Advanced Upper Body Micro-Workout

We recently received a request from a reader to finish our micro-workouts series – and we had to oblige! What follows is a more advanced 5-6 minute micro workout for the upper body, utilizing a science-based technique called myo-reps.

Our Secret Weapon – Strategic Rest Periods

In our lower body micro-workout article, we discussed that the lower body is fatigue resistant and can generally tolerate lots of repetitions with no breaks. Well, the upper body doesn’t work that way.

The muscles are much smaller, and they are not designed to hold your body up for hours at a time like your legs and glutes are. They will get tired far more quickly. This is why it will be critical to plan breaks into the upper body micro workout.

To do this, we will use a variation of the old rest-pause method known as myo reps. We will be using a simplified and modified version of this technique. Credit goes to Norwegian strength coach Borge Fagerli for coming up with this “myo reps” method – you are welcome to read the linked article for the full, non-simplified version.

This is a technique that utilizes a single medium-difficulty “activation set”, followed by abbreviated rest periods and 3-5 “mini-sets” of 1-5 reps each.

For example, if your activation set includes 10 reps, you’re likely beginning to feel fatigued by reps 8, 9, and 10. By taking a short rest period, our mini-set of 3 reps will feel like a repeat of reps 8, 9, and 10 rather than a fresh start.

Don’t worry, the whole thing only takes about 2.5 minutes per exercise.

How to Do “Simplified” Myo Reps

Though it may seem confusing at first, it only takes a couple of sessions to get the hang of this method:

  • First, complete a single, “medium” difficulty activation set. The number of repetitions in this set will change workout-to-workout – that’s OK. We recommend staying around 3-4 repetitions from muscular failure on your activation set.
  • Next, take 5 deep breaths (which will result in around a 15 second rest period). You will then complete a mini-set of 1-5 more repetitions (called “myo reps”) of the same exercise. Repeat until you either a.) miss a rep on a mini set, or b.) finish all five mini-sets.

Here’s our little tweak: if you finish all five mini-sets, try to add one rep to your activation set next time. If you do not finish all five mini-sets, repeat the same workout next time.

Example of Myo Reps in action

A woman doing push ups on a set of dumbbells.

So we’re all on the same page, let’s look at an example. Let’s say your activation set on pushups is 8 reps. You would do:

  • Pushups – 8 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 / 2 (rest 15 sec between sets)
  • Congratulations! You would increase the number of reps on your “activation” set from 8 to 9 next time.

However, if you did:

  • Pushups – 8 / 2 / 2 / 1
  • STOP – failed to get 2 reps on a mini-set.

In this case, you would repeat this workout next time.

How many repetitions to do on your mini-sets (myo reps)

We recommend the following progression. Unlike our other micro-workouts, these are not sorted into weeks. This is because you will often find yourself repeating a workout 2-3 times before advancing to the next one.

Activation setMini-sets
3-5 reps5 sets of 1 rep
6-10 reps5 sets of 2 reps
11-15 reps5 sets of 3 reps
16-20 reps5 sets of 4 reps
21-30 reps5 sets of 5 reps
Over 30 repsSwitch to a harder exercise (see Next Steps (link to #nextsteps) below), go back to 10 reps, and work your way back up.

The Exercises

As in our original upper body micro workout article, we recommend using an upper body compound pressing exercise (like a push up variation), followed by an upper body compound pulling exercise (like a row variation).

The most portable and convenient way to do this workout would be by using push ups and a seated resistance band row, although there is nothing wrong with switching these exercises out for others if you desire (or have access to other equipment).

However, we’d recommend against getting too complicated – the point of this workout is that it’s simple, quick, and can be done anywhere.

Since you can expect to spend around 2.5-3 minutes per exercise, you should expect this entire workout to take around 5-6 minutes, if you go from exercise to exercise with no rest.

Why Myo Reps Work

A man doing pushups in an upper body micro workout.

The reasons that this style of training works is somewhat beyond the scope of this article. To keep it brief:

Myo reps are a science-based method to maximize “effective reps” (difficult reps that activate all of a muscle’s the low and high threshold motor units) while minimizing “junk volume” (easy reps that get you tired but don’t produce strength adaptations).

They are also known for slashing workout times by up to 70% while still leading to great results – perfect for the “micro” workout warrior.

As a side note, this is why endless sets of an exercise far from failure do not improve strength. If you are capable of doing 20 pushups, then doing 20 sets of five repetitions each with two minutes rest will yield no improvement.

This is what we call “junk volume.” It is also why low intensity cardio like running and swimming, while extremely valuable for their other health benefits, don’t do a very good job of improving our level of general strength.

Warning: As a general guideline, we do not recommend that you try this method with lower body compound exercises like squats and lunges. Maintaining this kind of intensity for lower body exercises tends to be too strenuous for most people.

You’re welcome to try it if you want, but you have been warned.

Strength fluctuations and frequency

As with the original upper body micro-workout article, we recomend that you start by doing this workout three times per week. Since the methodology is different than you’re used to, you may experience muscle soreness.

If you remain consistent for a couple of weeks, these workouts will stop making you sore, and you’re free to increase your frequency to 4-5 days per week, if you prefer.

Also note that you won’t always be able to complete the same number of reps, day after day. This is to be expected – studies show that an individual’s maximal strength can fluctuate by up to a whopping 10% day-to-day, due to a number of factors:

  • How well you’ve been sleeping
  • Your recent diet
  • Your stress level
  • How much fatigue you’ve accumulated from other physical activities you’re doing
  • Your individual level of focus on a particular day

The process is what’s important, and consistency matters more than numbers.

For the Over Achievers: Optional Exercises

Optional Exercise # 1: Banded Face Pulls

Just like our original upper body micro workout, we believe that adding face pulls can be a very good idea for overall shoulder health, posture, as well as their aesthetic benefits.

Since we have covered face pulls before in this article, we won’t go into depth on them here.

Optional Exercise # 2: Banded Curls

It wouldn’t be an upper body workout without curls, would it? Jokes aside, those seeking extra toning effect for the arms would do good to include a set of myo-rep curls after their main movements. That part is up to you.

The rationale is this:

The pushup trains the tricep directly, whereas the row only uses the bicep for assistance. So for a more complete arm workout, adding a hard set of curls to the end of your workout has the potential to pay dividends. I use myo-reps for curls, just like the other exercises.

Using a resistance band for curls has the added benefit of allowing a free hand position, alleviating common wrist-pain issues that are sometimes associated with straight-bar curls.

  • Set up with a lighter band beneath your feet. Grab the ends of the bands with the hands and then stand up.
  • Curl the ends of the bands until you can’t go any higher. Note that you probably won’t be able to get all the way to the top of the traditional curl position – this is fine.
  • Use any hand position you want – supinated (palms facing up), pronated (palms facing down), or neutral (palms facing each other) are all fine. I tend to go halfway between supinated and neutral most of the time, because this position is very comfortable to me.

Good luck!

As stated in our original article, if you’re able to do more than 30 repetitions of any exercise in one go, we’d recommend choosing a tougher variation to keep the total reps for your first set under 25. For band exercises, this is relatively simple – just choose a heavier band. For pushups, we recommend switching to a different variation of the push up that you find more challenging.

With consistency (and a little creativity), this style of workout can pay dividends for months and years to come. We look forward to hearing how these workouts are going for you!

Be sure to contact us with any questions or suggestions, and as always, reach out to us if you would like to request a consultation with one of our Arizona physical therapists!

Quick Pay for Patients

For security purposes, please prove that you are human before proceeding!