Exercise Strength Training

4 Best Compound Exercises To Build Upper Body Strength

Written by Pete G.

Benefits Of Compound Exercises For Upper Body Strength


One of the most efficient and effective ways by far of building upper body strength is by performing compound exercises, which unlike isolation exercises allow you to use more than one muscle group (and joint) at a time. If you’re really looking to maximize your body building potential, then performing compound exercises are a must. They are effective because they allow you to make the most amount of change in your bodies physique and composition in the shortest time possible.

Lets take a look at the bench press for example, which is one of the most popular compound exercises in the body building world. This is considered to be a compound exercise because in order to lift the dumbbell, not only are you using the muscles in your chest, but as well as the muscles in your shoulders and your triceps.

One of my favorite tools for naturally building upper body strength (using compound exercises, without weights) is the Power Press Push-Up Board, whereas more expensive tools that focus on upper & lower body resistance like the Bayou Fitness Total Trainer can be one of the most effective ways to build total body strength.

A compound exercise can furthermore, be described as using more than one joint to perform an exercise. Compound exercises are more effective than isolation exercises because they allow you to do more in less time, they build strength and size quicker and more effectively, and they relate to everyday functions and movements (e.g. sitting, kneeling, jumping).

Best Compound Exercises For The Upper Body


#1. Pull-Ups & Chin-Ups

One of the most straight-forward compound exercises for the upper body has to be the pull-up. The pull-up works the majority of the muscles in your back as well as the muscles in your shoulders and triceps. For maximum results, we recommend mixing in these pull-up varieties into your workout: wide-grip pull-ups, close-grip pull-ups, underhand-grip pull-ups, and gorilla chins. 

How To Do Pull Ups

A. Wide-Grip Pull-Ups:

  • Best For: Lats
  • Secondary Muscle Groups: Biceps & Middle Back
  • How To Perform: Grasp pull-up bar with a wider than shoulder width overhand grip and pull up. Focus on your lats as you pull up. The wider the grip, the harder and more challenging the exercise becomes.

B. Close (or narrow) Grip Pull-ups:

  • Best For: Lower Lats
  • Secondary Muscle Groups: Biceps & Middle Back
  • How To Perform: Grasp pull-up bar at shoulder width with a overhand grip and pull up. The closer your grip, the more you extend and user your elbows and the easier the exercise becomes.

C. Underhand-Grip Pull-Ups (also known as, Chin-Up):

  • Best For: Biceps
  • Secondary Muscle Groups: Lats
  • How To Perform: Grasp pull-up bar at shoulder width, this time with an underhand grip and pull up. Unlike the traditional pull-up, you are placing a lot more emphasis on working out the biceps.

D. Gorilla Chins:

  • Best For: Abdominals
  • Secondary Muscles: Biceps & Lats
  • How To Perform: Use an underhand grip to grasp the chin-up bar. Bend your knees forward at a 90-degree angle (with legs either crossed, or uncrossed) so that your calves become parallel to the ground beneath you. As you pull yourself up, crunch your knees at the same time until your knees come up to chest-level.

Overview: I know, that is a lot of pull-ups. But if you can master these 4 exercises and mix the different overhand and underhand grip into your normal workout routines, you will become much stronger. For some, it can take time, practice, and repetition to get the hang of pulling up their body-weight.

But the reason these exercises are so important are because of the fact that nearly 2/3 of our muscle mass are located on the posterior side of our body, which is something we usually fail to realize. If we can effectively build the muscles in our back, using good variety and technique, then building out the rest of your body will be that much easier. Think of it as your bodies framework so-to-speak.

 

#2. Bench Press & Dips


Of course, we now have the bench press, which is amazing for the chest and pectoral muscles, as well as the triceps. Add the following variations for an even far more effective workout. If you really want to kill your chest muscles and add some real definition, then we recommend adding some chest dips in there too.

There are two ways you can begin implementing this exercise from home. The first is with a power tower allowing you to complete other workouts as well. My favorite power tower for doing dips is the BodyTower by Bowflex, but there is an entire selection that you can choose from. Other awesome and simpler alternatives for doing dips are simple dip stands like these that you can always store away for later.

How To Do Chest Dips

A. Flat Bench Press

  • Best For: Pectoralis Major (Chests)
  • Secondary Muscles: Triceps & Shoulders
  • How To Perform: Grab the bar with feet flat on the floor at shoulder width-stance and straighten arms to lift the bar.

B. Incline Bench Press

  • Best For: Pectorals Major & Clavicular (upper-chest)
  • Secondary Muscles: Triceps & Shoulders
  • How To Peform: Same as flat bench but with the seat elevated upwards.

