5 Rules For The Best Upper Body Workout

5 Rules For The Best Upper Body Workout

Building your own upper body workout might seem daunting, which is why we are going to give you 5 simple rules for the best upper body workout.

The name of the game is balance and symmetry.

Like most of you, when I first started working out, I wanted a bigger upper body. The problem was I didn’t know how to balance my workouts.

I bought my first fitness book, Body-For-Life, and I began sculpting some real muscle. It worked well—in fact—really well. But I wanted the beach muscles to get bigger, faster.

And the natural course of action was to bench press more—obviously. I would follow this up with a healthy dose of bench press, and then I usually finished that off with a side of bench press super-setted with biceps curls.

This of course was a terrible idea that ended in a variety of shoulder pain and injuries, including a torn labrum. Too much pushing and not enough of everything else.

Before long, my workouts looked terribly unbalanced. I was now building my own workouts and they were bad…real bad.

Not to mention, this didn’t build a well rounded physique.

A big barrel chest, with small a back, weak abs, and a hunchback—not a good look lads.

Learning To Program From Great Coaches

The path to injury is a humbling one. Especially when you “think” you know what you are doing.

In order to achieve my best physique and stay healthy along the way, I became less a practioner and more a student. I began to study the workout programming of great coaches.

As they say, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

My first”Aha” moment was when I listened to a seminar with famous strength coach Ian King. If you don’t know Ian King, get to know him. Brilliant, gruff, and practical.

He was the first strength coach I heard talking about movement patterns and balancing out our pushing and pulling.

Years later, other coaches started catching on. I still use this method for exercise programming as do many other great strength coaches.

5 Keys To Writing The Best Upper Body Workout

1) For every push, you must pull. 

This is a very simple concept that makes writing a basic workout simple. If I am going to push something, I should also pull something.

Even better, if I am going to push something in one direction, I should try and pull it back in the same direction.

We call this a muscle antagonist. It’s like every muscle has a twin that performs the opposite action. Think of a dumbbell curl and a triceps pushdown.

They are essentially moving in the same direction.

The difference is one is pulling the weight up and the other is pushing the weight down. Therefor, the biceps and triceps are antagonist muscle pairs.

When you are working out, think about what movement would create the opposite movement.

For instance, if you are going to shoulder press (vertically pushing hands overhead), then you might also try to do a pull up or lat pull down (vertically pull hands back down).

A few examples of antagonist/opposite movements would be:

  • Push Up/Barbell Row
  • Chest Fly/Reverse Cable Crossover
  • Incline Press/Lat Pull Down
  • Dumbbell Chest Press/Inverted Row
  • Neutral Grip Dumbbell Press/Neutral Grip Pull Up
  • Dumbbell Biceps Curl/Cable Triceps Pushdown
  • 1 Arm Pulldown/Landmine Press

2) If you always push first, start pulling first. 

This lesson is really simple.

If you always train chest first, try starting with back.

There is a residual fatigue factor that we must account for when we train.

The deeper we move into our workouts, the more fatigue we will incur on the subsequent exercises and sets. And the earlier an exercise is in our workout, the more capacity we will have to perform our best.

Think about it like this: if you always train chest first, your back never receives 100% of your given energy for training. Lowering the barbell or dumbbells requires the use of back muscles like the serratus anterior which builds some fatigue as well.

Not to mention, if you’ve always trained chest first, your back probably isn’t as strong as your chest —comparitively.

Don’t let your back ride the pine anymore. Put it in with the starters for a while.

Now, you might be saying, “I never train chest and back on the same day, so this doesn’t apply to me…sir.”

I thought you might say that.

But, do you start your week with chest training? Do ya? Do ya? I bet you do. I certainly did. Because who doesn’t want to see their bench press records go up?

And that still means your chest is receiving first dibs at the buffet line.

Start your week with back training first. Fatigue isn’t something that only happens during the workout, it also happens over the course of the week.

If you are most fresh at the start of the week, train back first and give it your all.

Einstein quote about working your back more often

3) The back can handle a lot of training

Compared to other muscles, the back (latissmus dorsi) has the largest surface area on the body. The word latissimus actually means “widest”.

It’s a big dang muscle and it can handle a lot of training volume. Your back contains many postural muscles that are activated all day long which keep you standing and sitting upright—it’s really used to working hard.

This was a short point. Read it again.

4) Change up the strength curve.

While you might have heard of terms like muscle confusion or working muscles from different angles or leverages, the truth is the term(s) aren’t nearly as important as the concept.

