User Reviewed

How to Increase Upper Body Strength

Four Parts:Working Your Arms and ShouldersWorking Your ChestWorking Your Back and LatsMaking the Most of Your Workout

What's more rewarding than putting in long hours at the gym and getting a perfectly-sculpted upper body as your result? Men and women can both benefit from an intense upper body workout. While it's never a good idea to focus only on your upper body (as anyone who's heard the common gym rat advice "don't skip leg day" knows), targeting upper-body muscle groups during your routine workouts can help strengthen and tone your arms, chest, shoulders, and more!

Part 1
Working Your Arms and Shoulders

  1. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 1
    Do bicep curls. One of the most universally-known upper body exercises, the bicep curl is a simple, accessible exercise that works the inside part of your upper arm. To do this exercise, you'll need either a set of dumbbells (one-handed weights), a barbell (a larger two-handed weight), or something similar, like a bag of heavy groceries.
    • To do a bicep curl, stand up and grip your weight(s). Hold them at your waist or thighs with your palms facing forward. Keeping your elbows stationary and tucked at your sides, raise the weight(s) up near your chest or neck. Immediately lower the weight almost all the way back down (stopping just short of extending your arm completely), then repeat. Use slow, smooth motions throughout.
    • For best results, try doing three or four sets of curls. Aim for about 10-15 repetitions (or "reps") per set and take a short break in between each set (for beginners, up to a 90-second rest is fine).[1] Similar numbers of sets and repetitions are suitable for all of the exercises in this article, unless otherwise noted.
  2. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 2
    Do tricep extensions. While bicep exercises may be the go-tos for those looking to make aesthetic gains, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that the triceps are actually a more important, useful muscle group (and can even help you look and feel better when they're "buff.")[2] To work your triceps, try an exercise called the tricep extension, which can be done with a single dumbbell or a cable setup.
    • To do a tricep extension, start by standing and holding the weight just behind your head with your elbows bent at ninety degree angles. Slowly extend your arms to move the weight above your head, then lower it back to the starting position and repeat.
  3. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 3
    Add shoulder presses to your workout. Toned, powerful deltoids (shoulders) look great and even help you lift and carry heavy weights without hurting yourself. To pump up your shoulders, try shoulder presses. These versatile exercises are basically as simple as lifting a heavy weight over your head and can be performed standing up or sitting down with dumbbells, a barbell, a cable setup, or even a heavy object you happen to have around.
    • To do a shoulder press, stand or sit up so that your back is straight and grab your weight so that it's evenly balanced just over each shoulder. Using your shoulder muscles, push to lift the weight over your head with smooth, steady movements. Carefully lower the weight back down and repeat.
  4. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 4
    Don't forget forearm exercises. Though the big biceps, triceps, and deltoid muscle groups are the most noticeable ones in the arm, working the muscles in the forearms can have major benefits as well. Strong forearms give your hands powerful grip strength, making it easier to climb, perform pullups, and do other tasks that require you to grip hard. In addition, toned, muscular forearms can be the eye-catching "cherry on top" of a chiseled body you've been working hard for. To work your forearms out, try using an exercise called a wrist curl, which you can do with a set of dumbbells, a barbell, or a cable setup.
    • To do a wrist curl, sit at a bench or stand up straight and grab your weight in both hands with your palms facing forward. Let the weight hang down in front of you and curl the weight upward, keeping your arms still and using only your wrists. Squeeze your forearm muscles to raise the weight as high as it will go, then slowly lower it back down and repeat.
  5. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 5
    Do chin-ups. One versatile exercise that works your biceps, forearms, and shoulders (in addition to your lats, which we'll discuss in-depth below) is the chin-up. As its names suggests, the chin-up involves hanging from a bar and pulling yourself up to it so that your chin reaches the height of the bar. This exercise is simple but difficult to do—many people, especially women, lack the upper body strength to be able to do chin-ups, so it may be necessary to work at other exercises before you attempt this one.
    • To do a chin-up, find a sturdy horizontal bar that can easily support your weight. Grip the bar with your palms facing you and your hands spaced a little less than shoulder-width apart. Without shaking, twisting, or swinging, raise your chin up over the bar, then slowly let yourself down again and repeat.
    • You'll probably find that chin-ups are much more difficult for you than the exercises mentioned earlier. You don't have to aim for the 10-15 reps recommended above; instead, aim to do as many as you can without stopping, even if this is just a few.

