As a strength athlete, your goal is to build up a bigger chest, more rounded shoulders and bulging biceps – a complete upper body. These muscles must be honed not just to look good in a tank top but to be able to press more weight and deadlift heavier.
You’ll likely be familiar with all the best upper body exercises here on our list, but take a minute to think about whether you’re doing them correctly or not. Here we will outline the best upper body exercises, explain why they are the best and how you can execute them in the most optimal way.
This is a simple and timeless compound exercise that many people still have difficulty with. While it may seem simple at first glance, it takes time, practice and progression to do this exercise properly. When you perform it with good form and full range of motion, this exercise will engage many muscles in your upper body, such as the shoulders, triceps, chest and abdominals.
Push-ups are a quick, effective method of building strength and you don’t need any equipment – just your own body. Of course, you could add to the challenge by wearing a weight vest or using a weight plate.
Why do the Push-up
- This exercise is a functional movement, which means it mimics the movements we perform every day, such as vacuuming and working in the yard.
- Weight-bearing movements such as this one increase bone density, making your bones stronger and more difficult to break – a big consideration as you age.
- The push up brings lots of variations, which means it’s great for beginners as well as those who want to boost their bench press.
How to Do It
Begin in a plank position with your hands underneath your shoulders. Keep your back flat and maintain a tight core. You’ll also want to maintain a straight line from head to heel, lowering your body to the floor slowly when you bend your elbows. Your chest should touch the floor if you want to achieve a full range of motion while engaging all your muscle fibers. Press the floor away and keep a tight core so your hips don’t dip.
This exercise is ideal when you want to practice the second half of the clean, which is a popular exercise in functional fitness competitions. This exercise is also good if you want to build upper body strength overall. Anyone can do it, from experienced weightlifters to beginners. If you want to make gains in explosive movements such as jumping or sprinting, or in athletic performance, you will want to incorporate the hang clean in your workouts.
Why do the Hang Clean
- The hang clean works well with the trapezius muscle, found in the neck and upper back. This makes it easier to lift heavier weights in exercises such as deadlifts or rows.
- Ideal for building strength, it’s also good for improving cardiovascular health. If you want to burn fat but you don’t like running, get your heart rate going with the hang clean.
- This exercise can improve coordination.
How to Do It
Load a barbell with your desired weight. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. You will need to be in the “hang” position, meaning your hips will be pushed back, the weight is all in your heels, and the barbell sits mid-thigh. Keep your spine neutral with flexed lats, extending the hips while you shrug your shoulders. Pull the bar and drop your body underneath it. Catch the bar with your palms on your shoulders, turning your elbows up.
To improve mobility and strength, grab a bench and dumbbell to do this move. The pullover targets your chest, triceps, and lats. While not as popular as the chest press, the dumbbell pullover has lots of benefits.
Why do the Dumbbell Pullover
- This exercise loads your muscles under stretch to achieve muscle gain. It induces stretch-mediated hypertrophy, stimulating up to three times the muscle growth.
- This exercise is good for gaining muscle fast.
- It improves shoulder flexibility and mobility, decreasing the chance of injury.
- It improves core stability, as you have to squeeze your abdominal muscles to resist spinal extension.
How to Do It
Lie face-up on a bench with your arms extended over your chest. Hold the dumbbell in a diamond grip, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. Lower your arms slowly until you feel a stretch in your lats and chest. Pull the weight back to the starting position while engaging your lats.
This exercise uses the shoulders and arms to drive weight up overhead, and you don’t need to use your lower body to do it. Because you aren’t using momentum, you won’t have the ability to lift as heavy, but if you want to build strength, it’s a great move. For the strict press, you can use kettlebells, dumbbells, or a barbell. If you don’t have optimal shoulder mobility, start out using dumbbells, not a barbell.
Why do the Strict Press
- If your goal is to build upper body strength, you can’t go wrong with the strict press.
- If your goal is hypertrophy, use it to build upper body muscles like deltoids, chest, or triceps.
How to Do It
Set a barbell on the rack, keeping it at shoulder height. Grab the bar from underneath with your hands so it sits in your palms, setting it at the top of the chest. Tightening your core, push your chest out for a strong base. Move your shin out of the way, and using just your upper body, push the bar up to the ceiling in a straight line. Lock your elbows at the top, slowly lowering it back to the starting position.
If you want to target the biggest muscle in your back (latissimus dorsi), check out the lat pulldown. This move allows you to use heavier weights and do more reps because it doesn’t fatigue the smaller muscles like the triceps and biceps. If you are struggling to do pull ups, start with the lat pulldown since it mimics the same movement, allowing you to add resistance to boost intensity.
