Having a strong upper body not only enables you to better your performance in strength training exercises like the bench press and overhead press but can also help you become a stronger swimmer, rower, and even runner.
But what are the best upper body exercises to include in well-rounded upper body workouts for strength and hypertrophy?
What are the best upper body strength exercises for beginners, and which exercises for upper body muscles are best for advanced athletes looking to maximize strength and size?
In this article, we will discuss how to program upper body workouts based on your fitness level and goals and provide step-by-step instructions for some of the best upper body exercises to include in your upper body split workouts:
- Lat Pulldown
- Bent-Over Row
- Dumbbell Chest Press
- Incline Bench Press
- Cable Iron Cross
- Svend Press
- Dumbbell Curl to Press
Let’s dive in!
How to Structure Upper Body Workouts
Beginners often make the mistake of thinking that upper body workouts only involve performing exercises for the biceps and triceps; however, the best upper body workout should hit all of the major muscles, including those in the arms as well as the shoulders (deltoids), traps, rhomboids, lats, rotator cuff muscles, and muscles of the chest (pecs).
In general, many of the same exercises can be included in upper body workouts for beginners as for advanced athletes, but certain modifications may be necessary, and certainly, lighter weights should be used.
It is generally best for beginners to focus on basic, foundational compound upper body exercises like the row, push-ups, chest press, and overhead press before taking on advanced progressions and variations.
The Ultimate Upper Body Workout
Here are some of the best upper body exercises to increase strength and build muscle:
#1: Lat Pulldown
Lat pulldowns are one of the best exercises for the lats, and they also work the shoulders, triceps, and biceps, depending on the hand spacing or grip type you use.
Plus, lat pulldowns are generally easier for people to master than the pull-up.
Here are the steps for how to perform this upper body exercise:
- Sit with an upright posture at the lat pulldown station with your thighs secured under the pads and feet on the floor.
- Reach up and grip the bar using an overhand grip (palms facing away) with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your core tight as you pull the bar down towards your sternum, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the end range of motion.
- Hold the bottom position for 2-3 seconds.
- Slowly return the weight to the starting position, resisting the momentum of the weight stack so that you maintain tension in your muscles throughout the duration of the movement.
#2: Bent-Over Row
The bent-over row should be included in your upper body workout. There are many variations, but the standard exercise is performed with dumbbells or a barbell.
Advanced athletes can try progressions like trap bar rows, cable rows, or dead-stop rows.
Here are the steps to perform this basic back exercise with dumbbells.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart with dumbbells in front of your feet.
- Hinge at your hips, keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain a flat and neutral spine. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor. This is the starting position.
- Pick up the dumbbells with your palms facing one another.
- Pull the weights up to the sides of your ribs by bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together in the back.
- Pause at the top position for 2-3 seconds.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back down until your elbows are fully extended. Make sure to maintain the hip hinge throughout the exercise.
Dips are one of the best upper body exercises for building functional strength in your pecs, triceps, and shoulders.
Adding dips to your upper body workouts is an effective way to build transferable strength for the bench press, push-ups, and other pressing exercises because the pecs and triceps work synergistically in this bodyweight exercise as they do with any of the major pressing exercises.
Additionally, dips are even more effective at increasing strength and mass than push-ups. This is due to the fact that performing upright dips on parallel bars requires pressing up your entire body weight, which is more load than with a standard push-up.
As you get stronger, you can wear a weighted vest.
Here are the steps to perform this exercise in your upper body workout routine:
- Get up onto the dip bars so that your arms are completely straight. Engage your core and lean your torso forward slightly while trying to keep your torso up and back straight.
- Lower your body by bending your elbows until your upper arms are roughly parallel to the floor.
- Press through your hands to raise your body back up to the starting position.
#4: Dumbbell Chest Press
The dumbbell chest press allows you to work each side of your pecs individually.
Plus, the dumbbell chest press is easier for beginners to learn and master and potentially safer than trying the barbell bench press in your chest workouts.
Note that to make this more of an inner chest exercise, bring your hands closer together, and to make it a middle chest exercise, your hands should be roughly shoulder-width apart.
Here are the steps:
- Lie on your back on a weight bench with your knees bent to 90 degrees and feet flat on the floor.
- Grip the dumbbells so that your palms are facing away from your body, and bring each one into the chest press position such that your fist is hovering roughly over the armpit on that side.
- Exhale as you press the dumbbell straight up into the air above your body.
- Inhale as you slowly lower them back down to your chest without fully touching them down.
#5: Incline Bench Press
The incline press targets the upper portion of the pectoralis major muscle, pec minor, and the deltoids in your shoulders.
You can perform this exercise like the dumbbell chest press, but set the bench to a 45-degree angle.
Keep your elbows tucked into your sides rather than flared out.
You can also use a barbell if you want to lift heavier weights for greater gains in mass and strength.
#6: Cable Iron Cross
The large range of motion of this upper body exercise gives you more time under tension to increase your gains.
Here are the steps:
- Move the pulleys to the highest settings and stand in the center of the cable machine holding a handle in each hand with a staggered stance.
- Hinge your hips so that your torso is leaned forward about 20 degrees, but keep your back straight and chest up.
- Pull both handles from high to low down and across your body by squeezing your chest muscles, trying to keep your elbows nearly straight but unlocked.
- Hold the squeeze at the end position where your arms are crossed over one another in front of your body for 2 to 3 seconds.
- Slowly return to the starting position with your arms out to the sides.
#7: Svend Press
The Svend press strengthens your shoulders, pecs, and forearms and can improve grip strength.
You can perform the exercise with a weight plate, kettlebell, or with a dumbbell.
Here is how to do this upper body exercise:
- Stand upright with good posture and your core and glutes engaged.
- Squeeze the handle of a kettlebell or hold a dumbbell vertically and stack your two hands on the handle.
- Begin with the weight in at your sternum and then press straight out away from your body.
- Hold the end position with your arms extended fully for 3-5 seconds. Make sure to keep the weight parallel to the floor. Do not let the load cause your arms to dip downward.
- Slowly bend your elbows to return to the starting position.
#8: Dumbbell Curl to Press
This combined upper body exercise works the biceps, deltoids, rotator cuff muscles, as well as the forearms.
Here are the steps:
- Stand or sit with good posture with your arms down at your sides. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing away.
- Curl the weights up to your shoulders, then rotate your hands so your palms face away.
- Press the dumbbells straight up overhead.
- Reverse the motion, remembering to rotate your wrists at your shoulders before lowering the weights from the curl portion.
Try to perform 2-3 sets of each exercise.
Aim for 2-6 reps using a weight that’s at least 85% of your 1RM if your goal is to increase strength and 8-12 reps using a weight that’s 65-85% of your 1RM if your goal is to build muscle mass.
If you’re looking for a more specific upper body workout, check out our cable machine back workout guide here.