In this guide, we are covering the best upper body exercises of all time.
Specifically, you will learn which exercises are best for developing the chest, shoulders, arms, and back muscles.
To keep things easy, we will break them up into two different types:
- Upper body exercises with weights, and
- Upper body exercises withouts weights
That way, you can strengthen your upper body regardless of where you are.
Let’s get started.
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Okay, let’s get started.
These Are The 4 Upper Body Muscle Groups You Must Focus On
Alright, let’s cut right to the chase.
The upper body is composed of four major muscle groups. They are:
- The pectoralis muscles (the chest),
- The deltoid muscles (the anterior, medial, and posterior shoulders)
- The rhomboids, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi muscles (the upper and mid-back), and,
- The biceps and triceps (the arms).
To maximize your upper body training, you must train each of these muscle groups regularly. The good news is, some of the exercises listed below will target multiple muscle groups at once.
The other thing to keep in mind is that you should train each muscle group evenly.
For example, if you perform 3 sets of chest/pressing dominant exercises, you should perform 3 sets of rowing/pulling exercises. The same goes for the hips, core, and low back in the lower body.
By balancing your training, you decrease your risk of developing muscular imbalances, a common cause of pain and injury.
If you have bad posture, you likely have muscular imbalances.
More on that later.
So without further ado, let’s get to the exercises.
The 5 Best Upper Body Exercises (With Weights)
The following 5 exercises are what I determine to be the best weighted upper body exercises. I have selected them based on their effectiveness for
- building muscle,
- improving strength, and
- developing functional abilities
Some of these exercises will overlap – meaning they will train similar muscle groups.
But at the end, I will show you how to make a balanced workout routine to avoid developing any muscular imbalances.
On to the first exercise:
The Face Pull
The first exercise is the face pull.
You were probably expecting a different exercise to be first. The face pull is first because of its importance in maintaining healthy shoulders and good posture.
If you have ever lifted weights before you probably have muscular imbalances in your shoulders. This is especially true if you have done a lot of chest dominant, horizontal push exercises like the bench press.
While there is nothing wrong with the bench press (in fact, its in my list of the best exercises), it is important to not overdo it.
You need to train your posterior muscles just as much (if not more) than the pressing movements.
That’s why the face pull is first. It has been chosen because
- it trains scapular retraction and shoulder external rotation,
- it strengthens several rotator cuff muscles simultaneously, and
- it builds the muscles of the upper back under a low impact environment.
Here is what the face pull looks like:
The face pull will strengthen your
- posterior shoulders
- rotator cuff
- middle trapezius
- and biceps
In order to do this exercise, you will need a rope and a cable machine as shown above. Another thing to keep in mind is that this exercise does not need to be loaded heavily.
The muscles you are training are relatively small, and a modest weight will be more than enough.
I have a full written description of the Face Pull which you can find here.
If you do not have access to a rope and cable, you can also do this exercise with a closed loop resistance band.
The face pull helps iron out muscular imbalances between the anterior and posterior muscles, helping to keep your shoulders healthy.
The Barbell Row
The next upper body exercise with weight is the barbell row. As you can see, the first couple of exercises emphasize the pulling pattern.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away, it’s this: You can never do enough pulling movements.
The vast majority of people have very weak rhomboids, posterior shoulders, and middle trapezius relative to the other muscles in the upper body. This is something that you need to address as early as possible to decrease injury risk in the future.
The barbell row has been selected due to its,
- sheer effectiveness,
- compound nature (it strengthens several muscle groups at once), and
- its ease of progressive overload.
Because this exercise is done with a barbell, you can really overload the movement with fine-tuned weight adjustments.
*The one caveat is that this exercise is easy to mess up. Take your time and do it with proper form.*
Here’s what it looks like:
The barbell row will strengthen your
- posterior shoulders
- latissimus dorsi
- middle trapezius
- spinal erectors
- and biceps
As you can see, this exercise requires good coordination and sufficient flexibility to maintain the proper position.
With that said, you may not be able to perform this exercise safely. If that is the case, check out the alternatives I have below.
I have a full written description of the Barbell Row which you can find here.
There are several alternatives you can do for this exercise:
If you find that you cannot do this exercise properly, here are a couple of alternatives you can try.
- Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows: You can do this movement with dumbbells instead of a barbell. You won’t be able to use as heavy of weight with dumbbells compared to a barbell. However, you will have a greater degree of freedom for movement and variation. I go over the single-arm bent-over row in this tutorial.
