If it’s one thing strength athletes can agree on, it’s that sumo deadlifts are cheating. Kidding. We bet dollars to donuts that any strength athlete is drawn to the idea of building a big chest, bulging biceps, and rounded boulder shoulders — aka, a complete upper body. These muscles look impressive in a tank top or a sweater, and they’re also key players in pressing more weight and deadlifting heavier. So, it’s a win-win.
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? If you’re reading this article, 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.
Best Upper Body Exercises
- Hang Clean
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Strict Press
- Lat Pulldown
- Bear Crawl
- Inverted Row
- Overhead Triceps Extension
- Landmine Press
- Push Press
- Bench Press
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
- Weighted Dip
- Mix-Grip Pull-Up
- Farmer’s Carry
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
Ah, the push-up. It’s an exercise that’s so simple, yet so many people have difficulty with it. Although it seems like a simple task, it takes time, progression, and practice to do one properly. When done with good form and a full range of motion, this compound exercise activates multiple muscles in your upper body, such as your chest, shoulders, triceps, and abdominals. Push-ups are a quick and effective way to build strength and require nothing but your own body weight. (Though, you can add a weight vest or weight plate to make the movement more challenging.)
Benefits of the Push-up
- The push-up is a functional movement, meaning it imitates and makes the movements we may perform daily easier, such as doing yard work or vacuuming.
- Weight-bearing movements like the push-up increase bone density, which makes our bones stronger and harder to break. This is especially important as we age.
- This exercise has plenty of variations, making it great for beginners or those looking to improve their bench press.
How to Do the Push-up
Start in a plank position with your hands stacked underneath your shoulders, your back flat, and your core tight. Maintaining a straight line from your head to your heels, slowly lower your body to the floor by bending your elbows. To achieve a full range of motion and to engage as many muscle fibers as possible, make sure your chest touches the floor. Then, press the floor away from your hands while maintaining a tight core to avoid dipping hips. Finish in the position you started in.
A move you’ll likely see in any CrossFit gym is the hang clean. It’s great for practicing the second half of the clean — a popular movement in functional fitness competitions — and building upper body strength. The hang clean can be beneficial for experienced weightlifters and a good starting point for athletes of all levels. If you’re looking for gains in athletic performance or explosive movements like sprinting or jumping, check out the hang clean.
Benefits of the Hang Clean
- If you’re looking to improve your overall strength, the hang clean works the trapezius muscle, which is located in the neck and upper back and helps lift heavier weights in exercises like rows or deadlifts.
- The hang clean is great for building strength but is also great for cardiovascular health. So if running isn’t your thing, but you want to burn some fat, try a few of these, and you’re guaranteed to get that heart rate up.
- Once practiced and perfected, the hang clean can improve coordination.
How to Do the Hang Clean
To perform a hang clean, load a barbell with an appropriate amount of weight for your fitness level or use an empty bar. Your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart on the barbell, and it should be in the “hang” position, meaning the hips are pushed back, weight is in your heels, and the barbell is sitting at your mid-thigh. Keeping your spine neutral and your lats flexed, extend your hips while shrugging your shoulders to pull the bar and drop yourself underneath it. With the weight in your heels and hips pushed down, catch the bar in your palms on your shoulders and turn your elbows up, so they are pointing in front of you.
If you’re looking to improve strength and mobility, all you need is a bench and a dumbbell for the dumbbell pullover. This exercise targets your chest, triceps, and unlike the dumbbell chest press, the lats. Although it may not be as popular as the chest press, there are plenty of benefits that might just have you rethinking your workout plan.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Pullover
- Moves like the pullover that load your muscles under stretch are particularly beneficial for muscle gain. This exercise induces what’s called stretch-mediated hypertrophy, and it is said to stimulate as much as three times the muscle growth, so if you’re looking to gain muscle fast, try this move. (1)
- The pullover improves shoulder mobility and flexibility, which may decrease your chance of injury.
- The pullover also improves core stability, because to resist extension of the spine you have to squeeze your abdominal muscles.
How to Do the Dumbbell Pullover
Start by lying face-up on a bench with your arms extended above your chest and a dumbbell placed in a diamond grip (make a diamond with your hands and place the bottom of the weight plate in between). With a slight bend in your elbows, slowly lower your arms until you feel a stretch in your chest and lats. Reach as far as back as your shoulder mobility allows. Engage your lats to pull the weight back to the starting position.
