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Home » OSL Blog » Best Upper Body Workout & Exercises

Best Upper Body Workout & Exercises

May 3, 2019

Do you feel like you’ve hit a plateau in your workouts?

Tired of the same old routine and ready to shake it up?

If so, then you’ve come to the right place!

Today we are going to show you some of the best upper body workouts that can work for beginners as well as seasoned bodybuilders. If you are looking for some of the best upper body workouts to really push your chest, arms, back, and shoulders, keep reading.

Most of these upper body exercises can be done at home if you have some basic equipment:

  • Pull up/Chin up bar
  • Barbell with weights
  • Dumbbells
  • Weight bench (ideally, adjustable to use for different exercises)
  • Waist weight belt (optional for added challenge)

This list of upper body exercises are not just for men to add to their workout routine. Women can do any of the exercises as well. Make it a challenge at home or at the gym to see which sex can do best at each exercise!

Pull up

This simple upper body workout is a great alternative to weight lighting, or for a low impact day when you’ve gone really hard with your bodybuilding routine. The pull up works your back, arms, and shoulders.

Pull Up
Pull up is low impact workout which targets arms, shoulders, and back.

How to do it: Hold the pull up bar in an overhand grip with your hands at least shoulder width apart. Allow your body to hang straight under the bar. Engage your core and use your biceps to pull yourself up until your chest is level with the bar. Hold for a second before you lower yourself back down to the starting position. Do at least 10 pull ups with three sets, taking a 15 second break in between each set as needed.

Variation: To add difficulty and really challenge yourself, change your hand placement. The closer in you place your hands on the bar, the harder it will be to pull yourself up. You can also add a weight belt around your waist to ramp up the difficulty. Positioning your hands slightly wider than a shoulder width is the best position for building the upper lats and adding more width to the back. The closer the hand spacing, the more you will emphasize the bicep muscles over the back.  

Chin up

The chin up is another simple exercise that can be added to your low impact day to give your body a break from the weights. It works your arms, shoulders, chest, and back.

Chin up
Chin ups target shoulders, back, arms, and chest.

How to do it: Grab the chin up bar with an underhand grip with your hands shoulder width apart. Engage your core and use your arm strength to pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Make sure your elbows are tucked to your sides throughout the exercise. Pause at the top, and then lower your body back down until your arms are straight. Do at least eight of these per set for a total of three sets.

Take a 15-25 second break in between sets as needed. The under hand grip will emphasize more of the lower lat muscles over the upper lats. To feel the lower lats even more, try angling the upper body back as you pull your body up to the bar. Mr. Olympia Samir Bannout likes doing the chin-up exercise like this using a V bar handle and angling the upper body until it is horizontal to the bar.

Variation: Like the push up, you can change your hand placement and put them closer together on the bar to increase the difficulty. A waist belt with added weight would add to the challenge of each chin up.

Bent Over Row

This upper body workout can be done with dumbbells or a barbell. It works the back, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Bent over row
Bent over rows activate your back, shoulders, arms, and chest.

How to do it: Stand with your feet no further than hip width apart. Hold the dumbbells or barbell in an overhand grip so that your hands are just outside your legs.

Bend slightly at the knees and then bend forward, making sure to keep your shoulder blades back and your lower back arched and flexed. Engage your core so you keep your back straight. Using the barbell, start below your knee and in a smooth motion, and leading with your elbows, bring the weight up to your upper abdominals. Keep the elbows held wide to emphasize the lat muscles in your upper back.

Using the dumbbells, start just below the knee with the dumbbells at your sides and your palms facing in. Keep your head up and your back straight, lift the dumbbells to your sides. Hold for a second before you lower the weight back down to the starting position. Get in at least 10 reps per set and try for three sets. Take a 60 second break if needed between sets.

Variation:  You can further challenge yourself on the bent over row by reversing your grip and holding the bar in an underhand grip instead of overhead. Are you up for the challenge?

Dumbbell Shrug

This is one of the best upper body exercises because you can control the weight used to really challenge and motivate yourself to get to the next level. Since you only need dumbbells to complete this exercise, you can do it at the gym, at home, or anywhere you have the time to get in a workout. Start out with a slightly lower dumbbell weight until you get the form down and then move up to really work your arms, shoulders, chest, and back.

Dumbbell shrug
Dumbbell shrugs can be done at home or the gym to activate the upper body.

How to do it: Stand tall and hold the dumbbells at your sides, palms facing each other. Bend slightly in a squat position until the dumbbells are level with your knees. In an explosive motion, propel yourself upward and shrug your shoulders and back hard at the top. Move back into the starting position to complete your reps. Do 10 reps and three sets with the lighter weights. Once you level up, do eight reps per set. Take a 15 – 30 second break in between each set as needed.

(Note: I’m not sure what exercise they are describing here but this is not a Dumbbell Shrug. It sounds more like a Squat Jump?)

Diamond Press Up

This exercise does not require any equipment and is used to work the back, arms, and shoulders. It is more challenging than a push up, so let’s see how many you can do!

