How To Train Your Upper Body
Upper Body Workouts are among the most searched workout programs on the Internet - and for a very obvious reason. Most people get into exercising for what you could call “mirror gratification” - that could be losing weight, building or toning muscle in specific areas.
For guys, that often means a large, broad chest, big arms and washboard abs. These goals are based on the ‘final results’ you see from guys who have been training for years. These goals often result in cycling through the same handful of workouts you think are going to get you the body you want. You might start off well, but your progress quickly plateaus and that discouragement often leads to giving up.
This article is going to teach you how to train your Total Upper Body.
We recommend you also read up on our article, Why You Need To Train Your Legs because - as you’ll start to learn by the end of this article, you need to think of your body as a single connected network of muscles and systems that work and develop much more efficiently together than by isolating a few muscle groups.
So, before we begin, let’s set some expectations.
Yes, we are going to include a workout at the end of this article that you can take away and start crushing out at the gym. But your fitness must evolve on a regular basis to help prevent plateaus and to create balance. Our goal here is to teach you how your upper body is built and how to make informed choices to customise your own training program.
TURBO-CHARGE YOUR TRAINING
We’re always saying that while fitness is demanding and requires dedication, it doesn’t have to be complicated.
Since we’re talking about building muscle mass and burning body fat, you can easily think of the road ahead being paved with about 30% exercise bricks and 70% nutrition bricks. (Sweet metaphor, no?)
Since it’s the bulk of this article, we can be brief here. But you need to understand that your body doesn’t care that you want to look awesome on the beach. Your body - that single connected network we talked about - is designed to operate as efficiently as possible to aid your primal need for survival. (This is also true of nutrition, below)
When you perform an exercise with heavy weights, it teaches your body that it needs to grow stronger to support your daily needs. The same is true of exercises tied to other goals. As you perform the same exercises over and over again, your body will adapt to these needs and your progress will stop.
A plateau is surpassed by preventing your body from adapting - increasing the weights, modifying your Rep/Set combinations, or changing your exercises to force your body to accomplish the same task with different movements and muscle groups. We’ll talk more about what this means later on.
You need fuel in the tank if you’re going to drive that car, my friend. Do not confuse fat loss with starvation. Do not confuse calorie consumption with nutrition.
If you want to build muscle and burn fat, you need to eat the right stuff, and a lot of it.
YOUR CALORIE INTAKE NEEDS:
A Calorie is a measurement of energy from food. You need enough to power your body. Yes, if you eat more calories than you use, your body will store excess energy as body fat. While, a safe number for weight loss is no more than 500 calories under your daily needs, since you’re going to be doing some heavy training, you’ll be burning stored body fat anyway and you should try to stay close to your daily needs.
*A Note On Empty Calories: An Empty Calorie is a calorie with no nutritional value. Typically these are sugary foods or foods high in unhealthy fats. No nutrition means no fuel for your body - these calories get sucked straight into your fat cells.
Basically, if the food you’re eating looks like there were very few steps from nature into your mouth, you’re eating good, nutritious food.
MACRONUTRIENTS: The Basics
For simplicity, all of the real food you eat is made up of 3 Macronutrients: Protein, Carbohydrates, Fats.
And you need ALL of them.
Needed for the maintenance and repair of tissues (like muscles), as well as production of hormones, enzymes and important chemicals. To ensure consistent muscle growth, you need to keep your body in an anabolic state (think of it as a Protein Surplus).
Remember, your body doesn’t care what your goals are. If you're not consuming enough protein, your body has no problem with breaking down your muscle tissue to recycle that protein for uses it deems more important than you looking ripped.
How Much: The general rule of thumb for bodybuilding is 2.2g/Kg of your lean body weight. Protein is also the only Macro that your body doesn’t store in fat cells if it isn’t used. You don’t want to go way overboard, but you don’t need to stress about going over.
1g = 4 Calories
Related Article: Everything You Need To Know About Protein
Carbs are your body’s primary source of energy. If you want to lift heavy, you need your carbs.
Your body breaks carbs down into sugar to use as energy. It’s only when you don’t use the energy from your carbs that your super efficient body stores the surplus in your fat cells for future use.
Simple Carbs like table sugar, white flour, fruit juice, and corn syrup are “Simple” because it’s a one-step process of turning that sugar into energy and unless you’re hitting the gym immediately, you’re probably not going to use that energy before it gets stored away as body fat.
