The upper body refers to a lifter’s hands, arms, shoulders, upper back, and chest. Some people consider the upper body to include everything from the waist up, which would include the core muscles.
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Upper body workouts need to include exercises that target all of the muscles in the arms, shoulders, and upper back. It’s often helpful to include the core and lower back muscles in at least some of the exercises for a more comprehensive workout and balanced aesthetic.
Benefits of upper body workouts include increased strength and flexibility for everyday tasks, including push and pull motions. These exercises also enhance definition for those who desire the aesthetic benefits.
The top three upper body exercise movements include overhead presses, trap bar deadlifts, and bent-over barbell rows.
Lifters can benefit from a range of upper body exercises and may want to experiment with a combination of the following exercises to create comprehensive workouts.
- Overhead presses
- Trap bar deadlifts
- Pullups and chinups
- Bent-over barbell rows
- Seated cable rows
- Plank walkouts
- Hanging Leg Raises
- Dumbbell bench presses
- Single-arm dumbbell rows
- Side planks
- Close-grip pushups
- Sled pushes
- Dumbbell biceps curls
- Kettlebell swings
- Face pulls
- Lat pulldowns
- Farmer’s walks
- Bear-stance shoulder taps
- Bear crawls
1. Overhead Presses
Although simple, the overhead press is the ultimate test of upper body strength that engages the upper body, the core, the hips, and the legs in a swift multi-joint movement. However, the intentional focus of the overhead press is the upper back, shoulders, and triceps.
To perfect the overhead press, beginners can start this exercise with a barbell. This is because the barbell provides ample security that can prevent new injuries.
On the contrary, seasoned lifters who feel confident in pushing their limits can choose free weights such as barbells or kettlebells.
Since the overhead press presents safety risks to the shoulder joint by lifting heavy weights overhead, test the shoulder joint using the overhead-reach test. First, stand facing a mirror with arms resting at the sides. Then, with straight arms, raise them overhead.
Grab the barbell and get into a stable and solid-footed position. Next, bring the barbell to the top of the chest and push overhead with the arms fully extended.
Then, bring the fully extended arms back down to the top of the chest. However, if during the overhead-reach test the arms reach overhead but do not look parallel to the ears, avoid the overhead press or see a personal trainer for further instruction.
2. Trap Bar Deadlifts
The trap bar deadlift is ideal for powerlifters who want to lift barbells or athletes who want to activate the hamstrings, gluteals, and low back. It’s an exercise that works the entire body to increase strength and power.
Since trap bars have a unique design, lifters keep the weight close to the body for more leverage than a traditional bar provides. It’s one of the best ways for beginners to learn proper form.
Experienced lifters can make greater gains in strength for other exercises without excessive stress on the lumbar regions. Trap bar deadlifts supplement traditional deadlifts, pulls, and cleans.
To perform a proper trap bar deadlift, stand with feet in line with the handles. Hinge at the waist to grasp the handles. Squeeze the shoulder blades together and slightly down, engage the core, and drive up with the legs.
Stand fully erect for a few seconds with the shoulders down and weight balanced. Use slow, controlled movements to return to the starting position.
3. Pullups and Chin Ups
The pull-up or chin-up is a bodyweight exercise that strengthens the upper body using hand grips, hanging, and a horizontal bar. Find a horizontal bar at the gym, a park, or at home with a mobile pull-up bar.
Grasp the hands around the horizontal pull-up, hang, and pull up until the chest or chin braces the top of the bar. Hang for 1 second before slowly releasing the pull-up back to the hanging position.
However, the difference between the pull-up and the chin-up is the grip. A pull-up uses a pronated grip, meaning the palms face away from the body. Alternatively, a chin-up uses a supinated grip with the palms facing toward the body.
4. Bent-Over Barbell Rows
The bent-over barbell row is an intermediate strengthening exercise that activates the upper body using lats and rhomboids in addition to building hypertrophy in back size and a proper abdominal posture to load heavy row variations.
Beginners with previous back injuries should proceed with caution to not further injure the area. However, variations with a lighter weight may be suitable accommodation.
To begin the bent-over barbell row, hold the barbell with the palms facing down, knees slightly bent, and eyes straight ahead. Next, bring the torso parallel to the floor by bending at the waist with a straight back.
