The best upper body exercises aren’t fancy or foreign to you. In fact, we also bet you’ve done every exercise on this list. But are you doing them correctly? Then it’s safe to assume you want more in the upper body department. In the list below, we’re going to outline the absolute best upper body exercises, explain why they rock, and then tell you how to execute them flawlessly.
The fitness world has never been more overwhelming than it is now. From isolation exercises to full-body exercises to flows to exercises that help you perfect those other exercises, the moves at your disposal are as vast as ever.
Working with compound moves is going to be the most effective use of your time, since one exercise will allow you to hit a bunch of different muscles—both your big muscle groups and the smaller muscles which come in to “assist” the primary players, says Fagan. Take the bent-over row, which is a popular compound exercise, and compare it with a biceps curl, which is a popular isolation move. With the bent-over row, you’ll work a bunch of back-of-the-body muscles, like your lats and rhomboids, as well as your biceps (which come in to assist). If you’re doing a biceps curl, though, you’ll only be working your biceps.
And the keys to that fitness success haven’t changed as much as you may think. While plenty of exercises have value and can improve your overall fitness, you don’t need to include all of them in your training. A host of exercises have been around for eons, and, very often, they’re the ones that should be in your routines, one way or another. Those venerable moves are often the backbone of any good routine.
Luckily, they’re not the only effective exercises for molding chest, arm, shoulder, and back muscles. By diversifying your iron-pumping portfolio, you can work even more muscle groups to create the best upper body workout for your goals.
If you want to get in a good upper body exercises, there’s a simple rule of thumb that can guide you: Make sure your workout hits the major movement patterns.
How Do You Build Upper Body Strength Fast?
For bigger, stronger muscles, keep the following in mind:
Keep challenging your muscles. Add more weight, do more reps, or reduce rest periods between sets. You don’t need to change a lot every single work out — even minor tweaks can help keep your muscles progressing.
Do more sets. Instead of going as hard as you can for just one set, research has found that lifters who performed three to five sets saw more strength gains, muscle endurance, and hypertrophy than those who just did one set per exercise.
Eat smart. Protein is essential when it comes to building muscle. Make sure you’re eating enough and that you’re eating it at the right time (hint: try after you exercise) to help your muscles grow and repair after a challenging workout.
The Best Upper Body Exercises
The most effective strategy is to integrate a combination of compound exercises into your routine. Some of those will include barbells, dumbbells, and machines, yes, but others just require your own body weight or resistance bands.
Here, we give you some upper body exercises.
Bench presses are an exercise that can be used to tone the muscles of the upper body, including the pectorals, arms, and shoulders.
Depending on your goals, there are different variations of bench presses that work slightly different muscles, too. For example, a narrower grip bench press also works the triceps and forearms.
Lie on a flat bench, holding a barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip. Brace your core and press your feet into the ground, then lower the bar towards your chest. Press it back up to the start.
It is often impressive to see a lifter pressing huge weights overhead (with good form), and should be a place of pride. The overhead press is a foundational compound movement that is great for building the upper body and a test of upper body stability.
You won’t get any assistance from the bench — with the overhead press, it’s your feet on the ground, your hands on the barbell, and you can either lift it or not. Today we are going to discuss how to perform it properly and why it should be a recurring part of your upper body training.
- With the bar in front of you, place your hands just outside shoulder width apart.
- Keep elbows and forearms in a vertical position, stacked upon each other. If your elbows are tucked or flared, your grip is either too narrow or too wide. Please adjust accordingly.
- Place the bar on the heel of your palm — this is where most force will generate from.
- Make sure your middle knuckles face upwards (towards the ceiling).
Your back muscles are the primary beneficiaries of the bent-over row, and as they increase in strength your posture will also improve so you don’t slump as much. Directly stimulating your lats, traps, rhomboids and rotator cuffs works wonders for your body. A stronger back with better posture
- Stand tall, holding a set of dumbbells at your sides, with your palms facing your body. (You can also use a resistance band: Loop the band around each foot. Hold the left handle in your right hand and the right handle in your left hand so that that the band forms an “X.”)
- Keeping your back flat, core braced, and knees slightly bent, bend at the waist so that your back is just above parallel with the floor. Your arms should hang toward the floor.
- Row the dumbbells to the sides of your ribs, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement. Pause, then slowly lower your arms back down, and repeat.
