Every amazingly effective upper body workout program needs the best exercises in existence.
Like movements that are actually functional and will allow you to progress safely while optimally stimulating the target muscles. These can range from compound to isolation exercises and should be proven. Although, there’s nothing wrong with experimentation.
A variety of free weights, machines, cables, and even kettlebells are best for achieving maximum results. And anyone serious about their training understands this aspect of training.
Try out these 20 amazing upper body movements to maximize your strength gains…
Note: These exercises are ideal for both men and women but the weight will obviously vary as well as training volume depending on your goals.
- 1. Pull-Up
- 2. Barbell Deadlift
- 3. Bent-Over Row
- 4. Seated Cable Pull-Down
- 5. Kettlebell Swing
- 6. Barbell Shrug
- 7. Shoulder Press
- 8. Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
- 9. Barbell Bench Press
- 10. Incline Dumbbell Press
- 11. Pec Dec Machine
- 12. Barbell Bicep Curl
- 13. Cable Rope Hammer Curl (Single-arm)
- 14. Concentration Curl
- 15. Triangle Push-Up
- 16. Cable Triceps Kickback
- 17. Triceps Extension
- 18. Dips
- 19. Farmers Walk
- 20. Plank
- That’s It!
The pull-up is the king of upper body bodyweight exercises. One study by ACE showed it to activate the latissimus dorsi more than other common back exercises. And it’s a must for working all the back muscles (Rhomboids, trapezius, latissimus dorsi, and erector spinae) plus the biceps. (1)
The pulling movement involves a lot of bicep engagement which is very beneficial for making upper arm strength and muscle gains. If you cannot perform a bodyweight pull-up, then use a pull-up assist machine.
How to perform the Pull-up
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Pull yourself up as far as you can and contract your back muscles.
- Then slowly lower yourself back down.
2. Barbell Deadlift
Ok, so the deadlift is also a lower body exercise. However, it’s an amazing posterior chain (Backside of the body) movement which will really work all back muscles.
It’s very taxing so make sure you have the movement down to prevent injury and pain.
How to perform the deadlift
- Bend your knees and grip the loaded barbell on the floor with hands wider than shoulder-width.
- Keep your back straight and press up through your heels and midfoot, then thrust your hips forward, using them as a hinge.
- Lower the barbell back down while keeping your core tight and touch the floor. Repeat.
Read also: Squat vs. Deadlift Comparison and Barbell Squat vs. Smith Machine Squat
3. Bent-Over Row
The bent-over row is the best overall back exercise, although it’s not the best for everything. But, it’s a pure mass builder and research shows it to elicit equal distribution of stimulation throughout the upper and lower back. (2)
You can use a barbell or dumbbell for this movement.
How to perform the bent-over row
- Deadlift the barbell from the floor or a rack by keeping your back straight.
- Look forward and pull the bar to your lower ribcage while contracting your back muscles.
- Focus on retracting your scapula and avoid cheating the reps.
4. Seated Cable Pull-Down
There are so many handles you can use for this exercise, ranging from wide grip to v-bar. And they all have their benefits. The wider your grip, the more lats you’ll target, but the narrower means you’ll work more of the erector spinae, rhomboids, and traps.
Tip: You can also handle more weight with a narrower grip.
How to perform the seated cable pull-down
- Adjust the thigh padding to hold you in place while you perform the exercise.
- Then stand up and grip the handle and seat back down under the pads.
- Lean back just slightly and pull the bar down to a few inches from your mid-chest.
- Straighten your arms back up toward the starting point.
5. Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is more for intermediate lifters but it’s amazingly effective for the back, legs, and core. Now, you must avoid lower back involvement and it’s very important to use the hips as a hinge during each repetition.
How to perform the kettlebell swing
- You want to grip the kettlebell in a deadlift position but you’ll start the initial movement by swinging it in toward you so that your wrists are in line with your inner thighs.
- Then, you’ll use your hips to swing the kettlebell upward through a snapping movement until it’s about chest level.
6. Barbell Shrug
The shrug is a beast of a trapezius exercise and you probably see the mass monsters doing this one to develop those mountainous muscles on each side of the neck. The traps extend down to the rhomboids and are important for elevating the arms overhead.