Part 2
Working Your Chest

  1. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 6
    Try bench presses. For a large, strong chest, there are few exercises better than the bench press. Whether you're using free weights or an exercise machine, bench presses involve laying horizontally and pushing a heavy weight away from you. Note that if you are using free weights, you should strongly consider using a spotter — someone who stands over you while you exercise and helps you lift the weight back into place if it becomes too heavy for you. Though rare, bench press accidents where the weight falls onto the lifter's chest can potentially cause major injury or death.[3]
    • To do a bench press, simply lay down underneath a barbell at a sturdy bench with a barbell rack over it. Position yourself so that your arms and chest are slightly below the weight in the rack, then carefully lift it out of the rack so that it's aligned with your arms and chest. Lower the weight down so that it's just barely touching your chest, then push hard to bring it back up. Repeat as needed, making sure to replace the weight in the rack before you're too exhausted to lift it.
    • If you don't have a spotter, consider using a chest press machine. These machines usually allow you to perform virtually the same chest exercise with the benefit of built-in safety stops and an upright posture, making them much less risky to attempt alone.
  2. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 7
    Try chest flies. For a lower-risk alternative to bench presses, try flies. These exercises, which get their name from the fact that they mimic the flapping motion of a flying bird's wings, involve moving a set of weights in a half-circle arc in front of your chest using the muscles near your armpits. Flies can be done lying flat on your back with a set of dumbbells, sitting upright at an exercise machine, or even standing in front of a cable setup.
    • To do a dumbbell chest fly, lay horizontal on a bench with a weight in each hand. Hold the weight out to either side with your elbows bent slightly. Keeping your elbows motionless, use your chest muscles to bring the weights up over you until they meet in front of your chest. Slowly lower them back to your sides, keeping your elbows stationary throughout the exercise.
  3. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 8
    Use incline/decline benches to work the entire chest. Each side of the chest is mostly made up of one large, fan-shaped muscle called the pectoralis major.[4] Since this muscle is so large and wide, it's important to work every part of it evenly to promote optimal strength and balanced muscle growth. To hit the upper and lower parts of the chest, try doing bench presses at incline and decline benches, respectively.
    • An incline bench is one that's tipped up slightly from the horizontal bench press position. In other words, your head should be higher than your legs while you do the bench press.
    • By contrast, a decline bench is one that's tipped down slightly from the horizontal bench press position. In other words, your head should be lower than your legs.
  4. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 9
    Try pushups for a no-equipment workout. It's important to mention that you don't need any weightlifting equipment to get a strong chest. Pushups, one of the quintessential chest exercises, can be done almost anywhere and offer a great workout for the shoulders, abs, and triceps in addition to the chest (depending on the form you use for your pushups. Pushups come in many different variations — a few of the most common are listed below:
    • Basic pushup: Lay face-down on the floor with your palms against the floor and your arms tucked up by your sides. Push off of the floor with your arms, supporting yourself with the palms of your hands and the tips of your toes. Keep your body as straight as possible and your arms tucked near your sides while doing this. Lower yourself back to the floor and repeat.
    • "Easy" pushup: Done the same as basic pushups, but with the knees together and touching the floor.
    • Elevated pushups: Done the same as basic pushups, but with the feet propped on a chair or another piece of furniture to make the exercise more difficult.
    • Diamond pushups: Done the same as basic pushups, but with the hands positioned right next to each other beneath the center of your chest so that your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond.
    • One-arm pushups: Done the same as basic pushups, but with one arm tucked behind the back.
    • Clap pushups: Done the same as basic pushups, but push up hard enough to be able to clap in midair and return hands to original position.

Part 3
Working Your Back and Lats

  1. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 10
    Use pullups to build back and lat strength. One of the best exercises for strengthening your back and lats (the muscles along the side of your torso under your armpits) is the pullup. This exercise, which is similar to (but not the same as) the chin-ups described above, involves hanging from a bar and pulling yourself up to it so that your chest comes near it. In addition to the back and lats, pull ups can work your shoulders and arms as well, making them a great all-around upper body exercise.
    • To do a standard pullup, grip a sturdy horizontal bar with your palms facing away from you and your hands about shoulder-width apart. Without twisting, swinging your legs, bending your knees, or shuddering, pull your body up to the bar.[5] Ideally, your chest should get as near to the bar as possible — if possible, even touch it. Lower yourself back down to a "dead hang" and repeat.
    • Try changing the width of your grip to work different muscle groups. Wider grips minimize the contribution of the arm muscles, making your lats and back work harder.
  2. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 11
    Use pulldowns when pullups are too intense. Not everyone can do a pullup, and even fewer can do more than just a handful at a time. If you find pullups to be excessively difficult, you may want to try pulldowns. These exercises, which usually require an exercise machine or cable setup to do, involve pulling a weighted bar from an overhead position down to chest-level. Thus, they allow you to perform basically the same motion as is used for pullups, but with less resistance.
    • To do a pulldown, sit on a bench in front of a pulldown machine and grab the bar with a wide overhand grip. Lean back slightly and use your back and lats to pull the bar down to your chest. Slowly raise the bar back up and repeat. Don't bend at the hips or waist to assist in this exercise, as this can make it easier and may even lead to lower back pain.
  3. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 12
    Try rows for back strength. As their name suggests, rows involve mimicking the "pulling" motion used by someone who's rowing a boat. Row exercises come in many varieties and are usually done from a bench or while sitting. Below is an example of a dumbbell row exercise — seated row machines and cable setups are also common at gyms.
    • To do a dumbbell row, first, crouch over a bench and place your right palm and right knee on the bench to support yourself. Keeping your back straight, motionless, and parallel to the floor, grab a dumbbell in your left hand. Pull the weight straight up to the side of your chest using your back muscles (and not your arms). Don't let your upper torso swing or twist during this motion. Lower the weight back down and repeat. Mirror these movements for your right hand.
  4. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 13
    Try "overhead slam" exercises for an alternate lat workout. Believe it or not, it's possible to get a great lat workout with nothing more than a medicine ball. This exercise, which is appropriately called the overhead slam, involves repeatedly tossing a medicine ball at the floor with great force — almost as if you're dribbling a basketball as hard as humanly possible.
    • To do an overhead slam, start by holding a medicine ball out in front of you with both hands. Raise the ball over your head, fully extending your body as you do so. Bring the ball down fast and toss it into the ground in front of you as hard as you can. Catch the ball as it bounces back and repeat.[6]
  5. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 14
    Use deadlifts for lower back strength. One often-overlooked exercise that's vital for preventing injury is called the deadlift. When done correctly, this exercise strengthens the important muscles of the lower back, hips, and core. This makes it harder to hurt your lower back doing other exercises. Since back pain is the most common cause of job-related disability in the United States, this exercise can be a crucial part of almost anyone's workout.[7] However, the deadlift can be difficult for newcomers to perform with good form, so consider watching or working with and experienced weightlifter before attempting the exercise yourself and use low weights until you're a confident lifter.
    • To do a standard deadlift, first, place a weighted deadlift in front of you on the ground. Put your feet about shoulder-width apart with the balls of your feet under the bar. Squat down and grab the bar. Bend at your knees and hips, not your waist, as if you're sitting back into a chair. Keep your back straight. Grab the bar with one hand facing you and the other facing away. Your hands should be slightly more than shoulder-width apart so that your legs fit between them.
    • Next, lower your hips so that your thighs are parallel to the floor and your calves are pointing more or less up-and-down. Lift the weight by standing up, moving your hips and shoulders at the same rate and keeping your head up throughout the movement. Your back should not bend or arch at any point. Reverse the "standing up" motion to return the weight to the floor.

