This post is for you if you want an effective upper body workout that is optimized for muscular development. There are numerous elements to consider when selecting a workout split that maximizes muscular growth. However, because of an upper-lower split’s appropriate training frequency and realistic time commitment, it is an efficient split for many lifters that can be easily adjusted based on your training experience.
For the past few years, I’ve included upper lower splits into my own training regimen, and here’s where it’s taken me (naturally, of course!):
There’s no denying it works.
The key, though, is to select the appropriate upper body activities to comprise your science-based routine. In this essay, I’ll teach you how to accomplish just that in a scientifically sound manner.
Also, stay tuned until the end of the article for a free downloadable PDF of the upper body workout that you can start using at the gym right away!
What exactly is an Upper Lower Split?
To begin, for those who are unfamiliar, an upper lower split simply entails dividing your workouts into upper and lower body workout days. Every week, two of each are usually performed. Ideally, you should arrange the split as follows:
Splitting Upper and Lower Samples
REST THURSDAY – UPPER FRIDAY – LOWER SATURDAY/SUNDAY – REST THURSDAY – UPPER FRIDAY – LOWER SATURDAY/SUNDAY – REST
Although the exact days for each workout are unimportant, it is recommended to have a rest day following two days of training to allow for adequate recovery.
How to Plan Upper Body Workouts
When it comes to the greatest exercises to include in your upper body workouts, a good starting point is to follow the following guidelines:
Push Horizontal (e.g. dumbbell press)
Horizontal Draw (e.g. seated row)
Pushing Up Vertically (e.g. OHP)
Row, Vertical (e.g. pull ups)
Movements of Accessory Items (biceps, triceps, etc.)
This method of selecting workouts guarantees that your muscles are worked in a balanced manner. This helps to avoid imbalances from forming and targets the entire upper body musculature. Because each plane of movement is handled, this also protects certain stabilizer muscles from being overloaded.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at what the ideal workout may entail.
Exercise 1 – Incline Dumbbell Press (Horizontal Push)
Because of the extra shoulder flexion, incline dumbbell presses place greater emphasis on the clavicular head of the pecs, or the upper chest, which is often a weak region for most people.
Bret Contreras conducted an EMG investigation and discovered that incline dumbbell presses were the most effective compound activity for upper chest activation out of 15 distinct chest workouts.
As a result, by beginning with this exercise, you may successfully prioritize the upper chest.
And, because using dumbbells rather of a barbell more efficiently minimizes muscle imbalances and allows for a broader range of motion, incline dumbbell presses are the best alternative for this workout’s horizontal push exercise.
The Best Incline Position
In terms of the best incline setting, research indicates that the optimal bench angle is from 30 to 56 degrees.
I’ve discovered that a 30 degree incline produces the best activation, but explore to see what works best for you. (For additional exercises, see my post on the finest chest workout for bulk.)
Chest Supported Row – Exercise 2 (Horizontal Row)
For your next upper body exercise, you want to do a horizontal rowing movement.
As I said in my back training post, my personal favorite is the chest-supported row, which targets almost all of the upper back musculature.
Rowing movements offer similar amounts of lat activation as lat pulldowns but more activation in other parts of the back such as the traps and rhomboids, according to one study by Lehman and colleagues.
As a result, including at least one rowing exercise in your regimen is critical for both back width and thickness.
I recommend employing some type of a chest-supported row in this upper body workout to assist limit the involvement of the lower back, which will be prominently involved in the next exercise, as you’ll see.
Other exercises, such as the barbell row, have a place in back development. However, because research suggests that they elicit a high level of lower back involvement when compared to other back exercises, their inclusion in an upper body workout should be carefully considered.
Standing Overhead Press – Exercise 3 (Vertical Push)
The next step is to perform a vertical pressing movement.
Because of its capacity to readily overload with weight and target multiple muscles at once, the overhead press is an excellent choice.
It primarily affects the anterior deltoid, though the lateral and posterior heads are also involved. It also puts a lot of strain on the core, triceps, and serratus anterior muscles to assist press and stabilize the weight overhead.
