Are you on the hunt for compound exercises that efficiently target your upper body muscles? You’re in the right place!
We’ve researched the most popular and effective compound upper body exercises to determine which ones are the most efficient for building strength and muscle mass.
We’ve assembled this list of the top ones so you can pick the exercises that best suit your needs.
You’ll find comprehensive details about the advantages of each exercise, how to execute them correctly, and how to program your workout routines.
Table of Contents
- 1 8 Best Upper Body Compound Exercises
- 2 Benefits of Compound Upper Body Exercises
- 3 How to Train Upper Body
- 4 Anatomy of the Upper Body
- 5 Compound Upper Body Exercises FAQs
8 Best Upper Body Compound Exercises
- Overhead press
- Barbell bench press
- T-bar row
- Seated cable row
- Pendlay row
- Chin up
- Pull up
Benefits of overhead presses
The overhead press is a key compound chest exercise. It builds muscle but significantly boosts overall power by requiring an explosive push from a stationary position. It’s pivotal for increasing upper-body muscle coordination, involving multiple joints and muscle groups, which is essential for functional strength.
Regularly incorporating this exercise can improve posture by strengthening back and shoulder muscles, mitigating the effects of prolonged sitting. Also, it targets the deltoids, bolstering shoulder strength and stability, and laying a foundation for stronger upper body muscles.
How to perform overhead presses
- Load an appropriate weight on the barbell. Stand in front of the barbell rack, with your feet shoulder-width apart, gripping the barbell just outside shoulder width, palms facing forward. Position the bar in front of your shoulders at or just slightly above shoulder height.
- Press the bar upward, extending your arms out fully without locking your elbows. Keep your core muscles engaged. If you feel comfortable doing so, maintain a slight bend in your knees to protect your spine.
- As the bar goes up, keep it as close to your face as possible without touching it. Your head should naturally move back to allow the bar to pass in front of it.
- Once your arms are fully extended, pause briefly at the top of the movement. Ensure your core is still engaged.
- Return to the starting position by lowering the bar down until your elbows are tucked into your sides. Control the movement while lowering the weight.
- Perform the desired amount of sets and reps.
With a little bit of practice, pretty much anyone can master the overhead press. To help you along the way, here’s a step-by-step guide from Jeff Nippard to ensure your form is spot on:
How to program overhead presses
Program the overhead press for 5-10 reps with heavier loads to improve strength and 8-12 reps with moderate loads to enhance muscle endurance. Heavier loads should be around 75-85% of your one-rep max (1RM). Moderate loads can range from 50% to 75%. Consider running this exercise in your routine for 4-6 weeks before assessing progress and making adjustments.
Barbell bench press
Benefits of barbell bench presses
The barbell bench press is a great upper-body exercise to enhance chest muscle size and strength. It offers a more comprehensive workout than isolation exercises by targeting the entire pectoral area. Beyond building chest muscles, it effectively engages and strengthens the shoulders and triceps, improving overall upper body strength and supporting joint health.
A key aspect of this exercise is the need for active shoulder blade engagement and stabilization, which protects the shoulder joints and builds muscles needed for scapular movement. If you’re curious, check out our guide on the muscles barbell bench press engages.
How to perform barbell bench presses
- Rack a straight bar above a bench and load the desired weight. Lie flat on the bench with your feet planted on the ground. Grip the barbell with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, ensuring your shoulder blades are retracted and firmly pressed against the bench.
- Lift the bar off the rack by straightening your arms and position the bar directly above your chest with your arms fully extended.
- Inhale as you slowly lower the bar to your mid-chest, keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle from your body. Ensure the bar is controlled and steady through the descent.
- Exhale as you press the bar back up to the starting position, driving through your chest and triceps. Focus on maintaining a stable core and flat back against the bench throughout the movement.
- Once the bar is back to the starting position, with your arms fully extended, you’ve completed one rep. Make sure your shoulder blades stay retracted to increase the effectiveness of the exercise.
- Hit the desired number of reps and sets.
Get the most out of the barbell bench press by watching the video below. It’s a must-watch for anybody looking to nail their technique and protect their shoulders:
How to program bench presses
For building chest strength and size, perform the barbell bench press in the range of 5-10 reps with heavier loads and 10-15 reps with moderate loads. Heavier loads are typically 75-85% of your 1RM, and moderate loads are 50-75%.
