Upper Body Workout: The BEST Arm, Shoulder, & Back Exercises

Designing an upper body workout can be complicated to determine what exercises, how many sets and reps, and how often you should be training to maximize muscle growth.

A back, arms, and shoulders-focused upper body workout program should include 1-2 exercises per muscle group for 3-4 total sets per exercise. Your rep ranges can vary between 5-25 reps. For best results, train each muscle group twice per week in all rep ranges throughout the training week.

Below, I will share with you my favorite muscle-building exercises and help you build your own workout routine to build a bigger back, shoulders, and arms.

Looking to add more upper body size and strength? On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.

Upper Body Workout Movements

When looking to develop the upper body, you need to make sure you are performing movements that train several muscles of the arms, back, and shoulders at varying angles. 

Below, we will discuss the three main types of movements for an effective upper body workout, including: vertical pushing, vertical pulling, horizontal pushing, and horizontal pulling.  .

Vertical Pushing

Vertical pushing movements are ones that have you press loads upwards, typically above your head. 

Muscle Groups Involved

When doing vertical pushing movements, you can target the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps. Depending on the angle at which you are pushing loads, you can shift more emphasis on certain muscle groups.

When loads are pressed directly overhead, you target the shoulders, and the lower the overhead angle, the more chest your target. 

For example, an incline dumbbell press (bench at a 60-degree angle) targets the chest, whereas a bench at 90 degrees targets the shoulders.

The triceps are also involved in vertical pushing movements as they assist the shoulders and chest by extending the elbows, however, they are not a primary muscle group in most movements.

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Recommended Exercises

The best shoulder exercises you can do to build your upper body are dumbbell overhead presses, Smith machine overhead shoulder presses, and the barbell shoulder press.

Dumbbell Shoulder Press

The dumbbell shoulder press allows you to train the shoulders independently, which can help address muscle imbalances. 

Dumbbells also allow you to change the wrist position in the overhead press, which can be helpful for lifters who have wrist or elbow problems with a barbell or Smith machine.

Related: 9 Best Dumbbell Shoulder Exercises

Smith Machine Overhead Shoulder Press

The Smith machine allows you to train the overhead pressing movement without needing to coordinate your arms or control the weight.

This is helpful when training with heavier loads or with beginners who struggle to find the proper path weight needs to travel. 

Barbell Shoulder Press

The barbell shoulder press is another shoulder press variation that allows you to train the shoulders with heavier loads with minimum equipment (other than a bar and plates).

Unlike the Smith machine, this requires you to control the barbell as it is not on tracks, however, you do not need as much coordination as dumbbells.

You can also train this exercise from behind the neck, to also develop the rear shoulders and traps.

Horizontal Pushing

Horizontal pushing movements are movements that have you press a load outwards in front of you when standing/sitting or pressing upwards as you are lying on your back (like the bench press). 

Muscle Groups Involved

Horizontal pushing movements primarily target the chest. However, the shoulders and triceps also assist the chest in lifting the loads.

Note that most horizontal pushing exercises primarily target the chest (and are not good shoulder builders). 

However, there are some chest exercises that can be manipulated to shift more emphasis to the triceps, and therefore help grow your arms.

Recommended Exercises

The best exercises you can do to increase your tricep strength are the close grip bench press, assisted dips, and diamond push up.

Close-Grip Bench Press

The close-grip bench press is a barbell exercise that trains the triceps (and some chests).

This exercise is a great movement to increase arm strength and size.

By using a close grip (shoulder width or closer), you are able to have your elbows stay tucked into the body (elbows should be lined up under the wrists), which increases the loading places on the triceps.

Related: The Best Bulking Chest Workout – 9 Must Do Exercises

Assisted Dip

The assisted dip is a machine that allows you to perform dips regardless of your fitness level.

By using assistance, you are able to better control the lowering phase of the movement and place your body in a more leaned forward position to target more of the trices.

You could make this a non-assisted dip variation by doing these on bars. You want to make sure you are not using too much momentum and controlling the movement at all times.

