October 09, 2020 10 min read
The upper body: we love to love it, and we love to hate those who love it too much.
Issues tend to be found in the lower body—we’ve all heard of chicken leg syndrome—but that doesn’t mean we can’t sometimes indulge a little in giving the upper body some serious TLC.
The upper body is, of course, essential in all pushing, throwing, and pulling movements. Containing some of the largest, most “aesthetic” muscles in the human body, it’s no surprise that chest days get so much attention. If you want to exude confidence and back it up with real strength, training your upper body is the way to go.
While heavy, compound movements with a barbell are the way to go with almost every fitness goal in the gym (especially if you’re just getting into the bodybuilding world), programming differences to make a serious impact on how your physique is going to come out in the end.
When we say mass, there’s a couple of things to keep in mind.
The first is diet, obviously. But we’ll leave this for later, as a classic, “Diet is the most important thing,” send-off. What pertains more to the training is how you do the exercises themselves.
For hypertrophy (muscle building), as opposed to strength training, the standard advice is to stick to higher rep ranges while limiting the amount of weight you use (as a percentage of your 1RM). But this, as with most things, is going to depend on what level you’re starting from.
If you’re already pretty jacked, you might need to include more mass-building nuances in your training program if you want to see results. Beginners, on the other hand, will do fine with most training programs in the first few weeks at least. Either way, the name of the game is compound movements that use several joints and muscle groups, paired with rep ranges on the higher side (anywhere from 5 to 15, depending on the exercise and your athletic level). Supersets can be very helpful in this case.
This isn’t to say you should ignore heavy weights; they have their place in a mass building routine as well. This is especially the case since most of your routine should consist of a few compound exercises that tend to be heavy either way.
Below we have 15 of the best exercises to build up your chest. While we’ve included 15, that’s just a healthy sampling of what’s out there. Focus on the heavier, compound lifts, and use the isolation exercises for muscle groups that you feel are lagging behind.
These are juggernauts of both bodybuilding and gym classes everywhere alike—and they only require your bodyweight and a bar to perform.
The main focus with the pull-up is on your back; an essential aspect of the upper body that’ll help protect your shoulders from injury. Furthermore, a strong back is absolutely essential in helping your other, more standard, compound lifts such as the bench press. Furthermore, there’s a host of variations that can help you make things easier or more difficult.
The chin-up has you grasp the bar with palms facing forward—the opposite hold of a pull-up. While this does place a greater emphasis on the chest over the back (something to be avoided if pull-ups are your back focused movement), the benefit is that your elbows are in a naturally better bent position. Furthermore, the difference between these two isn’t as extreme as some would make you believe.
You can’t say “upper-body” without “bench press” and we’re not about to try.
Mastering this compound movement will put you on the path of bigger pecs, bigger front delts, and bigger triceps. You’ll find a bench in pretty much any gym in the world, and it’s no surprise why.
The bench press, done properly, is a complex movement in more than just name. You need to keep your core engaged along with your glutes, keeping your feet planted in one of three main positions on the floor. Adding an arch to your back—similar to how powerlifters do it—will add an element of decline into the lift, allowing you to move heavier weights.
And what do heavier weights mean? More gains.
A standing overhead press is another great workout to include for both your chest and the upper body as a whole. The main muscles worked are your pecs, delts, tris, and traps in the upper back.
Furthermore, if you do this movement in an upright position, you can also expect your core to get a good workout since you’ll be needing it braced for balance. Your shoulder mobility will also see great benefits—helping you in your other lifts.
Begin by grasping the bar with palms facing away at shoulder-width apart, resting it on your collarbone. Ensure that your abs and glutes are engaged as you tilt your head back and explosively push the bar up to the ceiling. Lockout at the top and reverse the movement.
Including lateral raises into your training program is a great way to build both strength and stability in your shoulders. While all three heads of the deltoid will be engaged, it puts a primary focus on the lateral head of the delt. And, as we all know, your shoulders can never be too big. And we do mean never.
Strong and mobile shoulders are key when you’re working out often or are into any sports. These joints are some of the least stable in the body, so it’s essential that they’re kept strong and flexible.
Grabbing a dumbbell in either hand, you essentially just want to raise your outstretched arms to either side. As always, a braced core and glutes will help keep you stabilized. And don’t let momentum take over for you—something that’s particularly common in lateral raises. You want to slowly take the movement up, and then back down; control it every step of the way.
Push-ups are another standard bodyweight exercise that sees massive popularity—and it’s not difficult to see why.
They provide a great workout for your upper body, hitting the delts, pecs, and upper arms (both tris and biceps) throughout the movement. Furthermore, your erector spinae of the back and abs are also utilized to give you stability throughout the exercise.
This is an extremely functional exercise that’s useful in everyday movements that require some sort of pushing, and your other lifts will benefit from the increased upper body strength and the strengthening of your shoulders.
When it comes to push-up variations they’re a dime a dozen, but it’s useful to think of them in terms of hand positioning. The closer your hands are together on the floor, the more of your triceps you’ll be engaging. Hands far apart will use more of your chest.
The deadlift, while usually associated with the lower body muscle groups, is a huge compound movement that you can’t ignore when training the upper body muscles as well.
In terms of the upper body, its greatest impact will be on your upper and lower back, which is a particularly important aspect to focus on when trying to balance out a lot of front-body workouts. Developing your chest and front delts at the expense of your upper back can lead to your shoulders being curved inwards, giving you a hunched look.
The inclusion of deadlifts into your routine is one way to make sure this doesn’t happen, improving your posture as you train.
