The Best Upper Body Workout Routine

Learn all about the most important exercises to incorporate into an upper body workout routine (Plus we provide 3 full workouts that put it all together)!

Workout Summary

Build Muscle
Split
Beginner
18 weeks
4
60-90 minutes
Bands, Barbell, Bodyweight, Cables, Dumbbells, Machines, Other
Male & Female
download pdfDownload Workout

Workout Description

For years fitness magazines and online media outlets put out body-part specific workouts.

If you wanted a chest workout, it was easy to find.

Back workout? Plenty of those too.

“X Weeks for Massive Shoulders” – you better believe there were plenty of those.

And arm days galore!

But what about a whole upper body workout? Not many of those.

That is until recent research showed the benefits of lowering volume per session and increasing training frequency to maximize muscle growth1.

Now, everyone is using upper body workouts to pack on size. In fact, anecdotally, I’d be willing to bet upper/lower splits are the most popular among recreational lifters at the moment.

But, how do you know if the upper body workout you’re using is the right fit for you? How do you know it’s truly effective?

In this article, we’re going to discuss exercises (and their variations) that every good upper body workout should incorporate. From there, we’ll put it all together for you in some sample upper/lower splits based on experience level. And, to wrap it all up, we’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions about upper/lower splits.

6 Upper Body Exercises You Should Focus On

When it comes to quality upper body workouts, they all have similar exercises in common.

Seriously, most workouts you find anywhere are going to have the same exercises with similar rep schemes for the most part. It’s because these exercises train important movement patterns.

They’re also compound exercises that hit multiple muscle groups in natural ranges of motions. Naturally, this makes them safer to perform and will lead to a better caloric burn during each individual training session.

For upper body workouts, the most important movement patterns to train are:

  • Vertical Pulls
  • Horizontal Pulls
  • Vertical Push
  • Horizontal Push
  • Loaded Carry

Listed below are examples of exercise variations that accomplish these movement patterns. They are arguably the 6 best exercises for building upper body muscle mass.

1. The Pull Up

The pull up is a classic exercise and one that is used to target the muscles of the upper back. The movement accomplishes the vertical pull movement pattern.

The pull up is thought to be one of the best back exercises for lats. However, not a lot of people can perform them. The workout progressions at the bottom of this article will show you how you can train from a beginner stage to being able to perform an unassisted bodyweight pull up in the advanced stage.

Some variations of the pull ups that you can use in your upper body workouts include:

  • Eccentric Only Pull Ups
  • Concentric Hangs
  • Band Assisted Pull Ups
  • Chin Ups
  • Neutral Grip Pull Ups
  • Wide Grip Pull Ups
  • Weighted Pull Ups

2. The Barbell Row

The barbell row is another back exercise used for building back muscle mass. It accomplishes the horizontal pull movement pattern.

It involves a lot of core and shoulder stability to perform the movement. However, once advanced enough to use the exercise, you’ll be able to build a lot of size with the amount of loads you are able to pull. That’s a main reason it’s seen as a bodybuilding staple.

Some variations of the barbell row you can use in your upper body workouts include:

  • Inverted Row
  • Seated Cable Row
  • Standing Cable Row
  • Half Kneeling Cable Row
  • Shotgun Row
  • Dumbbell Row
  • T-bar/Landmine Row

3. The Overhead Press

The overhead press is used to build the push muscles of the shoulders and triceps. It is used in most upper body workouts because it accomplishes the vertical push movement pattern.

Like the barbell row, the overhead press requires a lot of core and shoulder stability to execute properly.

To accomplish this safely, a lot of progressions will be used in the workouts listed below.

Some additional variations you can include in your upper body workouts for the overhead press are:

  • Landmine Press variations
  • Z Press
  • Pin Press
  • Dumbbell Overhead Press
  • Arnold Press

4. The Bench Press

Everyone’s favorite movement (or at least it used to be), the barbell bench press and it’s variations are used to accomplish the horizontal push movement patterns in many upper body workouts.

The bench press is great, because like all barbell variations, it allows you to maximize the weight you are able to use.

However, like most exercises in this list discussed so far, it requires a lot of stabilization – primarily from the shoulder ligaments.

Therefore, we will use several exercises in the workouts listed below to help you build the pre-requisite strength.

Other exercises used to accomplish the horizontal push movement pattern include:

  • Push Ups
  • Floor Presses
  • Dumbbell Presses
  • Incline Presses
  • Decline Presses

5. The Dip

The dip falls into a hybrid of the vertical and horizontal push movement patterns depending on how you perform them. Regardless, one thing is true about the exercise - it builds some serious tricep, chest, and shoulder muscle.