With a stationary torso, exhale and lift the barbell, keeping elbows close to the body. Then, with the barbell close to the body, squeeze the back muscles and hold for one second. Inhale, lower the barbell to the starting position to a one-two cadence rhythm, and repeat.
5. Seated Cable Rows
The seated cable row is a classic gym favorite that builds the upper back muscles and fine-tunes its accessory movement on the low pulley row machine. The seated cable row activates the lats, traps, rhomboids, and the back of the deltoid with a variety of heavy lifting, grip widths, and handles.
First, sit down on the machine with feet on the front side of the crossbar, with the knees slightly bent. Then, with a straight back, lean forward, grab the V-bar or straight bar handles, and sit at a 90-degree angle, slightly arching back with an open chest.
Next, keeping the natural alignment of the back, exhale and pull the handles with a pronounced or supinated grip towards the abdominals. Squeeze the back muscles for one second, inhale, slowly release the contraction on the one-two cadence, and repeat.
6. Plank Walkouts
Plank walkouts, also known as the inchworm, is a bodyweight exercise well known for their core toning abilities. They also get fresh blood flowing into the upper body, chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Start from a neutral standing position, squeeze the core and bend at the waist folding forward until the hands meet with the toes on the ground. From there, walk the hands into a push-up position and slowly back to the starting position– this is one rep.
Beginners can modify this exercise by ending the walkout on the knees as if doing a modified push-up. However, add a weighted vest for 8 to 12 reps and 4 sets to intensify and build muscle.
7. Hanging Leg Raises
Since the upper body also includes the abdominal wall, the hanging leg raises are a core-burning exercise that activates the lower abdominals and the hip flexors. In addition to strengthening the upper arm grip and straight arm pull, use any suitable bar to hang on.
Begin hanging on the pull-up bar with a wide or medium neutral grip with both arms extended, legs straight, and the pelvis slightly tilted backward. Exhale, raise the legs until they meet the torso at a 90-degree angle, and hold for one second.
Following the one-two cadence, inhale, and return to the starting position. Repeat for 6 to 8 reps for 3 to 4 sets.
In addition, adding additional weight to this exercise can induce a hernia. Therefore, to intensify this exercise, quickly perform this exercise on a vertical bent to allow the upper back optimal support.
8. Dumbbell Bench Presses
The dumbbell bend press is an intermediate compound weight training exercise for building a big chest and a solid upper body. This exercise targets the pectorals and the front of the deltoid alongside the biceps and serratus anterior. Also, the dumbbell bench press can be performed lying flat, incline, or decline.
First, lie flat on the bench grasping the dumbbell in each hand shoulder-width apart, resting on the tops of the thighs. Then, bring the dumbbells in front of the body, one at a time with palms facing the feet. Exhale, push the dumbbells away from the chest, squeeze, and hold for one second.
Then, slowly bring the dumbbells back down to the chest. Repeat these steps for 6 to 8 reps for 3 to 4 sets. When the sets are complete, twist the dumbbells so the palms face each other and place them on top of the thighs to avoid injuring the shoulder’s rotator cuff.
9. Single-arm Dumbbell Rows
The single-arm dumbbell row is the perfect upper body hypertrophy-building exercise that targets the lats. Unlike the dumbbell rows that can be performed just about anywhere, the single-arm dumbbell row requires a bench for optimal range of motion.
To begin, with a dumbbell on the right side of the bench, place the left leg on the stable center of the bench, and tilt the torso forward and parallel to the bench while grasping the other side. Next, use the right hand to lift the dumbbell with the palm facing the torso.
Next, exhale and pull the dumbbell close to the right side of the chest, squeezing the back muscles without moving the upper body. The upper torso and forearms should remain stationary throughout the entire set.
Then, inhale and lower the dumbbells back to the starting position. Repeat for 6 to 8 reps for 2 to 4 sets.
10. Side Planks
Side planks are easy bodyweight exercises that stimulate the shoulders, abdominal muscles, and hips. Unlike traditional planks, the side plank unevenly places pressure on the pectorals, front deltoid, and the often neglected infraspinatus and teres minor.
These essential muscles stabilize and support the shoulder girdle for optimal balance and superior posture.
First, lie on the right side with legs straight, feet stacked. Place the right elbow underneath the right shoulder, and forearm facing in the same direction as the eyes. Then, exhale, squeeze the core, and lift the hips away from the ground.