Diamond Push up
Diamond push ups are a much more challenging variation of standard ones.

How to do it: Start with your toes and hands on the floor or mat under you. Your body should be straight from toes to shoulders, and your arms should be straight. Put your hands close enough together that you are able to form a diamond shape with your thumbs and index fingers. Keep your hips up and make sure to engage your core so your back stays straight. Lower yourself down towards the floor, bending at the elbow. Push up from the floor until you’ve reached the starting position. See if you can do 10 reps and at least three sets. If you need a break between sets, take no more than 30 seconds before you start your next set. To make the exercise more difficult, point the elbows out to stress the triceps muscles more.

Dips

This is one of the best upper body workouts for men that uses your own body weight to complete the exercise. You can use a dip station or bars at the gym, or a sturdy chair or weight bench if you’re doing this at home.

Dips
Dips use body weight to maximize impact on your upper body.

How to do it: If you are using a dip station or bars, grab the bars so that your palms are facing in and your arms are straight. Cross your ankles and make sure you are keeping your elbows tucked to your sides throughout the exercise.

If you are using a bench or chair, sit with your back to the bench and grab the edge with your hands. Your palms should be on the top of the bench and your fingers on the bottom. Put your feet together with your backside level with the bench or chair.

Make sure you stop so that your butt does not touch the ground while doing the exercise. Slowly lower your body down until your elbows are at a 90° angle. Push yourself back up to the starting position and repeat. Do 10-15 reps per set and get in at least three sets. Take a 30 – 45 second rest between sets if needed.

Variation: To increase the challenge of this exercise, you can try a seated dip machine. If you go this route, make sure you up the weight you are using to really work out those triceps! If you want to work the chest more than the triceps when doing the traditional dip exercise, keep the elbows pointed out to the sides and bend forward at the waist instead of keeping the upper body straight.

Incline Dumbbell Press

The incline dumbbell press is one of the best upper body workouts for the upper chest. Although this is primarily a chest exercise, it also includes the front deltoids and triceps during the movement. You will need dumbbells and an incline bench set at a 30 degree angle for best results.

Incline Dumbbell Press
Incline dumbbell press is a great exercise to primarily target the chest.

How to do it: Sit down and lay back on the incline bench with dumbbells in hand with your palms facing forward and the dumbbells at your shoulders. In a smooth motion, press the dumbbells overhead until your arms are straight. Hold at the top for a second, and then lower the dumbbells back down again to the starting position. Repeat for at least 10 reps per set with a total of at least three sets. Take a 30-60 second break if needed between sets.

Variation: Run the rack! Start the first set with the heaviest weight you can, and then progress down to a lower weight with each set. Get those muscles burning!

Dumbbell Triceps Extension

This exercise is the best upper body workout on our list that isolates the tricep muscle.

How to do it: Stand up straight or sit down on a bench holding a dumbbell in both hands. Engage your core and keep your elbows pointed up throughout the exercise. Begin by slowly lowering the weight down behind the head. Hold for a second and then move back to the start position. Repeat for 10 reps and go for at least three sets. Take a break of no more than 30 seconds between sets if needed.

Dumbbell tricep extension
Dumbbell triceps extension is the top one exercise to isolate triceps.

Variation: You can also try this exercise lying down on a bench. Hold your arms straight out as you lay on the bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Keep your upper arms in place while you bend your elbow to lower the weights to the side of your head. Hold for a second and then move back to the starting position.

Tricep Dumbbell Kickback

This is another tricep exercise that bodybuilder Sergio Oliva Jr. uses as part of his EPIC Upper Body Workout. Make sure you check out the video so you can see this and other exercises he does to get killer upper body strength.

Triceps dumbbell kickbacks
Triceps dumbbell kickback is another great exercise to target triceps.

How to do it: Stand with a dumbbell in one hand and bend at the waist so you can rest your free hand on a bench or other flat surface for stability. Start with your elbow bent at a 90° angle and raise the dumbbell back until your arm is straight behind you. Lower back to the starting position and repeat. Do at least 12 reps and three sets, with a 30 second break in between as needed. For a greater peak contraction of the triceps muscles at the completion of the exercise, try raising the dumbbells at a 45 degree angle instead of straight out horizontally.

Variation: You can also try this kickback exercise in plank position rather than using a bench or flat surface for support. If you choose to do this variation, be sure to keep your core engaged and your back flat throughout the exercise to keep yourself stabilized and avoid injury.

Barbell Bicep Curl

Try this upper body workout to exercise your back, shoulders, and arms. You just need a barbell with the heaviest weight you can muster to complete your sets.

Barbell bicep curl
Barbell curls isolate your biceps and target your shoulders, back, and arms.

How to do it: Stand with your feet hip width apart. Hold a barbell with your palms facing up. Starting with the barbell at your thighs, using a smooth and steady motion to raise up the barbell until the biceps muscles are fully contracted. Hold it there for a second before you lower back to the starting position. Repeat for 10 – 12 reps and do at least three sets of this exercise. Take a 15 – 30 second rest between sets if needed. For best results, be sure to keep the elbows glued to your sides and the chest held high throughout the exercise. This will place more emphasis on the biceps and keep the shoulder muscles out of the movement.

