Exercise Health

Here’s How to Build an Upper Body that Does More than Look Great

Here’s How to Build an Upper Body that Does More than Look Great

Bodacious biceps and bolder shoulders dominate the discussion when it comes to upper body strength training. However, building a strong, powerful upper body does more than split sleeves and garner attention.

With a solid upper body resistance-training plan, selling tickets to the gun show is the proverbial icing on the cake. But aesthetics aren’t the only reason you should strengthen your upper body. Check out the often overlooked health benefits of sculpting lean, mean muscle in your arms, shoulders, back, and chest.

Benefits of upper body strength

Improves posture

Technology and jobs leave many of us seated in hunched-over positions for long hours during the day. This causes tightness in certain muscles and weakness in others. Exercising the shoulders and back with weights and other forms of resistance, such as bands, helps balance your muscles and improves spinal alignment and shoulder positioning.

Reduces injury risk

Daily activities including carrying groceries, picking up small children, and putting away laundry can create muscle imbalances. Upper body exercises reduce injury risk by improving the strength of muscle, ligaments, tendons, and bones that support joints in the wrists, elbows, shoulders, and spine.

Slows aging

As you age, the presence of skeletal muscle tissue declines. This process, known as sarcopenia, is the most common cause of functional decline and loss of independence in older adults. Resistance training for the upper body helps improve muscle quality and tone, increase bone density, and protect joint health.

Tips to build a strong upper body

Building upper body strength goes beyond curls and bench press. These tips will guide you in the right direction when beginning your new routine.

Focus more on pull exercise than push exercise

Though it’s important to incorporate both upper body pull and push exercises into your routine, pulling trains the posterior chain of the body, which often weakens from seated work and a sedentary lifestyle. The posterior chain includes muscles along the back of the body that are involved in many movements including running, jumping, squatting, turning, and walking (to name a few).

Pulling exercises use muscles to pull weight toward the body during the concentric or contraction phase of the movement. Pushing exercise use the muscles to push weight away from the body during the concentric phase of the movement.

A good rule to follow: For every pushing exercise you perform (push-up, bench press, overhead press, for example) you should perform two pulling exercises (pull-up, lat pull down, seated row, for example).

Add variety

It’s easier to walk into the gym and go for the old stand-by exercises like biceps curls and chin-ups than it is to create fresh, bi-weekly routines. But adding variety to your program trains your body more efficiently and prevents muscular imbalances as well as overuse of certain muscles and joints.

Change the exercises, tempo, sets, reps, and rest duration, and length of training circuits too—single sets, supersets, or circuits.

Putting it all together

Try this 30-minute upper body push-pull bodyweight and dumbbell routine for the next 8 weeks to build strength and tone. We recommend performing each workout once a week.

Here’s How to Build an Upper Body that Does More than Look Great

By Kellie Davis

Kellie Davis ran before she crawled and is constantly feeding her insatiable appetite for competition. In 2009, she competed in her first figure bodybuilding show and subsequently started a fitness blog titled to help other moms and career women make positive fitness and lifestyle habits. Her blog spring-boarded her fitness writing career, and shortly after she was in the gym coaching clients. Davis discovered the perfect marriage of fitness and writing, and has since co-authored the popular women's strength training book Strong Curves, launched a handful online fitness programs, and is also the co-founder of, a comprehensive intermediate resistance training system. As a fitness writer and personal trainer, she is known for helping hundreds of women achieve optimal health through her innovative fitness programs designed for those with a busy lifestyle. In her spare time, Davis dotes on her amazing husband and two children, attends The George Washington University as a graduate student, competes in powerlifting, takes the field in co-ed softball, and spends time with her two adoring dogs and brood of backyard hens.