Furthermore, your grip strength will be challenged as well, leading to the development of your forearms. As a big compound movement, the deadlift will lead to some serious muscle growth.
Although similar to the conventional overhead press, the dumbbell shoulder press also promises to gas out your delts, triceps, traps, and the upper chest. Switching out the barbell for dumbbells makes this a unilateral exercise, which has benefits for your left/right muscle symmetry. Furthermore, there’s plenty of variations to keep you on your toes and your muscles working from every angle.
The standard dumbbell shoulder press can either be done sitting or standing, with the former utilizing less strength from the core and leg muscles for balance and stability.
One of the more popular variations is the Arnold Press, named after the man himself. It adds a sweep and a twist as you move the dumbbells upward, effectively hitting all three heads of your shoulders; the posterior, medial, and anterior delts.
The bent-over row is another excellent option for targeting your upper back; specifically the lats and the rhomboids. You can also add some variation to the movement by either bringing the bar up higher to your chest or lower to your waist. While the former will target the upper-back muscles, you can put the focus on the mid-back by bringing the weight up not as high.
Your biceps and shoulders should also feel a part of the burn, with your core and legs working to stabilize your body throughout the movement.
Just remember to keep your back in a neutral position while hinging at the hips. Keep your elbows close to your body as you go through the motions.
This is one of the most versatile upper body workouts that you can do for building mass and gaining strength. Like the row that came before, this one is also meant to work the lats, rhomboids, traps, and the erector spinae.
However, doing a heavy one-handed row also significantly tests your stabilization with the rotator cuff, meaning that you should feel tension in the muscles around your shoulder blades.
This exercise, more than many others, is often performed improperly. Most of the tension in the movement should be felt in the lats, more than any other muscle group. It’s absolutely imperative that your back is kept in a neutral position and your elbow remains relatively close to your body.
As we all know, curls are for the girls (and a good upper body workout). This is one of the simplest lifts and an important part of any quest to fill out your shirt sleeves. Furthermore, curls also work the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles in the lower arm.
Since it’s an isolation movement, only requiring a single joint, this humble exercise still has important benefits when it comes to your functional fitness and your other, heavier lifts.
This movement can also be done in a wide variety of variations, helping to challenge your muscles in new and interesting ways.
But while the biceps get most of the attention due to their location and size, it’s really the triceps we should be focusing on if we want to really bring home the gun show.
Much like the bicep curl, the overhead tricep extension is also an isolation movement that mainly targets the tricep. It does, however, stand out in the world of tricep exercises since it effectively hits all three heads—the long head, lateral head, and the medial head.
Doing these lying down can also yield good results since the range of motion is different and you’re working the tris from a different angle.
Similarly to the conventional bench press, the incline dumbbell press also works the chest, shoulders, and triceps—primarily. However, most of the attention is given to the upper pecs and the front delts.
This is a great complimentary movement to do with your heavier lifts such as the bench press, since it allows you to focus in on the upper chest—an area that’s criminally under-engaged during most common chest exercises, such as the conventional bench press.
Furthermore, using dumbbells will allow you to correct (or avoid) any muscle imbalances between your left and right sides. While using a bar will allow you to lift more, your stronger side will always be compensating for the weaker.
Every introduction to the dip has to bring up the fact that they’ve been called the “squat of the upper body”. Dips are a simple yet effective full-body exercise that pays particularly close attention to the triceps, chest, and even the back.
One reason for their usefulness is that you can easily modify the movement to hit different parts of your body more. For example, if you want to hit your lower pecs then simply tilt forwards slightly as you're pressing up and down. Having your torso in a more vertical position will place more pressure on the tris and back.
Shrugs are another simple yet effective movement that will improve your posture. The primary muscle used in the shrug is the trapezius muscle, located to the sides of your neck.
This is a very useful exercise if you find yourself relegated to a desk, chair, and computer screen for large parts of the day. The short-range of motion also means that you can really lay on some weight, allowing for more mass gains.
This movement is a great way to strengthen the upper back along with your shoulders. The bent-over position will also necessitate engagement of your stabilizing muscles, such as the erector spinae, the abdominals, and the hips. Your posterior delt, middle and lower traps, rhomboids, and teres minor should also be engaged throughout the movement.
The trick with correctly performing the rear delt fly is to keep your shoulders in proper positioning. This means keeping them pulled down and together—keeping them away from your head and ears.
While we’re not advocating for a dirty bulk here, a bulk is a bulk so don’t hang onto your 6-pack and your cardio for dear life. The way you should be eating will most likely pack on some body fat, so don’t try to chase two different goals at the same time. While it is possible with certain programs, you’ll get limited results.
Your training should necessitate eating like a madman. Think of someone like The Rock and check out how much he eats in a day. It’s insane. We’re not necessarily going for The Rock’s size (well, maybe) but the point stands: you’re going to want to make eating into a chore. And clean eating, at that. Sure, load up on McDoubles but don’t replace lean proteins and healthy carbs with them. Your upper body workout routine won’t work without this aspect.
Another key is rest periods—that means rest days and the time in between sets. You build muscle when you sleep, so get 8 hours and nap if you need to. In terms of rest periods, think in the ballpark range of 3 minutes between heavy lifts, and about half that for other exercises. This will mostly depend on the person, however.
And finally, seriously consider taking supplements to boost your gains. A whey protein shake throughout the day will go a seriously long way, but creatine is another great way to boost mass in a healthy way. Just make sure you’re taking a high-quality option, and watch your muscles blow up in size.