Diamond Push-Up

The diamond push-up is a push-up done with the hands closer together, forming a diamond (by placing your index fingers together and your thumbs together).

This narrow width of the hands allows you to keep your elbows into the body more during the push-up, forcing more elbow bending (and fewer shoulders) and targeting the triceps more than the regular push-up.

Related: The At Home Push Up Workout To Build Your Arms & Chest

Vertical Pulling

Vertical pulling movements target the back. These movements have you move your hands towards your body when the hands are reached overhead, such as in a pull-up or lat pulldown. 

Muscle Groups Involved

Vertical pulling movements target the lat muscles, as well as some of the rear shoulder and lower traps. 

When the hands are reached overhead and then pulled back to the body (lat pulldown) or when you are moving your body upwards against gravity towards your hands (pull-up) you stress the back muscle fibers that run on a more vertical attachment angle. 

These muscle fibers tend to give the V-shape appearance and help give you a wider, broader back aesthetic.

Recommended Exercises

The best vertical pulling exercises you can do to increase your back growth are the lat pulldown, pull-up, and straight arm pulldown.

Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown mimics the movement of a pull-up, and is a great place to start for all levels as you can easily adjust the weight.

This means beginners can build up their strength to progress into pull-ups, while more advanced lifters can use lat pulldowns to get more lat training in without building up arm and grip fatigue (like they would doing pull-ups).

Related: 18 Back Isolation Exercises With Sample Program 


The pull-up is a classic back-building exercise that should be mastered and kept in your program if you are looking to build a bigger, more muscular back.

If you struggle to do pull ups with good form, use an assisted pull-up machine to help you slow the exercise down and feel the muscles of the back squeezing as you lift yourself. 

Straight Arm Pulldown

The straight arm pulldown is an isolation exercise for the lats. Like the pull-up, the elbows do not bend, which means that you cannot use your biceps to aid in the movement.

This is great to use when you have issues feeling your lats in a pull-up and when you want to add extra work to the lats to get more growth.

Horizontal Pulling

Horizontal pulling exercises also target the back, however, they target muscle fibers that contribute to giving the back a fuller, thicker aesthetic. 

When training these, you will be able to see more separation between the left and right sides of your back and look more muscular from the side view.

Muscle Groups Involved

Horizontal pulling exercise targets the back, as well as the back of the shoulders (rear delts).

You will target these back muscle fibers when you are pulling your hands back towards you when they are reached out away from your body. 

This can be something like a seated row machine where you are upright and pulling the weight back to you, or when you are bent over (facing the floor) and pulling the weight up to you. 

You can even change the angle at which you are pulling weight back into you, however, the more your hands go overhead, the more you turn this into a vertical pulling movement.

Recommended Exercises

The best horizontal pulling exercises you can do to increase your back fullness are the dumbbell row, machine row, and bent-over row.

Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is a single-arm rowing exercise. This is great to make sure you don’t have muscle imbalances. 

Machine Row

The machine row is a seated rowing exercise that removes the need for the lifter to control their spine in a bent-over position. This is great for people who are unable to do bent-over arrows, as well as more advanced lifters who want to train their backs hard without risking tiring out their lower back.

You can also do hammer strength rows, cable rows, and incline dumbbell rows, as they are very similar to the machine row.

Bent Over Row

The bent over row is a classic barbell exercise (can be done from the floor or from a 45-degree angle) that builds the back, however many lifters struggle to do this properly (flat back, pulling with their back and not their arms). When done correctly, this can be a great exercise, however, when not done properly or when a lifter struggles to maintain good positions, they may be better off doing more machine rows until they are able to control their body.


Accessories are a term used to describe a supplemental exercise that trains the smaller muscle groups of the upper body. They can help contribute to overall muscle growth and size of the upper body as well and often fill in some gaps that the main exercises miss.

Most of these exercises are isolation exercises, which makes them ideal for adding extra training stress to the muscles later in sessions.

