While lower body work is often a majority of most athletes’ training volume, the upper body is 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 more than vanity-weight bicep curls in the squat rack.
The three exercises below are worthy staples in virtually any program. In addition to your current routine, perform each one for 3 to 5 sets of 5 to 15 reps once a week to develop functional, all-over upper body strength.
The pull-up works a wide variety of muscles, including our latissimus dorsi and trapezius (upper back), as well as our biceps and posterior deltoids (rear shoulders). It’s also a great way to build grip strength and improve posture.
To perform the pull-up well, hold minimal tension below the core, begin the movement with scapular retraction, and aim for your chest or clavicle to reach the bar rather than for your chin to rise above the bar (even if you cannot achieve content, this is the desired path). A wider grip may activate your back more, while a narrower range involves more biceps. 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.
If you can’t do a pull-up, train for strength in the upper back and arms via lat pulldowns and bent over rows. Then try performing pull-up negatives, band- or machine-assisted pullups, and inverted rows.
If pull-ups become easy for you—you can perform five sets of 8-10 quality reps—add a challenge by doing them on rings, or adding minor weight (start with a 10 pound dumbbell or plate).
Dips are a fun and functional alternative to iconic chest exercise, the bench press, which remains the current staple for upper body strength. It’s 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—there’s no need to drop lower than this, as it places undue stress on the shoulder joint. From there, push upward until your arms are straight. Focusing on the bottom of the rep will hit the chest hard, while triceps take over in the top half, with your shoulders assisting throughout.
If you can’t do a dip, train for strength in the chest and triceps via bench press and skull crushers or tricep dips on a bench. You may also try dip negatives and band- or machine-assisted dips.
If dips feel easy for you—that is, you can perform five sets of 10-12 quality reps—add a challenge by doing them on rings, or adding minor weight (start with a 10 pound dumbbell or plate).
If pullups and dips work almost every muscle in the upper body, the Overhead Press fills any voids. Known affectionately as the OHP, this compound movement blasts the shoulders and traps while demanding stability throughout your entire core, including your lower back. The chest 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 down (not shrugged up). 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.
Moreover, mastering the OHP is a gateway to the Clean and Jerk, a powerful Olympic lift that many athletes across sports include in their training.