Why do the Lat Pulldown
- This move can improve spinal stability and posture because the muscles around your backbone can grow stronger.
- This helps you perform daily tasks involving a pulling motion like opening a door.
- A cable pulley gives added tension on muscles so you enjoy more overall strength- and muscle-building tension.
How to Do It
Sit on a bench facing the lat pulldown machine. For a wide-grip pulldown, grasp the bar wider than shoulder-width apart, with your knuckles up. Pulling your shoulders away from your ears, pull the bar down to the upper chest using your back. Extend the arms to the starting position slowly.
This is when you crawl with your feet and hands under your hips and shoulders to build tension on your triceps, shoulders, and chest. You won’t exactly put inches on your muscles, but it’s a good way to build body stability.
Why do the Bear Crawl
- This move takes coordination and balance, which helps you both physically and mentally. Did you know that balance work can also improve memory and spatial cognition?
- This is great for getting the heart rate up to improve your cardiovascular health.
- The bear crawl increases should and core stability, reducing the risk of injury.
How to Do It
Get into a tabletop position with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. Your body weight should be balanced on your hands and toes while hovering your knees off the ground. Just as with a plank, you need to keep your core tight and your back flat while stepping your right hand and left foot forward. Then, reverse the process, placing your left hand and right foot forward. Do this over and over for as long as you can.
This movement is a good buildup to pull ups. Anyone can do it, from beginners to experienced weightlifters. There are lots of benefits to the inverted row. Not only is it scalable, you can do it just about anywhere. Plus, it taxes the back muscles without having to load the joints.
Why do the Inverted Row
- This exercise builds the major pulling muscles in your back such as traps, lats, and rear deltoids because you can do more reps.
- You get additional support with this exercise with your heels on the ground, so you can reduce the strain on your lower back.
How to Do It
In a power rack, set the barbell at waist height while positioning yourself under it. Grasp the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, facing your palms away from your head. Extending your arms and legs, your body should be in a straight line from head to heel. Pull yourself up to the bar until your chest hits it, then lower yourself slowly back to starting position.
Similar to the strict press, this exercise targets the shoulders, chest, and triceps using power and momentum in order to drive the weight. Using a lower-body dip, you will push the barbell overhead. This momentum allows you to drive more weight over your head compared with that of a standard overhead press. More load equals more muscular stress to result in more muscle. Use this workout to support other exercises, such as jerks and snatches.
Why do the Push Press
- This exercise builds more muscle and total-body strength, as you have to use force from the ankles, knees, and hips to push weight overhead.
- It allows you to improve your overhead pressing abilities.
- You have a reduced risk of injury thanks to more strength in your shoulders.
How to Do It
Use the same front rack positioning that you would for a front squat or jerk. Align your wrist and shoulders with a shoulder-width grip. Dipping a few inches downwards, using an upright torso, drive your knees over your toes. Pushing your torso and chest upwards and using the legs, drive yourself up forcefully until the barbell locks out overhead. Lower down slowly and repeat.
Overhead Triceps Extension
If your goal is bigger arms, this is a good exercise to incorporate. Triceps comprise two-thirds of your upper arm compared with the biceps, and are responsible for arm extension. Stronger triceps equal stronger arms and shoulders. Your triceps are composed of three muscles called heads. With this exercise, you can target all three of them, so it’s a pretty effective triceps exercise.
Why do the Overhead Triceps Extension
- This isolation exercise can help you target just the triceps, helping you build muscle and appearance.
- It improves shoulder and elbow stability so you can improve certain daily tasks such as pushing or lifting a heavy object.
- Strong triceps improve athletic performance such as swimming or throwing a baseball.
How to Do It
Put the dumbbell in a diamond grip, holding it overhead with arms fully extended. Tightening your core and relaxing your shoulders, keep your elbows tight against your head as you bend your arms. Stop bending once your arms achieve a 90-degree angle, pressing back up to starting position. Do this exercise while seated or while standing.
Less intense than the standard overhead press or shoulder press, this doesn’t require as much shoulder flexion. But don’t mistake this for an easy exercise. Use it to target the triceps, biceps and shoulders.
Why do the Landmine Press
- Performing this as a unilateral movement improves balance and shoulder instability.
- If you don’t have great shoulder mobility, do the landmine press instead of an overhead press so you don’t strain the lower back.
- This exercise is ideal if you want to build upper body strength, plus there are different variations to target various muscle groups.
How to Do It
Set up the barbell in a landmine base or even in the corner of a wall. If using one arm, grasp the barbell at the top, holding it on the side from which you are pressing. If using both hands, grasp the barbell while holding it mid-chest. Press the barbell straight until your arms have been fully extended, lowering the bar back to starting position slowly.