Complex Carbs like whole fruits and grains, veggies take longer to break down into energy. This slower process allows you to use that energy at a more moderate pace as you go through your day.
1g = 4 Calories
Related Article: How Carbohydrates Work and Why You Need Them
Fats are your body’s secondary source of energy once your glycogen stores from carbs have been depleted. They are also responsible for the absorption of important nutrients, keeping your immune system healthy, insulating your vital organs and regulating your body temperature.
Fats are much higher in caloric value and take longer to metabolise, meaning that even a small amount can help keep you feeling full for longer - which is actually a huge asset in weight loss.
The ‘trouble’ comes from eating the wrong types of fat (i.e. Saturated Fats, Trans Fats, Hydrogenated Oils), which you can read more about in the link below.
1g = 9 Calories
Related Article: The Truth About Fat
Sports supplements, like Whey Protein, BCAAs, and Creatine are designed to help you hit your nutrition targets in tandem with a healthy diet. You don’t need supplements - you can get everything you need from food and your body’s ability to produce what it needs.
When you need to consume a large amount of nutrient rich foods on a daily basis, and keep track of which nutrients you need more of, it can be very difficult. The simple reason to add supplements to your diet is to make things easier for you or to speed up the replenishing process.
You can read more on supplements here:
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR UPPER BODY
We’re not going to get too deep into every minusca of the muscles that make up your upper body, but the primary muscle groups worked in your upper body are:
CHEST | BACK | ARMS | SHOULDERS | ABS
There are essentially two types of exercises that concern most training - Pulling and Pushing exercises. As we read further you’ll see that Pulling muscles all work together, as Pushing muscles do, meaning that you can work several muscles at once. These are called Compound Exercises and are your greatest ally in strength training as the utilisation of several muscles will allow you to lift more total weight.
Your chest is a Pushing muscle group.
When you train your chest, the two main muscles you’re concerned with are your Pectoralis Major and Pectoralis Minor.
If you train these two muscles, you will eventually get the muscle development you’re after. There’s also a lot of talk (and debate) about the “Upper Chest” and whether or not it actually exists. The truth is, the Upper Chest is just a portion of the Pectoralis Major called the Clavicular Head.
While this is not a separate muscle, the muscle fibres in the clavicular head run at a different angle than the portion of the muscle you would be targeting with, let’s say, a standard flat bench press. Choosing exercises that emphasise the Upper Chest will help develop your chest in that ideal way since they are also solid all-around chest exercises.
Great Chest Exercises:
- Flat Barbell Bench Press
- Incline Barbell Bench Press
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Reverse-Grip Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Flyes
Note on Dumbbells: There is a huge range of variations you can do with Dumbbells when it comes to chest exercises, from the exercises themselves to the angle at which you hold them. Many argue that they’re not only safer on your joints, especially if you have shoulder issues, but they also contribute to a deeper muscle development.
Your back is the counter balance to your chest and thus is a Pulling muscle group.
While you may be more motivated to work your chest than your back, it’s very important that you keep a good balance in your muscle development. Not only will neglecting your back result in some strange looking gains, but you will also increase your risk of injury.
A good rule of thumb is to Pull at least as much as you Push.
Great Back Exercises:
- Deadlift | Works just about everything
- Row: Barbell, Dumbbell, Cable
- Lat Pulldown (Wide- and Close-Grip)
As most people know, the primary muscles in your arms are your Biceps, Triceps and Forearms.
Your Biceps are made up of two main muscles:
The Biceps Brachii, this is the main muscle you think of when it comes to biceps. Connected from your shoulder to your elbow.
Exercises: Dumbbell Curls, Barbell Curls
The Brachialis - a small muscle that sits beneath the Bicep and connects the bottom half of your bicep to your forearm.
Exercises: Hammer Curls, Reverse Curls
If you want huge arms, Triceps should not be ignored as they make up about ⅔ of your arm size! Fortunately, Triceps are the secondary muscle in most chest workouts, so your endeavour for a bigger chest will have your Triceps working overtime.
- Close-Grip Bench Press
- Lying Triceps Press
- Triceps Pushdown
Your forearms will naturally develop as you work your biceps and triceps. Certainly you can do additional exercises specifically to build your forearms, however the main benefit to doing so is to improve your grip strength.
Your shoulders have the widest range of movement than any other joint in your body - and they play a huge supporting role in most of your upper body exercises. Because of this, they are very susceptible to injury and should be properly trained to be able to help you progress, remain healthy, and give you that enviable, squared-off physique.