- Seated Cable Row: Alternatively, you do this exercise on the cable machine. This is personally one of my favorite exercises, as you do not have to worry about setting anything up. This exercise won’t train as many muscle groups as the barbell row, but it is still one of the best upper back developers of all time. I have a full tutorial here.
The barbell row is one of the best compound exercises for the upper body- developing explosive strength in the upper back while strengthening several other agonist muscles in the posterior chain.
The Paused Bench Press
Next up is the bench press. You knew this exercise was coming, didn’t you?
But I’m not talking about any bench press. I’m talking about paused bench press. The paused bench press is a far superior exercise to the traditional bench press you may be used to doing.
Instead of bouncing the bar off your chest (or doing a ‘touch and go’ method), you will pause the bar on your chest motionless for at least 1 second before pressing the weight back up.
This pause adds a significant advantage to the exercise that you can’t ignore. Most importantly, it will improve your technique considerably.
What many people don’t realize is that the bench press is a total body exercise. If done correctly, you will engage your legs and your core during every repetition. The pause will help you maintain total body tightness, and proper positioning throughout the lift.
But aside from adding the pause, the bench press is an amazing exercise because of
- it’s compound nature (it strengthen several pressing muscles at once),
- it’s ability to teach you how to maintain a stable shoulder position under load, and
- it’s ability to develop explosive strength.
Here’s what the exercise looks like:
The paused bench press will strengthen your
- anterior shoulders
There are three important things you must take note of with the bench press:
- You must use a full range of motion – i.e, touch your chest and pause for at least a 1 count
- You should go slow and allow the bar to be motionless on your chest
- You must keep your shoulder blades retracted the entire time to lock your shoulders into a stable position
Similar to the other barbell exercises, the bench press can be progressively overloaded using small increments over time.
I have a full written description of the Bench Press which you can find here.
If you do not have access to a bench press, you can do this exercise with dumbbells instead.
Similarly, you can do weighted push-ups as well, which we will go over in just a bit.
The bench press is the best horizontal pushing exercise to develop significant pressing strength while teaching you how to maintain a stable shoulder position. The pause will ensure that you are staying tight and using proper technique at all times.
The Overhead Press
There are very few exercises that are more difficult than the good ole overhead press. This exercise requires several things: good overhead mobility, strong shoulders, and a willingness to not give up.
As difficult as this movement may be, there is no better exercise to fully develop the shoulders and pressing overall pressing strength.
If you could only choose one pressing exercise to do – it would be the overhead press.
The overhead press has made the top 5 list because:
- it trains all three heads of the deltoid muscles when done correctly,
- it significantly activates your core and glutes through stabilization, and
- the strength developed on the overhead press carries over to other real-world applications.
Here’s how to do the exercise correctly:
The overhead press will strengthen your
- shoulders (all three heads)
When lifting a weight overhead, your muscles have to work hard to stabilize your body. You cannot perform this exercise without firing all of the muscles in your core.
With that said, it is important that you assess your technique and range of motion before doing this powerful exercise.
If you cannot safely raise your fully-locked arms overhead without excessively arching your back, then you should avoid this exercise.
Also, you should ensure that you are using a full range of motion – i.e, you are bringing the bar all the way down to your chest, and locking it out directly overhead.
I have a full written description of the Overhead Press which you can find here.
If you cannot perform the barbell overhead press, try this exercise with dumbbells instead. This will free up your range of motion and make the movement easier.
If that is still too difficult, you can do this exercise while sitting down. That will eliminate the core stabilization component needed to execute the lift.
The overhead press is the best vertical pushing exercise to develop all three heads of the shoulder muscles. It also teaches you how the importance of total body stability as you maintain a stable shoulder position overhead.
The Incline Dumbbell Press
The last movement in the top 5 weighted upper body exercises is the incline dumbbell press. This is the first and only dumbbell exercise on this list.
The incline dumbbell press is unique enough to earn a spot in the top 5. It is essentially a combination of an overhead press and a bench press, but with a few unique advantages.
- By using dumbbells, you shoulders are given more freedom to move,
- The dumbbells also allow you to train each arm individually, highlighting any potential muscular imbalances,
- and lastly, the incline angle shifts the emphasis of the exercise on the upper chest and shoulders more than a traditional bench press.
I personally find that this exercise is best done for higher repetitions to induce muscle hypertrophy.
Here’s how to do it correctly:
The incline dumbbell bench press will strengthen your
- upper chest
Another great advantage of this exercise is that it is versatile.
In other words, you can change the incline in which you are pressing to get a slightly different training effect. The lower the incline, the more the exercise resembles a traditional bench press. The higher the incline, the more it resembles a shoulder press.
I recommend that you use a 45 degree incline to get the best of both worlds.
I have a full written description of the Incline Dumbbell Bench Press which you can find here.
One interesting variation you can try is the neutral grip incline press.
In this variation, you will keep your palms facing each other throughout the movement. This will emphasize the triceps a bit more than the shoulders.
Otherwise, there aren’t really great alternatives to this exercise. Given it’s versatility, you should be able to find an alternative to suit your needs.
The incline dumbbell press is one of the most versatile movements you can do to train horizontal and vertical pressing at the same time. The dumbbells allow for a greater range of motion and more shoulder freedom to target different areas of the upper body with precision.
The 5 Best Upper Body Exercises At Home (Without Weights)
Okay, so that was the top 5 upper body exercises you can do with weights.
In this next section, we will go over the best upper body exercises you can do at home without weights. However, I do recommend that you get access to two pieces of equipment.
One is a pull-up bar, and the other is a pair of olympic rings. You can find my recommendations for both here: The Best Home Gym Equipment.
So without further ado, the first exercise is…
If you could only do one upper body exercise – the pull-up would be it.
There is no greater exercise that improves both relative and absolute upper body strength than the pull-up. If done correctly, this movement will train several muscles in the upper and mid back while strengthening your core.
It also demonstrates that you have full control and power over your body. You never know when you’ll be hanging from an edge of a cliff and you need to pull yourself up.
There are two ways to do pull-ups: The round back pull-up and the arched back pull-ups.
I recommend you do the arched back pull-ups – here’s how.
The pull-up will strengthen your
- latissimus dorsi
- posterior deltoids
- middle trapezius
As you can see the pull-up is a beast of an exercise. This is the ultimate exercise in terms of transference to real world strength and applicability.
If you don’t do this exercise – you are missing out big time.
If you can’t yet do a pull-up, I go over a few ways to work your way up in my post of complete calisthenics exercises.
You can find a full description of the pull-up right here.
The only decent alternative to the pull-up is the lat pulldown. But I urge you to include pull-ups in your program as often as possible.
Otherwise, you can train another horizontal pulling exercise such as the horizontal pull-up.
The pull-up is the most functional and compound exercise of the upper body. It strengthens all of the pulling muscles (which are often underdeveloped in most people) while teaching you how to control your entire body.
The Pike Push-Up
The next exercise is the pike push-up. This movement is the bodyweight version of the overhead press.
The nice thing about this exercise is that it does not need as much shoulder flexibility as the barbell counterpart. In addition, it can easily be scaled to your level of fitness.
- If you are a beginner, you can do it on an incline.
- If you are an intermediate, you can do the standard version on the floor, and increase the range of motion by using parallettes.
- If you are advanced, you can elevate your feet and even start doing handstand push-ups.
Here’s what it looks like.
The pike push-up will strengthen your
- shoulders (all three heads)
The best part about this exercise is that it can be done anytime anywhere!
Along with all of the variations you can perform of this exercise, you can also play around with the tempo. This means going down slow and then pressing back up.
The major advantage of doing tempo training with pike push-ups is that you can develop a strong mind-muscle connection and focus on using your shoulders to execute the lift.
There are no alternatives to this exercise. You can try using an incline to make the movement easier, or simply decrease the range of motion.
The pike push-up strengthens all three heads of the deltoid muscle while teaching you how to maintain a stable shoulder position. It is a great alternative to the barbell overhead press and can be done anywhere in a much safer manner.
The Front Lever Raise
The next exercise is the front lever raise. You may not have heard of this exercise, because it is actually used in advanced calisthenics and gymnastic routines.
I discovered this exercise not too long ago and I have been hooked.
This movement not only strengthens the back (which needs to be strengthened in most people), it also serves as an amazing core exercise. You will need a sturdy pull-up bar with enough separation from the wall to do this exercise.
Here are three different variations you can do based on your level. The more you extend your legs, the harder the exercise.
The front lever raise will strengthen your
- latissimus dorsi
- posterior deltoids
- middle trapezius
This exercise can be fairly challenging, especially for beginners. The key is to pretend as if you are trying to pull the bar down toward your waist while keeping your arms straight.