A lot of upper body workouts you’ll find online will incorporate a dip variation in some fashion. It may be used as a primary movement or an accessory movement.

And like the pull up, it’s a bodyweight exercise not many people can perform. So, in the workout routines to follow, we will be sure to include plenty of progressions to get you there.

Here are some dip variations you might want to consider including into your upper body workouts:

  • Eccentric Only
  • Pec Minor Dips
  • Band Assisted Dips
  • Weighted Dips

6. The Farmer’s Carry

The farmer’s walk is arguably one of the greatest and least underutilized exercises one could do. It is a loaded carry that, depending on how it is used, accomplishes a level of cardiovascular conditioning, trains the core, and packs on size to the traps.

Only the farmer’s walk will be used in the upper body workout routines to come, but if you’re looking for some variety you could include:

  • Suitcase Carries
  • Waiter Carries
  • Trap Bar Farmer’s Waks

Building Your Upper Body Workouts

When building your upper body workouts, you’ll want to keep in mind what stage of your training you are in. If you are a true beginner who lacks any sort of stability required to perform some of the listed exercises above, you won’t be very successful with a more advanced training program.

Below, we’re going to lay it all out for you. You’ll have an upper body focused program for whatever phase of training you are in. If you are a beginner, the workouts below can be used as a form of progression from one to the next.

We also incorporated lower body workouts into the routines to ensure you have an aesthetic physique. You might even notice you get stronger on your upper body lifts as you get stronger on your lower body workout days.

The recommended duration for each phase is 4-8 weeks. Everyone’s rate of progression is different. Learn to understand your body and know when to progress to the next training phase. Earn every progression, don’t just fly through the programs.

Below is an example of how you should schedule your week of workouts. It is simply a template. Feel free to adjust as needed.

Sample Upper/Lower Workout Split

  • Monday: Upper Body Workout 1
  • Tuesday: Lower Body Workout 1
  • Wednesday: Rest/Active Recovery
  • Thursday: Upper Body Workout 2
  • Friday: Lower Body Workout 1
  • Saturday: Rest/Active Recovery
  • Sunday: Rest

Beginner Upper Body Focused Workout Split

The beginner upper body focused workout will be used to build stability and condition the body to be able to perform more advanced upper body workouts in future phases.

If you are new to the weight room, or unable to perform dips and pullups without assistance, it is recommended to start with this phase.

This phase can last anywhere from 4-8 weeks. Some may be able to skip it altogether. Others might be able to feel comfortable enough to progress to the intermediate phase after a few weeks.

My recommendation would be to stay in this phase for as long as needed and progress to the intermediate stage once every single set of each exercise doesn’t provide a challenge.

On weighted exercises, it is recommended to increase the weight used week to week when capable of doing so. This is especially true on some of the lower body exercises such as the trap bar deadlift and goblet squat.

Rest as long as needed to fully recover from each set.

Day 1: Beginner Upper Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
5 Sec Eccentric Only Pull Up 3 6
Seated Cable Row 3 6-8
Push Up 3 8-10
Half Kneeling Single Arm Landmine Press 3 6 Each
Farmer's Carry 3 20 Yards
Day 2: Beginner Lower Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Goblet Squat 3 12
Landmine Romanian Deadlift 3 12
Dumbbell Step Up 3 8 Each
Bodyweight Hip Thrust 3 10
Day 3: Beginner Upper Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Inverted Row 3 6-8
Concentric Pull Up Hang 3 5-15 Sec
5 Sec Eccentric Only Dips 3 6
Half Kneeling Kettlebell Press 3 6 Each
Farmer's Carry 3 20 Yards
Day 4: Beginner Lower Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Trap Bar Deadlift 3 6
Bodyweight Box Squat 3 8
Bodyweight Reverse Lunge 3 8 Each
Dead Bugs 3 6-8 Each

Intermediate Upper Body Focused Workout Split

In the intermediate phase of the upper body focused workout split, you’ll be building upon the stability you built in the beginner phase. This phase is meant to bridge the gap from stability to full range of motion.

In this phase, we also begin to introduce some accessory movements to target the arms. Everyone is different and has different goals. Use these accessory movements to incorporate exercises you feel will help you better accomplish your individual goals.

This phase can last anywhere between 6-8 weeks. Some may be able to get to the point where they are ready to progress quicker than others. Ultimately, it’s based on your individual ability to make progress. Use your best judgement and only progress when you feel this portion of the routine is too simple.

