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10 Best Upper Body Workouts to Build Strength and Endurance

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Even though bodyweight exercises bring many of the same benefits as weight-bearing exercises, boosting your upper body strength and endurance requires a bit more than pushups and pull-ups. Sure, you can get effective exercise from those two alone, but sometimes it pays to mix things up a bit and focus on specific muscles.

It doesn’t matter if you’re paired with a personal trainer or cycling through workouts on your own, having a specific list of activities to target your upper body in a safe and effective way can contribute to a better fitness experience and increased strength in a shorter amount of time.

A woman doing an upper body workout using a cable machine
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The Most Effective Upper Body Workouts

When you’re trying to achieve proper form and build strength, you need to rely on exercises that target multiple muscle groups and require some level of core engagement. Depending on your current fitness level and desired goals, you may need to do more than just the basics. Even though we all respond to training differently, a few classic staples of an upper body workout that have been proven to work include:

Getting Started with Warm Ups

Perhaps the most underrated yet vital aspect of any workout program is the warmup. The purpose of any warmup is to get your body ready to move and help you transition from rest to exercise safely and smoothly. Jumping into intense exercises without properly preparing your muscles can lead to injury or muscle soreness, both of which are scenarios you want to avoid.

The nature of the warmup should be specific to the exercises you’re about to do. For an upper body routine, focus on dynamic stretching and arm circles in order to activate the muscles and get them ready for activity. Other options may include stretching bands, foam rollers, or light jogging, which are inherently helpful for providing stability and coordination, as well as boosting your mobility.

Wide Bent-Over Row

If you’re particularly troubled by posture issues from sitting in front of a computer all day or you struggle to maintain an upright position, the wide bent-over row is an effective exercise to strengthen your back and improve your overall posture. Often using an EZ bar or a pair of dumbbells, the wide bent-over row will target several muscle groups in your upper body while still providing an element of core engagement for stability.

The starting position involves keeping your feet at hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, and back straight. Grip the bar or dumbbells with your palms facing toward you and row them up towards your chest in a controlled manner before lowering them back down to the starting position. Make sure to squeeze your shoulder muscles as you lift in order to maximize the effects of the exercise. You can do this 8-12 times per set for 3 sets initially, and increase as you go.

Callahan Press

The Callahan press is an advanced exercise for those who are already comfortable with the basics and looking to increase the intensity of their workout. Since it targets all three heads of the deltoid muscle – front, middle, and rear – it fully engages your entire shoulder muscle group instead of isolating one particular area.

The starting position is similar to the previous dumbbell exercise in terms of feet width and body posture. Start by holding dumbbells in each hand with palms facing inward, keeping your elbows at a 90-degree angle. Then, in a controlled motion, press the dumbbells towards each other, essentially connecting the two in the middle and keeping your arms raised at shoulder height the whole time. 

The next step is to fully raise the weights until your arms are straight and then slowly lower them back down to the 90-degree angle, making sure to keep your chest up the entire time. Finally, ensure that you rotate your palms outward before lowering the weights back down while continuing to compress your shoulder blades together in order to activate more muscle fibers. You can perform 8-12 reps per set for 3 sets.

Dumbbell Bench Press

This is perhaps one of the most common chest exercises out there, offering a more targeted approach to chest strengthening than regular push-ups, but without the need for a barbell. You can do this exercise with either one or two dumbbells, depending on your preference and comfort level. Not only can this form of training boost your chest muscles, but it can also help you build overall body strength and endurance.

Begin by lying flat on your back on a bench with your feet lying fully on the ground and your head, shoulders, and glutes in contact with the bench. Grip the weights and hold them at shoulder height – or slightly higher – with your palms facing outward. Then, press the weights simultaneously up towards the ceiling until your elbows are almost completely extended before lowering them back down to starting position.

As your arms move up and down, make sure to keep your chin tucked in and your core engaged. You can vary the number of reps depending on how much you can handle, but start with 10-12 reps per set for 3 sets. Once you get comfortable with the exercise, you can move on to heavier weights to challenge your muscles further.

Chest Flies

The chest fly is a terrific way to target the chest muscles, but it also requires a level of stability and core engagement that will help you get the most out of the exercise. You can perform this activity with a pair of dumbbells or even a cable machine, with the former offering a bit more range of motion.

To begin, lie flat on your back on a bench and hold the dumbbells in each hand with your palms facing each other. Then, keeping your elbows slightly bent, extend both arms outwards and away from you until they are parallel to the ground. Aim for a controlled motion throughout the entire exercise as this helps ensure that you’re engaging more muscle fibers in the chest area.