This movement targets the chest, shoulders and triceps, and happens to be one of the best movements when building horizontal pressing strength. You can use a greater load than you could with dumbbells or kettlebells. This is good for powerlifters in particular because it’s one of the three main competition lifts in addition to the deadlift and squat.
Why do the Barbell Bench Press
- You can increase your chest, shoulder, and tricep mass.
- You have a better chance at lifting more since this exercise increases pressing strength.
- Heavy loaded exercises like the bench press increase bone density, leading to stronger, healthier bones as you age.
How to Do It
Lie on a bench and align your eyes underneath the barbell. Grasp the bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart, bringing your feet close to your glutes and pushing your feet back. Place the bar over your chest, lowering it slowly down to your chest as you take a breath in and push your feet backward. Push the barbell up to lockout while arching your back slightly.
Bent-Over Barbell Row
This is a common exercise in bodybuilding and weightlifting because it strengthens and boosts mass in the lats and upper back. You can do the most weight compared with other rowing variations. When you can lift heavier weights regularly using good form, you get more muscle. You will use the hip hinge position, which trains the lower back in an isometric fashion, with a strong low back helping you maintain a rigid torso when you squat or deadlift.
Why do the Bent-Over Barbell Row
- This exercise adds strength and mass to your lats, upper back, and erector spinae.
- It reinforces solid hip hinge mechanics, which can help with your deadlift.
- You get better control and postural strength.
How to Do It
Putting a loaded barbell on the floor, place your feet slightly more than hip-width apart. Grasp the barbell with shoulder-width grip, bringing the barbell to knee level while keeping your back straight. Your torso should be bent at 45 degrees. Pulling the barbell between navel and sternum, take a moment to pause, then lower the barbell back down slowly. Repeat.
Chin-ups and pull-ups are ideal exercises when you want to increase the strength and size of your upper back, lats and biceps. There are many variations, each with their own benefits. But the mix-grip pull-up is better. Why? Using an uneven grip, your body is placed in a state of rotation. When you fight that rotation, you are recruiting more core muscle. Plus, since you are using an underhand grip, you get less intensity than a pull-up but more intensity than a chin-up. This exercise is an ideal intermediate variation for those who want to get better at their pull-up routine.
Why do the Mix-Grip Pull-Up
- You can avoid overuse injuries (think: golf and tennis elbow) by alternating your grip.
- You can improve your ability to perform more pull-ups and chin-ups.
- It improves your anti-rotational strength, good for sports like baseball, football and golf.
How to Do It
Grasp the pull-up bar with an alternating grip, with one palm facing forward and the other facing you. Engaging your core, grip tightly and pull yourself up until your chest becomes even with the bar. Pause, then lower down slowly. Do all reps before switching your grip to do the next set.
With this exercise, you can simultaneously work your chest and triceps, with the range of motion when doing dips being longer, compared with most other triceps exercises. Lean your torso forward if you want to target your chest, which will shift the stress to your pecs. If you can’t do weighted dips yet, build up your strength and endurance using your body weight. Then you can add weight bit by bit with a dipping belt.
Why do the Weighted Dip
- You get better lockout strength for exercises such as the overhead press, bench press, and Olympic lifts.
- This exercise builds muscle mass and strength in your chest, triceps, back and shoulders.
- It’s easy to adjust this exercise to target your chest muscles, or you could opt to stay more upright and focus on the triceps.
How to Do It
For resistance, you can use a weighted vest or belt, or hold a dumbbell between your legs. With each hand, squeeze the bars, lowering yourself down until the elbows bend 90 degrees. Driving yourself upwards, try to maintain a slightly-forward lean. When getting to lockout, flex your triceps, pause, then lower slowly and repeat.
Heavy carries build a bigger and more durable upper-body. This exercise involves carrying a heavy object for a set time or distance. This taxes the muscles in the traps, upper back, and forearms. You’ll also get a good cardio workout at the same time. All you need to do this is a pair of kettlebells, dumbbells, and space to walk.
Why do the Farmer’s Carry
- This exercise boosts should stability because your rotator cuffs have to work hard to ensure your shoulders stay in the sockets.
- It strengthens hip and core stabilizers due to the single leg stance.
- It improves grip strength.
How to Do It
Using a pair of dumbbells, stand up and keep your shoulders down with your chest up. Walk slowly in a straight line, one foot in front of the other, then put the weight down.
In addition to the above exercises, if your goal is to gain muscle and strength, you will need to eat more calories than you burn. This is why you need a good diet and nutrition plan in place before beginning a workout routine. We hope you find the above exercises helpful and agree on our best upper body movements.
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