Muscle Groups Involved

The muscle groups involved during accessory training for the back, shoulders, and arms are typically more isolated exercises for the arms and shoulders. 

The back tends to get hit enough with the main movements, however, the arms and shoulders need more isolated work to target, train the better and maximize muscle growth.

Recommended Exercises

The best accessory exercises you can do to maximize muscle growth for your arms and shoulders are the bicep curl, overhead triceps extension, and lateral raise.

Bicep Curl

The bicep curl can be done using a barbell, dumbbells, machines, or cable. The key to doing these is to isolate the bicep muscle and to keep tension on the muscle at all times.

You can use a variety of bicep curl exercises to train the biceps directly, keeping the shoulders and other muscle groups out of the movement.

Related: The Best Bulking Arm Exercises – 13 Must-Do Exercises

Overhead Triceps Extension

The overhead triceps extension trains the triceps. Unlike the pressing exercise above that also targets the triceps, this exercise trains the long head of the tricep (whereas the ones above train the lateral head).

By training the long head of the tricep, you are able to train the longer, larger muscle fibers of the triceps to maximize muscle growth. You can do these with cables, dumbbells, a bar, or a machine.

Lateral Raise

The lateral raise is a shoulder isolation exercise. This exercise is great for truly isolating the shoulders without adding extra stress to the shoulder joint.

You are also not able to use the triceps to assist in the movement, making it a classic shoulder isolation exercise for all levels. You can do this with dumbbells, cables, or resistance bands.

Build Your Own Upper Body Workout

Now that we have covered which exercises are the best ones, below I’ll discuss how to plan those exercises into a training program.  

Exercise Selection

You first need to choose which muscle groups you want to train on a given day, then select the proper exercises to complete the job.

I suggest you choose no more than six total exercises on a given day, as this will allow you to attack each one with intensity and stay focused.

If you are training only two muscle groups (say back and shoulders), you could select three exercises for each muscle group to do that day (for a total of 6). If you wanted to train your back, shoulders, and biceps, you would train two exercises for each day. 

Lastly, if you wanted to train back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps, you would then want to choose 1 exercise for each muscle group and then add one more exercise for two groups you want to place extra focus on that day (for example, two back exercises, two biceps exercise, one triceps exercise, and one shoulder exercise).


The total amount of sets you have is key for muscle growth, as the more sets you can get in a week’s time, the more training volume (total work done on the muscle) you can achieve. 

For every workout, it is recommended that you perform 20-30 total sets, which can be dispersed to exercise based on the goal of that workout. If you are training six exercises daily, you could do 3-5 sets per exercise in that workout. 

The total amount of sets you do for an exercise can vary and may even increase over the course of a program (maybe you do three sets per exercise in the first two weeks of the program and 4 sets per exercise in the next 2 weeks of a program). 

This is just one way to progress your workouts.  If you’re using Fitbod, your workouts will progress appropriately based on your logged training data.


You want to make sure you train each muscle group with heavier weight in the 5-10 rep range for a few sets every week, as this helps to build strength. 

Next, you will want to train in the 10-15 rep range to deliver training volume (work), which helps build muscle. 

Lastly, you can train in the 15-25 rep ranges once per week to push the muscle to failure and to increase muscular endurance, as well as continued growth. 

By training all three rep ranges at some point throughout the week, you will be able to develop the strength, muscle mass, and muscle endurance of a muscle group.


How heavy you should lift should depend on the rep range you are training in. 

When training to build muscle, you want to train as heavy as you can with good technique for the total amount of reps. 

One of the biggest mistakes I see lifters make is lifting too light weights when training in higher rep ranges.

For example, if you are training in the 5-10 rep range, you want to use a weight that you can get five reps with every set but may not be able to get all ten reps every set. 

Likewise, if you are doing 15-20 reps of rows, you want to choose a weight that you are able to get up to 20 reps with but not too heavy that you can get up to 14 reps with. 

This takes time to dial in. However, this is so critical as so many lifters fail to train hard in moderate and higher rep ranges.

Remember, though, never sacrifice form or control. The goal is to keep tension on the muscle and train it hard.