Once your arms are fully extended, slowly bring them back towards your chest, mimicking a clapping motion. Make sure to squeeze your chest muscles as you bring the weights back in and aim for 10-12 reps per set for 3 sets initially. You may even opt for some variations such as incline or decline presses depending on your level of fitness and desired goals.

Lat Pulls With Band

Relying on a resistance band will help you target the latissimus dorsi muscle group, which is responsible for giving your upper body a V-shape. This large, triangular muscle spans across your back and is especially important for stabilizing and strengthening the core. When you perform a lat pull with a band, you’re also helping to correct any posture issues that may have been caused by years of sitting or slouching.

The starting position involves standing with feet shoulder-width apart and taking one end of the band in each hand while keeping it slightly taut. Pull the band towards you by squeezing your shoulder blades together, then slowly release it back to the starting position in a steady motion. Make sure to keep your back straight and head up throughout the entire exercise and aim for 10-15 reps per set for 3 sets.

While this is a common way to go about it, you can perform this as a compound exercise by doing a row after the pull. This involves keeping your arms raised and elbows slightly bent while rowing the band towards your chest/abdomen, then releasing it back to the initial position. This variation will help you get a deeper stretch of your lats as well as engage more muscles in the process.

Reverse Fly on Bench

Another staple in deltoid exercises, the reverse fly on a bench is a fantastic way to strengthen your upper body while helping to correct any shoulder posture issues that may have developed over time. All you need for this exercise is a pair of dumbbells and a flat bench, with the latter offering a more stable platform for your body and positioning.

Begin by sitting on the bench with your feet firmly planted on the ground, back straight and chin tucked in. Then, hold the dumbbells with your palms facing each other and raise them up to shoulder height – or slightly higher if you’re comfortable – before slowly releasing them to their lowermost positions. Make sure to keep your elbows slightly bent throughout the entire motion in order to avoid any friction or discomfort of the joint.

Also, be sure to engage your core and press your shoulder blades together at the highest point of the motion in order to engage the rear deltoids and upper back muscles. You can perform 10-15 reps per set for 3 sets, increasing the number of repetitions as your strength and endurance improve.

Tower Dip

Oftentimes seen as a fundamental exercise in the upper body workout routine, the tower dip is a great way to strengthen and tone your triceps, chest muscles, and shoulders in an effective manner. This exercise requires some basic equipment such as a pair of dipping bars or a stable bench with a dip station that you can hold on to as you perform the essential movements.

The starting position involves standing in front of the bars and gripping them firmly with your hands, keeping them slightly bent at the elbow. Then, while keeping your core engaged, raise your body up and down using the strength of your triceps, making sure to keep the motion controlled throughout.

Given the nature of the movement pattern, this exercise requires a lot of balanced control and stability, so make sure to keep your chest lifted and back straight throughout the entire exercise. Perform 12-14 reps per set for 4 sets and increase the number of repetitions as you become more acquainted with the general requirements.

Skull Crusher Press

This exercise might sound intimidating at first, but it’s actually one of the best exercises to build triceps strength. It requires a bit of upper-body coordination, core stability, and balance in order to achieve maximum performance. Since many of the training programs involve the biceps and their associated muscles, this exercise will help you build strength in an effective manner.

You’ll need a pair of dumbbells or a larger barbell to perform the skull crusher press – the neutral position involves lying flat on your back on a bench, with your feet firmly placed on the ground. Grip each end of the dumbbell or the barbell and raise it up to shoulder level before slowly lowering them down behind your head until your elbows are fully bent.

Make sure to keep your back straight throughout the entire motion and focus on squeezing your triceps as you move up and down, aiming for 10-12 reps per set for 3 sets. You may also opt to use a larger barbell with an EZ curl bar attachment at the end, which allows you to keep your grip and form in check while making sure that your elbows stay close to your head.

Triceps Kickbacks

Offering a solid foundation for any upper-body workout routine, triceps kickbacks effectively target the muscles in your arm while engaging your lats at the same time. They’re not too difficult to learn and can be done in the comfort of your own home, using a pair of dumbbells or even a resistance band.

To start, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in the knees while holding the dumbbells or band with both hands. Bend forward at the waist and keep your back straight, with your arms at a 90-degree angle while keeping them close to your sides. Slowly extend one arm at a time in a steady motion until it’s parallel to the floor, squeezing your triceps and shoulder blades as you go.

