You know you want to work on your upper body — you are, after all, reading this article — but you’re probably unsure how to train it. First, you need to have a goal in mind. Maybe you want to get stronger. Or, you need an upper-body blast without any equipment. Maybe you feel like you’re drowning in that sweater grandma gifted you, and you want to add some muscle mass. All are great goals, but each requires a different approach.
Below, we break down five upper body workouts, along with explanations for each, directions, and sets and reps. We also give you a warm-up to do — always warm-up — and go over some upper body anatomy, so you’re armed with more knowledge, too.
Best Upper Body Workouts
- Upper Body Workout for Muscle Growth
- Upper Body Workout for Strength
- Upper Body Workout for Men
- Upper Body Workout for Women
- Bodyweight Upper Body Workout
Volume and frequency are the most important variables when it comes to stimulating muscle growth. Muscle growth, aka hypertrophy, can happen in a broad rep range — anywhere from five to 30 reps. As long as the sets are performed close to failure, you will likely see muscle growth.
The workout below consists of two circuits, with a rep range that dips as low as eight reps and as high as 24. The circuit will increase the volume done in a shorter time period and create a hormonal storm favorable in stimulating muscle growth. You’ll also subscribe to the reps in reserve (RIR) method, which is a way to self-regulate your intensity. If you see “2 RIR,” that means use a weight that has you perform the prescribed number of reps with two reps left in the tank.
Perform the same exercises marked as “A” and “B” as a circuit, performing the back-to-back movements. Rest 60 seconds between each of the same-letter exercises and 90 seconds between same-letter circuits. Perform this workout up to three times per week. Start with 4 RIR and work towards an RIR over the course of four to six weeks.
- A1. Pull-Up: 3 x 8-12
- A2. Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 8/8/8*
- A3. Chest-Supported Row: 3 x 15
- A4. Machine Chest Flye: 3 x 12
- B1. High-Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 12 reps
- B2. Cable Curl: 3 x 12
- B3. Cable Overhead Extension: 3 x 12
- B4. Cable Triceps Pushdown: 3 x 12
- B5.Trap Bar Shrug to Carry: 3 x 12 + 50-foot walk
*Do eight reps on a high incline, then eight reps on a lower incline, and then eight on a flat bench.
Coach’s Tip: Muscle soreness isn’t a great indicator of an effective workout. That’s not to say you won’t be sore, but don’t let this be your only barometer of success. If you feel a sharp pain in a joint or muscle, please seek medical attention.
To get strong, you need to focus on performing fewer reps with more weight, one exercise at a time. This low-rep, heavy-weight style of training forces muscles to exert maximal force, recruiting the more explosive type II muscle fibers needed to lift heavier weights.
Although training for strength and muscle mass are usually different, the two modalities aren’t mutually exclusive. A stronger muscle allows you to move more weight, which means, over time, you can accumulate more mechanical tension on the muscle, demanding growth. Likewise, a larger muscle can have a higher force output to handle the weight needed to induce neurological changes more easily.
Perform this workout once per week. Be sure to get a lot of rest between sessions — this is a taxing training session. Perform all the sets for each movement before moving onto the next exercise. Also, do not cut your rest time short. Three to five minutes may sound like a lot, but that’s the time it takes for your muscles to recover.
- A1. Bench Press: 3 x 5 / 2 x 3, rest 2-3 minutes between sets
- B1. Bent-Over Barbell Row: 5 x 5, rest 3-5 minutes between sets
- C1. Barbell Overhead Press: 3 x 6, rest 3-5 minutes between sets
- D1. Weighted Pull-Up: 3 x 5-8, rest 3-5 minutes between sets
- E1. JM Press: 3 x 6
- E2. Cable Triceps Pushdown: 3 x 8, rest 3 minutes between sets
Coach’s Tip: Intent is an important factor when training for strength — each rep should be performed as forcefully as you are capable of, and you should increase the intensity week to week. We suggest a 2-2.5% increase in the load week to week, as being strong means moving heavy weights.
For the most part, men and women can follow very similar, if not the same, routines. That said, it’s worth acknowledging that studies show men to have a higher ratio of type II muscle fibers, meaning they’re generally stronger, more explosive, and capable of more muscle growth (hormones play a role in this, too). (1)
The workout below focuses on moving more weight for a moderate amount of volume to achieve what’s called mechanical failure (when the muscle tires out) instead of metabolic failure (when you’re out of gas). The trade-off for producing more force is that you will likely only sustain the intensity for a limited amount of time. (2) It is likely beneficial for men to prioritize exercise intensity instead of exercise duration to achieve maximal muscle growth and maximal strength.