The push press can increase upper body strength and size due to the large amounts of loads that can be lifted relative to total body strength. In addition, the push press can be done using a wide array of repetition schemes for muscle growth, power, strength, and endurance, making it an optimal exercise for inclusion in most programs focusing on strength and muscle hypertrophy.
Grab a barbell with an overhand grip and hold it at shoulder height. Keep your elbows up high and your upper arm parallel to the ground. Slightly bend your knees and drop down while keeping your torso upright and avoiding leaning forward. Explosively extend your knees and hips as you drive the barbell overhead and stand up tall. Slowly lower the barbell back to your shoulders before repeating.
The Z press is a shoulder press variation that removes the load from your lower back and requires more recruitment from the shoulders. You’ll also find that your core works very hard during this exercise. You can do the Z press with dumbbells or a barbell; dumbbells are recommended for beginners.
Try this: Sit on the floor with your legs extended in front of you. Hold two dumbbells or a barbell in the front-rack position (hands at shoulders; elbows pointing forward). Brace your core and press upward, fully extending your arms without leaning back. Try to keep your heels on the ground.
Bent Over Barbell Row
The bent-over barbell row, specifically with a barbell, is one of the best strength- and muscle-building movements. It allows the lifter to use more weight relative to other rowing movements. It also recruits the forearm and biceps muscles, which leads to a stronger grip. Lastly, the core is more engaged as it’s constantly supporting a bent-over position and rigid torso.
Place a loaded barbell on the floor stand with your feet slightly more than hip-width apart. Hinge down to the barbell and grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip. Then bring the barbell up to knee level with back straight and torso bent at 45 degrees. Pull the barbell between your navel and sternum. Pause, then slowly lower the barbell back down and repeat.
Incline Dumbbell Chest Press
The purpose of the incline press is to focus more of the work on the upper pecs. The main benefit in performing incline presses is to develop the upper portion of the pectoral muscles.
When the bench is set at an incline (15 to 30 degrees), you activate your shoulders more since it’s comparable to a shoulder press. Also, because of the angle of the bench, this exercise puts less stress on your rotator cuff, which is a common area for injury when using the flat bench.
- Lie on your back on an incline bench set to 45 degrees with your feet firmly on the floor and your arms extended over your chest, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should face forward.
- Slowly bend your arms to lower the dumbbells down and outward until they are on either side of your chest.
- Extend your arms straight up and over your chest again, pressing back up to the starting position. Pause briefly at the top before repeating for 8-12 reps.
The incline dumbbell fly targets the upper pectorals and a great way to improve chest development. The shoulders play a secondary role while the triceps stabilize the movement.
The exercise is an effective way to isolate the hard to develop upper chest muscle. Adding the incline dumbbell fly not only helps build a better chest but is shown to have many other benefits
- Adjust your bench to a 30 to 45-degree incline position.
- Sit on the bench, straddling it with your feet flat on the floor. Rest the weights on your thighs just above the knees for heavier loads or centered at the chest for lighter weights.
- Maintain a tight core and exhale as you lie back on the bench while kicking one dumbbell up at a time in position over the chest in a fluid motion. This will not be necessary for lighter dumbbells that can be held securely on your chest as you lie down on the bench.
- Raise the dumbbells over your chest, elbows slightly bent, and palms facing each other. (envision hugging a barrel over your chest)
- Inhale and slowly lower the dumbbells in a maintained arc position until you feel a mild stretch in your chest or shoulders.
- Exhale and bring the weights back to start position maintaining an arc throughout the movement.
- Repeat for a determined amount of repetitions.
- Bring the dumbbells back to body center resting on chest or thighs (depending on weight), exhale and use your core to sit up upon completion of the exercise.
Deadlifting increases your core strength and adds to core stability, according to Robson. Deadlifting targets all of the muscles responsible for your posture and enables you to keep your back straighter during regular daily activities.
- Stand behind it with your feet hip-width apart and your toes angled slightly outward.
- Bend over and grip the barbell with hands at shoulder-width.
- Bend your knees until the barbell just about touches your shins
- Flex your butt and brace your stomach, keeping your spine in a neutral position.
- Pick the bar up off the ground and act as if you’re pressing your feet into the ground.
- Bring the barbell up and thrust your hips forward until you are fully standing up.
- Reverse the movement until the bar returns to the ground.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was smart in the gym, and this exercise remains a weight room favorite after decades,” says Kourtney Thomas, C.S.C.S. Why? Because it hits all three sections of the deltoid muscle at one time: the anterior (front), medial (side), and posterior (rear).
