Upper-body strength is important for more than finally besting the stubborn jelly jar or getting that handstand pic for the 'gram.
"A strong upper body is essential for anything from good posture and daily activities like putting the groceries away, to injury prevention and more," says Allen Conrad, DC, CSCS, the owner of Montgomery County Chiropractic Center in North Wales, Pennsylvania.
But what qualifies as a strong upper body and what are the best upper body workouts and exercises? Don't let these questions stand between you and a set of enviable biceps and (functional!) shoulders. Here's everything you need to know about building your upper-body muscles.
What Muscles Are Involved in Upper-Body Strength?
When it comes to you upper-body, Dr. Conrad explains that the main muscles included about are:
- Pectoralis major and minor (chest)
- Rotator cuffs
- Deltoids (shoulders)
- Latissimus dorsi (middle back and sides)
- Trapezius (upper back)
- Forearm muscles
- And other stabilizing muscles
Your core is often included in those "other stabilizing muscles," says certified personal trainer Rachel MacPherson. Even though it's a separate section of your body, there's some overlap (specifically your chest and upper back).
Upper-body strength, then, is defined as, "the ability to push, pull and press with the arms, shoulders, back and chest in multiple directions while having full control of the range of motion," says Tony Carvajal, Certified L-2 CrossFit Trainer with RSP Nutrition. And it's typically built up with resistance training, Dr. Conrad says.
Why Should You Care About a Strong Upper Body?
Popeye-esque arms may help your shirts fit differently, but the benefits of a strong upper body go way beyond aesthetics. For starters, increasing muscle mass anywhere on the body comes with benefits like boosted metabolism, stronger bones and a healthier heart.
1. It Can Be an Indicator of Your Overall Health
But upper body strength, specifically, may be particularly significant for overall health. "Grip strength — one component of upper body strength — can actually be used as indicator of risk for all-cause mortality, disability and morbidity," MacPherson says.
It can also serve as a predictor of cardiovascular health. In a February 2019 study from the journal Nutrition, Obesity and Exercise, men who could do at least 40 push-ups in 30 seconds had a lower risk of heart attack, heart failure and other cardiovascular conditions than those who could do less than 10.
2. Functional Upper-Body Strength Helps Prevent Injuries
Carvajal highlights the functional nature of upper-body strength, saying it's increasingly important as you age if you want to remain independent. "A healthy, strong upper body translates to real world situations," he says. "For instance, putting a (heavy) box up on a shelf or lifting up a child when there's no one around the help."
If you lack the strength to do these activities and do them anyway, your lower back, lats, traps and other surrounding muscles have to compensate in order to allow you to move how you want or need to move, says Jackie Wilson, founder and CEO of NOVA Fitness. Unfortunately, over time, this can lead to overuse injuries, pain and impingement.
3. It Can Propel You Toward Any Fitness Goal
Don't read this wrong: Upper-body strength isn't more important than leg strength. But it is equally as important. "Having an overall balance of strength, from head to toe, will help you achieve any fitness goal," says Jackie Vick, CSCS, a trainer with Gold's Gym.
No sport exemplifies this more than running. In running, it may be your legs that power you, but a strong upper body and core is necessary to help distance runners maintain good posture and form as they log miles, says Dr. Conrad. And an April 2018 study from the Strength and Conditioning Journal suggests that strong arms help sprinters generate the force they need to move forward quickly.
The bottom line: Whether your goal is to look good, stay injury-free, live a longer and healthier life or run faster, a strong upper body can help you get there.
How to Make Your Upper Body Strong(er)
Most upper-body strength-training plans will have folks lifting at least three days a week, progressive overload format, MacPherson says. "That means you'll be increasing weight or repetitions or decreasing time between sets throughout the course of the plan."
The plan should include a mix of weight bearing (body-weight movements or dumbbell, kettlebell and barbell work) push exercises, pull exercises and some core work, Wilson says. "Push movements primarily work the pecs, shoulders and triceps, and pull movements primarily work the biceps and back," she says. A few examples below:
- Push-ups: standard, incline, decline, knee and handstand push-ups
- Rows: bent-over dumbbell row, barbell row and cable row
- Chest presses: barbell or dumbbell bench press, either flat, incline or decline
- Overhead presses: strict press, jerk, push-press
- Pull-ups: standard, banded or jumping pull-ups
- Lat pull-down: with a pull-down or cable machine
- Isolation exercises: dumbbell pull-over, concentration curls, biceps curls and triceps extensions
"There's a misconception that push ups are the exercise to do to build upper-body strength, but that's not the case," Wilson says. Will push-ups help strengthen your upper body and build muscle? Definitely! But she says, "Mixing in other exercises in is a better way to build a strong upper body than just doing push-ups because it keeps your body guessing and presents it with different challenges to adapt to."
If you do implement push-ups into your regime, you might be wondering, "How many push ups should I do a day?" MacPherson's answer: however many are challenging to you. If that's 30, do 30. If that's 100, do 100. But she says, "If 100 push-ups are easy for you, and there's no progression, you will not get stronger."
Try These Upper-Body Workouts
It's best to work with a trainer who can personalized a muscle building plan that best fits your needs and fitness levels. But in the meantime, you can try one of these: