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How To Build Your Upper Body

A well-balanced physique not only looks great, but it can also help you with common aches and pains, as well as helping your strength.

For example, someone who does mostly chest and then sits at a desk all day you can expect to have some sort of imbalance aesthetically and strength-wise.

This will cause problems now and down the line.

I’ve been there before, I used to hit my chest at least 2-3 times per week and skip out on things like my pulling movements and legs.

This led to frustration with my physique as well as aches and pains in my shoulders.

So to fix that it’s important you get your basic movement patterns in, and then sprinkle in everything else based on your time and goals.

The basic movement patterns are your foundation. Once you have these dialed in, then you can decide where to allocate the rest of your time.

But without this foundation, you will be on shaky ground throughout your training career.

Here are the 4 staple upper body movements patterns I program for online clients:

The goal is to pick at least 1-2 exercises from these 4 movement patterns and program them into your routine based on your goals and time.

Then you have movements that you should probably not go too long without/should do if you have the time.

Then lastly you have movements that are purely on an individual needs basis.

Staples

Horizontal Pressing:

Think of this as pushing things away and straight out in front of you.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Incline Bench

Barbell Bench

Other common horizontal pushing exercises programmed for online clients:

My favorite for myself and online clients is an incline press. This really helps develop your upper chest and gives your chest that armored look.

A study (Chaves, 2020) looked at three groups, one doing just flat bench, one doing just incline, then one doing a combo of both. They found that there was no difference in the mid and lower pecs in either groups, however, the group doing only incline bench gained the most muscle in their upper chest.

This means that if you were to pick one variation of pressing, it would be the incline press and you might be able to get away with just doing that for your chest.

But its probably best to pick one incline variation and then one flat variation for overall chest development.

Horizontal pushing will work the triceps, however its probably best to include a direct tricep exercise as well. A study showed that bench press + tricep extensions exercise was more effective at growing muscle in all of the tricep muscle than just the bench press or triceps extension alone (Brandeo, 2020) .

When doing horizontal pressing, work through a full range of motion. This means bringing the bar down in a controlled fashion all the way to your chest. One of the most common mistakes in the gym is guys doing way too much weight for their bench presses.

Vertical Pushing:

Any exercise that involves moving a weight up vertically in relation to your torso so that it goes straight overhead or at least in that direction.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Standing shoulder press

*Side note:

The more experience I get, the more I shy away from vertical pressing, especially if muscle growth is your goal. In my opinion, it adds a lot of wear and tear and fatigue for not much benefit. You can get most of your shoulder growth from horizontal pushing and hitting more delt work.

I do, however, like programming overhead presses more for female clients. A few reasons:

The overhead press hits the anterior deltoids the most, however as I mentioned the anterior delts get hit in all pressing movements. All pulling movements will hit the posterior deltoids, which makes this movement not as effective for that part of the deltoid as well.

If you do overhead pressing and/or lateral raises then you should be golden with your delts especially if you do incline pressing and your other pulling and pushing movements.

However, it still is a basic movement pattern, so if it’s something you enjoy then by all means keep it in your routine.

Horizontal Pulling:

This is any exercise moving a weight in towards your torso horizontally from straight out in front of you.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Bent row

Other common exercises programmed for online clients:

If you decide to pick two exercises from here, doing a DB or barbell variation and then a cable row is a GREAT option.

The biggest thing when choosing pull options is your technique. Don’t make the mistake of loading up the weight to fuel your ego. Start light and develop a fantastic mind-muscle connection to your back muscle.

A good coaching cue for back exercises is to think about using your hands as hooks and then drive your elbows up.

There are also two ways to manipulate what area of the back you bias. Driving your elbows closer to your hips will bias the lats more, and flaring your elbows out will start to bias the upper back more.

To be safe, I would include one of each in your programming.

Just doing horizontal rows will hit the biceps slightly, but not enough to really maximize bicep growth.

Vertical Pulling:

This is any exercise that involves moving a weight down vertically in relation to your torso so that you are pulling down from over head

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Pull ups

If you cannot do a proper bodyweight pull-up, don’t stress (most people cant do a proper one). Instead, use the machine-assisted pull up/chin up to work on your strength and technique.

A good coaching cue to engage your back more for pulling movements is to think about driving your elbows down and into your sides.

Just like with the horizontal rows, if you want to bias the lats you ideally want to drive your elbows towards your hips. If you want to bias the upper back then slightly flare your elbows out.

There is a study that shows that vertical pulling might be sufficient for bicep growth (Gentil, 2015).

Back Training Summary

To sum up the back training, you want to include a horizontal and vertical pull.

Depending on time you could do 2 horizontal pulls (upper back and lat focus), and 2 vertical pulls (upper back and lat focus). Another option is doing 1 of each and just making sure one is lat focus and the other is upper back focus. Or lastly, you could do 2 and 1 (ex: 2 horizontal, 1 vertical then change next phase).

These are the basic exercises of your upper body training routine. If you are short on time, doing these 4 movement patterns will be a GREAT foundation and will get you fantastic results.