On all weighted exercises, it is recommended to increase the total weight used week to week. Again, this will ultimately be determined by your individual capabilities.

Rest as long as needed to fully recover from each set.

Day 1: Intermediate Upper Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Band Assisted Pull Ups 3 8-12
Standing Cable Row 3 8-12
Floor Press 3 8-12
Full Kneeling Dumbbell Press 3 8-12
Dumbbell Hammer Curls 2 12-15
Farmer's Carry 4 40 Yards
Day 2: Intermediate Lower Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Front Squat 3 8-12
Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlift 3 8-12
Dumbbell Split Squat 3 6 Each
Weighted Hyperextension 3 12-15
Calf Raise 3 15-20
Lying Leg Raise 3 15-20
Day 3: Intermediate Upper Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Dumbbell Row 3 8-12
Weighted 5 Sec Eccentric Pull Up 3 6-8
Band Assisted Dips 3 8-12
Z Press 3 6-10
Incline Skullcrusher 2 12-15
Farmer's Carry 4 40 Yards
Day 4: Intermediate Lower Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Sumo Deadlift 3 6
Goblet Box Squat 3 12-15
Walking Bodyweight Lunge 3 15 Each
Eccentric Only Nordic Leg Curl 3 6-8
Calf Raise 3 15-20
Bicycle Crunch 3 15-20 Each

Advanced Upper Body Focused Workout Split

The final and most advanced upper body focused workout split includes the most advanced variations of the movement patterns listed at the beginning of the article. You will also notice it has the most volume out of the 3 upper body phases.

Additional accessory movements are added in this phase. Again, this is simply a template. You will want to include whatever exercises targets the muscle groups you want to build for your individual goals.

This phase of the program can last anywhere between 8-12 weeks. It is the final phase, so you could honestly use it for however long you wish. As long as you are enjoying it and still seeing results, there’s really no need to change routines.

On all weighted exercises, it is recommended to increase the total weight used week to week. Again, this will ultimately be determined by your individual capabilities.

Rest as long as needed to fully recover from each set.

Day 1: Advanced Upper Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Pull Up 4 Max
T-Bar Row 4 8-12
Overhead Press 4 6-8
Incline Dumbbell Press 4 8-12
Cable Face Pull 3 12-15
A1. Standing Dumbbell Curl 3 12
A2. French Press 3 12
Farmer's Carry 5 60 Yards
Day 2: Advanced Lower Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Back Squat 4 6-8
Bulgarian Split Squat 3 8-12 Each
Leg Curl 3 8-12
Hip Abduction Machine 3 8-12
Weighted Hyperextensions 3 15-20
Calf Raise 3 20
Hanging Leg Raise 3 12-15
Day 3: Advanced Upper Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Bent Over Row 4 6-8
Lat Pull Down 4 8-12
Barbell Bench Press 4 6-8
Standing Dumbbell Press 3 8-12
Dips 3 Max
A1. Preacher Curl 3 12
A2. Rope Tricep Extension 3 12
Farmer's Carry 5 60 Yards
Day 4: Advanced Lower Body Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Romanian Deadlift 4 6-8
Leg Press 4 10-12
Weighted Walking Lunge 3 15 Each
Nordic Hamstring Curl 3 8-12
Calf Raise 3 20
Weighted Crunch 3 15-20

FAQs about Upper Body Workout Routines

Below are some of the most commonly asked questions about upper body workout routines. They aren’t specific to the workouts listed above, but will hopefully provide you with additional knowledge on how to build upper body workouts and how to implement them to maximize your muscle mass.

If you have any questions about upper body workout routines that aren’t listed below, please feel free to drop us a comment in the comments section. Who knows, maybe we will even add it to the list for future readers who may have the same question.

1. What Is a Good Upper Body Workout Routine?

A good upper body workout depends on you the individual. It factors in your experience level when considering exercise selection and total volume.

It’ll also include exercises that train fundamental movement patterns such as the horizontal pull, horizontal push, vertical pull, vertical push, and loaded carry. The exact variations used will be based on your experience level and ultimate goal.

A good upper body workout routine is also paired with a good lower body workout routine to ensure you build balanced strength and an aesthetic physique.

2. Is It Good to Do a Full Upper Body Workout?

Absolutely. Full upper body workouts actually allow you to be very efficient with your overall weekly training frequency depending on how they are written and paired with a lower body workout.

They also allow you to target multiple muscle groups that should be fresh (if you’re utilizing your rest days well) with compound movements to maximize caloric burn in any given workout session.

