Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Core Upper Body Lifts

Below you will find my absolute go-to exercises for building an upper body to be proud of. Most of the exercises are pretty old-school compound lifts. They work, do them. I’ve thrown in a couple of isolation and bodyweight exercises as well, but we’ll get to that as we go along. First up…


Ask anybody on the street about weightlifting, and they will know about the bench press. Guess what: there is damn good reason for that. It is simply a great chest-building exercise. While it is traditionally performed with a barbell, I’m going to recommend you do them with dumbbells. Firstly, you get a deeper range of motion to really tax those pectoral (chest) muscles. More importantly though, the difference in safety and joint health is tremendous. A traditional barbell bench press puts seriously undue stress on your shoulders and wrists. Over time, especially as you get stronger and the weight adds up, injuries are inevitable. The dumbbell bench press allows your arms total freedom and as a result, alleviates the anatomical problems that exist with the barbell. Additionally, the dumbbell press removes the need for a spotter.

With my reasoning covered, lets go into the actual movement.

Lie on a bench and position dumbbells to the sides of your chest with your bent arm underneath each dumbbell. Press the dumbbells up until your arms are fully extended. Then lower the weight back to the sides of your upper chest until a slight stretch is felt. Repeat.
A couple of comments about the pressing movement. The dumbbells should be pressed in a slight arch pattern, with the weights out above the upper arm at the bottom of the movement and moving inwards in line with your shoulder at the top of the movement.



Yet another classic. This exercise is an absolutely fantastic back-builder. It targets your whole back, from the rhomboids to the lats and a host of other muscles. Again, while it can be performed with a barbell, I recommend dumbbells for an increased range of movement (and therefore greater back activation). Although you can do both arms at the same time, I recommend you do this with one-arm at a time since this exercise is best performed with heavy weight. Doing the exercise with one-arm allows you to use your other arm as a support and get a very deep back stretch on each side.

On to the exercise:

Place your knee and the hand of your support arm on a flat bench. Position your opposing leg slight back and to the side to allow your back to be close to horizontal. Pull the dumbbell up from the floor until it makes contact with your ribs or your upper arm passes horizontal. Then lower the weight until your arm is extended and shoulder stretched downward. Repeat for the desired number of reps and then switch to the other arm. IMPORTANT: Ensure you allow your shoulder blades to move as you lift the weight. You should feel them being tightened at the top of the rep.

Time for the shoulders…


Incredible shoulders exercise. Probably the only real shoulder exercise you need. Really works the shoulder and keeps it burning for days. If you perform it with dumbbells, you may want to do the press while seated to make it easy to bring the weight up and back down. With a barbell, you can use a rack to ensure its at the appropriate height and can do it either seated or standing (I prefer standing so I can’t cheat by leaning back against the seat of the bench).


Barbell (Seated or Standing): Grasp barbell from rack with an overhand slightly wider than shoulder width grip. Position bar on the upper chest just below your neck. Press the bar upwards until arms are fully extended overhead. Lower the bar back to the starting position and repeat.

Dumbbell:  Position dumbbells to side of shoulders with elbows below wrists. Press the dumbbells upwards until arms are fully extended overhead. Lower the bar back to the starting position and repeat. 

Those cover the major upper-body weighted compound exercises. I also believe strongly in the benefit of compound bodyweight exercises for muscle building. The three such exercises I find to be the best are: chin-ups/pull-ups, pushups, and dips.


Incredible back builder. Particularly the pull-up (palms facing away from you). This is because a conventional pull-up has a wider grip than the chin-up (palms facing towards you) and requires more back activation than the chin-up which uses more of the biceps in addition to the back.  These exercises also have the happy effect of being a great bicep exercise and perhaps the best ab exercise you can do (seriously!)

Pull-Up Directions: Grab a bar with a wide overhand grip and pull your body up until your upper chest reaches the bar. Lower your body until your arms are fully extended and repeat.

Chin-Up Directions: Grab a bar with a shoulder-width underhand grip and pull your body up until your chin is above the bar. Lower your body until your arms are fully extended and repeat.


Great chest-builder. If you do enough of them, you’ll be VERY surprised the amount of chest burn you will get. They also work your triceps quite well. If you find them too easy, elevate your feet. I really don’t think I need to tell you how to do a pushup…so on to dips.


Dips are like the upper-body squat. Tremendous movement and another fantastic chest/triceps builder. A lot of people perform what are called bench dips, but a dipping bar will give far better results.

Bench Dip: Find a bench/chair/whatever and sit down. Place hands on the edge of the bench, straighten your arms, and slide off the bench, placing your heels on the floor with your legs straight. Lower your body by bending your arms until a stretch if felt in your chest or shoulder, or your rear touches the floor. Raise your body and repeat. If you find this too easy, find another bench to place your heels on instead of the floor and perform the movement.

Dip (on dipping bar): Stand in between dipping bars, grip them, and push yourself off the ground until your arms are fully extended. Bend your knees slightly and then lower your body by bending your arms. When a slight stretch if felt in your chest, push your body up until your arms are straight and repeat.

Dips on a dipping bar
Well, there you have THE definitive list on the best upper-body building exercises in existence. These have withstood the test of time and for good reason. While you may notice that they chiefly work the chest/back/shoulders, each movement, because it is compound, works numerous muscles, so rest assured everything from your biceps to your abdominals will feel the burn. If you feel you would like to supplement with isolation exercises to target your biceps, triceps, abs, etc. stay tuned for some of my favorites to be on the Becoming Adonis blog in the future.

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