The Best Upper Body Workout Routine And Exercises

Looking for the best upper body workout routine? Wondering which exercises to do? Or what order to do them in? Or how many sets/reps to do for each?

If so, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, I’m going to tell you everything you need to know to design an effective upper body workout, and I’ll include 5 sample workouts of my own for you to use.

Let’s get started…

What Is An Upper Body Workout?

An upper body workout is any workout that involves training most or all of the muscle groups of the upper body. This includes:

  • Chest
  • Back
  • Shoulders
  • Biceps
  • Triceps

While not required, upper body workouts are most often done as part of an upper/lower routine, which involves training the entire upper body on certain days and the entire lower body on others.

This would be scheduled throughout the week using an upper/lower split. Here’s what the 4-day and 3-day versions of this split look like:

The 4-Day Upper/Lower Split

  1. Monday: Upper Body
  2. Tuesday: Lower Body
  3. Wednesday: off
  4. Thursday: Upper Body
  5. Friday: Lower Body
  6. Saturday: off
  7. Sunday: off

The 3-Day Upper/Lower Split

Week 1

  1. Monday: Upper Body
  2. Tuesday: off
  3. Wednesday: Lower Body
  4. Thursday: off
  5. Friday: Upper Body
  6. Saturday: off
  7. Sunday: off

Week 2

  1. Monday: Lower Body
  2. Tuesday: off
  3. Wednesday: Upper Body
  4. Thursday: off
  5. Friday: Lower Body
  6. Saturday: off
  7. Sunday: off

Check out my guide to the upper/lower split to learn the differences between the 3-day and 4-day versions, and to see some additional scheduling options.

Upper Body Exercises: The 6 Categories

The vast majority of upper body exercises will fall into one of the following six categories:

  1. Horizontal Pushing
  2. Horizontal Pulling
  3. Vertical Pushing
  4. Vertical Pulling
  5. Elbow Flexion
  6. Elbow Extension

Why should you care about any of this? Two reasons:

  • Effectiveness
    Designing a workout with these six categories in mind will help ensure that every upper body muscle group is being trained, and you’re using each available movement plane to do so.
  • Injury Prevention And Balance
    Designing things this way also helps to keep everything balanced around the joints (e.g. similar amounts of “pulling” exercises as there are “pushing” exercises), which will play an important role in injury prevention.

Let’s take a look at each of these categories and the muscle groups/exercises they comprise…

1. Horizontal Pushing Exercises

A horizontal pushing exercise is any movement in which the weight is being pushed out in front of you so that it’s traveling away from your torso in a horizontal plane. Most chest exercises fit into this category. For example:

  • Bench Press
  • Incline Bench Press
  • Decline Bench Press
  • Flat/Incline/Decline Chest Press Machine
  • Push-Ups
  • Dumbbell/Cable/Machine Flyes

2. Horizontal Pulling Exercises

A horizontal pulling exercise is any movement in which the weight is being pulled in towards your torso from out in front of you in a horizontal plane. Most back “rowing” exercises fit into this category. For example:

  • Bent Over Barbell Rows
  • Bent Over Dumbbell Rows
  • Seated Cable Rows
  • T-Bar Rows
  • Chest Supported Rows
  • Inverted Rows
  • Various Machine Rows
  • Various Rear Delt Exercises

(Note: Even though the rear delts are a part of the shoulder, they fit best in the horizontal pulling category with these types of back movements).

3. Vertical Pushing Exercises

A vertical pushing exercise is any movement in which the weight is being pushed upwards in relation to your torso in a vertical plane. Most shoulder exercises fit into this category. For example:

  • Barbell Shoulder Press
  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Machine Shoulder Press
  • Lateral Raises
  • Front Raises

(Note: Lateral raises and front raises are technically not “pushing” movements, but they still fit best in this category. “Vertical raising” movements would be more accurate.)

4. Vertical Pulling Exercises

A vertical pulling exercise is any movement in which the weight is being pulled down towards your torso in a vertical plane. Most back “pull-up/pull-down” exercises fit into this category. For example:

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

5. Elbow Flexion Exercises

An elbow flexion exercise is any movement in which the weight is being pulled towards your torso strictly as a result of flexing at the elbow. Most biceps curling exercises fit into this category. For example:

  • Barbell Curls
  • Dumbbell Curls
  • Cable Curls
  • Preacher Curls
  • Hammer Curls

6. Elbow Extension Exercises

An elbow extension exercise is any movement in which the weight is being moved away from your torso strictly as a result of extending at the elbow. Most triceps extension exercises fit into this category. For example:

  • Triceps Pushdowns
  • Overhead Dumbbell Extensions
  • Skull Crushers
  • Triceps Kickbacks

How Many Total Sets And Exercises Should You Do?

Now that you know the types of exercises an upper body workout should include, the next thing we need to figure out is how many exercises we should include from each category, and how many sets and reps should be done for each.

This is all collectively known as volume.

