May 31, 2022
Time to get that buff upper body you’ve always been wanting. Chiseled pecs. Boulders for shoulders. Massive V-shaped back. Sleeve busting arms. You know, all that good stuff. We’re about to lay out one of the best full upper body workouts. But that’s not all! We’re actually going to give you 5 upper body workouts. That’s right, 5! But wait, there’s more! We’re also going to...uh, actually no. That’s it. You just get 5 free upper body workouts. Don’t be greedy.
The 5 Upper Body Workouts:
5 upper body workouts for 5 different occasions because NO ONE deserves to wear a size small shirt.
The upper body contains a lot of muscles. Therefore, the easiest way to break them down is by muscle group.
Erector Spinae Muscles: The erector spinae is a large muscle that runs down either side of the spine and acts as a support system and brace. While we speak of it as one muscle, it’s actually a muscle group composed made up of three muscles that branch out from the base of the spine. These 3 muscles are:
Together, they help control the spine and perform lateral flexion/extension (bending sideways) and extension of the spine. Still, their most important movement is as an anti-flexion or anti-rotation muscle. In other words, they help stabilize the spine.
Rhomboids: The rhomboids are small muscles that look like a rhomboid that originate from the base of the neck and attach to the shoulder blades. Their primary function is to bring the shoulder blades back (adduction) but they also assist in overhead pressing.
Trapezius: The traps are a large pair of muscles shaped like trapezoids. Infact, the the traps are actually composed of three parts:
These three parts start below the skull and extend down to your thoracic spine as well as reaching out to your scapula. They are your primary scapular muscles and are able to manipulate them in any direction as well as stabilizing them to provide a strong base.
Latissimus Dorsi: The lats are the largest muscle in the upper body as well as the widest (If developed properly). They originate on the thoracic spine and run all the way down to the lumbar spine. The lats are attached on the spine, scapula, pelvis, and ribs and insert on the humerus. Its main movements include:
The chest muscle is a large, fan-like shaped muscle that sits on the entire upper chest and is primarily responsible for horizontal shoulder adduction but also assists in shoulder flexion. The chest muscle group can actually be divided into the pec major and the pec minor.
Pectoralis Minor: The pec minor is a muscle that lays under the pec major and resembles a triangle. The triangular-shaped pectoralis minor muscle is found underneath the pectoralis major. This small muscle is responsible for:
The shoulder muscles (deltoids) are a set of 3 muscle heads that sit on the top of the arm and are responsible for manipulating the arm. The three muscle heads are:
Biceps: The biceps are composed of two heads (short head and long head) that sit on the front of the upper arms. These two heads originate from two different locations but merge together to form one muscle belly (but they remain separated) which then crosses the elbow joint and is then inserted in the radius. The biceps function as a:
These three heads run down the entire back of the upper arm. While all three muscles have different origin points, they cross the elbow to come together as one insertion on the lower arm (ulna). The primary function of the triceps is elbow extension but also assists in shoulder extension and shoulder stability (the long head also crosses the shoulder joint)
Note: You also have your core muscles, particularly your abdominals, which consist of your rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, external obliques and internal obliques. Our workouts will focus on training these muscles for better core stability.
Let’s now look at what we want to see in an effective upper body workout. We will go over training variables such as muscle group training frequency, loads, rep schemes, and anything else you might need to create your hot bod.
Train each upper body muscle group twice a week. In order to get maximal strength, hypertrophy, and rest, recent studies have shown that training muscle groups twice a week is optimal. This allows the maximal amount of quality volume while balancing fatigue. To be clear, this is assuming you spread these training days apart by at least 48 hours.
Note that we say “quality” volume. What we are referring to is volume done at sufficient loads. What can happen if you only train one muscle group a day is that after 3 exercises, you can have already reached a state of fatigue.
However, if you have another 3 exercises left, you may “do” them, but they’ll be done with a lighter load. Therefore, once you do 3 exercises for one muscle group, do 3 exercises for another muscle group. Then on a second day, do the remaining exercises. This should allow you to perform more volume.
The vast majority of guys need both strength and hypertrophy in their upper body workout plan. Even if you run a “strength” plan or “hypertrophy” plan, you should still include some of the other variables.
This is because strength and hypertrophy have a relationship in which they benefit from each other. The best explanation is to simply realize; “a larger muscle has more potential to be a stronger muscle, and a stronger muscle can create more volume to be a larger muscle.”
Still, you don’t want to be the big guy with show muscles, nor do you want to be the strong guy that doesn’t look like they lift. The goal is to have a strong upper body as well as a well built, defined upper body.
Most of the lifts you use should be compound lifts, even for hypertrophy. Compound lifts are going to allow you to apply heavier loads to your muscles, meaning more volume and strength adaptations. Therefore, these should be your bread and butter. You can throw in some isolation work for sure, but they should definitely not outnumber your compound lifts.
Taking in all of the variables above, we like to train the upper body 3x a week for the optimal mix of volume and recovery. This can also give you at least 1 day to train legs for a 4-day training week or 2 days of leg training for a 5-day training week.
