How To Build Upper Body Strength

By | November 4, 2015

compound_exercisesSo you’ve been bit by a fitness bug and wondering how to build upper body strength and add some lean muscle to your frame.

That’s good, real good!

With this comprehensive article I’m going to give you good advice how to build that power to your upper body so you can feel better and be more confident in yourself.

The best way to build strength by far is training with weights. While it’s true that bodyweight exercises can get you to a good start, that’s as far as their effectiveness goes.

If you want to get strong you have to lift heavy stuff over a long period of time along with solid training routine, sufficient diet to fuel your bodys muscle building process and have enough rest to recover from the workouts.

These 3 pillars of strength and muscle building will always have to be in pristine condition if you want to make progress.

While this article is aimed at upper body strength, you should never neglect developing your lower body aswell, since a lot of lower body strength will contribute to upper body strength also!

So let’s look a bit in-detail what you should do to release your inner beast.

Upper Body Anatomy

The most common mistake with people that are interested getting their upper body stronger is to start doing million sets and reps of bench press and bicep curls.

I have to admit that I’ve been victim of this too as I was just starting out my lifting career and didn’t know any science of lifting weights.

I was just doing it because bench max was the most common indicator of strength and everyone compared their muscles comparing biceps. I’m sure everyone can relate to this atleast on some level lol!

But eventhough the show muscles of the front side your body are aesthetically pleasing and that is the part that usually gets the most attention, the back side of your body is the place where the true strength of your upper body comes from!

And it’s not rocket science since you got roughly two thirds of your whole upper body mass located on the posterior side of your body, the side that you cannot see in the mirror.

As the front side of your body has only 1/3 of whole upper body musculature you should NEVER EVER neglect doing a ton of back work if you’re serious about growing stronger.

And to be completely honest eventhough we’re talking about upper body development here, you should always aim to train your whole body if you want to get functional, healthy and strong body.

Preventing Muscle Imbalances

Another important point of training anterior and posterior parts of your upper body is the fact that you need to have a good balance of musculature.

If you just put all your emphasize on growing stronger on the front side, you will start to create a lot of muscle imbalances that will lead to injuries usually sooner than later.

This is due to the fact that our lives are already very dysfunctional to our natural posture.

We sit a lot and spend tons of time on computers and smartphones and this just further facilitates the thoracic kyphosis – also known as the rounding of upper back, which will lead to different problems within our shoulder and neck region.

While stretching our shoulders, pecs and biceps and strengthening our muscles on the back, the bad posture that causes nagging aches, pains and injuries will get significantly better.

I know this because I’ve done it. I used to have quite a lot of thoracic kyphosis going on but with stretching and strengthening I currently have a great, strong and natural posture and I do not have any problems with that region.

So if you already have a bad posture and you neglect balanced training regimen to your whole upper body region, you will just make things worse eventhough your primary goal is to get healthier, fitter and stronger.

This is absolutely vital to understand and make sure that you’re doing a lot of strengthening of your upper back and stretching the front to create a healthy balance between the muscles which will promote health, strength and longevity!

Weight Training

Now that you understand the importance of well balanced training and injury prevention, it’s time to look how to actually start getting stronger.

Compound Exercises

These basic compound exercises should be your blueprint to develop strength. The reason why these movements will yield the best results is the sheer muscle fiber recruitment you’ll body have to do when perfroming them.

All of these exercises uses big muscle groups and will develop impressive strength and muscle gains if done properly.

If you want to get stronger you should never neglect these exercises if you don’t have an injury that prevents you from performing them.

  • Chin-Ups / Pull-Ups
  • Barbell Row
  • One-Arm Dumbbell Row
  • Shrugs
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Incline Bench Press
  • Dips

When you construct your upper body workouts upon these compound movements, you will experience the greatest strength and muscle building stimulus possible, that I’ll guarantee.

Proper Intensity

I have an in-depth article on what is training intensity, so check it out if you want to get into details.

In order to build strength and muscle you have to give your body a reason to develop stronger and bigger muscles. This is done by training with heavy intensity.

If you’re not pushing yourself in the gym hard enough, you probably will not experience the gains you’re after.

As we’re after strength here, you should train within the 75-85% of your 1 rep max for the most of your time in the gym.