Dumbbell Bicep Curl

Use your back, shoulders, and arms to run the rack with this exercise. Really challenge yourself to start with the heaviest weight you can for the first set, and then progress down for each next set.

Dumbbell bicep curl
Dumbbell bicep curls activate your back, shoulders, and arms.

How to do it: Stand holding a dumbbell with palms facing up at hip level, with your feet hip width apart. Use your bicep muscle to raise up the dumbbells until they reach your shoulder. Pause, and then slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position. Repeat for 8 – 10 reps and go for at least three sets. If you need a break between sets, take up to 30 seconds before you begin your next set. For a greater peak contraction in the biceps, begin the exercise with the palms facing the thighs and slowly turn the wrist up as you curl the dumbbells.

Hammer Grip Dumbbell Bench Press

Work your arms and shoulders with this upper body exercise. This can be considered one of the best upper body workouts because you control the weight used to really get a punishing workout. Don’t be afraid to run the rack or use a heavier weight here.

How to do it: Lay down flat on a bench with a dumbbell in each hand. Bend your elbow so that the dumbbells are at your shoulder and your palms are facing each other. Press your feet into the floor while you drive the weights up until your arms are straight. Lower back down to the starting position and repeat. Get at least eight reps for three sets, and take a break of 15 seconds between sets if needed.

Seated Dumbbell Overhead Press

Just like the hammer grip dumbbell bench press, you can go as hard as you can with weight to really get one of the best upper body workouts.

How to do it: Sit on an incline bench set at a 30 – 56° angle. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your shoulders with your palms facing forward. Plant your feet on the floor and use your upper arm muscles to push the dumbbells straight up in the air. Lower them back down to the starting position. Get in 8 – 10 reps and go for at least three sets. Take a 15 second break if needed between each set. (Note – What muscle group is this exercise for? The shoulders or the chest?)

Landmine Press

For this exercise, you’ll focus on using the arm and shoulder muscles. Grab your barbell and just one weight for this one!

How to do it: If you are at the gym and have a landmine station available, load one end of the barbell into the station. If not, then you will need to wedge it into a corner. Put the weight on the other end of the barbell and secure it. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and hold the barbell at your shoulder. Press the barbell forward until your arm is straight and lower back to the starting position. Do at least 10 reps and three sets, taking a 15 second break in between sets if needed.

Lateral Raise

Work your arms, chest, and shoulders using dumbbells for this best upper body workout. Go with a lighter weight for this exercise so you can be sure to feel it in the muscle you are working.

Lateral Raise
Lateral raises can be performed using dumbbells or the cable machine.

How to do it: Stand tall with a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, palms facing each other. Keep a slight bend to the elbow, chest up, and engage your core throughout the exercise. Lift the dumbbells in a smooth motion until the arms are horizontal and level with your shoulders and your body is in a T shape. Lower the dumbbells back down to your sides and repeat. Do 10 – 12 reps and three sets, taking a 15 – 30 second break in between each set if needed.

Variation: You can vary this exercise by bringing the dumbbells down in front of the thighs instead of at the side of the legs and completing the same exercise as described above. Engage your core so that your back stays straight throughout.

Walk-out Plank Push ups

This upper body exercise uses no equipment and can be done anywhere and is great for women and men to target their chest, back, and triceps. OSL athlete Angelica Kathleen shows this exercise and more in her beach upper body workout video.

Walk out plank push ups
This plank variation will target your chest, back, and triceps.

How to do it: Start in a standing position and lower at the hip. Walk-out your hands until you reach a plank position and your hands are flat on the ground or mat shoulder width apart and your toes are planted on the ground. Proceed to do one push up and then walk your hands backwards until you reach your feet. Stand up and then repeat the exercise. Do at least 8 – 10 reps and three sets to feel the burn.

Variation: If you find the standard push up too hard to complete your reps and sets, you can do a modified push up. Instead of planting your toes to complete the push up, use your knees instead. Keep working at this exercise until you are able to do a full unmodified push up.

High-low Planks

This is another one of the best upper body exercises without equipment from Angelica’s video. Planks are difficult to do, and adding the additional high-low to the exercise really works the upper body!

high low planks
You’ll feel the muscle burn with this plank variation.

How to do it: You will start this exercise in high plank position. Your toes should be planted on the ground with your hands planted as well, and your body and arms straight. Keep your core engaged throughout the exercise to keep your body stabilized. Lower yourself down on your right elbow, and then your left elbow. Raise back up, right side first, until you are back at the starting position. Repeat for 5 reps on each side, for a total of 10 reps. Keep going until you’ve done three sets. Take a 30 second break between each set if needed.

We hope you enjoyed this list full of upper body workout routines. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our other list of exercises to make sure you are getting in a true full body workout routine!

What do you think is the best upper body workout to bring maximum results? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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