quads while also blasting the shoulders, it’s important to note that the tension to the deltoids and traps is inordinately high and in some ways produces greater mechanical tension than traditional overhead presses. That’s because hip flexion and knee flexion produce elongation and stretching of the posterior chain. Because the lats and posterior chain tie together, the greater the stretch to the posterior chain and lower body the greater the stretch and elongation to the lats and upper back. As a result the lats are more taut.
This creates added tension the shoulders must push against particularly in the top of the movement. In fact, the top half of the squatting overhead presses feels unusually challenging similar to the tension created by accommodating resistance such as bands and chains. Unlike most overhead presses where the top represents the easiest position or resting position with minimal tension, the top of the squatting overhead press is just as hard as the other portions of the movement. Simply put, there high levels of constant tension make this a phenomenal strength and hypertrophy exercise.
2. Most of my athletes have commented that the level of full body tension, core activation, shoulder recruitment, and upper back activation during squatting overhead presses is incredibly high. If you’re looking for a great bang for your buck exercise that hits just about every muscle from head to toe with high levels of constant tension and also produces a strong cardio conditioning stimulus this is it.
3. The level of mobility required not only in the shoulders but also in the t-spine and upper back is quite high during these. With that said, most individuals will struggle to maintain form with a full quarter squat. Start with just a 2-3 inch knee bend and progress to deeper depths as your shoulder mobility improves.
4. Because the squatting overhead press is a great overhead mobility exercise it also has tremendous transfer and carryover to the overhead squat. As you improve your overhead squatting press you should notice considerable improvements to your overhead squat not to mention other overhead exercises.
5. Due to the knee dominant partial squat (the knees will inevitably be slightly more forward than most squats) the overhead squatting press is quite an intense quadriceps exercise particularly the vastus medialis. That’s because these muscles are largely responsible for the top portion of the squat and terminal knee extension.
6. Lack of proper foot and ankle activation is a very common problem during overhead pressing exercises. Fortunately the overhead squatting press requires significant foot and ankle activation in order to maintain position thereby enhancing full body tension and recruitment throughout the kinetic chain.
7. Of all the overhead presses I’ve ever done, the squatting overhead press requires the cleanest and strictest pressing mechanics thereby helping to eliminate any cheating or compensation patterns you might have.
8. The overhead squatting press reinforces 90-degree pressing mechanics as going too deep makes it nearly impossible to press back up due to the biomechanically disadvantageous position produced from holding the partial squat.
9. The most common issue during the push press is the inability to assume a proper knee dip/partial squat position. This drill helps to reinforce proper lower body mechanics that would be used during the driving phase of the push press. Once you return to push press, expect a nice technique boost.
10. The squatting overhead press is quite versatile with dozens of possible variations including single arm, bottoms up, barbell, trap bar, single leg squatting, kickstand, lunging, and more.
Additionally, the movement can be modified to more easily allow full 90 degree squat using the landmine station. That’s because the angle of the landmine allows the lifter to move into a full 90 degree squat with a traditional forward torso lean which inevitably places the torso perpendicular to the barbell – an important feature of overhead pressing movements.
Lunging, Split Squat, & Split Stance Overhead Presses
As previously mentioned same concept overhead press concept can be applied to the lunge pattern or split squat position. They also provide many unique benefits quite similar to the overhead squatting press.
Here are 8 reasons why these are so effective.
1. Eccentric isometrics are the single most effective training technique I know of not only for mastering body mechanics but also for building functional strength & size while also maximizing joint health & athletic performance. These require the lifter to use eccentric isometrics in order to control the load as these are incredibly unstable particularly when using bottoms up plates as I show below. Read more about eccentric isometrics in my book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.
2. The level of mobility required from head to toe particularly in the hips, t-spine, shoulders, & upper back is significant.
3. These require incredibly high levels of full body stability & balance particularly when using bottoms up plates as I show.
4. These magnify extension forces acting on the spine that the lifter must resist resulting in greater core & ab activation to maintain proper alignment.
5. Any cheating, wiggling, shifting, or asymmetrical pressing will be exposed.
6. When trying to engrain 90 deg joint angles during overhead presses (which is optimal most moves), these teach the lifter how to find that as going past 90 inevitably results in loss of full body tension making the lift more difficult to control.
7. The slight forward lean produced from the split stance has a tendency to want to pull the arms into internal rotation, forcing the lifter to aggressively drive into external rotation by firing the upper back & lats.
8. These have exceptional transfer to olympic weightlifting particularly the overhead catch in the split jerk position.
Benefits of Landmine Variations for Overhead Press
Similar to the squatting overhead presses, the landmine variations tend to be more user friendly they’re very natural due to the slight forward torso angle that allows the lifter to more easily maintain proper lunge mechanics (i.e. slight forward lean and hip hinge) while still completing the overhead press. While it’s possible to maintain a proper 90 degree lunge with the dumbbell or barbell variations most folks will find they need to over-extend their lumbar spine and stay too upright to complete these. The landmine is more conducive to maintaining a neutral spinal position since the lifter can lean into the landmine/barbell.
Another variation that I highly recommend that provides benefits of the split stance albeit more user friendly is the split stance stride overhead press.
Although you won’t be fully completing the actual split squat or lunge pattern which negates the ULC component, these are exponentially easier for most folks and tend to allow a bit more overload to be used. It’s also a great way to regress the lunging overhead press and master this movement before gradually progress into the actual split squat variation.
Because they don’t require the same level of mobility, motor control, and stability as the actual split squat or lunge variations, the split stance variations can also be progressed by using an unstable surface for the back leg which further enhances core activation as the lifter has to fire the daylights out of the core to resist the magnified extension forces acting to extend and arch their spine.
Hinge and Row
As mentioned earlier in the article, perhaps the most common upper-lower combo most folks never actually tune into as a 2-in-1 exercise is the bent over row as you’re essentially performing a hip hinge and horizontal row in one drill.
Although the bilateral version is the most common example, most folks won’t receive enough of a lower body stimulus to make this a truly effective hip hinge variation particularly when it comes to overloading the posterior chain. However, the single leg variations remedy this providing just as much work to the glutes and hamstrings as it does to the upper back and lats. The combinations and variations of RDL and rowing exercises are near endless.
With that said I recommend utilizing the RDL reset protocol every 2 reps rather than going straight through the set without resetting. This is something I use on a majority of bent over rows & T-bar rows with my athletes. Here’s why. On bent over rows and T-bar rows it’s quite common for the low back & spinal stabilizers to greatly fatigue, causing these areas to fail before the upper back. As a result you’ll often see form & posture gradually deteriorate throughout the set. Rather than holding a bent over position & completing all repetitions of the rowing movement, a better solution is to reset after several reps by performing an additional RDL & repeating this several times per set.
Each time you stand up and perform an RDL you’re able to re-set the spine and allow the low back musculature to have momentary rest before repeating the sequence several times for the set. Not only will your form be significantly more dialed in but your low back will be less likely to fatigue and give out before your upper back & lats. This allows for greater strength and hypertrophy stimulus to the upper back and lats. It also acts as a great 2 in 1 exercises as you’re now performing your rowing movement as well as hip hinge exercise.
If you’re looking for a training program that includes all of these unique variations along with foundational movements and traditional eccentric isometrics check out the Daily Members workouts with TRAINING REDEFINED.