It’s important to not go too heavy with this movement as it’s dangerous for the back and spine. So, choose a weight you can handle while feeling the movement working the target muscles.
How to perform the barbell shrug
- Set the bar above knee level and use a shoulder-width overhand grip.
- Lift the barbell and stand straight, then lift your shoulders upward and slightly back, contracting the traps.
- Continue to shrug your shoulders for reps.
7. Shoulder Press
The overhead shoulder press is a compound movement which targets the anterior (front) deltoids. It will work all deltoid heads as well but not nearly as much as it will for the front delts. For this movement, it’s important to keep your upper arms tucked in to prevent shoulder injury.
Tip: You can also use dumbbells or a natural movement machine for this exercise.
How to perform the shoulder press
- Set up the barbell on a rack about shoulder height.
- Step up to the bar and grip it wider than shoulder-width.
- Dip down and unrack the bar, then press it overhead while keeping your elbows tucked in.
- Lower the bar until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
8. Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
Training with dumbbells is beneficial for unilateral function, stabilizer muscle development, and improving muscular imbalance. Train with light dumbbells at first and never tilt the dumbbells forward as this will eventually cause shoulder impingement issues.
How to perform the dumbbell side lateral raise
- Stand with your knees slightly bent while holding a dumbbell in each hand.
- Bend your torso over slightly and tilt the dumbbells outward, so your thumbs are pointed toward the ceiling.
- With elbows bent, raise the dumbbells laterally to shoulder level.
- Lower the dumbbells and repeat.
9. Barbell Bench Press
The bench press is a power movement which works the entire chest (Pectoralis major), front deltoids, and triceps. One study showed maximum electromyography (EMG) activity during the bench press when compared to other popular chest movements.
Tip: It’s important to maintain proper form to avoid shoulder issues and we’ll detail how to do the exercise properly.
How to perform the bench press
- Lie on the bench and grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width distance apart.
- Arch your back, plant your feet on the ground and tuck in your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your torso.
- Keep your wrists straight and unrack the barbell.
- Lower it down to your sternum area and press back up while contracting your chest muscles.
10. Incline Dumbbell Press
This dumbbell variation is much safer than using a barbell. And that’s because the shoulders are free to move through a natural range of movement. Many people have issues doing this movement with a barbell, so dumbbells are just preferred.
The incline press emphasized the upper chest muscles and is very effective for muscle and strength-building benefits.
How to perform the incline dumbbell press
- Set the bench to a 30-45 degree angle.
- Then sit on the bench with dumbbells resting on your thighs near your knees.
- Lie back on the bench and kick each dumbbell back until positioned at head level.
- Press the dumbbells and contract your chest muscles.
- Then lower the dumbbells until you feel a slight stretch in your chest muscles.
11. Pec Dec Machine
An ACE-sponsored study found the pec dec to be almost as effective as the bench press for muscle engagement. It’s not a pressing movement but EMG activity shows significant activation; which proves fly-type exercises are very effective. (3)
How to perform the pec dec fly
- Adjust the seat so that handles on the machine are chest level.
- And set the levers so that when you grip the handles, you feel a slight stretch in your pecs.
- Pull the handles together while contracting your chest muscles.
- And then release the levers back slowly until you feel a small stretch.
12. Barbell Bicep Curl
The barbell curl is an excellent mass builder for the front of the upper arm. You can use heavy weight as long as you don’t cheat your reps and you can also use an EZ bar for decreasing wrist strain.
How to perform the barbell curl
- Grip the bar with hands shoulder-width and tuck your upper arms into your sides.
- Curl the barbell and squeeze your biceps.
- Lower the bar and repeat.
- You can also use a little momentum.
13. Cable Rope Hammer Curl (Single-arm)
Hammer curls are excellent for working the brachialis and brachioradialis. In fact, research has shown that a pronated or neutral grip utilizes the brachioradialis muscles while the biceps are not as much engaged. (4)
How to perform the cable rope hammer curl
- Attach a single-grip rope to the lowest notch on the cable machine.
- Grab the rope with one hand using a hammer grip and stand straight.
- Then, perform the hammer curl across your body with your wrist rotated away from you.
- Alternate both arms for sets.
