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How Do I Target the Upper Body?

An important part of any workout routine is the time you spend focusing on your upper body. Most people tend to think of upper body work in pretty simple terms: weight lifting. But there’s actually more to increasing your upper body mass than visiting a bench press every other day, although that can be part of it. Indeed, there are many aspects to the upper body, and each one requires its own well thought out approach.

Upper body exercises can be broken down into six distinct groups:

  • Elbow Extension: Basically, these are exercises in which you move weight away from you from the elbow. Examples: Overhead Tricep Extensions, Tricepts Cable Pressdown, etc
  • Elbow Flexion: These exercises involve moving a weight towards you with a “pulling” action from your elbow. Examples: Preacher curls, Cable curls, Seated bicep curls
  • Vertical Push: These are exercises in which you “push” weight vertically, usually upward in relation to your body. Examples: Lateral raises, High incline bench press, Standing overhead shoulder press
  • Vertical Pull: The opposite of a vertical push, these are exercises where you pull weight down, towards yourself. Examples: Pull ups, chin ups, Lateral pull downs
  • Horizontal Push: These exercises are those in which you “push” a weight that in on a horizontal plane to your body. Examples: Bench press (even though you are laying down, and pushing the weight up, that weight is on a horizontal plane to your body), Decline bench press, Flat/incline flyes
  • Horizontal Pull: These are exercises in which you “pull” a weight towards you on a horizontal plane to your body. Examples: T-Bar rows, seated cable rows, bent over rows, exercises on a row machine

Knowing these terms and techniques can help you better target the areas of your body you want to address, contouring specific muscle groups to get the results you’re after.

Common Upper Body Exercises

Upper body exercises can be performed in two general ways: using weights or equipment and performing exercises unassisted. Equipment-based exercises can include activities such as bench pressing weight, performing curls and so on. Generally, all of these activities fall under the umbrella of weight training. While the name may be pretty self explanatory, weight training should always be done in a safe manner and environment. Some activities, such as bench-pressing, often require a spotter—someone there to help in the event you try to lift too much weight.

There are also many activities you can do without weights to target your upper body. For example, doing a set of plank arm row with rotations (basically, a push up with twist on to one arm) can be a great workout designed to tone your arms. A couple of sets of pilates presses can have the same result. The point is that there are many options for targeting your upper body without the need for weight training.

Many people combine both forms of activities. If you want an additional challenge, you could try circuit training when target your upper body, developing aerobic and anaerobic endurance. Circuit training is, essentially, a way to make weight lifting into an aerobic activity, and it is a technique used by many runners.

Have a Goal and Work Towards it

Most would-be athletes who walk into a weight room and are never seen again often suffer from a common ailment: they don’t have a goal. One of the best ways to keep the focus on your upper body is to have a goal in mind: have an image of how you want your contoured body to look and figure out what types of exercises will get there. Going into the weight room (or unfolding your mat) without having a game plan is almost always a sure way to a lack of motivation.

It should also be noted that it’s important to alternate days that you work on your upper and lower body. When you target one area of your body, it will need time to recovery. Work on your upper body one day and lower body the next (or alternate between upper body and cardio work). The point is to simply not put too much pressure on your upper body, to give it time to recover. If you injure yourself, you won’t be gaining any muscle mass!

Contouring your upper body is not only possible—with the right amount determination and planning, it’s inevitable. Keep up the work and your upper body will be contoured before you know it.




minutes per workout

Most upper body workouts can be accomplished in roughly 30 minutes, not including stretching.


a simple ratio

The notion that muscle weighs more than fat is false. They weigh the same. Fat simply takes up more space.


calories in a pound

For the average person, there are roughly 3500 calories in a pound of body weight, making it easy to calculate.



Optimum Nutrition

Working your upper body isn't easy. Sometimes, your body needs a little help recovering and building muscles, and the supplements from Optimum Nutrition can help you do just that.

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