We won’t go into chatter about why muscle confusion is a weird concept, but we will say that changing the strength curve is a really good idea over time.

How the heck do you do that? It’s really easy.

Strength Curve: a mathematical model that shows the force production of a muscle at a specific joint angles (don’t memorize that—let’s make it easy).

Strength Curve Cliff Notes: Our strength will vary at different points in a lift.

Think of a chest press. We are generally strongest in the second half of a chest press. Meaning, if you started the lift with your arms straightened and lifted only half way down, you would be able to lift more weight than if you were to lift all the way to the bottom (ascending strength curve).

Have you ever gotten the bar stuck on your chest? You’ve just experienced the bottom of the strength curve where you aren’t as strong.

Image explaining the different types of strength curves

If you’ve ever seen guys use bands in the gym wrapped around a barbell, then you are witnessing them manipulating (accamodating) the strength curve.

Who would of thought those meatheads understand physics and biomechanics?

Think of squatting. If you can get that barbell up past the half way point, you are home free (hardest at the bottom). If you put a band on each end of the barbell and connect it to the floor, it’ll now get progressively harder as you squat up where it would otherwise get easier past a certain point. It makes the bottom and the top hard (brutal).

So what am I supposed to do with this information professor? 

Ignore all that science. It was just to show you that various exercises impact muscles differently. Changing exercises can alter the strength curve and provide unique stimulus to spur new growth and strength.

The next point will show you how to implement this new information.

5) Change surface, equipment, angle, and grip. 

The following are just a few ways that you can manipulate exercises to continue to see new muscle and strength gains.

Change Surface

Changing surface could be as simple as moving from a from a flat bench to the floor. You won’t be able to achieve deep ranges of motion, but you’ll engage more triceps, uniquely activate the core, and spare the shoulders a bit.

A swiss ball is another way to change the surface. Obviously, it’ll make the lift more difficult to stabilize. While you may not be able to lift as much, you’ll be very focused on the motion of the lift while engaging new stablizer muscles; just don’t go trying to break new strength records on a wobbly ball.


Change Equipment

A simple equipment change can be all the stimulus you need to make sum gainz.

If you always use a barbell, try and use a dumbbell, kettlebell, strap, pull up bar, cable, band, machine, or any other tool you see fit.

For example, changing from a dumbbell curl to a cable curl will evoke huge changes in muscle dynamics. The dumbbell is fighting gravity while the cable pulley isn’t. The cable pulley will provide a consistent resistance all the way through the movement. 5lbs is 5lbs at the top, middle, and bottom.

On the other hand, a 5lb dumbbell won’t provide a consistent 5lbs of resistance. Think about when you are holding a dumbbell at the top of a dumbbell curl, you can rest all day. Try resting when you do that with a cable trying to pull you back down.

Show em’ Abe.

Lincoln demonstrating gravity forces on dumbbells and cables

Changing from a dumbbell to a kettlebell also will change gravitational forces and new muscles will be recruited.

Change from free weights to machines. Stability will be at his greatest and you will be able to really isolate the muscle during contraction.

There are so many different types of equipment and potential opportunities.

You get the point.

Change Angle

A simple change like moving from a seated curl to an incline curl creates a very different effect on the biceps. You’ll transfer much of the stress from the short head of the bicep to the long head of the bicep.

The same goes for changing from a flat chest press (pectoralis major-sternal) to an incline chest press (pectoralis major-clavicular) or a triceps pressdown (triceps-lateral head) to an overhead triceps press (triceps-long head).

Build it build it.

Change Grip

Changing your grip can transform an exercise into an awesome new stimulus.

For example, switching from a standard palms up bicep grip (supinated) to a thumbs up neutral grip (semi-supinated) shifts the emphasis from the biceps brachii to the brachioradialis.

Change from the neutral grip to an overhand grip (pronated) and the emphasis shifts from the brachioradialis to the brachialis.

Changing your grip has the same impact on every other upper body part as well. Get creative.

Training the three bicep heads based on wrist action

Sum It All Up

  1. If you are going to do an upper push exercise, choose an upper pull exercise as well.
  2. If you always train chest first, train back first for a while.
  3. Change up your exercises with different surfaces, equipment, angles, and grips.


While we talked at a high level how to balance upper push and upper pull, we didn’t cover reps, sets, or frequency.

But you can read those articles to take your programming to the next level.

The purpose of this article was to get you to think about balance. Build everything together and everything will look better.

Lift some, play more, love life.