And, as I discussed in my shoulder workout post, I believe it is the only upper body exercise required for the anterior deltoid.
This is because research like this one by Behren and Buskies discovered that the overhead press is the best exercise for the anterior deltoid. It was found to outperform dumbbell front raises by 41%! As a result, this exercise provides a lot of volume for your anterior deltoids.
Pull-ups OR Lat-Pulldowns for Exercise 4 (Vertical Pull)
Finally, you should perform a vertical pulling movement.
Pull-ups are a good addition for those who can do them because they train almost all of your back musculature and also extensively involve your shoulder and scapular stabilizers.
Ness and colleagues discovered that pull-ups elicit equal lat activation as lat-pull downs but higher biceps engagement in one study.
Furthermore, according to one study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, individuals were able to pull 25% more total weight with pull-ups than with lat pulldowns.
As a result, one may argue that pull-ups are preferable to lat pulldowns.
However, because pull-ups are often more tiring, lat pull downs may be a better alternative here, considering that the prior upper body workouts are highly energy demanding.
So it’s entirely up to you, but including both in your weekly regimen is unquestionably the best option.
Incline Dumbbell Curls (Exercise 5 – Accessory Movement)
The following two exercises are optional upper-body auxiliary movements. These are more appropriate for intermediate/advanced lifters than beginners, but I’ll discuss this further at the end of the article.
That being said, for the biceps, my go-to exercise is the incline dumbbell curl. As I mentioned in my biceps workout, it preferentially stresses the long head of the biceps, which is typically overlooked.
Study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine
And, as demonstrated in this study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, it allows the biceps to be active throughout the entire range of motion. This is advantageous because many biceps workouts only elicit strong biceps activation at the beginning or finish of the movement.
Because this exercise focuses on the long head of the biceps, you could simply do a biceps exercise that focuses on the short head on your other upper body day of the week. As a result, both heads will develop in a balanced manner over time.
Exercise 6 – Incline Overhead Dumbbell Extensions (Accessory Movement)
This exercise, like the biceps, will accentuate the long head of the triceps due to the flexed position of the shoulder. Otherwise, the long head doesn’t get much attention, which is why I recommend include this practice.
Dumbbell extensions on an inclined bench are an excellent approach to avoid muscle imbalances while also reducing the amount of momentum used. The inclination of the bench also serves to put the shoulder in a more flexed position, putting more emphasis on the long head.
However, any triceps exercise that requires shoulder flexion (raising the arm overhead) will effectively target the long head. There are several workouts that accomplish this, so try them all and discover which one you prefer.
Upper Body Workouts Depending on Your Fitness Level
So, to summarize the video, if you’re a more intermediate or experienced lifter, this is how your upper body workout might look.
Lifter Version (Intermediate or Advanced):
3-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions on the incline dumbbell press
Row with your chest supported: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps
3-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions on the overhead press
Lats OR Pull-ups 3-4 sets of 8-10 repetitions for pulldowns
2 sets of 8-12 repetitions of incline dumbbell curls
2 sets of 10-15 repetitions of incline dumbbell extensions
If your back delts or chest need extra work, you could add face pulls or chest flies as an additional exercise. On the other hand, if you’re a newbie just getting started, this upper body exercise will be far too strenuous.
According to research, isolation exercises do not produce additional muscular growth for beginners when complex movements are already used. As a result, rather than executing the two or three additional isolation exercises, I’d simply stick to the four primary upper complex workouts as shown.
Split for Beginner Lifters:
3-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions on the incline dumbbell press
Row with your chest supported: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
3 sets of 6-10 repetitions on the overhead press
Lats OR Pull-ups 3 sets of 8-10 repetitions for pulldowns
And for your second workout of the week, follow the same general framework I described earlier in this video but change up the exercises.
These exercises, for example, are a terrific choice for your next upper body workout during the week because they complement the ones I discussed previously.
Exercises to Try for Your Second Workout
When it comes to arranging your workouts, the alternatives are limitless. So, try out different tasks while adhering to the overall outline I outlined previously. The Unorthodox Training Membership Program is built to provide more in-depth information and training as well as provide additional features for our website, content, tools, and resources.