14. Concentration Curl
ACE research did one study which compared bicep exercises and the concentration curl placed at the top. That’s because it’s a complete isolation movement which targets only the biceps. It’s best to use a light dumbbell for this exercise to completely isolate the biceps. (5)
“When you look at it, the concentration curl was significantly better than anything else. And I think the reason is that you’re really isolating the biceps muscle more so than in any of the other exercises,” explained John Porcari Ph.D., and head researcher at the University of Wisconsin— LaCrosse and its Clinical Exercise Physiology program.
How to perform the concentration curl
- Sit on a bench and rest your tricep on your inner thigh.
- Then curl the dumbbell up and contract your bicep.
- Lower it down but don’t lockout at the bottom.
- Repeat and switch arms.
15. Triangle Push-Up
The triangle push-up showed the most EMG activity in one study comparing several, common tricep movements. And the reasoning behind this is that you are using pure tricep strength to push your body up. It works all three heads and is a must for building massive triceps. (6)
Now, if you didn’t know, the triceps make up two-thirds of upper arms mass (That’s a lot). And so they should be just as important as the bicep muscles when training for development. The triangle push-up is challenging but you can also use a wall or do it on your knees to start.
How to perform the triangle push-up
- Form a triangle with your hands close together in a push-up position, and keep your feet hip-width apart.
- Lower your body down while keeping it straight and then push yourself back up slowly.
- Make sure your elbows are tucked in too.
16. Cable Triceps Kickback
The kickback was also very high in EMG activity, although this would be a surprise to many. It’s an isolation movement and that’s why it’s good at targeting the three-headed muscle so effectively. Using cables will keep constant tension on the muscles which is important for muscle growth. (6)
How to perform the tricep kickback
- Attach a single rope handle to the lowest part of the cable pulley.
- Bend forward and grip the handle then extend your arm behind you by flexing your tricep muscle of the working arm.
- Bend your elbow until your arm is at a 90-degree angle and then repeat for reps.
- Switch arms and repeat the movement.
17. Triceps Extension
No tricep routine would be complete without an extension type movement. And that’s because extensions allow you to get a better stretch in the muscle and they also eliminate momentum or cheating.
You can use any method of training for this movement as long as you warm up your elbows beforehand. Not doing so can cause real discomfort. And it’s best to perform higher reps to save the elbows.
How to perform the extension
- Hold a dumbbell overhead while seated or standing.
- Lower the dumbbell to head level and then extend your arm back upward without locking out.
The dip is one of the best compound movements for the triceps and it even works the chest and shoulders as well. There are many variations like the bodyweight dip, the bench dip, and the machine dip. But whichever you choose, always make sure your body is upright to work the triceps most effectively.
How to perform the dip
- Stand facing the platform and place your feet on the sides so that you’re off of the ground.
- Grip the handles firmly and use your feet to lift you into a position where you can push your body upward into the air.
- Push up and squeeze your triceps then lower yourself down until your upper arms are parallel to the floor.
- Repeat the movement.
19. Farmers Walk
The Farmers Walk is a killer for the upper body muscles. It’ll work your core, traps, forearms, and it’s also great for full-body conditioning. A lot of Strongman competitors train with this movement but it’s pretty brutal.
How to perform the farmers walk
- Hold two heavy dumbbells and walk with them for a predetermined, but challenging distance.
- You can also use kettlebells or a trap bar but try to maintain an upright posture without leaning either way.
The plank is an amazing core movement because it builds core strength and muscle. Plus, your shoulders and triceps are worked isometrically as well.
It’s not necessarily the most fun exercise but it’s great nonetheless. Core stability is crucial for performing all of your lifts, and it’s a must for athletic performance.
How to perform the plank
- Get into a push-up position but support your body with your forearms rather than your hands.
- Place your feet close together and hold this position for at least 30 seconds with your body in a straight line.
- You can increase the time as you progress.
These are undoubtedly some of the top most effective exercises for the perfect upper body workouts. You can mix them up for your training and benefit from the strength and muscle-building potential.
These 20 exercises are great for men but they also make for an ideal upper body workout for women as well.
But always maintain good form and use resistance loads in which you can handle without compromise.
We hope you enjoyed our list and keep on making those gains!
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