The lifter’s body weight should be balanced into a straight line between the elbow and the right foot. Next, inhale and release the hips back down to the mat into the starting position. Beginners can repeat these steps for 6 to 8 reps for 3 to 4 sets on both sides.
However, for an easy modification, begin this exercise by placing the right knee on the mat, resting the foot on the mat inside of stretching the legs straight. This will lighten the joint pressure or discomfort beginners may experience performing this exercise.
Although push-ups may seem straightforward, it is a complicated compound exercise that recruits the upper body, core and lower back muscles, and glutes. The push-up comes in many variations, such as the knee, incline, plyo, and diamond push-ups.
To perform the perfect push-up, start on all fours with the hips over the knees, hands shoulder-width apart, and shoulders slightly squeezing together. Next, straighten the legs, transition into a high plank position, and allow the hands to grip the ground.
Then with the chin tucked, lower to the ground, and pull the chest toward the hands. Bend at the elbows while squeezing the inside of the shoulder blades closer together.
Hold for one second, squeeze the armpits together, and push the chest away from the hands.
Return to the original start position and repeat for 6 to 8 reps for 3 to 4 sets. For modification, perform the push-ups on the knees. Beginners with pre-existing health conditions should consult a primary physician to ensure the safety of an exercise program.
12. Close-Grip Pushups
Like its cousin, the traditional push-up, close-grip push-up is a calisthenic exercise that focuses solely on stimulating the upper body and core muscles. Instead, the hands are closer, allowing for heavy pectoral, deltoid, and tricep recruitment.
Seasoned calisthenic athletes can perform close grip push-ups for 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions. And beginners can choose to practice 6-8 repetitions for 2-3 sets.
First, start this exercise on all fours stacking the hips over the knees or hip-width apart, and space the hands just a few inches apart, protracting the shoulder blades away from the spine.
Next, straighten the legs, hands firm on the ground, and squeeze the armpits to activate the lats. Exhale, tuck the chin, lower the chest to the hands, retract the shoulder blades, and hold for one second. Inhale and push the shoulders back to the starting position.
13. Sled Pushes
The sled push, or prowler push, is a gym favorite for its compound exercise abilities to simultaneously engage the upper body, abdominals, hip flexors, quads, and glutes as a warm-up, cardio, or strength training in four easy steps.
First, load the sled with weights and adjust to a comfortable position behind the sled. Second, grip each sled bar and bend at the waist. Third, stabilize the feet, pressing into the floor like the beginning of a sprint.
Lastly, push the sled with an engaged core, aligned knees, and a neutral spine parallel to the floor.
To sled, push for endurance, apply a light to medium weight on the sled, push for a moderate pace for one minute, and rest for one minute. Repeat up to 10 times.
Seasoned sled pushers ready to sled push for power can apply a heavy weight– no less than 70 percent of the body weight– and push for up to 25 yards in one minute. Repeat up to 7 times.
And for athletes that need to improve their speed, add a light load– 10 percent or less of the lifter’s body weight– and push for up to 20 yards for one minute. Repeat up to 7 times.
14. Dumbbell Biceps Curls
Add dumbbell bicep curls to any workout regimen to build big and muscular biceps. The dumbbell bicep curl is an intermediate single-joint exercise that can easily be performed with moderate to high repetitions depending on the desired bicep size and strength.
Beginners should begin with easy to moderate repetition of 6-8 for 2-4 sets.
To begin, place the dumbbell in each hand with elbows close to the body and palms facing forward. Next, with the arms extending, exhale, and curl the weights until the dumbbells have reached shoulder level. Next, squeeze the biceps and hold the contraction for one second.
Inhale, lower the dumbbells to the starting position, and repeat.
15. Kettlebell Swings
Despite having origins in Russia, kettlebells have been a full-body staple exercise across athletic training worldwide. Kettlebell swings recruit the upper body, core, lower body, and posterior body for convenient high-intensity and low-impact exercises.
To perform the basic kettlebell swing with optimal posture, begin the exercise standing with the feet shoulder-width apart. Next, grab the kettlebell with extended arms and forward-facing palms as if picking up a bag of groceries.
Next, inhale, squeeze the core, keep the back straight, and push the hips back into a hinge position with slightly bent knees bringing the kettlebell between the legs.
