5 Ways to Strengthen Your Upper Body

man performing bench press

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Upper body strength is essential for daily living and overall quality of life. Building strength is different from muscle growth (hypertrophy) and is more focused on function rather than appearance. To build a better functioning overall body, you have to work all the muscle groups. 

For this reason, you may perform different types of exercises and curate your resistance training program to encourage strength gains. Although you may build muscle size with strength training programs, strength training is focused on increasing the amount of weight you can lift. These exercises and program designs are unique from specific hypertrophy programs.

Strength training helps maintain muscle mass as you age, builds strong bones, encourages healthy weight balance, builds confidence, and improves daily living. Learn more about the importance of upper body strength and some of the best exercises to try.

The Importance of Upper Body Strength 

Studies show that strength training and exercise, in general, can help boost your metabolism, reduce your risk of injury, strengthen your bones, and more. While overall strength has many health benefits, upper body strength has specific benefits, especially as we age.

Building a stronger and more stable upper body can help you perform daily lifting, carrying, and gripping tasks. Upper body strength also may potentially help improve posture.

Strength training requires that you push your limits. This can be dangerous, and a spotter is recommended. Even if you do not use a spotter, never perform heavy strength training alone in case of an accident or injury.

5 Exercises to Strengthen Your Upper Body

The following exercises can help to promote upper body strength. Note that these exercises require access to a barbell, however, if you're a beginner or don't have access to a spotter and/or a gym, you can always perform the move with body weight, a band, or a set of dumbbells.

Bench Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The bench press is a foundational movement for upper body strength. If you master this, there’s no doubt your overall upper body strength will increase.

To get started, lie on the bench under the rack that holds the bar. Make sure your feet are flat on the floor, and your shoulders, butt, and head are flat on the bench with your spine in a neutral position. 

  1. Grasp the barbell a little farther than shoulder-width apart with your thumbs wrapped around your closed fist. 
  2. Remove the bar from the rack, making sure to lock your elbows, so the bar is straight out over your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath in and brace your core, then lower the bar to your chest, hitting anywhere between your top ab and nipple line depending on what feels comfortable. (Wherever the bar comfortably hits you, make sure it hits roughly the same spot every time). 
  4. Exhale when the bar contacts your chest while tightening your glutes and driving your legs to the ground while pushing the bar above your chest. 
  5. Repeat the process until you’ve completed the desired amount of reps.

Shoulder Press

Shoulder presses are a basic strength exercise for this group of muscles that activates the entire shoulder complex. You can either perform shoulder presses standing or sitting with dumbbells. Starting seated with dumbbells may be the best option for a beginner.

  1. Sit on a military press bench or utility bench with a dumbbell in each hand, placing the dumbbells upright on the top of your thighs.
  2. One at a time, raise the dumbbells until they reach the height of your shoulders with your palms facing forward.
  3. Exhale as you push the dumbbells upward until they are almost touching above the top of your head. 
  4. Inhale as you bring the dumbbells back to the starting position. Your arms should be at about a 90-degree angle when they reach the height of your shoulders.
  5. Repeat for the desired amount of repetitions.

Barbell, Band, or Dumbbell Row

Dumbbell Row

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The row is the perfect exercise to strengthen your lower and upper back. It is effective and time-saving since it works your entire back and core at once. During this exercise, ensure you keep your back and core tight and don’t slouch or over arch your back as this can cause injury.

Note that the image above shows a variation with a set of dumbbells; however, you can also use a band or barbell. Setup by standing slightly shoulder-width apart with your arms on the outside of your legs.

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing down, bend at your waist, bring your torso forward, and bend your knees slightly. 
  2. Keep your back straight until it is nearly parallel to the floor. The dumbbells should be directly in front of you as your arms hang perpendicular to the floor and torso. 
  3. Keep your torso still and lift the dumbbells toward you while keeping your elbows close to your body.
  4. Lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat for the desired amount of reps. 

Pull-Up

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Pull-ups are another excellent movement for overall upper body strength, especially your back. Depending on your strength level, you can do them with the assistance of resistance bands if you're a beginner, bodyweight if you don’t need extra help, and weighted if you are more advanced.

  1. Grab the pull-up bar with your palms facing forward. Your arms should straighten fully while maintaining tension in your muscles around your shoulders.
  2. Pull your body up and think about pulling your shoulders down and back as your elbow moves towards your ribcage.
  3. Ensure your chin clears the top of the bar while maintaining tension.
  4. Lower yourself slowly back down and repeat for the prescribed amount of reps.

Deadlift

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Deadlifts may seem like a lower-body exercise, but they are primarily a back exercise. Deadlifts help the back, hip, and thigh muscles work together and your core to improve back strength and stability. They are essential for upper body strength training and back health.

Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the barbell in front of you, and resting your shins against the bar.

  1. Hinge at your hips, sinking back into your glutes while keeping your spine extended and chest facing forwards and slightly upwards towards the ceiling. 
  2. Grip the bar with a mixed grip, one hand facing palm-up and the other hand facing palm-down.
  3. Squeeze the bar and sink back into your hips while you think about pulling your back down and engaging the lats.
  4. Push your feet into the floor and stand up with the weight while lifting your chest. Think about pushing your hips forward and pulling back on your knees.
  5. Keep your spine straight and pull your shoulders slightly back when you reach the top.
  6. Descend slowly again by pushing your hips back and keeping your chest lifted.
  7. Pause at the bottom momentarily, reset your hips and repeat for the desired number of reps.

A Word From Verywell

If you are looking to increase your upper body strength, especially as a beginner, make sure you are using light enough weights until you have built your strength, and always ensure you are performing exercises correctly to prevent injury.

A personal trainer can help you progress your strength training program correctly so you continue seeing results safely. If you have questions about the benefits of building upper body strength, contact a healthcare professional or personal trainer who can help guide you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I work my upper body at home?

    You can work your upper body at home with dumbbells, bodyweight, or household items. Choose a few exercises (4 or 5) that can be done either with dumbbells or bodyweight, and try a routine of 6 to 8 repetitions for three sets each.

  • Are abs upper or lower body?

    Abs are considered the upper body and are part of your core, which consists of your transversus abdominis, rectis abdominis, and the external obliques.

  • What are upper body stretches?

    Upper body stretches include chest stretch, cat-cow, biceps stretch, trapezius stretch, thread the needle, wall angels, neck, and shoulder stretches.

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