The essential building blocks of upper body strength

To build a strong, lean physique you need to focus on key muscle groups. Don’t neglect your upper body. Here are the exercises which will form the building blocks of your upper body strength routine.

Overhand pull ups
There’s nothing more humbling than the simple pull up. We’re talking wide, overhand grip (palms facing away from you), the type which uses your back rather than your biceps. Wide grip overhand pull ups, or a progression of them, are fantastic for upper body strength. They work almost all the muscles of the back, getting you truly strong and encouraging the sort of back width and density which looks great in or out of clothes (and in or out of the gym). Men and women should both include some sort of overhand pull up in their strength routine. If you can’t pull your bodyweight up quite yet, that’s fine (nor could we at first). Work up to it, either by jumping up to grab the bar, before controlling your weight as you lower, or by getting your training partner to give you a boost on the way up (ask them to put their hands around your lower ribs). You’ll be surprised by how quickly you build strength.

Press ups
Another great bodyweight exercise, press ups of all types work the chest and shoulders, but also incorporate the abdominals and lower back for a core workout. Try to perform press ups on your toes rather than your knees: simply reduce the amount of reps you do (rather than opting for resting on your knees). Vary your press ups to hit different areas of the chest: wide stance (with your hands wider than shoulder width), diamond (with your hands together, thumb and forefingers touching to make a diamond shape), staggered (hands wide, but one further in front), or normal stance but with your feet elevated on a bench.

Surprised to see deadllifts in an upper body article? Don’t be. This key strength training exercise doesn’t just work the legs and glutes. In fact, it hits almost every muscle in the body. Learn good technique, and lift heavy, and you’ll soon feel exactly where it’s working: your upper back, arms, core, shoulders and traps will ache after a heavy deadliest session. Choose lower reps and a heavier weight rather than lots of light reps.

Bent over rows
Any decent upper  body strength session should include some sort of rowing movement. Choose from a bent over barbell row (wide overhand grip), pulling the bar into your lower chest, a single arm dumbbell row (this really targets your lats) or a seated cable row (to focus on the lower back).

Lat pull down
Classic lat pull downs will build back strength and width, really helping develop your v-taper. But don’t just stick with the normal lat pull down machine. Experiment with cables and with different attachments. We like attaching the lat pull down bar to a high cable and using a narrower, underhand grip, or attaching the triangle handles to a high cable and pulling into the body. Or use a wide overhand grip, but try out the lat pull down machine and the cable machine to see which works best for you.

Shoulder press
A classic overhead shoulder press will build strength and mass in the front, side and rear delts. You can press a loaded bar overhead from a seated or standing position, or use dumbbells. You could even try variations on the shoulder press, such as the Arnie Press (if it was good enough for him…)

Dumbbell press
Finally, why not try a dumbbell press rather than the more commonly-used flat bench press for chest? Using dumbvells and an incline bench enables you to stretch out more at the bottom of the move, recruiting more muscle fibres. And selecting dumbbells rather than a bar means you can work both sides of the body slightly differently, evening up any imbalances. Vary the angle of the bench from flat to incline, and change the movement from a flat press to a dumbbell fly to really work the chest thoroughly.

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About Nicola Joyce

Nicola Joyce is a freelance journalist, features writer and copywriter who has been writing about sport and fitness for magazines, newspapers, books and corporate clients since 2004. Formerly an endurance athlete who has swum the English Channel (twice!) and taken part in long triathlons, running races and cycle sportives, she is now a competitive bodybuilder who has taken part in several British Finals of drug-tested natural bodybuilding federations. When she's not training or writing, she blogs about writing, fitness, sport and training at
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