Exhale, squeeze the glutes, and push the hips forward into the standing positions allowing the arms to follow the natural swinging rhythm of the kettle. Inhale, bringing the kettlebell back between the legs, hips, and knees slightly bent.
When complete, slowly bring the swing to a slower speed until the kettlebell has lost its momentum. In addition, avoid lifting heavy kettlebells that induce a round back or squatting, and avoid swinging the kettlebell too quickly.
Beginners can repeat these steps for 6-8 reps of 2-3 sets per personal trainers’ recommendation.
16. Face Pulls
The standing face pull is an isolated exercise that activates the upper back, improving shoulder mobility and stabilizing shoulder muscles—especially activating and building the posterior deltoid muscle.
With the upper arms facing parallel to the ground, face the cable pulley machine with dual handles, pull the weight towards the forehead, and hold for one second. Keep the palms facing inward and avoid letting the shoulders roll.
Release the movement and slowly return to the starting position. Repeat these steps for 6-8 reps for 2-3. This exercise can be performed in the seated position if seasoned lifters choose to build muscle with heavy weights.
Beginners can experiment with overhand and underhand grips variations that call for lightweight and slow-moving reps. The face pull is also often referred to as the cable
17. Lat Pulldowns
For lat pulldown exercises, use a cable pulley machine, light weights, or resistant backs to efficiently activate the upper body and back muscles. Specifically stimulating the armpit muscle lats.
Strong lats can reduce back pain and offer optimal support for lifestyle activities such as performing a push-up or hitting the jet skis.
First, grab hold of the bar with a wide overhand grip, exhale, and pull the bar down to the chin keeping a stationary torso and an engaged core. Next, squeeze the shoulder blades together for one second.
Slowly return the bar to the starting position on a one-two cadence. The goal of the one-two cadence is to gently allow the weight plates to sit on one another rather than crashing down.
Beginners can start performing lat pulldowns with easy exercises, such as 8-12 repetitions for 2-3 sets.
18. Farmer’s Walks
The farmer’s walk or carry exercise is a free-weight cardio exercise that recruits the upper and lower body together to build a strong core with superior cardio. Perform this exercise with dumbbells, kettlebells, trap bars, or barbells.
The farmer’s walk is relatively easy and can be performed with good technique for 30-60 seconds for 2-3 sets and optimal posture. Let the body rest and recover for up to 48 hours before training the same muscle groups.
To begin, stand tall with a straight back, two dumbbells aligned with the middle of the feet, and slightly bent knees. Then, with a tucked chin, push into the floor with the feet, squeezing the shoulders, hips, and core into alignment, and walk in a straight line heel-to-toe for 30 to 60 seconds.
19. Bear-Stance Shoulder Taps
The bear-stance shoulder taps, also known as the bear crawl shoulder tap, combine the static bear crawl hold with shoulder taps of the opposite shoulder. This exercise organically stimulates contralateral coordination and full-body muscle recruitment.
Bear-stance shoulder taps can be used as a warm-up or bodyweight circuit to stimulate cardio and challenge the upper body, legs, and back.
To start, get down onto the all-fours postures, keep feet hip-width apart, shoulders stacked above the wrist, flat back, and an engaged core that slightly tilts the pelvis into the core. Quickly bring the right hand to touch the left shoulder and place it back on the ground.
Then, bring the left hand to touch the right shoulder and place it back on the ground. Repeat for 6-8 reps for 2-3 sets. In addition, avoid rocking or leaning the hips from side to side. Instead, try to maintain balance by consciously engaging the core.
20. Bear Crawls
Bear crawls, mat bear crawl, and crawl are all names that describe this popular intermediate to advanced full-body high-intensity bodyweight exercise.
Begin the bear crawl on all fours with the feet hip-width apart, heels off the floor, shoulders stacked above the wrist, tucked pelvis, and an engaged core. Then, move forward in a crawling motion using the right with the left leg and the right leg with the left hand.
Continue the crawling motion, moving forward for 6-8 reps for 2-3 sets. However, seasoned crawlers can choose to crawl the distance for up to 25 yards.
In addition, for optimal posture, the knees should be close enough to slide a piece of paper underneath the knees, but should never touch the ground.
What Are the Benefits of Upper Body Exercises?
Upper body exercises provide several benefits for lifters of all disciplines and skill levels. The following are the primary benefits of performing upper body exercises consistently.