The intensity of your sessions should be so that you’re training within 1-2 reps away from concentric muscular failure.

Progressive Overload

I have a complete article on what is progressive overload, but in a nutshell this means moving more weight or more reps within each workout.

Along with intensity this is the most important factor in your weight training regimen. Most of the people that are not seeing the results they want usually are not paying enough attention to these two!

Training Frequency

The best results are usually made by training each body part within 2 times over the course of one week. Although as you get more and more years under your belt as a lifter, you might find it too difficult to recover from the sessions within a couple of days so in that case it might be better to hit each body part once per week.

But as long as you got the recovery capacity left, 2 times per week probably might be your best option.

Rep Ranges

I have an in-depth guide to rep ranges if you want to get a bit deeper into it.

But basically your strength is made within the 5-8 rep ranges and when you’ll want to peak your strength you can even start to get lower to the 1-4 range.

Workout Splits

So the best bet for you would be to perform either back and front upper body on the same workout or split the back and front body to two separate days.

So for example you’d perform whole upper body on monday, lower body on tuesdays then rest for wednesday and upper body again on thursday and lower on friday and then rest for the weekend.

Or another basic regimen would be Posterior Upper on monday, anterioir upper tuesday, lower body on wednesday and then rest on thursday and repeat.

Both of these will work fine and ultimately it comes down to your preference and time management.

Core, The Foundation For Strength

It is also essental to not overlook training of your core. It is the “trunk” of your body that has to be strong in order to keep the tension of weight training on your muscles rather than joints.

If yuor core is weak you might run into problems sooner than later.

As you train your core stronger you will be able to handle heavier loads with every exercise and needless to say this will lead to greater strength gains.

And by core I’m referring to your deep abdominal / back muscles. These muscles will act as your natural “lifting belt” and they should not be neglected.

And these muscles cannot be trainer effectively with direct ab and back work.

Your best bet to training core would be:

  • Basic Plank
  • Elbow Plank
  • Leg-raised Plank
  • One-side Plank
  • Vacuums

If you’re unfamiliar with these exercises you’ll find them all by a quick google search!

Diet To Fuel Your Strength Training

Another crucial part of building stronger upper body is the sufficient nutrition you’ll provide to your body so it has the building blocks and energy to grow stronger.

Structuring a proper diet is quite straight forward as long as you have the basic effective principles down to a T.

Basically you’ll have to be in a:

  • Calorie Surplus to give your body the energy to recover and build new muscle along filling glycogen stores
  • Eat Sufficient amount of protein to ensure repair of the muscle tissue
  • Eat correct amount of fat to promote anabolic hormone production

If you want to get more into detail check out my article on how to eat to build muscle.

Lower Body Will Assist Your Upper Body And Vice-Versa

While we are focusing on upper body strength here, it is important to note that if you really want to get strong, you should train your whole body as a one unit to get stronger.

As you’ll train your lower body all the power you will be able to generate into your upper body will also increase dramatically.

By focusing the whole body you will be the strongest version of yourself humanly possible. Neglect a body part in the whole picture and you will leak out power for sure.

As your lower body gets stronger, your upper body will be able to handle heavier weights and obviously this will lead to greater strength development be it upper or lower body.

Conclusion On How To Build Upper Body Strength

So when it all comes down to it, building upper body strength is quite straight forward but it will take a lot of time.

If you’re thinking that in 3 months you’ll be the next big thing, that will not happen. For sure you will be stronger after 3 months from now but a lot.

One of the most important things to embrace is the grind. The fact is that building strength and muscle takes time, it does not happen overnight.

I always say to people that you should be ready to invest ATLEAST a full year of training in order to see significant gains in strength and muscle.

All these “magic” and “secret” training programs that promise to put 30lbs of muscle in 3 months are full of crap and just interested in your money, not your progress!

So embrace the grind of growing stronger everyday, not just physically but mentally aswell.

Remember to train hard and train SMART!

2 thoughts on “How To Build Upper Body Strength

  1. James@JockItch

    Ultimate article indeed! 😀

    I generally consider Chin-ups to build upper body strength. It works like charm.

    I have a feeling of pumped muscles of Upper body whenever I do chinups.

    It works really great! 🙂

    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Jesse Post author

      Thanks for the input James 🙂

      I’m glad if you found this article helpful!


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