Start standing with your feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height, with elbows bent and palms facing body.
In one motion, bring elbows out wide to sides while rotating hands so palms face forward and pressing the dumbbells overhead until arms are straight and biceps are by ears.
Pause, then reverse the movement to return to start. That’s one rep.
Clean and Press
Originating as an Olympic lift, the clean and press works no fewer than eight different muscle groups. The lower half of the movement strengthens your hips, glutes, and hamstrings, while the upper half of the movement targets your shoulders, chest, back, and arms. Meanwhile, the entire move relies on you engaging your core.
Power training is important for athletes who need a sudden burst of activity in their sport, such as sprinting or jumping. Even those not focusing on specific sports use power exercises to push the heart rate to anaerobic levels, adding a higher calorie burn to their overall workout.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Then, with your lower back arched, bend your hips back to lower your torso and grasp the bar with hands shoulder width. Extend your hips to lift the bar off the floor. When it gets past your knees, jump and shrug the bar so that momentum raises it and you catch it at shoulder level. Brace your abs and stand tall. Press the bar straight overhead.
Barbell Upright Row
The upright row exercises the front and middle heads of the deltoids, as well as the trapezius, rhomboids, and even the biceps muscles.1 It is very good at growing these muscles. However, these muscles can be effectively developed with safer exercises, such as the bench press, overhead press, and pushups. The primary use of this exercise is by bodybuilders who are targeting specific muscles and are using perfect form.
- Grasp a barbell or dumbbells and allow it to hang in front of you at the length of your arms. Your palms should be facing your body.
- Standing up straight, adjust your grip so that your hands are about in line with the thighs. Shoulder-width apart (no closer) is recommended for wrist and shoulder safety.
- Breathe in and brace the abdominals, keep the back straight, chest up, and eyes focused forward.
- Lift the barbell straight up toward the chin, leading with the elbows and keeping the bar close to the body. Breathe out during the effort. Your arms should go no higher than parallel with the shoulders. Slightly less is OK.
- Pause at the top of the lift.
- Return the barbell back to the starting position, breathing in as you lower it.
- Repeat the move for your defined number of repetitions.
Weighted dips allow you to simultaneously work your chest and triceps, as you lower and raise your entire body weight on a set of parallel bars. Compared to most triceps exercises, the range of motion you achieve doing dips is longer, and so it’s generally considered one of the best triceps exercises. Pro tip: to target your chest more specifically, lean your torso forward. This slight lean will shift the stress more so to your pecs.
- Start by wrapping your dip belt around your waist, chain side in front. Take the chain end with the carabiner on it and drop it through the belt loop so the belt can tighten. Attach your weight plate to the dropped side before looping it around, and clip it back to the other side of your belt.
- Mount the dip bar facing outward. Hold onto the bars as you hold your body at arm’s length — arms and elbows straight and locked. Keep your head in line with your trunk, wrists in line with your forearms.
- Inhale as you slowly start to lower your body. Let your torso move slightly forward and your elbows to flare out to the side.
- Once you feel a stretch in your chest, breathe out and start to push yourself slowly back up to the starting position.
- Repeat the movement.
Dumbbell Crush Press
The dumbbell crush press is a variation of the dumbbell bench press and an exercise used to build the muscles of the chest and triceps.
The crush press is particularly effective in activating the chest as you’ll squeeze the pecs while pressing the dumbbells together.
Additionally, the crush press incorporates the triceps more so than other bench press variations.
This exercise is useful for bodybuilders trying to establish mind-muscle connection with their chest, as well as other lifters looking to build stronger triceps to assist them in other press variations.
- Pick up the dumbbells off the floor using a neutral grip (palms facing in). Position the ends of the dumbbells in your hip crease, and sit down on the bench.
- To get into position, lay back and keep the weights close to your chest. Once you are in position, take a deep breath, crush the dumbbells together, then press them to lockout at the top.
- Continue to push the dumbbells together while lowering them under control as far as comfortably possible.
- Once the dumbbells touch your chest, push them back to the starting position.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
The rear lateral raise isolates your rear deltoid. Targeting this muscle helps to strengthen, tone, and stabilize your shoulders and upper body.
Strong deltoids help with pressing, pulling, and overhead movements. This makes it easier to complete your athletic and daily activities while reducing your risk of injury.