This exercise can be effectively incorporated into your training program for 6-8 weeks. You can take a similar approach if doing a variation like an incline dumbbell bench press.
Benefits of t-bar rows
The T-bar row targets the entire back, from the upper to the lower regions. It utilizes a unique angle and range of motion for deep muscle engagement and development. Regular inclusion of this movement in your workout routine can enhance back strength and grip strength.
Also, it demands considerable core engagement, with the abs acting as stabilizers throughout the lift. This gives you something that closely resembles a full-body workout. It’s a great substitute for your standard barbell pull exercises.
How to perform t-bar rows
- Load a suitable weight on the t-bar station. Stand over the T-bar with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent. Bend at the hips to grasp the handles of the T-bar, ensuring your back is straight and your core is engaged.
- Begin the movement by lifting the bar off the ground, keeping your back flat and your eyes focused ahead.
- Pull the bar towards your abdomen, keeping your elbows close to your body while doing so. Maximize engagement by squeezing your back muscles at the top of the movement.
- Slowly lower the bar back to the starting position, maintaining control and keeping your core engaged to protect your lower back.
- Do as many reps and sets as you’re aiming for.
Unlock the secrets of the T-bar row. This video will show you the form you need to properly engage those back muscles:
How to program t-bar rows
Target the entire back by incorporating T-bar rows for 8-12 reps with moderate to heavy loads, focusing on form and muscle engagement. Moderate loads should challenge you without compromising form. Include this exercise for 4-6 weeks to see improvements in back strength and muscle mass.
Benefits of dips
Dips are celebrated for their effectiveness in simultaneously targeting the chest, shoulders, and triceps. This makes them a handy tool for boosting upper body strength. Beyond strengthening, dips excel in increasing arm muscle definition, especially the triceps, promising enhanced muscle tone with focused effort during the pushing phase.
Also, they’re incredibly versatile, with the possibility of incorporating advanced variations, whether by adding weight, adjusting the speed, or modifying the range of motion.
How to perform dips
- Approach the dip station and then grip the bars firmly. Jump up and straighten your arms, leaning slightly forward to engage your chest more. Make sure your legs are straight or crossed at the ankles for added stability.
- Slowly bring your body down by bending your elbows until they’re at 90 degrees. Keep your elbows close to your body to maximize tricep engagement.
- Push through your palms, extending your elbows to lift your body back to the starting position. Focus on using your chest and triceps to drive the movement.
- Do the target number of sets and reps.
Dips can take your tricep and chest development to the next level. But, the best way to maximize your gains is by using the proper form. Have a look at how the form and execution are broken down in this video:
How to program dips
Dips can be programmed with body weight for beginners, progressing to added weights for advanced individuals. Aim for 8-12 reps for muscle building and endurance. Adjust the intensity by adding weight or changing the speed. Dips are versatile and can be included in routines for continuous cycles of 4-6 weeks, with variations to keep the challenge.
Seated cable row
Benefits of seated cable rows
The seated cable row offers a customizable approach to back training through its variety of grip options, including a straight bar, rope attachment, or V-bar. Each variation can target the back muscles differently for both comfort and challenge.
This exercise is great for its stability benefits, as the seated position allows for rowing with greater intensity compared to its standing barbell version. Additionally, it’s gentle on the joints, a common advantage of cable exercises.
How to perform seated cable rows
- Start by choosing a manageable weight on the weight stack and hooking up your chosen attachment (rope, straight bar, v-bar).
- Sit on the machine with your legs slightly bent, keeping a straight back.
- Grab the attachment. If you choose to use a straight bar, you can use either an underhand or overhand grip.
- Pull the weight up slightly off the stack to start. Keep your core engaged and pull the handle towards your stomach. Concentrate on pulling your shoulder blades as you row and squeeze your back muscles at the end of the movement.
- Slowly return to the starting position, controlling the weight throughout the movement.
- Repeat for the target number of reps and sets.
The seated cable row is an exercise that’s often debated in terms of the correct form. Instead of listening to the gym bro who just started working out yesterday, watch this to learn the most widely accepted posture and pull:
How to program seated cable rows
Perform seated cable rows for 8-12 reps with moderate to heavy loads, focusing on squeezing the back muscles at each contraction. Use a variety of grips to target different parts of the back. Keep in mind that a wider grip will require less weight and result in more isolation of the back muscles.