C. Decline Bench Press

  • Best For: Pectorals Major & Lower Chest
  • Secondary Muscles: Triceps & Shoulders
  • How To Perform: Same as flat and incline but with your seat facing downwards.

D. Dumbbell Bench Press (Flat, Incline, & Decline) 

  • Best For: Pectoralis Major & Clavicular
  • Secondary Muscles: Triceps & Shoulders
  • How To Perform: Lie down on a bench (either flat, inclined, or declined). Use your thighs to lift up each dumbbell to your hands. Hold them in-front of you at shoulder-width and lift up.

E. Chest Dips

  • Best For: Chests
  • Secondary Muscles: Triceps
  • How To Perform: Take both hands to grip each side of the bar, let the elbows flair outwards, and slowly lower your body down until you begin to feel a stretch in your chests. Don’t let your arms lock-up.

Overview: It’s important to note that your chest is made up of 2 divisions: an upper (called the clavicular head) and the lower (called the pectoralis), which is why it is so important to do more than the regular flat bench in order to really build out your chests. Add these variations into your workout for maximum chest muscle gains!

 

#3. Barbell Row


The barbell row is another highly effective workout for the upper body and back in particular. The most important thing here however, is that if you do decide to incorporate the barbell row into your routine, that you use the proper form. If you’re still new to lifting and don’t have a clue as how to do this, then don’t try this at home. So, in order to prevent any injury keep your lower back neutral and whatever you do, do not round your back. If you don’t know proper form when attempting, I can’t recommend avoiding this and the deadlift entirely.

This was the exact cause of my injury years ago when I was new to lifting and it took me years to eliminate the resulting back-pain. Now, despite their amazing effectiveness, I shy away when it comes to performing a deadlift or barbell row. But they really can help to build muscle on a whole other level. The barbell row as you’ll see is great for the upper and lower back, hips, and arms.

That is why I’ve turned to much safer and perhaps more effective alternatives like the Bayou Fitness Total Trainer, which actually restores natural body movements, posture, balance, and so much more. This way you don’t need to worry about throwing out your back (as with my incident) or messing around with your posture, which I don’t think is mentioned nearly enough in the world of bodybuilding.

How To Do Barbell Row

How To Perform:

Step 1. Stand with your feet under the bar and keep your toes pointed out.

Step 2. Grab the bar at medium width and hold the bar in your lower hands. (Grip should be more narrow than when used with a benchpress, but wider than would be with a deadlift.

Step 3. Keep your knees unlocked and keep the hips high.

Step 4. Lift the chest, keep your back straight (not rounded), and don’t drop the hips.

Step 5. Now Row, by pulling the bar towards and against the lower chest as your elbows pull up towards the ceiling.

 

#4. Military Press


If you’re looking to build great shoulders (or should I say, boulders), look no further than the military press. When done correctly, the military press can help you to some serious size not only to your shoulders, but the upper body as a whole. It might just be considered one of the best and most effective exercises for building out the shoulders, triceps, and upper body. We recommend doing either one of the two following variations:

How To Do Military Press

A. Standing Military Press

  • Best For: Shoulders & Triceps
  • Secondary Muscles: Chests, Upper Back, & Biceps
  • How To Perform: Grip the bar at shoulder width position keeping your back neutral and press the bar over your head.

B. Seated Military Press (Recommended)

  • Best For: Shoulders & Triceps
  • Secondary Muscles: Chests, Upper Back, & Biceps
  • How To Perform: Place feet on the ground shoulder-width apart. Grip the bar same as you would with a bench press keeping your back neutral and not gripping too widely. Press your chest up, keeping your elbows tucked in, tilt head back, and lift up over your shoulders.

 

Compound Exercise Overview


There you have it. Those are our 4 favorite compound exercises to really build, strengthen, and add tons of muscle mass to your upper body. They are some of the most effective exercises and is what is going to help you maximize your upper body building. That’s not to say isolation exercises aren’t effective. Use both compound and isolation exercises in conjunction and you should see amazing progress.

The most important thing when doing any one of these compound exercises is utilizing the best proper form possible. It’s not only about how much weight you are lifting, but how you execute these exercises. Remember to always keep the back neutral and to never arch because this results in compression of the spine and I always suggest using a foam roller like the TriggerPoint Grid after a workout to keep the muscles nice and stretched.

Also remember, that its by incorporating these compound exercises that will build the most muscle possible, maximize your workout efficiency, and even help you burn off more calories by utilizing multiple muscle groups at once.

Do you have any compound exercises you would like to recommend to this list for building upper body strength? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.

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