When it comes to upper body strength, there’s a lot more than just arms and shoulders to consider! There are also the many muscles in the chest, abs and back that play an important role in your upper body fitness, both in terms of strength and the overall body composition you’re trying to achieve.
When your upper body is strong, you’ll not only feel amazing and capable, but you’ll be less likely to develop injuries in the shoulder, elbow and wrist. The upper body is also responsible for good posture, so you’ll stay upright in old age!
While there are a lot of smaller muscles in the upper body, today we’ll run through the main ones. As a side note, while you’re hitting these bigger upper body muscles with compound movements, you’re going to be working many of the smaller muscles at the same time.
Let’s look at the main muscles to work for a strong upper body and how to effectively train them for maximum strength gains.
The main muscles of the chest are the pectoralis major, the pectoralis minor and the serratus anterior. The pectoralis major is the large chest area we commonly think of as the “‘pecs”, but the pectoralis minor also plays an important role. The serratus anterior muscle sits along the top surface of the eight or nine upper ribs.
Exercises for strong pecs include chest flys, dumbbell presses, and a variety of push ups. The best serratus exercises are movements you perform with a twist, such as high bear crawls (these are like normal bear crawls, but your butt is in the air which forces you to protract your scapula). You’ll also be working these muscles effectively with dumbbell side shoulder raises.
The muscles in the shoulder play important functions when it comes to upper body movement. Any activity where you lift your arms, or use your arms to support your weight, is also using your shoulder joints and muscles.
The shoulder muscles consist of the anterior, posterior and lateral deltoid which form the front and back of the shoulder. The teres major is a small muscle that runs from under the shoulder joint toward the back of the armpit, and the 4 rotator cuff muscles surround the shoulder joint.
Exercises for building strong defined shoulders include seated dumbbell shoulder presses, front raises, and bent-over dumbbell lateral raises (to name a few).
Working the main muscles of the arms is an important part of your upper body routine, and many arm exercises also incorporate shoulders, chest and back as part of the movement – although sometimes only to a small extent.
There are many muscles in the arm, but the main ones we think of when working out are the biceps and triceps. When it comes to the best exercises for the arms, don’t rely on bicep curls alone. Exercises such as push ups, lateral raises, dumbbell rows, tricep push-ups and plank to push-ups will also give your biceps and triceps a great workout.
The latissimus dorsi muscles, known as the lats, are the large V-shaped muscles that connect your arms to your vertebral column. They help protect and stabilise your spine, and also play a part in shoulder and arm movement and support good posture.
The best exercises to work these muscles are a variety of pull ups and rows. This includes dumbbell rows, barbell rows, bent-over rows, single arm kettlebell rows, wide and narrow grip pull-ups, and lateral raises.
The rhomboid muscles are a large group of muscles in your upper back. They’re made up of the rhomboid major and the rhomboid minor. These, along with other muscles, form the shoulder girdle that holds your shoulder blade and shoulder stable.
Exercises to work your rhomboids include prone lateral raises, overhand bent over rows, seated rows, rear delt flys and more.
Of course we can’t skip the abs when talking about upper body strength! Unfortunately many people focus on ab work without doing compensatory work on their back, chest and shoulders. We need to consider all of these muscles in our upper body routines!
The major ab muscles include the rectus abdominis upper, the rectus abdominis lower, and the obliques. Exercises that will work these muscles include planks, side planks, sit-ups, v-ups and medicine ball slams, to name a few.
Need some upper body workout inspo?
There are plenty of upper body workouts on my YouTube channel that take the guesswork out of training your upper body.
Some upper body workouts to try:
Get toned arms and a strong upper body with this 40 minute upper body HIIT workout with dumbbells👇
Sculpt a strong back and toned arms with this 30 minute upper body strength dumbbell workout 👇
Don’t forget to follow me on YouTube so you never miss one of my follow-along workouts, I upload new workouts each week. You can also sign up to my newsletter to stay up-to-date and receive my free monthly workout calendars.