This exercise can be part of your routine for 6-8 weeks, allowing for adjustments in grip and load as you progress.
Benefits of Pendlay rows
The Pendlay row has an exceptional ability to enhance explosive power. The starting position on the floor demands a significant burst of energy to lift the barbell. This makes it a great exercise for boosting performance in sports and other functional lifts.
Additionally, it targets the entire posterior chain, including the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. A strong posterior chain is crucial for bolstering overall body strength, preventing injuries, and elevating physical performance.
How to perform Pendlay rows
- Load the desired amount of weight on a barbell. Approach the barbell and stand with your feet hip-width apart, bending at the hips to grip the bar with an overhand grip. Your back should be parallel to the floor, and your knees slightly bent.
- Drag the bar towards your lower chest or abdomen, keeping your elbows close to your body. The movement should be quick and explosive.
- Lower the barbell back to the ground under control, returning to the start position with the barbell stationary on the floor before the next rep.
- Perform the target amount of reps and sets.
The Pendlay row is a very unique exercise, so getting it right is crucial. This video explains the technique in detail for optimal performance.
How to program Pendlay rows
The Pendlay row is best programmed for 5-8 reps with heavy loads to maximize strength and power in the posterior chain. Include this exercise in your training program for 4-6 weeks to significantly improve back strength and explosive power.
Benefits of chin-ups
Chin-ups are one of the most versatile compound upper body exercises, adaptable for various fitness levels. Beginners can do this using assisted variations and advanced athletes can enhance the difficulty with added weight or varied grips. Chin-ups also play a crucial role in improving shoulder health by encouraging stability and mobility.
How to perform chin-ups
- Grip the pull-up bar with your palms facing towards you (supinated grip) at about shoulder-width apart. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended and feet off the ground.
- Pull yourself up towards the bar by bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Continue to pull until your chin is over the bar. Once your chin is over the bar, hold the position briefly to maximize muscle engagement.
- Lower yourself back down to the starting position in a controlled manner, fully extending your arms and preparing for the next rep.
- Repeat the steps above for the desired number of reps and sets.
Chin-ups can be very challenging, but this guide can make them a lot simpler. Check out how the Buff Dudes break down the proper grip and movement for full benefits:
How to program chin-ups
Chin-ups should be performed for as many reps as possible if using body weight, or 6-10 reps with added weight for advanced individuals. Focus on the full range of motion and proper form. Chin-ups can be continuously included in your training, with progressions in difficulty every 4-6 weeks.
Benefits of pull-ups
Regularly doing pull-ups can improve your muscular endurance. Over time, you’ll be able to do a lot more reps without getting tired. This is beneficial for everyday life and athletic performance. Also, compared to isolation exercises like bicep curls, pull-ups provide a more comprehensive workout by engaging multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This leads to more balanced muscle development.
How to perform pull-ups
- Grip the pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you and slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended.
- Engage your core and pull yourself up towards the bar by bending your elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Pull until your chin is over the bar. Pause at the peak of the movement.
- Lower yourself back to the start position in a controlled way, fully extending your arms in preparation for the next rep.
- Do the target number of reps and sets.
Elevate your pull-up game with this comprehensive tutorial from a calisthenics expert. It covers everything you need to know and more:
How to program pull-ups
Similar to chin-ups, pull-ups can be done until failure with body weight or 6-10 reps with added weight. They are excellent for improving upper body strength and endurance. Include pull-ups in your routine for ongoing cycles of 4-6 weeks, adjusting intensity and volume as needed.
Benefits of Compound Upper Body Exercises
Compound exercises can do a lot for you when integrated into your routine. If you aren’t convinced then just take a look at these key benefits:
Efficiency in training
One of the most significant advantages of compound exercises is their efficiency. Because they engage multiple muscle groups at the same time, they pretty much allow you to get more done in less time. This is especially beneficial for those with busier schedules, as you won’t find yourself spending countless hours in the gym.
Better muscle coordination
Compound exercises require a level of balance and coordination that isolation exercises typically don’t. Performing movements like the overhead press involves multiple joints and muscles working together. This improves your overall muscle coordination, as well as your body’s ability to perform everyday activities.
