How and when you incorporate these exercises into your upper body training programme is up to you - although it’s best to focus on one muscle group (chest, arms, shoulders, back) for each workout.
Top exercises for your upper body
Barbell bench press
One of the best strength training exercises for the upper body, the bench press works the entire chest and is by far the most demanding exercise for this muscle group. If you’ve never bench pressed, it’s a good idea to start practising with an olympic bar, which weighs 20kg or 45lb.
How to perform: Simply lie down on the bench, make sure your feet are flat on the floor, squeeze your shoulder blades, grab the bar, pull it down to your chest, then push it back up and re-rack.
Dumbbell bench press
You may find it easier to perform a full range of motion with the dumbbell bench press version.
How to perform: The same rules apply as the bench press.
Chest press machine
The chest press machine can be a safer option for people who've experienced shoulder injuries, and you can adjust the position to minimise any discomfort.
How to perform: Adjust the seat and weight to an appropriate height. Grab the handles with your palms facing forward and the back of your hands just touching your chest. Push the handles forward but avoid locking out your elbows. Arch your back slightly, then return to the starting position and repeat. Do not perform this movement with your feet in the air or while slouching – and reduce the weight if you feel too much tension in your shoulders.
Dips (assisted, bodyweight, or with extra weight)
This is another excellent exercise for upper body strength training, targeting your chest and triceps.
How to perform: Depending on your experience, you may need to perform this with some assistance weight. This involves counterbalance weights to reduce the overall load (the lower the counterbalance weight, the greater the load).
You may need to adjust the handles to the triceps position (close grip) or the standard position (normal grip). Grabbing the handles, move your lower legs up so that they are almost parallel to the ground, and move your torso slightly forward while keeping your back straight. Move upwards until your arms are straight, ensuring your torso is still slightly forward and your shoulders are kept back. Return to the starting position and repeat the movement for more reps.
Bicep curls with a barbell, dumbbell or cables
This is one of the top exercises for overall bicep growth.
How to perform: Simply grab a bar (with or without plates), dumbbell, or a cable bar connected to a cable machine. Stand up straight, move your shoulders and elbows back, and curl the weight upwards until you can feel the squeeze in your biceps. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Another top exercise to include in your upper body strength training workout, hammer curls work the brachialis under your biceps and the brachioradialis muscle in the centre of your forearm and upper arm. Grab two dumbbells with your palms facing each other, stand up straight, then raise the dumbbells from hip to shoulder level by flexing your elbows. Return to the starting position and repeat for more reps, or move one arm at a time if you prefer.
Close-grip bench press
This follows the same rules as the bench press, only you’ll need to use a lower weight and a closer grip. Many people who do this exercise also use a slightly smaller range of motion by starting and finishing with the bar slightly further from the chest, to keep more tension on the triceps.
Ez bar skullcrushers
Don’t be put off by the name! Skullcrushers are one of the best tricep exercises you can do – because they isolate the muscle so you don’t have to work the chest simultaneously.
How to perform: Find an EZ bar, add the desired weight, lie down ona flat bench and hold the bar (medium grip) above your chest, extending your arms to a 45-degree angle from the floor. Move your forearms backwards until you feel your tricep muscles contract, and keep your upper arms and elbows still throughout. Return the bar to the starting position and repeat the exercise for more reps.
The king of all mass-building exercises, the deadlift is essential for building mass in your lower back and glutes. Many people are able to lift considerably more weight with this exercise than the squats, although it’s important to start light so you can learn to deadlift correctly.
How to perform:
Find an Olympic sized bar and add the desired weight, or just use the bar if you prefer. Using an overhand grip, grab the bar with your hands under your shoulders and your back straight at a 45-degree angle compared to the floor. Lift the weight until your back is straight (avoid moving backwards, as this can increase your risk of injury), then return to the starting position and repeat.
This is one of the best upper body weight training exercises targeting the upper back.
How to perform:
Select your desired weight, put your feet on the foot plates and make sure your torso is at a 90-degree angle from your legs. Pull the cable until your back is slightly arched and you can feel the tension on your lats, then return to the starting position and repeat.
Wide-grip lat pulldowns
Another excellent mass builder for your upper back.
How to perform: Adjust the machine's knee pad so that it's appropriate for your height and that your upper legs can remain fixed throughout the movement. Grab the ends of the lat bar with each hand and bring your torso back by about 30 degrees. As you exhale, pull the bar down until it touches your chest, keeping your upper torso still so you feel the squeeze in your upper back muscles. Return to the starting position and repeat for more reps. Compared to other back exercises, you might want to use significantly less weight for this movement in order to maintain good form.
Shoulders and traps:
Dumbbell shoulder press
This is an essential exercise for shoulder growth.
How to perform: Adjust your bench to the highest height, find two dumbbells, and sit with your torso straight. Start by raising the dumbbells so that they’re just above your shoulders, then move them upwards until your arms are straight. Return to the starting position and repeat for more reps - and make sure you keep your back straight throughout the movement.
The dumbbell shoulder press can also be substituted with the barbell shoulder press.
This is a great mass builder for your shoulders and traps and can be easily incorporated into an upper body circuit training routine.
How to perform: Grab two dumbbells in each hand, stand up straight, and move your shoulders up while you exhale, contracting the muscle for a second before returning to the starting position and repeating. The golden rule of this exercise is that you should only move your shoulder muscles - your arms should remain stationary throughout.
The following exercises will help you develop your ab muscles.
Find a mat, then start by lying down with your arms and legs straight. Next, raise your legs so that your upper legs are at a 90-degree angle and your lower legs are at a 60-degree angle from the floor. Return to the starting position and repeat for more reps - you should feel your abs working in no time!
Position yourself as if you were about to do a push up - but this time, let your forearms carry your weight by bending your elbows. Keep your body as straight as possible and hold this position for 30 seconds. Take a 30-60 second break then repeat.