Whether you are a competitive lifter/athlete, beginner, or someone looking to slap on upper body size for aesthetic goals, movements like presses, pulls, and carries are essential for mass building and lean muscle gain.
In this article, we set out to offer lifters (and coaches) the best upper body mass building exercises to develop the shoulders, chest, back, arms and more:
3 Rules of Gaining Muscle Mass
Below are three foundational rules that apply to nearly every lifter looking to gain muscle mass and strength. Whether you are looking to build mass in college, add on a few extra kilos to fill out a weight class, or an everyday lifter looking to beef up; master these rules!
1. Manipulate Your Training Volume
Manipulating training volume (overall training stimulus) can be done by increasing sets, reps, and/or training frequency. Depending on how much volume you are currently training and the level at which you are in your training age (not the same as chronological age), you may need to increase volume.
It’s important to note that some lifters may actually need to decrease training volume if they are not adequately recovering from their current volume and/or not remaining in a positive caloric/nitrogen balance (surplus of calories and protein).
2. Be in a Caloric Surplus
If you are looking to gain mass, whether lean muscle, body fat, or general body mass; you need to be in a caloric surplus of some sort. That said, a lot of individuals will take this statement and find a way to turn it into, “I can eat whatever I want bro, I’m BULKING”
Gaining muscle mass can be done in a way that limits increases in fat mass. There are a variety of ways to do this, but the most straightforward way is called “reverse dieting”, which entails a lifter consuming a few more calories (~5-10% increase in calories) per day, similar to how they would make slight decreases in caloric intake if they were looking to burn body fat and preserve muscle.
3. Prioritize the Compound Lifts
One of the most important rules of gaining mass is to prioritize compound, multi-joint lifts over single-joint movements for the majority of a program. Often, beginners and misguided lifters, may spend a great deal of training time doing variations of cable curls, fancy dumbbell raises, and other isolation movements. While these are great exercises for isolating muscle groups and furthering the muscle building impact lifting has on an underdeveloped muscles.
Lifters need to prioritize movements like squats, deadlift, unilateral leg exercises, presses, and rows; and devote the necessary time and energy into creating the biggest hypertrophic effect on the body. By prioritizing compound lifts, you can increase loading, training volume, target more muscles at once, and often have a larger hormonal and hypertrophic effect on the body.
Muscles of the Upper Body
Below are some of the larger muscle groups of the upper body that are targeted and trained by the below upper body mass-building exercises.
Latissimus Doris (Back)
The latissimus dorsi, also known as the back/lats, is a large muscle group that runs across the entire posterior of the torso. The back is listed first here as it is felt that the key to lifting heavier, gaining size, and improving performance in mass-building movements all requires a strong and developed back. Prioritizing movements like deadlifts, rows, pull-ups, chin-ups, and carries is essential for most individuals looking to gain upper body mass.
The pectoral muscles (pectoralis major and minor) are developed by most horizontal pressing movements like bench press (and the wide array of variations), push-ups, dips, etc.
The shoulders area comprised of the deltoids and posterior shoulder complex/stabilizers (trapezius, scapular shoulder blades, and rhomboids. Vertical pressing movements like push presses, military presses, and handstand push-ups all are great movement for building mass.
The triceps are a smaller muscle group when compared to the back and chest, however serve an important role in aiding in pressing movements. The triceps are often targeted as a secondary muscle group during chest and shoulder training, and can be emphasized more with movements like dips, close grip bench pressing, and triceps pushdowns. With that said, most of these movements are performed following the major compound lifts found below.
The biceps run along the anterior part of the arm, and are responsible for elbow flexion and aiding in pulling movements like rows, pull-ups, carries, and deadlifts. The biceps are often trained during such movements, however additional biceps exercises can be done to increase biceps size, strength, and performance. Similar to triceps training, most isolated biceps movements are performed following the major compound lifts found below.
5 Best Upper Body Exercises for Mass
Note, that a well-developed mass-building program should not be limited to only the below exercises, but rather built with these as the foundational upper body movements with other less compound exercises used as accessory exercises.
Deadlifts can stimulate overall back, traps, and total-body muscle hypertrophy due to the high amounts of muscle tissue needed to sustain the high amounts of loading (relative to body mass and strength) that can be handled. Once lifters have mastered deadlifting technique, they can integrate deadlifts and the wide array of deadlifting variations/alternatives into programs to further stimulate increases in lean muscle mass.
If you are a beginner or are looking to refine your deadlift patterning, you can do so by watching the below video and checking out our deadlift guide.
2. Push Press
The push press is a vertical pressing movement that challenges the upper body (shoulders, triceps, and upper chest). Unlike the military press, which is another upper body movement to prioritize (just didn’t quite edge out the push press for the shoulders), the lifter can use some lower body strength and explosiveness to gain momentum in the overhead lifting phase of the push press.
By allowing the lower body to assist the upper body, we often see higher training volumes, heavier loads, and greater application to sports like weightlifting, functional fitness, and formal athletics.
3. Bench Press
The bench press and all its variations (incline, decline, close grip, dumbbells, floor press, etc) is a movement that targets the chest and triceps. This movement is essential for powerlifters, individuals looking to gain general upper body pressing strength and size, and sport athletes (football, wrestling, rugby, etc).
4. Heavy Carries (Yoke/Farmers)
Heavy carries, which can come in the way of farmers walks, yoke carries, and/or other variations often allow a lifter to move heavier objects over great amounts of time (increased time under tension); both of which can increase strength, stimulate new muscle fibers, and demand upper back, traps, and arms growth.
The back row, which can be done via bent over rows, Pendlay rows, dumbbell rows, etc is superior back training movement to stimulate muscle growth and strength. In addition to increasing back mass, the row can challenge upper back/posterior shoulder, biceps, and forearm/grip strength and muscle growth.
Want More Upper Body Mass-Building Exercises?
The above list, while jam-packed with necessary upper body mass-building exercises, left some movements (pull-ups, chin-ups, dips, military presses, etc) off the list.
Be sure to integrate those movements and the exercises in the articles below into your training program if mass is your goal (as most of these are top 10 for building upper and lower body muscle mass).
Featured Image: Mike Dewar by Johnny Garcia