3. How Often Should You Work Out Upper Body?

You will want to work out your upper body at minimum once per week to maintain strength levels and promote healthy musculature as you age.

To maximize muscle growth, you will want to increase that training frequency to twice per week.

Depending on how your upper body routine is written and your program as a whole, you could even go as high as 3-6 times per week. However, you may want to consider investing in a coach to ensure this strategy is right for your individual goals.

4. How Should I Split My Upper Body Workout?

This will depend on your individual goals and how many days per week you have available to train.

Traditionally, in upper/lower splits, the upper body workout trains every single muscle of the upper body twice per week.

However, some strength athletes may benefit from breaking that down into a Push, Pull, Legs split depending on their strength levels. This will help them recover better while shortening the individual workouts.

Push, Pull, Legs splits are a bit outside of the scope of this article, however. They are extremely effective in accomplishing a higher training frequency and volume load – so it may be worth looking into depending on your individual goals and experience level.

MuscleTech NitroTech Shop Now!

5. How Long Should an Upper Body Workout Last?

A good upper body workout should last anywhere between 45-70 minutes. Some may be able to finish a good upper body workout quicker depending on their experience levels.

Beginner’s will have lower training volume and will be able to complete an optimal amount of work much faster than an advanced lifter with a lot of exercises to perform and a lot of volume.

6. How Long Does It Take to Get Results from Lifting?

This depends entirely upon your genetics.

I’ve also told people who adopt a new training regimen that they’ll start noticing differences in 4 weeks, their friends and family will notice in 8 weeks, and the world will notice in 12 weeks. It’s a good rule of thumb, but purely anecdotal.

Keep grinding and give good effort with every single workout. The results will come.

7. Is It Ok to Lift Weights Every Day?

Lifting weights every day is doable, but not very practical.

If you know what you’re doing and are able to manage your training volumes and training loads, you can absolutely train every single day.

Most, however, do not know how to do this. Nor is it practical with their everyday lifestyle.

Be smart and be patient when it comes to training. As mentioned in the prior response, it takes time.

8. How Long Does It Take to Get a Six Pack?

Developing six pack abs is highly dependent on 2 main factors:

  1. Genetics
  2. Diet

If you aren’t genetically predisposed to having a 6 pack midsection, odds are – you’ll probably be waiting a whole long time to ever develop one (read: it isn’t going to happen).

On top of that, it takes a certain level of leanness to ever expose what you do have. Most people I’ve ever known who have abs, don’t train their abs. They’re simply lean weight lifters.

If you want abs, ask your parents if they’ve ever had abs before. If they answer no, ask them if anyone in your family has. If they answer no, don’t stress about it. Be the best YOU you can be.

If they answer yes, begin dieting down and weight training with any of these routines listed above. Be patient and persistent. When you get lean (12ish percent body fat), you might notice them being more visible.

References
  1. Schoenfeld, B.J., et al., Effects of resistance training frequency on measures of muscle hypertrophy: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med, 2016. 46(11): p. 1689–97.

4 Comments+ Post Comment

No Profile Pic
Posted Mon, 02/10/2020 - 02:04
Bodii

Hi, I want to know something
I am a person who has been training for 3 years but there is no result due to the wrong exercise and eating routine, so can I build muscle at this time or it will be difficult because the percentage of muscle building will decrease and it is difficult to gain muscle?

No Profile Pic
Posted Mon, 02/10/2020 - 12:04
JoshEngland

Hi Bodii,

You can build muscle at any level. If you haven't been implementing progressive overload with a sound training program, you might even still experience your "newbie" gains once you've implemented those.

No Profile Pic
Posted Sun, 02/02/2020 - 18:36
JG

These workouts look awesome, and I look forward to trying them! One question: I am a relative beginner, and I am currently doing the dumbbell-only 4-day upper/lower split, and it says that rest periods should be 30-60 seconds. This program says to rest as long as needed to recover fully from each set. Which approach is preferable, and what are the advantages of each? Sometimes I feel that I could do more reps if I rested longer than 60 seconds after a challenging set. Thank you!

No Profile Pic
Posted Mon, 02/03/2020 - 15:04
JoshEngland

Hi JG,

Both approaches work and it depends on the goals of your workouts. If you're trying to keep your heart rate up, you might want to keep rest periods shorter. If you're going for more of a muscle building, strength building goal - rest as long as needed.

Some muscle groups recover faster than others as well - isolation lifts might require less rest time than compound exercises.