Unlike the push press, the strict press uses the shoulders and arms to drive the weight overhead with no help from your lower body. Since you are not using momentum, you won’t be able to lift as heavy, but it’s great for building strength. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell for the strict press. Liftng a barbell does require more shoulder mobility, so if that’s something you’re lacking, start with dumbbells.
Benefits of the Strict Press
- If building upper body strength is your goal, the strict press is just about the best move you can perform.
- If hypertrophy is your goal, the strict press is also great for building muscles in the upper body, such as the deltoids, chest, and triceps.
How to Do the Strict Press
Set a barbell in the rack at shoulder height. With your hands shoulder-width apart, grab the bar from underneath, letting it sit in your palms, and set it at the top of your chest. Tighten your core and push your chest out to create a strong base. Using only your upper body, move your chin out of the way and push the bar up in a straight line. Lock your elbows out at the top of the lift and slowly lower back to the starting position.
If you’re looking to target the largest muscles in your back, the latissimus dorsi, try the lat pulldown. This exercise allows for heavier weights and/or more reps because it doesn’t tire out the smaller muscles like the biceps and triceps. Struggling with pull-ups? The lat pulldown is a valuable stepping stone since it imitates the same movement as a pull-up and allows you to add resistance to increase the intensity.
Benefits of the Lat Pulldown
- Strengthening your lats with the lat pulldown can help improve your posture and spinal stability as the muscles surrounding your backbone grow stronger.
- Practicing the lat pulldown can help perform daily tasks outside the gym that involve a pulling motion as simple as opening a door.
- A cable pulley provides more tension on a muscle, resulting in more overall muscle- and strength-building tension.
How to Do the Lat Pulldown
Sit straddling the bench facing the lat pulldown machine. The most popular variation of this exercise is the wide-grip pulldown, so grip the bar wider than shoulder-width apart and knuckles up. Pull your shoulders away from your ears and use your back to pull the bar down to your upper chest. A slight lean back is okay if needed. Slowly extend the arms to your starting position.
We admit this is an unusual pick, but hear us out: The bear crawl — a move that has you crawl with your feet and hands positioned under your hips and shoulders — amasses a lot of tension on your shoulders, triceps, and chest. Don’t expect to pack inches onto your muscles, but it’s a great way to teach your body stability. Also, its static brother, the bear plank, is a unique position you can row from for a back and core double whammy.
Benefits of the Bear Crawl
- The bear crawl requires balance and coordination, two things that not only help you physically but mentally. One study suggests that practicing balance work may improve memory and spatial cognition. (2)
- It might not look like it at first, but the bear crawl is also great for getting your heart rate up, which improves cardiovascular health.
- Since your shoulders and core are your main support system, doing the bear crawl increases core and shoulder stability, which can help to reduce the risk of injury.
How to Do the Bear Crawl
Start in a tabletop position with your hands directly underneath your shoulders and your knees under your hips. The weight of your body should balance on your hands and toes as you hover your knees off the ground. Just like in a plank, keep your back flat and core tight as you step your right hand and left foot forward, then your left hand and right foot forward. Keep this pattern moving for as long as you can maintain it.
The inverted row is not just a great movement to build up to pull-ups, but you can forge a muscle-laden back and loads of core strength. This exercise does not get as much recognition as it should — mainly because it’s seen as Pull-Up Lite — and can benefit anyone from beginners to experienced weightlifters. Although underrated, there are plenty of benefits to the inverted row — it’s scaleable, can be done almost anywhere, and taxes the back muscles without loading the joints.
Benefits of the Inverted Row
- Since you can crank out more reps with this exercise, it builds the major pulling muscles in your back like the lats, traps, and rear deltoids.
- With your heels on the ground, you have more support with this exercise, so it takes the strain off the lower back.
How to Do the Inverted Row
Set a barbell at waist height in a power rack. Get under the bar and grip it slightly wider shoulder-width apart with your palms facing away from your head. Extend your arms and extend your legs, so your body is in a straight line from your head to your heels. Keeping that straight line, pull your body up to the bar until your chest reaches it, then slowly lower back to your starting position.
If you want bigger arms, the triceps make up roughly two-thirds of your upper arm compared to your biceps. These muscles are responsible for arm extension, so strong triceps also mean stronger arms and shoulders overall. The triceps are made up of three muscles, also known as heads, and during this exercise, you target all three. That makes this one of the most effective triceps exercises to perform.
Benefits of the Overhead Triceps Extension
- Since this is an isolation exercise, meaning you target the triceps and only the triceps, it’s a beneficial move for building muscle and aesthetics.
- The triceps extension helps improve shoulder and elbow stability, improving daily tasks such as lifting or pushing something heavy.