As you can see, this split definitely favors the upper body, but it’s still enough to at least maintain leg strength and size. That being said, if you do want leg growth, we wouldn’t recommend running this style of the program forever.
Putting all of the above together, here is how your training split will look. This will apply to every upper body plan below, except the calisthenics.
As you see, there are three body parts that should be trained twice a week. While you could do two days of the full upper body, we want optimal, and this fits the bill.
The 5 best upper body workout routines below each have a specific goal or circumstance in mind, and they are:
Each workout will consist of what we believe are the best upper body exercises as well as the best workout structures for upper body training.
These are strength based workouts because they involve mainly big compound lifts in a strength rep range. These will make your upper body strong.
These are hypertrophy based workouts, which simply means the main focus is to build muscle via more volume. That said, the workouts will involve mostly compound lifts and even some strength sets (your first exercise of the session). When it comes to building muscle, pure size can really be built in any rep range, depending on the total volume (reps + weight load).
Essentially these workouts will focus on both strength and hypertrophy exercises and rep ranges. It's the perfect combo for building strength and hypertrophy, which is most people want from their training.
This information applies to the strength training program, hypertrophy program, and strength & hypertrophy program.
These are primarily your strength exercises. Therefore, you will want to add load for progressive overload. If you find you can’t make the jump one week, use a cluster set to get all the reps plus 1.
For example, you’re supposed to do 5 reps but can only do 4. Do 2 cluster sets of 3 reps OR 3 cluster sets of 2 more reps.
These are more hypertrophy related exercises. For these, you want to use a combination of increasing weight and reps. Take a rep scheme of 3X8-10 for example.
This workout is a dumbbell-only upper body workout plan. While anyone could use it, it’s written with the idea that someone is stuck at home with a limited set of dumbbells. Therefore, every exercise will use RPE to account for the fact that people will have different size dumbbells.
For each exercise, use an RPE of 8. This means you’re bringing it close to failure but not too fatiguing. For example, let’s pretend your 10RM for an exercise is 100lbs. An RPE80 would be 80lbs.
That being said, we will add a range of reps that you should attempt to hit if possible.
For progressive overload, you will likely have to increase reps. However, there are also a few other ways to implement progressive overload with minimal weights.
While you perform the exercises with an RPE8, you will max out every 4 weeks.
This program is pure calisthenics, which means you are using just your body weight as resistance. That being said, this program is written with the assumption you have access to a basic set of bars.
For calisthenics, you will be forced to increase reps at first. After a while, you will need to start increasing the difficulty of the upper body exercises. Generally speaking, this involves shifting your weight to one arm.
For chin-ups/pull-ups, you can also include sternum pulls which involves pulling yourself as high as you can go. This is actually a progression to the muscle-up. Remember to use a full range, the starting position on a pull up and chin up is with arms straight fully extended.
For push-ups, you can also start including ballistic style push-ups.
Regardless of what program you run and your current situation, the same basic principles apply as far as progress. After all is said and done, the main goal is to simply add variety in a planned manner (this is not the same as P-90X). Here are some guidelines to follow in order to continue progressing.
Periodization is a training method that has you alter training volume and intensity over time. In other words, you may train with 5 reps @ 85%1RM for a couple months and then switch to 8 reps @ 80% 1RM. Perhaps an easier way to think about it is to train for a different goal. Again, train for strength for a couple months and then train for muscle hypertrophy.
In fact, you could run the Strength program for 2-3 months and then use the Hypertrophy program. This allows a complete training program while also helping mitigate fatigue build-up.
Another easy way to add variety is to run the same exact program but just switch implements or exercises. If you swap out exercises, it just needs to have similar biomechanics. For example, below are acceptable exercises for overhead pressing.
Military Press→Sitting Military Press→Sitting Overhead Dumbbell Press→Pin Press…
As you see, all the exercises are similar but are just different enough to create a new stimulus.
In fact, you could even run the calisthenics program or swap out barbell and dumbbell movements. As mentioned, the key to progression is to add variability when needed and always be progressing forward.
That is unless you need to rest.
Your body is a machine. However, what machine would you push to the max at all times? Hell, would you even let your car idle in the driveway when you’re not using it? Of course not! So put away this stupid idea “What’s a rest day?” If you don’t need a rest day, you are definitely not training hard. That being said…
You need to let your body recover from time to time with a deload week. The majority of people are fine doing this once every 4-6 weeks of training if that. By this, we mean normal people generally always have something come up from time to time or vacations and holidays. We like to promote the idea of training hard and let these events act as natural dealoads.
In fact, we do not train when we’re on vacation. To be clear, this doesn’t mean we sit around and drink all day (at least not every day); it means we may just go swimming, hiking, cycling, or any other activity rather than go to the gym.
We just hooked you up with 5 upper body workouts PLUS instructions on how to continue training even after you’re done with your program. However, we can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink. We’re not calling you a horse but get the point.
Just be patient, train with intent, rest when you’re feeling tired, change things up when you stall, eat, and sleep. And that’s basically what you need to do to grow a sick bod. At least the upper body; check these articles out for the lower body.
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