Perform this workout once per week for four to six weeks or until you’ve reached 0 RIR hitting maximal weight at the assigned reps. Exercises marked with the same letter (“A,” “B,” etc.) are to be performed as supersets, with no rest between movements. If a same-letter exercise has fewer sets than its counterpart, do the prescribed sets and continue with the other movement.
- A1. Bench Press: 5 x 5, rest 60 seconds between exercises
- A2. Machine Chest Flye: 3 x 8, rest 3 minutes between sets
- B1. Bent-Over Barbell Row: 5 x 5, rest 60 seconds between sets
- B2. Bent-Over Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 x 8, rest 3 minutes between exercises
- C1. Barbell Shoulder Press: 3 x 5, rest 60 seconds between sets
- C2. High-Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 8, rest 3 minutes between sets
- D1. Weighted Pull-Up: 3 x 5-8, rest 60 seconds between sets
- D2. Straight-Arm Pulldown: 3 x 8, rest 3 minutes between sets
- E1. JM Press: 3 sets of 6 reps
- E2. Cable Tricep Pushdown: 3 x 8, rest 3 minutes between sets
- F1. Biceps Curl: 3 x 8, rest 2 minutes between sets
Coach’s Tip: Compound sets increase intraset volume by taxing the same muscle group with two separate exercises in succession and are effective as a tool for increasing work capacity and muscle size over time.
Contrary to men, women typically have a higher ratio of type l muscle fibers to type ll, making them proficient at performing longer bouts of training with less intensity. Because women are more receptive to longer workout sessions, the program below has more volume than the men’s upper body workout above.
Perform this workout once per week. This is a circuit, which means you’ll perform each exercise back-to-back-to-back. Rest 60 seconds between movements and then an additional 90 seconds between each circuit. You’ll do three rounds in total.
- A1. Dumbbell Bench Press: 3 x 15
- A2. Dumbbell Flye: 3 x 15
- A3. Chest-Supported Dumbbell Row: 3 x 15
- A4. Dumbbell Reverse Fly: 3 x 15
- A5. Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 x 15
- A6. High-Incline Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 3 x 15
- A7. Lat Pulldown: 3 x 15
- A8. Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown: 3 x 15
- B1. Cable Triceps Pushdown: AMRAP in 90 seconds
- C1. Cable Biceps Curl: AMRAP in 90 seconds
Coach’s Tip: If you’re a woman, don’t think high-volume workouts are your only friend. There’s plenty of benefits to lifting heavy weights. In fact, straying from what you’re inclined to excel at is another way to push your progress in the gym.
You don’t need weights to see results (though owning dumbbells, kettlebells, weight plates, a weight bench, and a barbell doesn’t hurt). Your bodyweight is a useful tool for combating gravity to produce muscle- and strength-building tension. Workouts without weights are also inherently more joint-friendly since there’s no external load pressing down on your spine, knees, and/or elbows.
Below, we outline two bodyweight workouts — one focused on conditioning and one focused on muscle growth. Both workouts are identical, except that one pushes the rep count closer to failure with rest between exercises necessary to perform at a high enough intensity to elicit growth. At the same time, the other has you leave more reps in the tank and take minimal rest time between exercises. Both workouts are performed as circuits, so your heart rate stays high.
|For Muscle Growth
Rest 60-90 seconds between exercises
15-30 seconds rest between exercises
Coach’s Tip: Because you’re using the RIR method, it’s up to you to keep track of your reps every week. Aim to add more reps — even just one — each time you do this workout.
Muscles in Your Upper Body
Below are the major muscles targeted in the workouts above, along with explanations on how they work.
Two massive hunks of meat sit atop your chest — the pectoral muscles. Thick pecs are essential for an aesthetic upper body. Functionally, the pecs comprise the pectoralis major and minor — which are responsible for horizontal adduction at the shoulder joint, internal rotation of the humerus, arm flexion, and scapula protraction.
The shoulders predominantly work to flex the arms overhead and abduct the arm laterally and horizontally. You want to perform exercises that hit the front, lateral, and rear heads of the shoulders — all of which contribute to that boulder shoulder look many athletes covet.
