Is there a more satisfying workout than a killer upper body regime? A broad chest and shoulders will help fill a suit and look great in an off-duty T-shirt. Pull your shirt off at the beach and a well-defined chest and back will confirm to everyone that yes, you do lift, bro.
If shoes make the man, it’s your upper body that usually gets a second look.
When it comes to the best upper body workouts, the benefits aren’t just ornamental either. In fact, Chris Antoni, a nutritionist and personal trainer with 12 years of experience, believes upper body workouts are essential for helping with posture-related pains, reducing the risk of injury, protecting bones as we age, and increasing our abilities in sport or manual labour.
“A large percentage of the population live sedentary lives, either hunched over a computer or sat in the car for endless hours,” he says. “Upper body workouts can help with this, as well as protecting our bones so they don’t become brittle as we get older.”
How To Train Your Upper Body
All that said, the temptation to turn every gym session into chest day should be resisted at all costs. As with every workout, balance is important. “Depending on how you train and how much time you have, you could think about doing an upper body workout two to three times a week,” says Antoni.
If you prefer to split your workout days by muscle groups, he recommends you split your workouts up into chest and triceps day (Monday and Thursday); back and biceps (Tuesday and Friday); and, shoulders and legs (Wednesday and Saturday).
By breaking it up like this, you’ll reduce your risk of injury by balancing out exercises (for instance, making sure you hit both chest and back to reduce your chance of over-developing one area), and also giving muscles a chance to heal before training them again. Plus, no one wants a barrel chest up top with a pair of chicken legs down below.
If you can’t commit that much time to the gym, the other option is training smart with exercises that hit multiple muscle groups at once. We asked Antoni to put together a compound movement workout to help you get the most from your upper body sessions.
The Best Upper Body Workout You’ll Ever Do
Each of the exercises below will hit your back, chest, and arms in one, giving you extra bang for your buck.
Should you go with the day-by-day breakdown from the previous section, we recommend adding the barbell press into your chest days, the pull-ups into your back days, and the military press into your shoulder days.
Barbell Chest Press
“The chest press can be done with either with a barbell, dumbbells or a Smith machine and is one of the best upper body exercises for building muscle tissue and strength in the chest,” says Antoni. “Once you’ve mastered it you could try incline or decline chest presses and chest flys to mix it up.”
Your chest will get the most benefit here, but your arms and back will also be recruited, as will your stabilising abdominal muscles.
Antoni recommends four to five sets of 10 reps each.
Start by lying flat on a bench with your feet about two feet apart and pressed into the floor. Before you grip the barbell, draw your shoulders down and back to press them into the bench. Wiggle your bum to make sure it’s comfortably pressed into the bench too.
Grip the barbell in a medium-wide grip, with your palms facing upwards. Place your little finger on the 0-rings (the unmarked section of the bar) as a guide.
Take a deep breath and lift the bar off the rack. Lower the bar in a controlled manner to the nipple line. Exhale and push your arms straight up for one rep. Repeat until you’ve ticked off the required amount of reps. And, if you’re going heavy, make sure to have a friend ready to spot you.
Top Tip: When you lower the bar you need to keep your elbows directly under the wrists at a 90-degree angle for maximum stabilisation.
Wide Grip Pull-Up
“The pull-up is an upper body exercise that can be used to develop muscles in the arms and back,” says Antoni. “It’s used in various sports to address improvements in upper body pulling strength and muscular endurance.”
Your back, shoulders, arms, core, and chest will all get a look-in here. But it’s important to remember that the majority of the work needs to come from your back, not your biceps, and definitely not from swinging your legs, either.
Four to five sets of 10 reps each.
Take a wide grip on an overhead bar, with your palms facing away from you. Your hands should be wider than shoulder-width. Now, take a deep breath, squeeze your glutes and engage your abs.
To lift yourself up, push your shoulder blades back then drive the elbows straight down towards the ground.
Pull your chin towards the bar until the lats are fully contracted, then slowly lower yourself back to the start position. Keep hanging in there as you work through the rest of the reps. If you’re struggling, there’s no shame in using a band to take some of your body weight while you build up your upper body strength.
Top Tips: Try to keep a neutral head position (looking straight ahead or slightly up) as hyperextending the neck can lead to compensations throughout the spine.
And, if you find yourself lifting with your arms instead of your lats, try removing your thumb from your grip to decrease bicep involvement.
“This is a great compound exercise that works the deltoids, lats, biceps, triceps, and traps, and the muscles linking the arms to the chest and back,” says Antoni. Basically the whole shebang then. “This is the single best upper body exercise to improve your strength and muscle mass.”
Four to five sets of 10 reps each.
Stand with a barbell resting on your upper chest. Experiment with what weight works for you. 30kg is a good starting point. Keep your feet firmly locked in place with a slight bend in the knee instead of moving one forward or back to try and equate for the extra weight – your core should keep you balanced.
Take a wide grip and press the bar over your head until it’s balanced above your shoulders.
With the bar overhead, lock your elbows at the top and shrug your shoulders towards the ceiling. Hold the bar in this position for a second, then slowly reverse the steps to lower it back to the start position. Then, repeat.
Top Tips: The bar starts below your chin, so make sure your head tilts backwards slightly as you push the bar up in the straightest line possible to avoid hitting your chin and nose.
If you’re experiencing shoulder pain, try using a narrow grip instead to stop you from flaring your elbows.
The chest fly or pec fly is a great chest move that promotes an open chest, which in turn means you’re less likely to experience posture problems round the back.
Your chest and shoulders do most of the work here, but your triceps also play a part, as does your core and back. Chest flys are also great for promoting scapular retraction, essentially the ability to pinch your shoulders together.
If you sit at a desk all day, it’s worth adding in the chest fly after your bench press, going for slightly fewer sets – around three should do the job – of 10 reps each.
Start by lying face-up on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Begin with around 15kg dumbbells if you’ve never done it before and work your way up with heavier weights over the coming weeks. While you’re getting in position it’s a good idea to rest the dumbbells on your thighs, with your palms facing in.
Then, lift the dumbbells to hold them directly over your chest, arms straight. Keeping your elbows slightly bent, inhale as you lower the arms out to the side, feeling your shoulder blades retract.
Stop when the dumbbells are at shoulder height. Then, exhale and squeeze through the chest to power the dumbbells back to the start position. That’s one.
Top Tip: Slow it down. A common mistake is to go too fast, which can lead to painful tears along the pectoral. Count three seconds down, then push up for one to time it right.