- Strong triceps help improves athletic performance in areas such as throwing a baseball or swimming.
How to Do the Triceps Extension
Place a dumbbell in a diamond grip (make a diamond with your hands and place the bottom of the weight plate in between) and hold it overhead with your arms fully extended. Tighten your core, relax your shoulders, and keep your elbows tight to your head as you begin to bend your arms. Stop bending when your arms have made a 90-degree angle and press back up to your starting position. You can perform this exercise seated or standing.
The landmine press is less intense than the standard shoulder press or overhead press since it does not require as much shoulder flexion (due to the angled pressing path). However, that doesn’t make this exercise any easier, and it’s a great way to target your shoulders, chest, triceps, and biceps. If you’re looking for a more comfortable pressing option that also requires less of a load to be effective, then give this exercise a shot.
Benefits of the Landmine Press
- When performed as a unilateral movement, the landmine press can help improve balance and find shoulder instabilities.
- If your shoulder mobility is lacking, try the landmine press instead of an overhead press to avoid unnecessary strain on the lower back.
- The landmine press is great for building upper body strength, and there are different variations to target different muscle groups.
How to Do the Landmine Press
Set up a barbell in a landmine base or, if you don’t have one, the corner of a wall. If performing the movement with one arm, grab the barbell at the top with one hand and hold it on the side you’re pressing from. If performing the move with both hands, grip the barbell and hold it in the middle of your chest. Press the barbell straight forward until your arm(s) are fully extended. Slowly lower the bar back to your starting position.
Like a strict press, the push press targets the shoulders, chest, and triceps muscles, but uses power and momentum to drive the weight. The push press uses a lower-body dip (think a quarter squat with knees going over toes) to push the barbell overhead. The momentum from the dip lets you drive more weight over your head compared to a standard overhead press, and more load means more muscular stress for more muscle. Since you’ll also develop a lot of power from the push press, you can see CrossFit athletes implementing this into their workout to support other exercises, such as snatches and jerks.
Benefits of the Push Press
- It builds more total-body strength and muscle because you’re using force from the ankles, knees, and hips to help push the weight overhead.
- You’ll improve your overall overhead pressing abilities, which helps in your workout and your daily life.
- With more strength in your shoulders, there is a reduced risk of injury when lifting.
How to Do the Push Press
Start by assuming the same front rack positioning as you would for a jerk or front squat and have your wrist and shoulders aligned with a shoulder-width grip. With an upright torso, dip a few inches downwards, driving your knees over your toes. Then push your torso and chest upwards through the barbell. Using the legs, forcefully drive yourself upwards until the barbell is locked out overhead. Slowly lower down and repeat.
Along with the aesthetic this exercise creates, the bench press and all its variations (incline, decline, close-grip, with dumbbells, and the floor press) is a movement that targets the chest, triceps, and shoulders. It is one of the best movements to build horizontal pressing strength. Like most barbell exercises, it allows you to use a greater load than you could muster with kettlebells or dumbbells. Powerlifters should train the bench press routinely since it’s one of the three competition lifts alongside the squat and deadlift.
Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press
- Increased chest, shoulder, and triceps mass.
- Since this exercise increases pressing strength, the more chance you have at lifting more when shoulder pressing.
- Heavy loaded exercises help increase bone density which helps keep our bones strong, especially helpful as we age.
How to Do the Barbell Bench Press
Lie flat on your back on a bench and get your eyes directly underneath the barbell. Grip the bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Bring your feet closer to your glutes, push your feet back and unrack the bar so that it’s over your chest. Lower the bar slowly to your chest as you breathe in and push your feet back. Arch your back slightly to push the barbell up until lockout.
The bent-over row is a popular exercise in weightlifting and bodybuilding since it strengthens and increases mass in the upper back and lats. It allows you to use the most weight relative to other rowing variations. Lifting heavier weights regularly with good form equals more muscle. Because you’re in a hip hinge position, the bent-over row trains the lower back isometrically. A stronger lower back will help you brace and maintain a rigid torso when deadlifting and squatting.
Benefits of the Bent-Over Barbell Row
- Adds strength and mass to your upper back, lats, and erector spinae.
- It reinforces good hip hinge mechanics, which has direct carryover to your deadlift.
- Improves postural strength and control.
How to Do the Bent-Over Barbell Row
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 the 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.