Part 4
Making the Most of Your Workout

  1. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 15
    Balance your workout with core and lower-body exercises. While an intense upper-body workout can make you look mighty muscular, it's a bad idea to focus only on your upper body. In addition to giving you a top-heavy, lopsided appearance, this can actually be unsafe. Neglecting your core and lower-body muscles can leave you injury-prone (especially for back injuries) by reducing your ability to maintain a strong, secure posture while you exercise.[8] Luckily, all you need to do to avoid this is to include plenty of core and lower-body exercises in your weekly workout! Below is a short list of great exercises for your abs, legs, and more.
  2. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 16
    Consider low-intensity exercises if you are at-risk for injury. People who have a history of exercise-related injury may want to avoid any of the exercises above if they put lots of strain on the injured body part. Of particular importance are the back and core muscles, which can cause lasting discomfort if injured. In these cases, substitute low-intensity exercises that put little stress on the affected body part but still work the desired muscles.
    • For instance, people who have had lower back problems should avoid exercises that compress or twist the spine (like, for instance, twisting situps with a weight held against the chest) which can put pressure on the discs of the lower back. In this case, rather than doing weighted situps, it's a much better idea to exercise the abs with plank exercises, which don't compress the spine.
  3. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 17
    Always start with a quick warm-up. Though there is some debate on the matter, many exercise experts recommend a thorough warmup containing stretches and physical exercises at the start of every workout. Proponents of warmups argue that warming up increases blood flow to the muscles and gradually prepares the heart for a heightened level of activity, saving it from the shock of a sudden increase in blood pressure.[9] Below is a sample warmup routine — feel free to modify it to your liking.
    • Full-body stretches
    • 30 seconds jumping jacks
    • 30 seconds press ups
    • 30 seconds crunches
    • 1 minute jumping rope
    • Repeat 3x, increasing intensity with each repetition.
  4. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 18
    Eat a lean, balanced diet. No matter how much your exercise, your body will only be able to build new muscles if you give it the materials it needs for the task. Try to accompany any serious exercise routine with a diet that includes lots of lean protein, whole grain carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Avoid stereotypical "junk food", including foods that are high in fat, oils, or sugar. Below are a few brief lists of the sorts of foods you'll want your diet to favor:
    • Proteins: Chicken breasts, lean cuts of pork and beef, fish, beans, lentils, soy chunks, soya milk and egg white.
    • Carbohydrates: Whole wheat bread products (bread, pasta, crackers, etc.), brown rice, "superfood" grains like quinoa, fleshy or leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, etc.), fresh fruit (in moderation).
    • Fats: Nuts, some fish and seafood, eggs, olive oil, seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, flax, etc.), avocado.
  5. Image titled Increase Upper Body Strength Step 19
    Get plenty of rest. One of the worst things you can do for your workout is neglect your rest. During periods of inactivity (especially sleep), the body releases growth hormones that signal your tired muscles to start rebuilding themselves stronger than before. If you don't get enough rest, this "repair" period won't work as intended and you won't be able to build strength or muscle mass as effectively. Everyone's sleep needs are different, but most reputable sources recommend at least six hours per night — preferably seven to nine.[10]

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles | Diet & Lifestyle