If you’re using Fitbod, the algorithm will learn your capability, and over time, will be able to make precise recommendations for what weight to use for every exercise and rep range. 

Exercise Order

The order in which you do your exercises should depend on the goal of that workout. 

The muscle groups you want to develop the most in those sessions should be trained first.

For example, if I am training my back, shoulders, and biceps twice per week, I may want to really focus on building my back in the first workout, whereas in the second workout, I want to focus on my shoulders. 

In the first workout, I would then place my back exercises first in the workout so that I can attack them from my freshest state. I would then do the same on the other day where I want to really focus on my shoulders (even though I will also train my back and biceps).

This can change every workout. You should have a plan that takes into consideration your overall goal.

Training Frequency

To build your upper body muscles, you should aim to train them twice per week. 

For most lifters, this will allow you to train them with adequate training volume. Some lifters may even seek to train a muscle group three times a week (this is only needed for more advanced lifters).

The frequency at which you train a muscle group will also depend on your overall workout split (how many days a week you can train). 

You never want to train a muscle group less than once per week. 

Training a muscle group less than once per week will not result in significant muscle growth. 

Training a muscle twice per week seems to be the best way to get enough training volume in over a span of the week while also allowing for a full 48 hours of recovery between workouts for the muscle to repair itself and grow 

Weekly Progression

Weekly progressions are a necessary part of building muscle.

 Most lifters assume that adding more weight is the only way to progress, however, when looking to build muscle, you have many options that are effective.

For each workout, try to progress yourself by doing one of the three things below. 

Increasing Weight

You can increase the weight you are lifting for a given exercise and do the same number of reps and sets as you did in a prior week. By adding even the smallest amount of weight, you increase the total amount of work a muscle must do. 

Doing More Reps

This is why I suggest lifters shoot for a rep range rather than a rep number (aim to get 10-15 reps of something rather than aiming to get ten reps). Many lifters will stop at 10, even though they could have done 12 or 13 reps, which means they left a few muscle-building reps on the table (lost growth potential).

I like to have lifters try to exceed the number of reps they got with the same weight in two consecutive weeks before having them go up to heavier loads. 

Adding More Sets

This is one of my favorite ways to get more muscle growth, and it is done by adding another set to an exercise in a workout. By adding an extra set, you increase the overall training volume (work done by the muscle), which can increase muscle growth over time.

Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.

Sample Upper Body Workout

sample upper body workout

Below is a sample upper body workout that trains the shoulders, back, and arms (biceps and triceps). 

While the exact workout below is not found in the Fitbod app, you can use it as a template to build your own workouts in the app using the same exercises. 

The below workout trains the back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps. This workout also includes a variety of rep ranges, demonstrating how you can use different rep ranges within the same workout.

Note: Although this exact workout cannot be found in the Fitbod app, all the movements below are in the app. 

Week 1

Day 1: 

  • Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 2 sets of 5-10 reps, 2 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • Dumbbell Row: 2 sets of 5-10 reps, 2 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • Assisted Pull-Up: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, resting 90-120 seconds
  • Cable Face Pull: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Cable Bicep Curl: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Cable Rope Overhead Triceps Extension: 4 sets of 12-15 reps

Day 2: 

  • Barbell Bench Press: 2 sets of 5-10 reps, 2 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • Dumbbell Flyes: 2 sets of 5-10 reps, 2 sets of 10-15 reps, resting 90-120 seconds between sets
  • Incline Dumbbell Press: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, resting 90-120 seconds
  • Seated Cable Row: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, resting 60-90 seconds between sets
  • Dumbbell Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Barbell Bicep Curl: 4 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Dips: 4 sets of 12-15 reps

For daily and weekly progressions, download the Fitbod app and select upper body workout.  Stick to the program by logging your workouts and sticking to the progressions that are prescribed in the app.  

After 4-6 weeks, you’ll begin seeing a meaningful improvement in both strength and muscle.  On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.

About The Author

Mike Dewar

Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.