Increased caloric burn
By working multiple muscle groups at the same time, compound exercise can increase your heart rate more effectively than isolation movements. This can result in a higher caloric burn both during and after your workout. This makes them a go-to for anyone looking to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously.
Boosted muscle growth
The simultaneous stimulation of multiple muscles can lead to an increased release of growth hormones, like testosterone and human growth hormone, which are key for muscle growth. In this sense, compound exercises can contribute to faster muscle development across the body.
Improved functional strength
Many compound movements mimic everyday actions, so they can improve your functional strength and reduce the risk of injury in your everyday life. From lifting heavy objects to performing dynamic movements, the strength you can get from compound exercises directly translates into enhanced performance and resistance in real-world situations.
How to Train Upper Body
Training your upper body requires a strategic approach. Start by incorporating a mix of compound exercises, such as bench presses, overhead presses, and pull-ups. This will engage multiple muscle groups and provide the foundation for strength and mass.
Complement these with isolation exercises, like bicep curls and tricep extensions, to target specific muscles for balanced development.
You then have to emphasize proper form to maximize muscle engagement and minimize injury risk. Lastly, you need to progressively overload by adding more reps and weights, as well as ensure each muscle group is getting adequate rest (48-72 hours before training it again).
If you’re still confused, you can always check out our upper-lower split programs.
Anatomy of the Upper Body
To really get the most out of these upper-body compound exercises, you need a basic understanding of your upper body’s muscular structure:
- Anterior deltoid: These are positioned at the shoulder’s front and play a role in moving your arm forward.
- Lateral deltoid: Located at the shoulder’s side, they’re essential for elevating your arm sideways.
- Posterior deltoid: Found at your shoulder’s rear, aiding in extension, horizontal abduction, and external rotation.
- Latissimus dorsi: These are the broadest back muscles and they’re important for arm extension, adduction, and internal rotation.
- Trapezius: The trapezius muscle stretches from your neck to mid-back. It’s key for securing and rotating the scapula.
- Rhomboids: You’ll find the rhomboid underneath the trapezius. They’re responsible for drawing the scapula towards the spine.
- Erector spinae: This is a muscle group running along the spine that’s vital for upright posture and spinal flexion.
- Pectoralis major: This is the most prominent muscle in the upper chest. It’s crucial for your arm’s inward rotation and moving it across the body.
- Pectoralis minor: The pectoralis minor is a smaller muscle underneath the pectoralis major that enables scapular motion.
- Long head: Originates from the scapula and aids in arm extension and adduction.
- Medial head: Enhances the force of arm extension.
- Lateral head: Helps with arm extension and contributes to the triceps’ defined appearance.
- Long head: Starts from the scapula and assists in arm flexion and rotation.
- Short head: Helps with arm flexion and rotation.
- Rectus abdominis: The prominent “six-pack” muscles, important for bending the spine and core stabilization.
- Obliques: Located on the abdomen’s sides, the obliques are responsible for spine rotation and bending.
- Transverse abdominis: This is the deepest part of the abdominal layer, acting like a stabilizing belt for your core and spine.
Compound Upper Body Exercises FAQs
How often should you train upper body?
For balanced muscle growth and recovery, it’s generally best to train your upper body 2-3 times per week. This frequency allows for enough stimulation of all major muscle groups while providing enough recovery time between sessions.
At what intensity should upper body be trained?
Upper body training intensity can vary based on your goals. For strength, focus on heavier loads (75-85% of your 1RM) for fewer reps (5-10 reps). For muscle growth (hypertrophy), use moderate loads (50-75% of your 1RM) for a higher rep range (8-12 reps). Always adjust the intensity to match your training goals and to ensure progressive overload.
What rep range should be used for training upper body?
For strength gains, aim for lower reps (about 5-10) with heavier weights. For hypertrophy, a higher rep range (8-12 or even up to 15) with moderate weights can work. Endurance training benefits from even higher reps (15-20+) with lighter weights.
What types of exercises train upper body?
Upper body training includes a variety of exercises that target the chest, back, shoulders, arms, and core. Compound exercises like bench presses, overhead presses, pull-ups, and rows are effective for engaging multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Isolation exercises, like bicep curls, focus on specific muscles for targeted development.