The 20 Best Upper-Body Exercises of All-Time

By | September 29, 2019

The fitness world has never been more overwhelming than it is now. From isolation exercises to full-body exercises to flows to exercises that help you perfect those other exercises, the moves at your disposal are as vast as ever.

So what moves do you really need to do? How do you figure out the best ways to build the size, strength, and muscle you crave? If you’re not sure, you’re likely not alone. And answering this question is key to your fitness success.

And the keys to that fitness success haven’t changed as much as you may think. While plenty of exercises have value and can improve your overall fitness, you don’t need to include all of them in your training. A host of exercises have been around for eons, and, very often, they’re the ones that should be in your routines, one way or another. Those venerable moves are often the backbone of any good routine.

What are those moves? We’ve listed them right here, in our 25 best exercises of all-time. Save, bookmark, and share this link, because whenever you’re not sure what to do in the gym, this is a good, strong, starting point.

Overhead Presses

Overhead presses aren’t easy, and if you have shoulder mobility issues, this is a move you might want to sit out. But learn to overhead press, and you’ll help build a rock-solid core and general upper body strength. This isn’t just a shoulder move; your back gets more work than you think, too.

Trap Bar Deadlifts

Technically, deadlifts are a lower-body move, but they really hammer your entire posterior chain, even attacking your lats, rhomboids, and traps. But the barbell is an overrated implement for this lift. Instead, check out the trap bar, which can save your lower back while still letting you squeeze your glutes and build hip extension, critical to good posture and overall athletic ability. Bonus: A ton of calorie-burning bang for your buck here too. Don’t have a trap bar? Learn the classic deadlift below.

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Pullups and Chinups

If you want a developed V-taper, you want chinups and pullups in your training. This move is all about building up your lats, and it’ll challenge your core more than you think, too. Vertical pulling isn’t easy, though, so make sure you master your rowing first.

Bent-Over Barbell Rows

The bent-over row builds your upper back, but it’ll hit your lower back more than you think, forcing your posterior chain to work overtime to stabilize you. It’s full-body muscle.

Seated Cable Rows

The seated cable row is one of the smartest ways to start learning to pull with your back. It’s easier on the lower body than bent-over and dumbbell rows, too.

Plank Walkouts

This is one of the most functional core exercises out there, training plenty of anti-extension (your core’s ability to provide stability as you extend your hands and legs farther, and it teaches the abdominals to protect your spine.

Hanging Leg Raises

The hanging leg raise teaches you how to flex your trunk, and builds a ton of ab strength. And get this: It’s better than a situp while never presenting the postural issues that situps can in terms of rounding your lower back. Just take your time with these and don’t try rushing and swinging wildly.

Dumbbell Bench Presses

This is the best overall way to train your chest, but notice that we’re not recommending the barbell version. The dumbbell press is superior, giving you more freedom to move and play with shoulder, elbow, and wrist position. Your rotator cuffs will thank you for choosing this bench press.

Single-arm Dumbbell Rows

Yes, another row, because you can never row enough. The single-arm dumbbell row lets you move heavy weight, and it lets you get a great stretch on your lats. Focus on higher reps with heavy weights and you’ll build a strong, powerful back.

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Side Planks

The side plank will build every part of your core, and it does so in a very “integrated” way. You’re not just using your abs, but abs, lower back, glutes, and obliques (and many other muscles) work in concert to keep you stable.


The oldest exercise known to man remains one of the best, building your chest, tris, and shoulders, and attacking your core more than you may expect.

Close-Grip Pushups

This pushup variation gives you a chance to really pummel your triceps using only your bodyweight, and it still hits your chest and shoulders. In fact, the angle of the close-grip pushup may actually make it more shoulder-friendly, too.

Sled Pushes

If you’re tight for time and need a conditioning workout for the ages, then these can’t be beat. Pushing and pulling the prowler along turf or even hard concrete works the upper and lower body and has endless metabolic benefits that will leave you burning fat for the rest of the week. Using sleds as a finisher to any workout, or as their own individual workout will deliver the goods.

Dumbbell Biceps Curls

The classic dumbbell biceps curl is still the best way to isolate and really grow your guns, and, if you do it right, you’ll be tensing your entire torso, creating underrated core development too. Focus on really turning your pinkies upwards as you complete each curl rep to really attack your biceps.

Kettlebell Swings

A great intro to speed and power training, swings tap into the hamstrings and glutes – muscles that are typically jam-packed with fast-twitch muscle fibers. But this isn’t just a lower-body move. To dominate the kettlebell swing, your core must be super-stiff and strong throughout the movement, and your rhomboids and lats must be active. Sign us up.

Face Pulls

Setting up a pair of ropes on a pulley (or bands around a post) and pulling to the face sounds simple enough. The benefits that this movement delivers to intrinsic postural muscles make it invaluable. Plus, you can use it as a prehab or warm up tool, or incorporate it into a workout without a hitch. You’ll feel the burn and the benefits with high rep sets.

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Lat Pulldowns

Whether you want great lat development or you’re not strong enough to do pull ups with good form, honing in on things with pulldowns would be a smart choice. Setting the shoulders properly under load can be tricky if you’re using your entire body weight from the hang, and not a controllable load while seated. Pulldowns can also be a good option for lifters with bad shoulders since the pulling angle isn’t quite vertical.

Farmer’s Walks

Any loaded carry will be worth its weight in gold for your conditioning, grip strength, trap development, and body composition. We chose farmer’s walks since it’s got the simplest instructions: Grab the heaviest dumbbells you can get your hands on, and walk briskly with good posture until you can’t. Sounds easy? Throw them in for 15 minutes at the end of your workout.

Bear-Stance Shoulder Taps

The bear crawl position is very underrated, and removing a base of support from the picture makes it even more badass as an anti-rotation stability exercise that will leave the abs and obliques working overtime. The key is to avoid letting the body shift or rock – it’s harder than it looks and makes for a core that’s truly and functionally athletic and strong.

Bear Crawls

This one is a great way to warm up your entire body, and it’s more challenging than you think, forcing a ton of core stability and challenging the way you move your hips.

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