To build upper body muscle fast, you need three things: A killer, full upper body workout routine; proper nutrition, including protein and a slight calorie surplus; and the right recovery time in between your workouts.
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Ingredients for Muscle Hypertrophy
If you want your upper body muscles to grow, you have to subject them to the right stimuli. That means doing strength-training workouts, ideally twice a week, because a November 2016 analysis published in the New Zealand journal Sports Medicine showed this to be superior to once-weekly training for hypertrophy.
There are several mechanisms by which strength-training can prompt your muscles to grow larger and stronger. These include mechanical damage caused by challenging lifting sessions; metabolic fatigue, or working your muscles to the point they briefly run out of the fuel needed to contract; and maximizing the amount of time your muscles spend under tension.
But just working out isn't enough: Your muscles get stronger as they rebuild during the rest periods between workouts, so always give each muscle group a full rest day before you work it again — more if you're still significantly sore.
Finally, your body needs a slight caloric surplus, all the nutrients from a healthy diet, and adequate protein to build muscle. In a position stand released by the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2017, they note that for most people, a daily protein intake of 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is enough to maintain and build muscle mass.
Read more: What to Eat to Feel Better — Inside and Out
List of Upper Body Exercises
Once you have your nutrition, self-care and general lifting strategy worked out, what kind of exercises should you be doing? Start with this list of upper body exercises, but don't be shy about mixing in different exercises every two months or so. That'll maximize your gains as your body is forced to adapt to slightly different stimuli, and reduce your risk of overuse injuries too.
Aim for one to three sets of eight to 12 repetitions for each exercise, as recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As your muscles get stronger, you can always add more sets to maximize more gains.
1. Barbell Bench Press
A 2012 study sponsored and published by the American Council on Exercise found the barbell bench press to be the most effective exercise for working your pectoral muscles. But the gains don't stop there — this is a powerful workout for your triceps and shoulders too.
- Lie supine (face-up) on a flat weight bench, your eyes almost level with the racked barbell. Place your feet flat on the floor to either side of the bench.
- Grasp the bar in an overhand grip, hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Lift it off the rack and swing it forward so that it's positioned over your shoulder joints. If you're properly positioned, this also gives the bar enough space to clear the racking pins.
- Bend your elbows and let your arms naturally flare out to the sides as you lower the bar toward your chest.
- Straighten your arms, pressing the bar back up over your chest, to complete the repetition.
There is some discussion between experts about the ideal range of motion for a bench press, and finding the right limit for you depends on the activities you're involved in and the overall stability of your shoulders. For a conservative and shoulder-friendly range of motion, follow recommendations from the American Council on Exercise to stop when your elbows are just below the level of the bench.
The humble push-up didn't rank as high as the bench press in the ACE study. But another study, published in a June 2017 issue of the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness, found that doing push-ups produced similar gains in muscle size and strength as doing lower-load barbell bench presses. You might have to do more push-ups than bench presses to reach muscular fatigue, but this remains a great do-anywhere, no equipment needed exercise for your chest, arms and shoulders.
Assume the push-up position on the floor —
balanced on your hands and the balls of your feet, body straight from head to heels. Make sure your hands are positioned under the line of your shoulders and slightly wider apart than your shoulders.
Squeeze your core to keep your body straight as you bend your arms, lowering your body toward the floor.
Much like bench presses, protect your shoulders by sticking to a pain-free range of motion. A typical goal is to stop when your shoulders break the plane of your elbows.
Straighten your arms and lift yourself back up to the starting position to complete the repetition.
3. Bent-Over Row
Another study commissioned by ACE found that the bent-over row is one of the best exercises for activating your biggest back muscles, including your trapezius and latissimus dorsi.
- Take a barbell in an overhand grip, hands just wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Plant your feet about hip width apart; bend your knees slightly for stability and flexibility, and hinge forward from the hips. Your goal is to get your back as close to horizontal as you safely can. If you can't get it below a 45-degree angle to the floor, try doing a single-arm dumbbell variation of this exercise instead, using your free hand for support on a weight bench.
- Squeeze your core muscles to keep your torso steady as you bend your arms, drawing the barbell up toward your chest. Stop within a pain-free range of motion; one common guideline is to stop when your elbows break the plane of your body.
- Lower the barbell back to the starting position to complete the repetition.
As demonstrated at ExRx.net, using an underhand grip can emphasize the involvement of your latissimus dorsi. You can also perform this exercise with dumbbells.
According to the same ACE study on back muscles, the pull-up is also one of the best exercises for working your latissimus dorsi.
- Grasp a pull-up bar in an overhand or neutral (palms in toward each other) grip.
- Think of zipping your core muscles closed to stabilize your torso, then pull your chest up to the bar. Sometimes it helps to think of drawing your elbows down to your sides instead of pulling your body up.
- Lower yourself back to the starting position with a controlled motion.
If you can't do full pull-ups, you can use an assisted pull-up machine (available in many gyms) or do several versions of self-assisted pull-ups.
5. Concentration Curls
A full upper body workout routine wouldn't be complete without working your arms, too. Going back to ACE for another study gives you the best biceps exercise: the concentration curl.
- Sit on a bench or armless chair, holding a dumbbell in your right hand.
- Keep your back flat as you hinge slightly forward from the hips, using your left hand on your left thigh for support. Tuck your right elbow inside your right thigh.
- Bend your right arm, lifting the weight up toward your chest. Keep your right elbow steady against your thigh, but don't use pressure from your thigh to move your elbow.
- Lower the weight to complete the repetition. Repeat with the other arm.
6. Triceps Kickback
One final study from ACE shows that a push-up variation — the triangle push-up — is the best exercise for focusing on your triceps. Because you're already doing a type of push-ups, add some variety to your workout with one of the next-best exercises, the dumbbell triceps kickback.
- With a dumbbell in your right hand, place your left knee on a weight bench or even the side of your bed. Hinge forward from the hips, keeping your back flat, and use your left hand on the bench to help support your body.
- Tuck your right elbow close against your side, bending your arm so your forearm — and the weight — hang straight down.
- Keep your right elbow against your side as you straighten that arm, lifting the weight; then bend your arm again to complete the repetition. Repeat on the other side.
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Top 3 Most Effective Chest Exercises"
- American Council on Exercise: "Chest Press"
- Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness: "Low-Load Bench Press and Push-Up Induce Similar Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gain"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: What Is the Best Back Exercise?"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Underhand Bent-Over Row"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Study Reveals Best Biceps Exercises"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE-Sponsored Research: Best Triceps Exercises"
- Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition: "International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: Protein and Exercise"
- Sports Medicine: "Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis"
- American Council on Exercise: "7 Techniques for Promoting Muscle Growth"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"