Once you’ve reached the highest point in the motion at the very back, slowly return to the stable position at the beginning and repeat with your other arm. You can do 10-12 reps per set for 4 sets, focusing on keeping a steady rhythm throughout and making sure to keep your core tight while you move.

Alternating Biceps Curl

While the conventional bicep curl is considered one of the most popular moves among gym-goers, the alternating variety brings more challenge and intensity to your workout. It requires a lot of focus and control from your upper body in order to achieve the desired results, as well as balance since you’ll be switching between arms throughout the exercise.

When you’re engaging both arms at the same time, you’re doubling the amount of weight that your biceps and tendons are supporting, which makes them much more prone to injury if you don’t take proper precautions. As such, it’s important to maintain a steady rhythm and use light weights when starting out – slowly increase the intensity as you become more experienced with this type of curl.

The starting point for the exercise requires you to hold a pair of dumbbells at your side with your palms facing forward. While keeping your elbows close to your body, curl one arm up towards shoulder level before slowly releasing and then repeating the motion with the other arm. You can perform 10-12 reps per set for 4 sets, increasing the weight as necessary.

Benefits of Exercising Your Upper Body

While exercising your entire body is critical for overall health, focusing on the upper portion of it can provide some unique benefits that can make a real difference in your everyday life. Sure, there’s the whole emphasis on not skipping leg day – but with an upper body workout, you can reap a number of positive effects on the way you feel and look.

Helps Improve Posture

Maybe not the essential point of a body strength training exercise but certainly no less important, improving one’s posture can have a dramatic effect on the way we come across to others in our daily lives. Performing exercises that target the muscles in your upper body will help promote an upright position, giving off a more confident look and enhancing your general appearance.

Maximizes Your Workout

Focusing on specific muscle groups when working out can often result in burning body fat more efficiently and quickly. This is especially true for your upper body, since the amount of muscle mass you have there can go a long way in helping build endurance and strength – all while encouraging an increased heart rate which helps burn calories faster. When you combine these benefits with a diet that complements your workout, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your fitness goals.

Boosts Your Metabolism

Speaking of a balanced diet, performing upper body exercises can also help you achieve a higher rate of metabolism. This is because the more muscle mass your body has, the higher its metabolic rate will become – resulting in burning calories at an increased speed even when you’re resting or sleeping. You’re essentially giving your body more energy to work with, which will help you stay active and healthy.

Promotes Heart Health

Every workout program should include cardiovascular exercises to help keep the heart healthy and strong – but with an upper body exercise regime, you can target your chest and back muscles in particular, which are important for protecting your heart rate. Additionally, if you’re targeting specific areas of your upper body such as your shoulders or triceps, this will also help promote better blood circulation throughout the entire body. With each exercise, your heart will become healthier and stronger.

Prevents Injuries

Incorporating a regimen of upper body exercises into your weekly routine can help increase the strength in your joints and muscles, making them less prone to injury. This is especially beneficial if you’re involved in physical activities that require a lot of arm movement – such as swimming or tennis – since these activities will help balance out the strain on your body, allowing you to perform better and avoid any potential problems. You don’t necessarily need a challenging workout for this – just simple movements that focus on strengthening your muscles can make a real difference.

A man preparing a meal for a better upper body workout
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Nutrition Tips for Building Impressive Upper Body Gains

When it comes to achieving an impressive upper body, it’s not just about hitting the gym and lifting weights. Nutrition plays a vital role in supporting muscle growth and recovery. Whether you’re an aspiring bodybuilder, athlete, or someone who simply wants a stronger upper body, understanding the right nutrition principles can help you reach your goals faster and more effectively.

Prioritize Protein Intake

Protein is the building block of muscle tissue, and it should be the cornerstone of your nutrition plan. Aim to consume adequate protein from various sources such as lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, legumes, and plant-based options like tofu and tempeh. Studies suggest that consuming 1.2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily is beneficial for muscle growth.

Spread Protein Consumption Throughout the Day

To maximize muscle protein synthesis, it’s crucial to distribute your protein intake evenly across meals. This ensures a steady supply of amino acids, which are the essential components for muscle repair and growth. Aim to have three to six protein-rich meals or snacks throughout the day.