And when designing a workout routine of any kind – especially for the purpose of building muscle – your goal is to do an optimal amount of volume for each body part/movement pattern.

Because if you’re not doing enough, your progress won’t be as good as it could be. And if you do too much, you can exceed your capacity to recover which can hinder/prevent progress or even cause progress to be lost (source).

You want to find the sweet spot in the middle of these two scenarios.

The Optimal Amount Of Volume

So, what is this sweet spot? We have plenty of real-world experience and a handful of studies over a span of years (like this one) to make some pretty good guesses at how much volume is optimal.

But it was 2017 meta analysis (which is basically a massive study of all of the studies previously done on volume) that has allowed us to confidently narrow things down.

Specifically, it appears 10-20 sets per week per muscle group is best for most people, with the low end likely being ideal for beginners, the high end for the advanced, and somewhere in between for intermediates/everyone else.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that secondary volume – which we’ll define as the volume secondary muscle groups receive while training primary muscle groups – counts towards these numbers.

For example, the triceps are involved during all chest and shoulder pressing exercises, the biceps are involved in most back exercises, and the shoulders are involved in most chest exercises.

Which means the triceps, biceps, and shoulders will receive indirect volume while training other upper body muscle groups.

For this reason, I would adjust this recommendation to be 10-20 direct sets each, per week, for the chest and back, and 5-10 direct sets each, per week, for the biceps, triceps, and shoulders.

The Optimal Volume Per Upper Body Workout

So now we know how many total sets to do per week for each body part. But how does that break down in terms of sets per workout?

Well, assuming your upper body workouts are being done as part of an upper/lower split, you’ll typically be training each muscle group twice per week, which is likely the ideal training frequency for most people seeking muscle growth (source).

This means you’ll be aiming to do the following in each of your two upper body workouts:

  • Chest: 5-10 sets per workout.
  • Back: 5-10 sets per workout.
  • Shoulders: 2-5 sets per workout.
  • Biceps: 2-5 sets per workout.
  • Triceps: 2-5 sets per workout.

How Many Exercises Per Muscle Group?

The next obvious question is how many exercises should you use to reach this optimal number of sets for each muscle group in each workout?

This largely comes down to personal preference and anecdotal evidence. And in my experience, I’ve found the following to work best for most people:

  • Chest: 2 exercises per workout.
  • Back: 2 exercises per workout.
  • Shoulders: 1 exercise per workout.
  • Biceps: 1 exercise per workout.
  • Triceps: 1 exercise per workout.

How To Design An Upper Body Workout

Now let’s put everything together. There are plenty of different ways to approach this, but I want to show you the steps I take whenever I design an upper body workout for myself or someone else.

Here we go…

Step #0: Individualization

The first step to designing an upper body workout routine, or really ANY kind of workout routine, should be individualization.

This means taking the individual needs, goals, preferences, training/injury history, etc. of the specific person the program is being designed for, and going forward with all of that in mind.

Since we don’t have a specific person in this case, we’re just going to assume it’s for a typical man or woman whose primary goal is to build muscle.

Step #1: Chest

First, I’ll choose two horizontal pushing exercises. One will typically be a flat movement, and the other will typically be an incline movement.

The exercises themselves will either both be compound pressing exercises (like barbell bench press and incline dumbbell press), or one compound press (like any barbell, dumbbell, or machine press) and one isolation movement (like dumbbell flyes, cable flyes, pec deck, etc.).

The first chest exercise in the workout will be done heavier and in a lower rep range (typically 4-8) with longer rest periods (2-4 minutes), and the other will be a little lighter and in a slightly higher rep range (typically 8-15) with shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes).

Why? Because progressive tension and metabolic stress are the primary stimuli for muscle growth (source), and this approach gives us a nice combination of both.

Step #2: Back

I’ll then choose two back exercises. One will be a horizontal pulling movement (i.e. some type of row), and the other will be a vertical pulling movement (i.e. some type of pull-up/pull-down)

Just like in step #1 with chest, the first back exercise in this upper body workout will be done heavier, in a lower rep range (4-8 reps), with longer rest periods (2-4 minutes)… while the other will be a little lighter, in a higher rep range (8-15 reps), with slightly shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes).

Step #3: Shoulders

The one shoulder exercise I choose will either be a vertical pushing movement (i.e. overhead press) or a “vertical raising” movement for the side delts (i.e. lateral raises).

Whether I choose an overhead press or lateral raise as the shoulder exercise in a given workout is mostly dependent on what the chest exercise selection is in that same workout.

Specifically, if both chest exercises are compound pressing movements, the shoulder exercise will typically be lateral raises. But if one of the two chest exercises is an isolation movement, the shoulder exercise usually becomes an overhead press.

And if it’s an overhead press, I’ll usually go with a low-moderate rep range (5-10) and moderate rest (2-3 minutes). If it’s lateral raises, it will be in a higher rep range (10-15) with shorter rest (1-2 minutes).

