Whether you’re new to lifting or you’ve been in the “game” for years, there are no better foundational lifts for upper body size and strength than the bench press, military press, barbell row, and pull-up.
When setting up a training program, I like to include a horizontal push, vertical push, horizontal pull, and vertical pull because all major muscles are worked in the upper body.
And since there are many variations of these lifts, you’ll be able to change it up a bit without straying away from the basics.
By doing so, you’ll have plenty of options at your disposal in order to create a more muscular, stronger, impressive upper body.
The Bench Press
Ah, yes. Every bro’s dream is to read my articles and see the mention of bench pressing. Despite being regarded as a bro exercise, bench pressing is still one of the top upper body exercises you can do for muscle size and strength. And, it’s not only for males. Females can greatly benefit from bench pressing as well.
The bench press primarily targets the pecs, deltoids, and triceps.
There are two “styles” of bench pressing: the bodybuilder style (flat back, elbows flared), and powerlifting style (arched back, elbows slightly tucked). One isn’t really right or wrong in a straight forward sense, but each have their own applications.
If developing a more muscular chest is more your thing, the bodybuilding style could possibly be of more benefit. If lifting the most amount of weight possible is your end goal, then the arched-back style seen in powerlifting would be better.
The good news is that you can incorporate both styles for the best gains possible. Many coaches will say that you should never bench with a flat back. While I agree for the most part, I think if your shoulder’s are healthy and you don’t have any problems with them, then you could utilize more bodybuilding type benching.
The fact is, the powerlifting style of benching isn’t great for building a big muscular chest. But that’s not the goal of powerlifting either. We generally want to keep our shoulder blades together when we bench, which will help to stabilize the weight and make the pressing motion safer.
I would suggest using both styles in your training. During hypertrophy phases you can use the bodybuilding style to promote growth. Then, during strength phases you can benefit from the powerlifting style which will allow you to press more weight and get stronger.
My top variations are:
- Incline Bench
- Close grip
- Spoto Presses
- Paused Benches
- Wide grip
All of these can be used during hypertrophy (muscle growth) phases, or during strength phases. The main distinction will be in the application of each lift.
There’s something bad*** about hoisting weight over your head. Standing military presses (aka overhead presses) are incredibly effective for developing the muscles of the shoulders. Overhead pressing is phenomenal for size and strength, and thus makes the top four exercises you should be including in your own training.
You’ll be using your deltoids, triceps and clavicular head of the pecs to press the weight overhead.
To overhead press safely and efficiently, you’ll be required to engage the core and legs to help stabilize your entire body. You want to keep your sternum up and bar close to the mid-line of the body the entire time to ensure an efficient pressing motion. Don’t let the bar drift away from your body on the way up. Instead, think about trying to lightly graze your nose on the way up (don’t actually hit your nose though 😉 ).
A good starting hand placement is right about shoulder width. The idea is to make sure your forearms are perpendicular to the ground at all times during the press.
Other variations include:
- Wide grip
- Neutral grip
- Push presses
To build a strong and muscular upper body, we’ve got to give the backside of our body some love too. Barbell rows are at the top of my list for added size and strength to the entire back musculature.
Pulling exercises like rows are not only great for building muscle and strength, but they’re awesome for improving one’s posture. Many people tend to have rounded shoulders. Doing plenty of back work with help improve posture and reduce the number of injuries you’ll encounter.
If I could only pick one exercise to do for the back it would be the barbell row. You can see in the photo above that just about your entire back is worked, and you even get a little biceps action in there as well.
The best part about barbell rows is they’re easy to learn and can be loaded up based on experience level and individual goals. This is a staple exercise in my training programs as well as every online coaching client of mine as well.
When performing barbell rows, you also have to recruit the hamstrings and abdominals as stabilizers so there’s an added benefit to doing these. This makes barbell rows highly transferable to deadlifts because of the similar positions required to perform the lift. If you lose tightness in your midsection your back will round and you’ll be more susceptible to injury.
But, keep the abs tight and your back slightly arched and you’ll gain all the benefits of this exercise.
Some variations I like include:
- T-bar rows
- Underhand grip barbell rows
- Deadstop or rows from pins
- Neutral grip bent over rows
Lastly we have our vertical pull. Pull-ups are incredibly effective at targeting the muscles of the back. Pretty much anyone I know with an impressive back crushes pull-ups.
These are in my opinion, one of the toughest bodyweight exercises you can do, but also one of the most effective. The great thing about this exercise is that you can regress if bodyweight pull-ups are too tough. Simply use a band around your foot, or an assisted pull-up machine to build your reps. Just make sure you start from a dead hang and drive your chest up to the bar.
If bodyweight pull-ups are too easy on the other hand, you can add weight around your waist to make them more challenging.
Pull-ups are a must, especially if you sit the majority of the day and your posture suffers as a result. These will help to strengthen the muscles of the posterior upper body.
Some variations I like include:
- wide grip
- chin up (underhand grip)
- neutral grip
*Bonus Arm Builders*
I don’t know anyone that doesn’t care about the shape of their arms. Men usually want bigger, more muscular pipes, and women want firm and toned arms.
If this is the case, include barbell curls and overhead triceps extensions for more focused arm work.
With the bicep curl, you’ll primarily be working the long and short head of your biceps, as well as the forearms (brachioradialis). The barbell curl is a phenomenal exercise for developing a nice pair of guns.
The overhead triceps extension is a fantastic way to work the long head of the triceps. The long head is most responsible for overall size of the triceps so it’s a good idea to include an overhead variation.
Variations for the barbell curl include:
- wide grip curl
- narrow grip curl
- reverse grip curl
- drag curls
- neutral grip
- ez bar curls
Some variations of overhead tricep movements include:
- Cable overhead extensions
- dumbbell overhead extensions
- skullcrusher (not overhead but work the long head as well)
Putting It All Together
There are tons of variances in the type of program you could put together using the exercises I’ve mentioned. Here’s a sample upper body day that you can try today:
A1) Barbell Bench Press
A2) Barbell Bent Over Row
B1) Military Press
B2) Overhand Pull-up (use assistance if necessary)
C1) Barbell Overhead Triceps Extension (use false grip)
C2) Barbell Curl
If your primary goal is strength, perform 4-6 reps for A1-B2, and around 8 reps for C1/C2. For strength gains, use between 75-90% of your 1 rep max. In a 4 week cycle, do 3-4 sets of each lift every workout, increasing the weight by 5-10 pounds, or use percentages.
If you’re more interested in size gains, shoot for 6-12 reps on all exercises with about 60-75% of your 1 rep max. In a 4 week cycle, increase the total volume on a weekly basis. You can do this by adding an extra set or more weight to the bar each time you do this workout.
You can superset each pairing until you complete all sets for each exercise if you’d like, or you can do all of your pressing movements first and pulling movements second, or vice versa.