Just like the big compound barbell exercises, the front lever raise requires total body tension. You will not be able to perform it without keeping every muscle tight, especially your core and glutes.
The best exercises are the ones that make you use your entire body as one unit.
Horizontal pull-ups serve as a good alternative to the front lever raise, as are hanging leg raises.
The front lever raise builds tremendous strength in the back and core – forcing your body to work together as one unit to accomplish the exercise. No other exercise develops better body control than this one.
The Ring Dip
The next exercise is the ring dip. Not just the regular dip (which is also an amazing exercise on its own), but the dip done on gymnastic rings (here is my new favorite pair).
This is one of the best movements you can do to develop significant muscle and strength in your upper body.
The rings also take it to another level.
They add an unparalleled stability component to this otherwise great exercise. Expect your rep count to decrease by about half when doing ring dips compared to traditional dips.
The ring dip has made the top 5 because:
- it is one of the best compound exercises for developing the pushing muscles,
- it strengthens the core and all of the stabilizer muscles,
- and it teaches you how to maintain a stable shoulder position in an unstable environment
Here’s how it looks:
The ring dip will strengthen your
- anterior shoulders
- medial shoulders
When training with rings, you develop total body control that is transferable to so many other aspects of fitness. They also allow for more freedom in terms of the range of motion.
Get a pair of wooden rings, and attach them to your
You won’t regret it.
If you do not have access to a pair of rings, (or this exercise is too challenging), then you can do traditional dips.
Otherwise, close grip push-ups are another good alternative.
The ring dip is one of the best exercises for developing muscle hypertrophy, core strength, shoulder stability, and athletic skill all at the same time.
Last but not least, is the push-up. The push-up is arguably one of the best exercises of all time.
It needs no introduction.
Besides its effectiveness for developing the horizontal pressing pattern, it’s also great for:
- learning how to maintain a stable core,
- learning how to maintain a stable shoulder position,
- and learning how to leverage different angles to change the muscle focus.
But first, here’s how to do the standard push-up:
The push-up will strengthen your
- anterior shoulders
But what makes the push-up one of the best of all time are the endless variations you could do.
For example, you can do:
- Close grip push-ups (to target the triceps more)
- Decline push-ups (to target the upper chest more)
- Incline push-ups (if you aren’t strong enough)
- Psuedo-planche push-ups (to target the shoulders more)
- Ring push-ups (to target shoulder stabilizers more)
- Explosive push-ups (to target power production)
- Archer push-ups (to isolate each arm individually)
and so on…
You can find dozens of variations that will be challenging no matter what level of fitness you possess. The best part is – they can be done with no equipment at all.
I have a full push-up tutorial which you can find here, and here are some push-up standards you should be able to accomplish.
There are no alternatives to the push-up. Find a variation that suits your needs.
Why do the push-up? The push-up is the most versatile exercise in the fitness library. Period.
So there you have the top 5 upper body exercises with weight and without weight.
Now let’s quickly answer a few more questions.
How do I strengthen my upper body?
You can strengthen your upper body by specifically training four basic movement categories: the horizontal and vertical push and the horizontal and vertical pull one to two times per week.
These four movement patterns will train every major muscle group in the upper body, including the chest, shoulders, back, and arms.
How many times a week should you work out your upper body?
You should work out your upper body at least twice per week. On each of those training days, you should include at least one compound pushing exercise and one compound pulling exercise.
Can I do upper body every day?
No, you should not train your upper body every day. I recommend that you rest at ~48 hours between training sessions that target the same exact muscle group.
A Full Upper Body Workout Routine
In this next section I will show you a sample full upper body workout routine you can do on a weekly basis.
Both workouts mix and match exercises that include weights, and exercises that are done with your bodyweight.
|Paused Bench Press||3||8|
Feel free to mix and match the exercises, but its important that you follow two rules.
- Make sure that you have proper technique when doing these exercises, and
- Always balance your pushing and pulling exercises
But if you want to maximize your overall fitness – you should have a well-balanced full body workout plan that also targets the core and the lower body.
The best exercises for the upper body will target the chest, shoulders, back, and arms in a compound manner.
It doesn’t matter if you have access to a gym or not, there are always great exercises to get the job done.
Did you like this list? Any exercises you would add to the top 5?
Comment below and let us know.
Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT
Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.