While lower body work is often a majority of most athletes’ training volume, the upper body ranks of similar importance. There is a great variety of muscles in the upper body, each serving a purpose (or several) and deserving of attention in the gym—which means doing much more than vanity-weight bicep curls in the squat rack.
The three exercises below are worthy staples in any program.
The pull-up works a wide variety of muscles, including our latissimus dorsi and trapezius, which combine to make up much of the bulk of our back. Also targeted are the biceps and posterior deltoids (rear shoulders).
The pull-up build back width, grip strength, and better posture.
To perform the pull-up well, hold tension in the core and above. Begin the movement with scapular retraction, and aim for your chest or clavicle to reach the bar—not for your chin to rise above the bar (if you cannot achieve contact, this remains the desired path). A wider grip may activate your back more, while a narrower range involves more arm. Controlling the wrist angle also influences the movement: a supinated grip hammers the biceps; a pronated grip focuses on the back; and a neutral grip, depending on width, falls somewhere in between.
Alternatives include pull-up negatives, band- or machine-assisted pullups, and inverted rows.
Dips are a fun and functional alternative to iconic chest exercise, the bench press, which remains the current staple for upper body strength. Dips are just as effective.
A dip works the whole chest, as well as the triceps—the largest muscle of the arm—and the anterior deltoid (front shoulder). Thus, combined with the pull-up, these two exercises alone work the overwhelming majority of muscles in the upper body, including your core. (Try them as an antagonist superset!)
To perform a dip, you want parallel bars roughly shoulder-width apart. Descend with control until your upper arm reaches parallel to the floor—do not drop lower than this, as it places stress on the shoulder joint. Push upward until your arms are straight. Emphasizing the bottom of the rep will hit the chest, while triceps take over in the top half.
Alternatives include dip negatives and band- or machine-assisted dips.
The Overhead Press is a truly classic compound movement blasts the shoulders and traps while demanding tremendous stability throughout your entire core, including your lower back. The chest, traps, and triceps are also involved.
To perform the overhead press, begin with a barbell resting in your grip just above the top of your chest. Keeping your chin tucked, press the bar straight up and above your head until your arms are straight. Your hands should be wider than your shoulders, which should remain pinned “down and back.” The weight should be over your hips, and your torso should be rigid and braced.
If a barbell feels too heavy or unstable, start with lighter dumbbells and work your way up. If you have to bend your legs or your back to get the bar up, it’s too heavy. You can also strengthen your upper back and shoulder muscles with wide-grip dead hangs and farmers’ carries. This will develop the stability needed to safely perform overhead movements.