Weighted dips allow you to simultaneously work your chest and triceps depending on the positioning of your body. Compared to most triceps exercises, the range of motion you achieve doing dips is longer, 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. Suppose you can’t do weighted dips yet, no problem. Use your body weight until you build up your strength and endurance. Once you’re ready, add weight in small increments using a dipping belt. Remember, your body doesn’t know the difference between five and 45 pounds — it only knows more stress or less stress. If you can do three sets of 15 reps with your bodyweight, then even a five-pound plate will do the trick. Slow progression is smart progression.
Benefits of the Weighted Dip
- Improved lockout strength for exercises such as the bench press, overhead press, and Olympic lifts.
- It builds strength and muscle mass in the chest, triceps, shoulders, and back.
- You can adjust this exercise to work more of your chest muscles (by leaning forward) or stay more upright to focus on the triceps.
How to Do the Weighted Dip
Either use a weight belt, weighted vest, or hold a dumbbell between the legs for resistance. Squeeze the bars with each hand and lower yourself down until your elbows break 90 degrees. Then, still squeezing the bars, drive yourself upwards while maintaining a slight forward lean. When approaching lockout, flex the back of your triceps, pause for a second, and slowly lower down and repeat.
Pull-ups and chin-ups are great exercises to increase the size and strength of your biceps, upper back, and lats. Different variations possess their own benefits. However, the mix-grip pull-up is a bit better for two reasons. First, an uneven grip places your body in a state of rotation and fighting that rotation recruits more core muscle. Simply put: it’s a better exercise for your core. Second, since you’re stronger with an underhand grip, it is less intense than a pull-up but more intense than a chin-up. That makes the mix-grip pull-up a great intermediate variation for folks trying to up their pull-up game.
Benefits of the Mix-Grip Pull-Up
- Alternating grip saves you from overuse injuries, like tennis and golfers elbow that comes from using one grip too much.
- Improves your ability to do more chin-ups and pull-ups. If you struggle with pull-ups, this is a great alternative.
- Improves anti-rotational strength, which is important for sports like golf, football, and baseball.
How to Do the Mix-Grip Pull-Up
Grab a pull-up bar with an alternating grip — one palm facing you and the other facing forward. Engage your core and grip tight to pull yourself up until your chest is even with the bar. Then pause for a second and lower down slowly. Do all your repetitions in this position, then switch your grip for the next set.
Heavy carries are a great way to build a bigger and more durable upper body. As the name implies, a heavy carry is defined as literally carrying a heavy object for a set distance or time. Gripping a heavy object taxes the muscles in the upper back, traps, and forearms. It’s also a pretty tough cardio challenge, so sets of loaded carries will do wonders for your conditioning, too. As for which carry to try, we like the farmer’s carry. It’s one of the most convenient loaded carries as it requires just a pair of dumbbells, kettlebells (or really anything heavy), and some space to walk.
Benefits of the Farmer’s Carry
- It improves shoulder stability as the rotator cuffs are working hard to keep your shoulders in your sockets.
- Strengthens core and hip stabilizers because every step of the farmer’s walk is a single leg stance.
- The farmer’s carry massively improves grip strength.
How to Do the Basic Farmer Carry
Grab a pair of heavy dumbbells from the rack, grip them tightly, and stand tall by keeping your shoulders down and chest up. Walk slowly and deliberately in a straight line, placing one foot in front of the other for the required distance, and then set the weight down carefully.
Three Rules for Gaining Muscle Mass
Below are three foundational rules that apply to nearly every lifter looking to gain muscle mass and strength.
Use a Mode of Progression
As much as you’d like for it to be the case, just showing up to the gym and hoisting some weights around isn’t enough to build a bigger and stronger upper body. First of all, genetics have a lot to do with our aesthetics. Second of all, you need a plan to ensure you’re challenging your body session after session.
The easiest way to do this is to add either more weight or more reps each week. For example, say you’re doing five sets of five reps on the bench press with 185 pounds. The next week, you’ll add five pounds (even two and a half pounds is fine) and do the same number of sets and reps. Keep up with this mode of progression until you stall, and then stick with that weight until you build your endurance.
For accessory exercises, add one rep to each set each session you perform. After four weeks, you’ll increase the load by five pounds and start at the beginning of the rep range again.
Eat More Calories Than You Burn
If you want to gain muscle and strength, you need to eat in a caloric surplus, which is defined as consuming more calories than you burn. That said, a lot of people 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 an increase in fat mass. There are ways to do this, but the most straightforward way is called reverse dieting, which entails a lifter consuming a few more calories (five to 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.
You can use BarBend‘s macro calculator as a way to find your weight-gaining macros. Remember that the number below is just a starting point. Monitor your progress on the scale, and adjust your macros as needed.