Strengthening your shoulder and upper back muscles helps build strength in your rear deltoids and upper body. On an aesthetic level, strong deltoids will help your upper body look bigger, stronger, and more toned.
Building these muscles lowers your chance of injury, promotes good posture, and helps with shoulder stabilization. It can also help make your body more symmetrical and aligned.
Stand tall, holding a light dumbbell in each hand by your sides, palms facing each other. Keeping your chest up, your core braced and a slight bend in your elbows, raise the weights out to shoulder height. Turn your thumbs down at the top, then lower them back to the start.
Dumbbell Biceps Curls
Curls work the biceps muscles at the front of the upper arm, and also the muscles of the lower arm—the brachialis and brachioradialis.1 You use these muscles anytime you pick something up, which is common throughout daily life. Doing the standing arm curl, you build strength in the upper arm and learn to use your arm muscles correctly, bracing with your core muscles.
- Begin standing tall with your feet about hip-width apart. Keep your abdominal muscles engaged.
- Hold one dumbbell in each hand. Let your arms relax down at the sides of your body with palms facing forward.
- Keeping your upper arms stable and shoulders relaxed, bend at the elbow and lift the weights so that the dumbbells approach your shoulders. Your elbows should stay tucked in close to your ribs. Exhale while lifting.
- Lower the weights to the starting position.
- Do 8–10 curls, then rest and do one or two more sets.
The dumbbell pullover is an upper body exercise that does not get the attention it deserves. In fact, some fitness trainers call it an “old school” exercise. Yes, it does have a long history! A 1911 book by Alan Calvert called the Super Strength book makes mention of this exercise and its benefits. According to the author, the dumbbell pullover is the best exercise for increasing the size of the “rib box.” Yet this exercise has other benefits too. Word has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger was fond of this exercise and often used it as a finisher to his often-grueling workouts. He may have been on to something! You do not see as many people doing this exercise these days, but there are some reasons to do so. First, let’s look at how to do one:
- Place a dumbbell standing up on a flat bench and ensure it stays securely place while you get into position.
- Start lying perpendicular on a bench with only your upper back/shoulders across the bench.
- Place your feet firmly on the floor and place your hips just slightly below the bench. Your head should be off the bench too.
- Grab the upper head of the dumbbell with both hands and hold it straight over your chest, with your arms extended but keeping a small bend on the shoulders.
- Both palms should be pressing against the underside of one of the sides of the dumbbell.
- While keeping your arms straight, lower the weight slowly in an arc behind your head. Make sure your core is engaged and you’re paying attention to your chest and back muscles.
- Lower the dumbbell until the head you’re holding reaches around the same height as your head.
- Bring the dumbbell back to the starting position keeping your arms extended and your midline engaged.
- Hold the weight on the initial position for a second and repeat the motion for the prescribed number of repetitions.
One Arm Row
The dumbbell row is the best exercise to build wide, thick and powerful back. This exercise helps you to develop thickness of all your entire back muscles including the upper, middle and lower. The exercise work in widening and thickening your back muscles at the same time. While practising this exercise make sure your supporting arm and knee firmly positioned on the bench to reduce pressure on your hip and lower leg joints.
- Place your knee on a flat weight bench, with the arm close to the bench supporting your body as you lean forward
- Hold the dumbbell with your other hand
- Pull the dumbbell near your abdomen
- Once the elbow is brought up past the body and peak contraction is made, slowly reverse the movement back to the starting position
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions
The kettlebell swing is an excellent power- and strength-generating exercise that targets your glutes, hamstrings, hips, core, and the stabilizing muscles of your shoulders and back. While you may experience a small benefit to your quads and delts, the swing is designed to target your posterior chain—the back half of your body. Given that most people spend their time at the gym working the “show me” muscles of the anterior chain of the body, including the chest, abdominals, and quadriceps, using exercises that hit the back of the body can help correct potential muscle imbalances.
- Place the kettlebell on the ground slightly in front of your feet. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart, your toes angled out slightly. Bend your knees just a little bit and check your posture—make sure your shoulders are rolled back so your ears are aligned with your shoulders, hips, knees, and ankles. Engage your abdominals, drawing your belly button back toward your spine.
- Keep your back completely straight (maintain your perfect posture) and press your hips back, tipping your torso forward as you reach your hands toward the kettlebell handle. You should create a crease at the front of your hip joint as you perform this hip-hinge movement. Make sure you don’t start bending your knees to squat down to the kettlebell—if your knees start bending significantly, you’ll lose the hip hinge. If you notice your knees bending, reset and work on pressing your hips back farther.
