Best Upper Body Workout Routine & Weight Training Exercises

Let me guess… you want to create the best upper body workout routine possible, right?

You want it to contain the most effective weight training exercises, and you want everything to be set up in the way that will produce the best possible results for you.

Sound about right? I thought so. Now let’s get down to exactly how to do it…

How To Set Up An Upper Body Workout Routine

Putting together an effective upper body workout requires a few very quick and simple steps.

  1. Plan to train each of the major upper body movement patterns and muscle groups either directly or indirectly.
  2. Select the best exercises to train them with while keeping proper balance around the joints.
  3. Put those exercises in the most ideal order.
  4. Choose the right amount of sets and reps per exercise so training volume is within the optimal range.

Let’s begin…

The 6 Upper Body Movements

In the most simple and basic sense, your upper body can really only do 6 things. It can push and pull horizontally, push and pull vertically, flex at the elbow, and extend at the elbow.

That means a proper upper body workout routine can contain (up to) 6 different exercises that target 6 different movement patterns and/or muscle groups. Here’s what I mean:

  • Horizontal Push: A horizontal pushing exercise is any weight training exercise that involves moving a weight out in front of you so that it’s traveling away from your torso horizontally. For example, most chest exercises (like the bench press) fit into this category.
  • Horizontal Pull: A horizontal pulling exercise is any weight training exercise that involves moving a weight in towards your torso horizontally from straight out in front of you. For example, most back rowing exercises (like bent over barbell/dumbbell rows) fit into this category.
  • Vertical Push: A vertical pushing exercise is any weight training exercise that involves moving a weight up vertically in relation to your torso so that it goes straight over head (or at least in that direction). For example, most shoulder exercises (like the overhead press) fit into this category.
  • Vertical Pull: A vertical pulling exercise is any weight training exercise that involves moving a weight down vertically in relation to your torso so that you’re pulling down from over head. For example, most back pulling exercises (like pull-ups/lat pull-downs) fit into this category.
  • Elbow Flexion: An elbow flexion exercise is any weight training exercise that involves moving a weight towards you by flexing at the elbow. For example, most biceps curling exercises (like barbell/dumbbell curls) fit into this category.
  • Elbow Extension: An elbow extension exercise is any weight training exercise that involves moving a weight away from you by extending at the elbow. For example, most triceps extension exercises (like cable press downs/laying barbell extensions) fit into this category.

When putting together an upper body workout routine, your goal in most cases is to select exercises that will allow you train all of those movement patterns to some degree. Here’s how…

Upper Body Exercise Selection

Now that you know what the upper body is capable of doing, it’s time to fill out your workout routine with the weight training exercises that allow it all to happen.

Since exercise selection is based on a bunch of individual factors (your exact goals, your exact capabilities, your exact training preferences), I figure the best thing I can do here is just give you a list of some example exercises to choose from. You can then select what seems best for you.

Horizontal Pushing Movements

  • Bench Press
  • Low Incline Bench Press
  • Decline Bench Press
  • Flat/Incline/Decline Chest Press Machine
  • Flat/Incline/Decline Flyes

Horizontal Pulling Movements

  • Bent Over Rows
  • Seated Cable Rows
  • T-Bar Rows
  • Chest Supported Machine Rows

Vertical Pushing Movements

  • Standing Overhead Shoulder Press
  • Seated Overhead Shoulder Press
  • Lateral Raises
  • Front Raises
  • High Incline Bench Press

Vertical Pulling Movements

  • Pull-Ups
  • Chin-ups
  • Lat Pull-Downs

Elbow Flexion Movements

  • Standing Biceps Curl
  • Seated Biceps Curl
  • Preacher Curls
  • Cable Curls

Elbow Extension Movements

  • Laying Triceps Extension (Skull-Crushers)
  • Triceps Cable Press-Downs
  • Overhead Triceps Extension

Now this obviously isn’t the super mega definitive list of exercises you can choose for an upper body workout routine, but it is some examples of the most popular and effective ones.

In most cases, the next step is to select one exercise from each category/movement pattern shown above. While that isn’t an absolute rule, it is the way it should be done in most cases.

Doing so causes a few important things to happen.

  1. First, it guarantees each movement pattern and muscle group gets trained, which is the #1 goal of the typical upper body workout routine.
  2. Second, it keeps the workout a sane length and avoids unnecessary (and possibly counterproductive) excess exercises from being added.
  3. Third, it ensures there will be proper balance around the joints (elbow and shoulder). What I mean is, for every horizontal push, there should be a horizontal pull (and vice-versa). For every vertical push, there should be a vertical pull (and vice-versa). For every elbow flexion, there should be an elbow extension (and vice-versa). When this type of balance DOESN’T take place, it’s a recipe for disaster in terms of injury potential. Selecting upper body exercises in this manner greatly lessens that potential.

Exercise Order

Now that your weight training exercises have been selected, it’s time to put them in order. Again, this depends on a lot of individual factors, but in general, these are the basic rules of exercise order:

So, the first thing virtually EVERYONE can do is take your biceps and triceps exercises (flexion/extension) and put them at the very end of your upper body workout. Regardless of goals/preferences, that’s where they belong.

Beyond that, it gets a little trickier and depends more on you than absolute rules in my opinion. So, I figure the best thing I can do at this point is throw out some sample upper body workouts for you to learn from or just use as is.

Sample Upper Body Workout Routine #1

  1. Bench Press
  2. Seated Cable Rows
  3. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  4. Lat Pull-Downs
  5. Laying Barbell Extensions
  6. Barbell Curls

Sample Upper Body Workout Routine #2

  1. Pull-Ups
  2. Seated Barbell Shoulder Press
  3. Chest Supported Machine Rows
  4. Flat Dumbbell Bench Press
  5. Dumbbell Curls
  6. Cable Press-Downs

Sample Upper Body Workout Routine #3

  1. Bent Over Barbell Rows
  2. Incline Bench Press
  3. Chin-Ups
  4. Lateral Raises
  5. Overhead Dumbbell Triceps Extension
  6. Preacher Curls

For additional sample workouts, check out my brand new guide to The Best Workout Routines. It contains all of the most effective workouts you’ll need to get the best results possible, including my highly successful Upper Body Focused Training program.

Choosing Optimal Volume (Sets/Reps/Exercises)

Now that you have all of the basics down for intelligently putting together an effective upper body workout routine, the major remaining step is planning how many sets and reps you’ll be doing per exercise, per muscle group/movement pattern, and per workout.

The bad news is, explaining that would require a whole separate article or two. The good news is I’ve already written them. Check them out…

Now Put It Into Action

And that’s about it. You’ve learned everything you need to know to put together the best upper body workout routine possible. Now just pick your version of the upper/lower body split and put it all into action.

Or, better yet, use one of the already proven and highly effective upper body workouts included in my new premium guide, The Best Workout Routines.

Want to build muscle as fast and effectively as possible? It's time: Superior Muscle Growth

Subscribe To A Workout Routine

Subscribe today to get FREE tips, answers and updates
to help you build muscle, lose fat and improve your body!