- Define Upper Body
- Improve Posture
- Improve Metabolism
- Maximize Workout
- Improve Cardiovascular
- Prevent Injury
1. Define Upper Body
Creating upper body definition requires exercises that target the muscles from different angles and involves balanced lifts.
Push-ups, pullups, and chin ups are ideal for those without weights. Lifters can do them anytime, anywhere, and vary the difficulty to meet their needs.
Trap bar deadlifts and bent-over barbell rows are the best options for building upper body definition with equipment. It’s easy to vary the difficulty by adjusting the amount of weight. Additionally, the trap bar is especially helpful for beginners to learn proper deadlift form.
2. Improve Posture
Upper body exercises improve posture by working on the lower back musculature and core muscles. It’s important to select exercises that focus on those muscles and involve at least some degree of flexion, extension, and rotation.
The plank and side plank are excellent examples of upper body exercises that work the core and lower back while building overall strength and balance. These are also exercises that don’t require any special equipment but do entail a focus on maintaining proper form to make noticeable gains.
Lifters who prefer to use equipment for their workouts will want to include overhead presses and bent-over rows instead. Both exercises allow lifters to work the core and lower back muscles from various angles to build strength and improve posture.
3. Improve Metabolism
Boosting metabolism is not always easy, but some exercises can give lifters a push in the right direction by working the whole body, especially the core. Planks, pushups, and bear crawls are the best options for kicking the body’s metabolism in gear.
4. Maximize Workout
Pushing muscles to their breaking point is the key to building strength and mass, meaning lifters have to make every workout count. Engaging in total body exercises, even with a focus on upper body musculature, is the key to maximizing any workout.
The best options to maximize an upper body workout include lat pulldowns, bear crawls, and pushups. These exercises focus on the upper body but still engage other muscle groups, all while working on balance and stability.
5. Improve Cardiovascular
Exercises that get the heart pumping can improve cardiovascular fitness. Since upper body exercises address the muscles, it’s not unusual to consider the heart in that mix. The best options for incorporating cardio with an upper body workout are barbell bent-over rows and kettlebell swings. They get lifters moving and incorporate some cardio into a strength routine.
6. Prevent Injury
Injuries can take lifters out of the game for extended periods, making preventative exercises a key part of any upper body workout. The best options focus on strengthening the muscles around key joints while increasing overall strength and stability.
The best upper body exercise for injury prevention include the forearm plank, pushups, and lat pulldowns. These exercises focus on improving joint stability and strength while working the entire body to some degree.
How often should you do an upper body workout?
It would help to incorporate an upper body workout two days a week for optimal upper health. However, if the goal is to build muscle and become stronger, perform upper body workouts at least three days a week to avoid overtraining.
How many reps should you do per upper body workout?
The number of repetitions you should do safely for an upper body workout depends on your goals and experience.
Beginners can start upper body workouts with 8-12 reps or less for a minimum of 2-3 sets. This range will allow the body optimal time to recover and reduce the risk of overtraining.
However, to increase the upper body’s overall endurance, each exercise should reach a minimum of 15 reps. And repetitions that build strength range from 4-6 reps of 85-90% of your body weight of 1 rep max.
And to build muscle, 8-15 reps that use 65-75% of your body weight or one rep max will help build the most mass.
Which upper body exercises are better for weight loss?
The best upper exercises that burn upper body fat are pull-ups, chin-ups, overhead press, lat pulldowns, and push-ups.
Which upper body exercises are better for runners?
Runners can improve their running performance with push-ups, side planks, and sled push upper body exercises.
Which upper body exercises are better for posture?
The best upper body exercises to improve posture are the overhead press, bent-over barbell row, cable row, and bear crawl. These will awaken the upper body muscles and help recruit the correct muscles for everyday activities.
How To Combine Upper Body Exercises With Lower Body Exercises?
When combining the upper body exercises with the best lower body exercises, it is essential to note that this split-body routine requires optimal recovery.
To create the perfect split routine, choose one arm compound exercise like the dumbbell bench press and pair it with one compound exercise such as a dumbbell lunge. After choosing 1-2 arm and leg isolation movements.
Perform 6-12 reps for 4-8 sets of each and allow for a minimum of 24 hours for full recovery before exercising those same muscle groups.