If you have more time to dedicate to the gym or maybe you just want some bigger arms then you can also incorporate the accessory movements below.

Exercises That You Should Do If You Have The Time

These are exercises that you probably should include in your training to really get a developed upper body. However time is a concern for some people so it may not be feasible.

Biceps:

Think of this as any curling. It is also called elbow flexion.

As I mentioned earlier, vertical pulling COULD be enough for your biceps, and horizontal pulling will hit the bicep slightly.

So if you are short on time your foundation will be covered here. However, if you have more time or want bigger arms, it’s a good idea to throw in some curling exercises to build bigger arms.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Standing dumbbell curls


Standing straight bar curls
Seated bicep curl
Incline seated curl
Cable curl

Using a strong mind-muscle connection is a great idea for curling. Think about really squeezing your biceps and feeling the muscle working.

Studies show that a strong mind-muscle connection is more beneficial for upper body training than lower body (Schoenfeld, 2019).

Triceps:

The movement pattern that is associated with tricep exercises is elbow extension.

The triceps will indirectly get hit with any pressing movement as mentioned earlier. So if you are short on time, your baseline will be covered.

However, if you want to get bigger arms and have the time, its a good idea to throw in some tricep exercises into your routine.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:


Dips

To limit other muscles taking over, really focus on just moving at your elbows. This allows you to place more emphasis on just the triceps.

Side Delts:

When people want to grow their shoulders, they think of overhead presses and front raises. While those will help build your shoulders, you instead need to place more emphasis on your side delt training.

Focusing on exercises that hit those muscle groups will really get your shoulders to pop and get that 3D look.

Common exercises programmed for online clients:

Db lateral raises

The cool thing with lateral raises is there are a ton of variations you can do within them.

As I mentioned earlier, if you want to forego overhead pressing and replace it with lateral raises, you will likely be fine with overall shoulder development.

Exercises We Use On An Individual Basis:

Think of these exercises as the icing on the cake. If you dont have a lot of time, then you can likely forego these.

The other time you would use these exercises would be if you want to directly bring up the muscle groups.

-Shrugs: You can get some upper trap work from things like lateral raises and deadlift, but it isn’t as effective as shrugs. So if you want to develop your upper traps add in shrugs.

-Rear Delts

This is one thing I have recently changed my mind on. Your rear delts get hit a lot in all pulling movements. However if you want to build more rear delts, then train them in isolation.

-Forearms

Your forearms are active in pretty much every lift. However if you want to develop your forearms more, you can include direct forearm work.

-Pullovers

The pullover is a unique movement that hits the pecs, lats, and long head of the triceps. This is another movement that can be added in on an individual basis if you want to add in something different for your lats.

-Abs

Abs are another muscle group that will get indirectly hit with many movements. However if you want to build your abs then adding in some direct ab work will help.

For any of these movements, starting with 3-6 sets per week is great and will be enough. For some you might have to go a bit higher.

How to Program

6-12 sets per week on each staple movement pattern is a great starting point and then go from there.

For most online clients, I like to use either a 3-day routine or a 4-day upper/lower split.

If you have more time to dedicate to the gym, then doing a 5 day or 6 day split is also great. The only potential issue with a 5 or 6 day split is some people have trouble consistently getting to the gym that many times week after week. They do something like 5 one week, then 4, then 3, then 5 etc.

The reason being is that if you program for 5 days, but make 4, there is a chance that you will be missing out on baseline volume for certain muscle groups.

It would be better to stick to a 4 day split if you know thats how many days you can for sure make it to the gym each week. This ensures each muscle group gets a sufficient amount of work and then if you can make an extra day on certain weeks, you would then throw in a workout that hits a body part you want to build.

I hope this helps you program for your upper body to give you a more balanced physique.

If you have any more questions on this topic send me a message on Instagram @Jeffh91_ .

You can also apply for online coaching here.

Stay tuned next week as I dig into building a balanced physique for your lower body.

References:

Schoenfeld, B (2019) Science and Development of Muscle Hypertrophy. (2nd ed.). Human Kinetics.

Chaves, S., Rocha-JÚnior, V. A., EncarnaÇÃo, I., Martins-Costa, H. C., Freitas, E., Coelho, D. B., Franco, F., Loenneke, J. P., Bottaro, M., & Ferreira-JÚnior, J. B. (2020). Effects of Horizontal and Incline Bench Press on Neuromuscular Adaptations in Untrained Young Men. International journal of exercise science, 13(6), 859–872.

Brandão, L., de Salles Painelli, V., Lasevicius, T., Silva-Batista, C., Brendon, H., Schoenfeld, B. J., Aihara, A. Y., Cardoso, F. N., de Almeida Peres, B., & Teixeira, E. L. (2020). Varying the Order of Combinations of Single- and Multi-Joint Exercises Differentially Affects Resistance Training Adaptations. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 34(5), 1254–1263. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003550

Gentil P, Soares S, Bottaro M. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy. Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun;6(2):e24057. doi: 10.5812/asjsm.24057. Epub 2015 Jun 22. PMID: 26446291; PMCID: PMC4592763.

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