Pre and Post-Workout Nutrition

Fueling your body before and after workouts is vital for optimizing muscle gains. Prior to exercise, have a protein-rich meal or snack to provide your muscles with a readily available source of amino acids during your workout. After your training session, focus on consuming a balanced meal that includes protein and carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores and support muscle recovery.

Incorporate Healthy Fats

While protein takes center stage, don’t overlook the importance of healthy fats. They play a significant role in hormone production, including testosterone, which is crucial for muscle growth. Include sources like avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil, and fatty fish in your diet.

Choose Complex Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are essential for energy during your workouts and are necessary for optimal muscle recovery. Opt for complex carbohydrates found in whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, as they provide sustained energy and essential nutrients.

Stay Hydrated

Proper hydration is often underestimated but is crucial for overall health and muscle function. Dehydration can lead to decreased performance and hinder muscle recovery. Make it a habit to drink water throughout the day, and consider consuming fluids with electrolytes during intense workouts.

A woman drinking water to stay hydrated
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Pay Attention to Micronutrients

In addition to macronutrients, micronutrients play a vital role in muscle function and overall health. Ensure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals through a balanced diet or supplements if necessary. Key nutrients for muscle growth include vitamin D, magnesium, calcium, and zinc.

Avoid Excessive Caloric Deficits

While it’s important to maintain a balanced diet, avoid extreme caloric deficits, especially if your goal is to build muscle. A slight caloric surplus (consuming more calories than your body burns) supports muscle growth without excessive fat gain.

Minimize Junk Food Consumption

While the occasional treat is acceptable, excessive consumption of sugary and processed foods provides empty calories and lacks essential nutrients. Focus on nutrient-dense foods that support your body’s needs.

Consistency is Key

Lastly, consistency is the foundation of success in both nutrition and fitness. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will your upper body gains. Stay committed to your nutrition plan and training regimen, and the results will follow.

At the end of the day, building an impressive upper body requires a holistic approach that includes not only a well-designed workout routine but also proper nutrition. By prioritizing protein intake, spreading it throughout the day, and paying attention to healthy fats and carbohydrates, you can fuel your muscles effectively.

Adequate hydration and micronutrient intake further support muscle function and recovery. As with any fitness journey, consistency, and dedication are crucial to achieving the upper body gains you desire. Combine these nutrition tips with an effective training plan, and you’ll be well on your way to a stronger, more muscular upper body. 

Frequently Asked Questions:

Can you train upper body 4 times a week?

Yes, it is possible to train your upper body 4 times a week. Just be sure to follow proper form and build up your strength over time so you don’t overdo it. It’s also important to give your body adequate rest in between workouts – at least one full day of recovery before starting all over again. This will help keep you from experiencing any potential injuries or overuse of your muscles.

How long should workout last?

Depending on the type and intensity of your workout, you can expect to spend anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour each session. If you are just starting out with upper body exercises, it’s recommended that you start off slow and gradually increase the time as your strength and endurance develop. Remember to keep track of your progress so you know when it’s time to take a break or switch up your routine.

How to increase arm size?

Focusing on training that targets the upper portion of your body can help you build muscle in your arms. The best way to increase arm size is by doing a combination of strength and endurance exercises that focus on the biceps, triceps, shoulders, chest, and back muscles. Make sure to use light weights when starting out and increase as needed – always paying attention to proper form throughout each exercise.

Why is my chest not building muscle?

There may be a number of reasons why your chest isn’t building muscle. Make sure you’re doing the exercises correctly and in the right order – chest exercises should come after any back or abdominal exercises you do. Additionally, you need to avoid overtraining to allow enough time for rest between each session. Aim to take 2-3 rest days a week so your muscles have enough time to recover and rebuild. Finally, consider adding more challenging exercises such as dips or incline presses to really target the chest area.

Is it OK to only workout the upper body?

No, it is not OK to only work out the upper body. While focusing on the upper body can help build strength and muscle in that area, neglecting the lower body can lead to imbalances, potential injuries, and an incomplete fitness routine.

A well-rounded workout program should include exercises for all major muscle groups, including the legs, core, and back. Neglecting the lower body can result in weaker legs, hamstrings, and glutes, which can hinder overall strength and stability.

Moreover, a balanced workout routine provides numerous benefits, such as improved posture, increased metabolism, and enhanced athletic performance. Incorporating lower body exercises helps in burning more calories and developing functional strength.

To achieve overall fitness and avoid imbalances, it is essential to engage in a comprehensive workout program that targets all major muscle groups. By doing so, you will not only improve your physique but also support your long-term health and well-being.

About

Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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