The three largest muscles in your shoulders are your:
- Anterior deltoid (Front)
- Lateral deltoid (Top)
- Posterior deltoid (Back)
It’s very important to develop all three of these major shoulder muscles. Typically, the Anterior Deltoid gets the most attention by default, so it’s especially important to give some focus to your Lateral and Posterior delts to get that fully rounded look.
Great Shoulder Exercises:
- Seated or Standing Military Press
- Arnold Press
- Dumbbell Front Raise
- Dumbbell Side Lateral Raise
- Dumbbell Rear Lateral Raise
- Barbell Rear Delt Row
- Cable Face Pull
Want to see those abs? You’re going to have to burn off that belly fat. Really pronounced abs happen at around 10% body fat for men and around 20% body fat for women - largely due to the way our bodies store fat.
10% body fat can be difficult to obtain, depending on your body type. Proper nutrition will play the biggest role in getting to a body fat range where your abs become visible. Does that mean you can’t get there - of course not!
Now, aesthetics aside, you need to train your core. Your core is responsible for stabilising your entire body - and the more powerful your core is, the more power you’ll have to break through other training boundaries.
The Best Ab Exercises:
- Cable Crunch
- Captain’s Chair Leg Raise
- Hanging Leg Raise
- Air Bicycle
- Ab Wheel Rollout
PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD FOR MUSCLE GAIN
The logic of Progressive Overload is sound - so sound, in fact, that even if you’ve never heard of it, you’re probably already incorporating the principle to some degree.
For your muscles to grow stronger and larger, you need to put more stress on your muscles than they are used to. Conversely if you make it too easy for yourself, your muscles will start to atrophy and your progress will backslide. This is where Progressive Overload comes in.
Let’s say that you can curl 35kg for 8 reps before your muscles fail. Soon enough, you’ll be able to do 10 or 12 reps before your muscles fail. It’s time to increase the stress - here are a few ways you can do this:
1 | Increase The Resistance
The most obvious method of increasing the load you put on your muscles is to literally add more weight. If your 8 rep max at 35kg has now evolved to a 12RM, add 2.5kg to each side of the bar. Since there is an inverse relationship between load and reps, when you increase the weight, your max rep count will naturally drop down - it’s now your goal to build those reps back up!
2 | Increase The Reps
You don’t always need to increase the weight. You also don’t need to stop when you hit your rep target. If you started benching with a 6 Rep Max, but now you’re hitting 6 Reps no problem, keep going!
There is a limited benefit to this technique, but it will save you from having to constantly tweak your resistance. All you really need to know is that it’s widely accepted - both scientifically and in practice - that Hypertrophy (muscle growth) benefits from a maximum of 12 reps in a set. Anything beyond 12 and you’re moving into muscle endurance training - which is still awesome, but isn’t going to get you the size gains you’re looking for.
While certain muscles, like forearms, calves, and abs benefit greater from higher reps - generally speaking, this is a basic breakdown of how rep ranges benefit your muscles:
3 | Total Training Volume
Training Volume can be broken down as a science of its own, but the concept is fairly simple. By multiplying your number of reps by sets and weight, you arrive at a total volume:
Many would argue that this total number is a more accurate and relevant measure and should be what you base your progressive overload strategy on.
For example, rather than doing more reps or adding weight, you could do an extra set. You could also use this Volume formula to measure your Total Chest Workout Volume and up the overload by doing the extra set at a different angle to target the muscle differently, or add in a different exercise that focusses on the same muscle group.
This number can also factor into your total weekly volume. If you are working out very intensely, you may not need to hit the gym 4-5 times per week when you’re accomplishing the same volume over just 2 training days like the workout plan below
A general rule of thumb for each major muscle group, based on your 1 Rep Max (the maximum amount of weight you can lift):
YOUR WORKOUT PLAN
Below is a sample workout plan you can start crushing out right away. This plan is based on a two day per week training programme. If the exercises are too intense or difficult to accomplish, you can alter the exercises to suit your level.
For example, you may struggle to complete a pull up at this stage - using a pull up assist machine or lateral pull down machine can help you build up your strength. Or, if completing this entire workout is too taxing and you are able to commit more days per week at the gym, you can use what you’ve learned in this article to break up your training days specifically for your Chest, Back, Shoulders, and Arms.
Remember what we said about Total Training Volume. These workouts are only twice per week because the amount of volume covered in each workout is so high, you’ll need more rest between workouts.