- Grasp the kettlebell handle firmly with both hands. Roll your shoulders back slightly to make sure they remain engaged—this helps control the momentum of the swing while preventing a forward curve of the spine. Make sure your core is still engaged and take a breath in.
- Exhale and in one powerful movement, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as hard as you can to fully extend your hips as you reverse the hip hinge and rise to the upright, starting position. During this part of the exercise, make sure the hips do not extend past your shoulders. As your hips extend, allow the kettlebell to naturally swing forward from your shoulders as high as it will naturally swing. On your first swing or two, it may not swing all the way to shoulder-height, but as you build momentum, allow the kettlebell to swing to the point where it feels weightless for a split second, usually when it’s almost parallel to the ground. Your torso should remain straight, your core, upper back, and shoulders all engaged, throughout this upward swing.
- Allow the kettlebell to naturally start its pendulum swing back toward the floor, and as it does, press your hips back and perform the next hip hinge, so the kettlebell swings directly between your legs. Keep your neck aligned with your spine throughout the exercise. Exhale with every forward swing, inhale with every backward swing.
- Continue the forward-and-backward kettlebell swings for time or repetitions, remembering to keep your torso straight and to power the movement with your hips and glutes. Don’t exit the move suddenly by dropping the kettlebell or forcing your momentum to stop. Maintain proper swing form, but reduce the power you use with each swing until you can comfortably and safely return the kettlebell to the floor.
Seated Overhead Triceps Extension
The overhead triceps extension should be a key player in every tricep workout. It won’t just help you build strong tris; the move also helps set you up for success in other areas. As Openfit fitness specialist Cody Braun notes that strong triceps “assist the chest and shoulder muscles in many functional pressing movements.” Think: Common weightlifting exercises like the shoulder press and bench press, plus everyday movements like picking up your kids or putting away heavy groceries on high shelves.
- Sit on a bench or chair cupping one end of a dumbbell in both hands directly overhead. This is the starting position.
- Keeping your chest up, core engaged, and back straight, lower the weight behind your head without moving your upper arms.
- Pause, and then press the weight back up to the starting position.
EZ Bar Curl
When you use an EZ curl bar, the grooves allow you to grab the bar without fully supinating the forearms. Thus, you end up sacrificing one of the main functions that will help the biceps grow.
So, why would anyone choose the EZ bar curl over the straight bar curl? Because it’s perfect for those who lack wrist mobility or experience pain while performing the straight bar curl.
Hold an EZ bar (palms facing up) with a shoulder-width grip and arms extended with a slight bend at the elbows. Keeping your upper arms at your sides, curl the bar up. Take three seconds to lower the bar back down.
The triceps pushdown exercise can be used by strength, power, and fitness athletes to add valuable strength and hypertrophy to the triceps. The triceps, in addition to the chest and shoulders, are a key muscle group for bench press strength, overhead stability and performance, and more.
- Start by bracing your abdominals.
- Tuck your elbows in at your sides and position your feet slightly apart.1
- Inhale. Push down until your elbows are fully extended but not yet in the straight, locked position. Keep your elbows close to your body and bend your knees slightly on the pushdown. Resist bending forward. Try to keep your back as straight as possible as you push down.1
- As you exhale, return to the starting point using a controlled movement. Try not to crash the weights.
- For beginners, aim to complete 4 sets of 8 reps.
Halo to Shoulder Press
One of the major benefits of the kettlebell halo is that it increases shoulder mobility and can be used to increase blood flow, synovial fluid at the joint and range of motion. Many seasoned trainers utilise it as a warm-up exercise to get the shoulders pumped and muscle fibres activated before encompassing a tough shoulder workout.
- Begin in a standing position with good posture. Shoulders should be relaxed and positioned over the hips. Knees should remain straight but soft (not locked or stiff).
- Hold the kettlebell in front of the body, grasping the horns (the vertical sides of the handle). The handle should face down and the bottom or ball of the kettlebell faces up.
- Begin by circling to the right. Carry the kettlebell around the right side of your head and let the kettlebell drop down behind the neck. Finish the circle by bringing it around the left side of your head back to the starting position. You will be touching your hair—you almost want to mess it up as you come around.
- After you complete one full rotation, reverse direction. Begin by circling to the left and finish by coming around the right back to the starting position.