Step #4: Biceps

I’ll choose one biceps isolation exercise (elbow flexion) such as dumbbell curls, EZ bar curls, or something similar. It will be done in a higher rep range (8-15) with shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes).

Step #5: Triceps

I’ll choose one triceps isolation exercise (elbow extension) such as triceps pushdowns, skull crushers, or something similar. Just like with biceps, it will be done in a higher rep range (8-15) with shorter rest periods (1-2 minutes).

Step #6: Other

In many cases, that would be it. But in other cases, depending on the specific needs of the person (you know, the individualization I mentioned earlier), there may be some other stuff added. For example, some direct rear delt work (e.g. 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps of something like face pulls).

Step #7: Exercise Order

There are tons of different ways to arrange the exercises in an upper body workout depending on the needs, goals, and preferences of each person. Generally speaking, though, the generic guidelines for exercise order are a good place to start. That means:

  • Compound exercises before isolation exercises.
    For example, bench press before dumbbell flyes.
  • Bigger muscle groups before smaller muscle groups.
    For example, chest/back before biceps/triceps.
  • Harder, heavier, more taxing exercises before easier, lighter, less taxing ones.
    For example, pull-ups in the 4-8 rep range before chest supported machine rows in the 8-15 rep range.

Step #8: Interaction With The Other Upper Body Workout

Since most upper/lower routines involve doing two upper body workouts per week, you can either repeat the same workout twice, or design two different workouts.

My preference is to have two different workouts. And for that, I’ll simply go through the previous steps all over again, while making a few small adjustments.

What kind of adjustments, you ask?

  • Different Exercises
    For example, if there was a bent over barbell row in the first workout, it might be a seated cable row (or any other row) in the second.
  • Different Exercise Order
    For example, if the first workout started with a chest exercise, the second workout might start with a back exercise. And if the back exercise order was horizontal pull followed by vertical pull, maybe I’ll switch it to vertical pull followed by horizontal pull.
  • Different Rep Ranges
    For example, if the exercise for a certain movement pattern was originally done in the 5-8 rep range, the exercise for that movement pattern may now be done in the 8-15 rep range instead.

And so on. These are just examples, by the way. Not requirements.

But these minor differences between the two weekly upper body workouts fit my preferences because they help provide balance (so body parts/movement patterns receive similar amounts of training focus and attention), as well as mental and physical variety (which provides a different type of training stimulus for muscle growth, and helps prevent boredom and overuse injuries).

5 Sample Upper Body Workouts

Taking all of the above guidelines and recommendations into account, here are 5 sample upper body workouts for the goal of building muscle.

(Note: The numbers after the exercises are how many sets/reps to do. For example, 3×6-8 means 3 sets of 6-8 reps.)

Upper Body Workout #1

  1. Bench Press: 3×6-8
  2. Seated Cable Rows: 3×6-8
  3. Incline Dumbbell Press: 3×8-10
  4. Lat Pull-Downs: 3×8-10
  5. Lateral Raises: 3×10-15
  6. Skull Crushers: 2-3×10-15
  7. Dumbbell Curls: 2-3×10-15

Upper Body Workout #2

  1. Pull-Ups: 3×6-8
  2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3×6-8
  3. Chest Supported Rows: 3×8-10
  4. Dumbbell Bench Press: 3×8-10
  5. Incline Dumbbell Flyes: 2-3×10-15
  6. Cable Curls: 2-3×10-15
  7. Triceps Pushdowns: 2-3×10-15

Upper Body Workout #3

  1. Incline Bench Press: 3×6-8
  2. Bent Over Barbell Rows: 3×6-8
  3. Chest Press Machine: 3×8-10
  4. Lat Pull-Downs: 3×8-10
  5. Cable Lateral Raises: 3×10-15
  6. EZ Bar Curls: 2-3×10-15
  7. Overhead Dumbbell Extension: 2-3×10-15

Upper Body Workout #4

  1. Barbell Shoulder Press: 3×6-8
  2. Pull-Ups: 3×6-8
  3. Incline Press Machine: 3×8-10
  4. T-Bar Rows: 3×8-10
  5. Pec Deck: 2-3×10-15
  6. Overhead Rope Extension: 2-3×10-15
  7. Rope Hammer Curls: 2-3×10-15

#5: The Muscle Building Workout Routine

If you’re looking for a full upper/lower program that puts everything together for you, I’d highly recommend The Muscle Building Workout Routine.

It’s 100% free, and it’s one of my most popular programs.

For additional options, also check out my Superior Muscle Growth program. It comes with an entire book of workouts for a variety of different schedules and splits.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay is the science-based writer and researcher behind everything you've seen here. He has 15+ years of experience helping thousands of men and women lose fat, gain muscle, and build their "goal body." His work has been featured by the likes of Time, The Huffington Post, CNET, Business Week and more, referenced in studies, used in textbooks, quoted in publications, and adapted by coaches, trainers and diet professionals at every level.