The biceps flex the elbow and contribute to shoulder flexion. Anyone who trains most likely wants a mighty pair of biceps — they look cool, and biceps exercises are simple to do.
The triceps are often overlooked. When it comes to big arms, the biceps get a lot of attention, and folks tend to forget that the three-headed triceps muscle makes up three-fifths of the circumference of the upper arm. The triceps extend or straighten the elbow and also contribute to extension at the shoulder joint.
The back is not just one muscle — it is a cacophony of several muscles intertwined with one another. Aesthetically, a big back signals to the rest of the world that you do, in fact, pick up and put down weights. Bigger back muscles also help stabilize your spine during heavy deadlifts, squats, and sets of bench presses. The back consists of:
- The trapezius works to elevate the scapula, particularly the upper trapezius.
- The latissimus dorsi is built with pull-ups/pull-downs. Big lats accentuate the size differential between the hips and the shoulders and taper the back.
- The Spinal erectors are muscles that lie alongside the outside of your spine that work to bring the spine into extension or resisting spinal flexion when heavy loads are placed on the back. To fully develop your spinal erectors, it is suggested that you add leg exercises to your program. In short: Don’t skip leg day.
- The rear delts, teres major, and rhomboids are less powerful, though prominent in appearance adding impressive detailing to the back. They work to horizontally abduct the arms at the shoulder joint and retract the scapula. The inclusion of the chest-supported machine row builds that width and detailing necessary to pack muscle on the upper back.
Benefits of Upper-Body Workouts
Anyone — CrossFitters, Bodybuilders, Jiu-Jitsu players — can benefit from more upper body work. Yes, you’ll undeniably look more muscular, but there are more benefits to training your top half than just looks.
A More Muscular Upper Body
Train your muscles, and they will grow. (Oh, and make sure your diet is in check, too.) It’s a simple but effective formula that will yield bigger and denser muscles if applied to your upper body. There is absolutely nothing wrong with appearing bigger and more muscular, and upper body training helps you fill out shirts and tank tops.
Strength & Power
If there’s a barbell to be hoisted, your upper body is, in some way, involved. You need strong shoulders to drive a barbell overhead during clean & jerks and snatches. A large back helps stabilize a loaded barbell during squats, and a strong chest means a more impressive bench press one-rep max.
More Functional Movement
Even when you’re not lifting free weights, you’re usually lifting something. Every time you load a suitcase into an overhead compartment, you’re doing a clean and press. Ever load up each of your hands with groceries and sprint 100 yards from your car to your house? That’s a farmer’s walk. Strengthening your muscles with exercises that mimic how we move every day will lead to more resilience and stability in the long term.
How to Warm-Up Your Upper Body
A warm-up increases the heart rate and prepares each muscle group for high force output and maximal effort. Warm muscles are more pliable muscles and less prone to injury. Before upper body training, it’s important to tax some rotator cuff muscles to ensure activation of deep internal stabilizers, which offer support and protect the joint. After all, the ball-and-socket shoulder joint is not as stable as the more stable hip joint as other joints, but in turn, presents greater mobility.
Upper Body Warm-Up
- Bear Crawl: 3 x 20 feet
- Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Carry: 3 x 20 feet
- Scap Push-Up: 3 x 10
- Scap Angels: 3 x 10
- World’s Greatest Stretch: 3 x 10
More Upper Body Training Tips
Training your upper body is a must if you want to look bigger, move more weight, and balance out your physique so you’re not all legs. Here are some other BarBend articles on upper body-focused training.
- Upper Body Isometrics: What and What You Can Do at Home
- 8 Pressing Variations to Improve Upper Body Power
- The 5 Best Upper Chest Exercises for Strength and Size
- Ali Gorzi, Mina Khantan, Omid Khademnoe & Roger Eston (2021) Prediction of elite athletes’ performance by analysis of peak-performance age and age-related performance progression, European Journal of Sport Science, DOI: 10.1080/17461391.2020.1867240
- Lundsgaard A-M and Kiens B (2014) Gender differences in skeletal muscle substrate metabolism – molecular mechanisms and insulin sensitivity. Front. Endocrinol. 5:195. doi: 10.3389/fendo.2014.00195
Featured Image: Vladimir Sukhachev/Shutterstock