The 6 Best Upper Body Exercises to Build a Strong Torso

Master these upper-body exercises or a bigger and stronger torso.

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, 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.

Best Upper Body Exercises 

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.

Push Press

The push press uses a lower-body dip (think 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. You’ll also develop a lot of power from the push press.  

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. 

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.

 Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Follow an EMOM (every minute on the minute) protocol using 90% of your one-rep max. At the top of every minute, do two reps. Rest for the remainder of the minute, and repeat that cycle five to 10 times, depending on your skill level.  
  • For Muscle: Perform four sets of six to eight reps with 80% of your one-rep max. 

Bench Press

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. Like most barbell exercises, it allows you to use a greater load than you could muster with kettlebells or dumbbells. Also, powerlifters should train the bench press routinely since it’s one of the three competition lifts. 

Benefits of the Barbell Bench Press

  • More chest, shoulder, and triceps mass.
  • One of the best movements to build horizontal pressing strength.

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 un-rack 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Follow an EMOM (every minute on the minute) protocol using 90% of your one-rep max. At the top of every minute, do two reps. Rest for the remainder of the minute, and repeat that cycle five to 10 times, depending on your skill level.  
  • For Muscle: Accumulate 25 reps, either by doing three sets of eight reps or five sets of five reps with 70-80% of your one-rep max.

Bent Over Barbell Row

The bent over row is a fantastic exercise to strengthen and increase mass in the upper back and lats, as it allows you to use the most weight relative to other rowing variations. Usually, more weight equals more muscle. Also, 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 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Muscle: Although you build strength in the upper and lower back with bent over rows, it’s more of an accessory movement and is best done for higher reps. Try adding three to five sets of 10 to 15 reps to your back day. 

Weighted Dip

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. 

If you can’t do weighted dips yet, that’s fine. Use your bodyweight until you’re strong enough to add weight using a dipping belt. Also, you don’t need to add a lot of weight. Remember that 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 the 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Perform three to six sets of between three to six reps to build strength in the triceps and chest.
  • For Muscle: Try three to five sets of eight to 15 reps. 

Mix-Grip Pull-Up

Pull-ups and chin-ups are a great exercise to increase the size and strength of your biceps, upper back, and lats. 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 throughout the set recruits more core muscle. Simply put: it’s a better exercise for your core. Second, this move is easier to do than pull-ups (since you’re stronger with an underhand grip) but harder than a chin-up. So, it’s 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Muscle: Use the mix-grip pull-up as an accessory exercise, adding weight when necessary. Do three to five sets of three to 15 reps. three to 15 for three to five sets after your big strength movement for the day. 

Farmer’s Carry

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 (or a pair of kettlebells) 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 tight, 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.

Programming Suggestions

  • For Strength: Using a weight that taxes your grip in 20-40 yards for two to three sets.
  • For Muscle & Conditioning: Use a weight taxes your grip with 40-100 yards. You are looking for more time under tension here. Do two to three sets at the start or end of your training session.

3 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

You cannot simply show up to the gym, hoist some weights, leave, and expect to build the upper-body of your dreams. Otherwise, you’ll be doing who knows how many sets and reps with whatever amount of weight week after week. That’s not a recipe for success. 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 session or 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 can do it. 

For accessory exercises, add one rep to each set each session you do it. 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 are looking to gain muscle and strength, you need to eat in a caloric surplus — 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.

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Prioritize Compound Lifts

At times, beginners and misguided lifters spend too much time on variations of cable curls, fancy dumbbell raises, and other isolation movements at the expense of compound exercises.

But by prioritizing compound lifts — meaning a lift that involves the movement of one of more joint — you’ll engage more muscle over all. Common compound movements include squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. That’s not to say that barbell curls don’t have a place in your training, but, especially when you’re starting out, they shouldn’t be a priority.

Muscles of the Upper Body

Below are some of the larger muscle groups of the upper body targeted and trained by these upper body mass-building exercises. 

Latissimus Dorsi (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 the key to lifting heavier, gaining size, and improving performance

Pectorals (Chest)

The pectoral muscles (pectoralis major and minor) are developed by most horizontal pressing movements like the bench press (and the wide array of variations), push-ups, and dips.

Deltoids (Shoulders)

The shoulder area comprises the deltoids and posterior shoulder complex/stabilizers (trapezius, scapular shoulder blades, and rhomboids). Vertical pressing movements like push presses and shoulder press variations are great movements for shoulder hypertrophy.

Triceps

The triceps are a smaller muscle group than the back and chest and serve an important role in aiding in pressing movements.

Biceps

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.

How to Warm-up Your Upper Body Before Training

Performing some light sets or ramp-up sets with the exercise you’re about to do is one way to warm up. Another way is to do some upper body drills that train shoulder and thoracic mobility to get the blood moving to these vital areas.

Exercises like an inchworm with a push-up, spiderman with rotations, wall slides, and band pull-apart variations are great to do before hitting the barbell. Here’s a shoulder flexion drill from Eric Cressey that will help warm-up the upper body:

More Upper Body Training Tips

Now that you have a handle on the best upper body exercises to strengthen your chest, triceps, shoulders, back, and biceps, you can also check out these other helpful training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.

References

  1. Michal Wilk et al. Endocrine response to high-intensity barbell squats performed with constant movement tempo and variable training volume. Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2018 Oct;39(4):342-348.
  2. U Wisløff et al. Strong correlation of maximal squat strength with sprint performance and vertical jump height in elite soccer players. Br J Sports Med. 2004 Jun;38(3):285-8

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