Most men bring the wrong approach to training their upper half: Whether it’s defaulting to the upper-body exercises, not working hard enough on them, or completely overlooking lower body moves—yes, some of them can help build your top half, too—training wrong can lead to muscle imbalance and injury.
Another consequence? Wasted time and effort, which can hold you back from the results you want.
So train smart instead. We’ve made it easy for you with The Men’s Health Ultimate Upper Body, a 12-week program that supersizes your chest, back, arms, and shoulders that I created for my celebrity clients when they land a big-budget role and need to add slabs of lean muscle—fast. These are the exact workouts that have turned even the lankiest, softest guys into big-screen Greek Gods. And by exact, I mean exact: I created the program, and then gave it to Men’s Health and one of my A-listers on the same day.
While I can’t reveal many of my clients’ names, I can tell you that I work daily with a long roster of athletes like Klay Thompson and Jordan Bell, and models like Kate Upton. So I’m in the business of getting people into the best shape of their lives. These 5 exercises are pulled directly from my Ultimate Upper Body program. Use them to sculpt the muscles that get you noticed.
These five exercises below are a preview of the workouts. Try this program and you won’t just work harder—you’ll work smarter. These specific moves all hammer your chest, back, shoulders, arms, and abs in the safest, most effective way possible.
1. Band Pull-Apart:
The band pull-apart is a favorite exercise of mine because it’s super low load and doesn’t put a lot of stress on your joints. That means you can do a high volume of them at one time.
The exercise hits your upper back muscles, and as a result, helps counteract all the sitting people do during the day and all the pressing (ahem, benching!) most men do at the gym. So it’ll improve your posture and help stabilize your shoulder joints so you can lift heavier weights in just about every other upper-body exercise.
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a resistance band overhand, with your arms straight out in front of your chest and parallel to the floor. Keeping your arms straight, slowly pull your hands back and out to your sides. The band should be tight and touching your chest. Pause, then reverse the move back to the starting position.
2. Staggered-Stance Landmine Press:
The landmine press is not a true overhead press—it’s more of an incline overhead pressing motion. This angle is easier on your shoulders and shouldn’t aggravate your joints or cause lingering pain.
It’s also better than overhead pressing for men with mobility issues. Try this: Stand with your arms at your side and your feet hip-width apart. Then raise both arms at once until your biceps are by your ears, keeping your lower back and elbows straight, and palms in. If you can’t do this without arching your back (even a little), bending your arms, or bringing your head forward, you have poor mobility. Stick with the staggered-stance landmine press for the same strength and muscle benefits without the risk of injury.
How to do it: Place one end of a barbell in a landmine station. Hold the other end in your right hand at your shoulder, and assume a staggered stance, your left foot forward. This is the starting position. Press the barbell forward and overhead until your arm is straight. Reverse the movement back to the start position.
No landmine station available? DIY: Wrap a towel around the end of the barbell and wedge it into a corner on the floor.
3. Elbows-out Triceps Extension:
The elbows-out triceps extension provides a similar training effect for the back of your arms as traditional triceps extensions (like skull crushers), but they’re a lot easier on your elbow joints. I’ve worked with a lot of people who don’t like skull crushers because the exercise causes elbow pain or discomfort. But when I switch them to the elbows-out version, the problem disappears. The result: All the gains without the pain.
How to do it: Lie with your back on a flat bench, holding dumbbells that are resting vertically on your chest, your palms facing away from your face. Flare your elbows out to your sides and point them upward. This is the start. Without moving your upper arms, press the dumbbells out and up until your arms are straight. Pause for a moment, then lower the weights and repeat.
4. Dumbell Squeeze Press:
The squeeze press works your pecs like a dumbbell fly but with less risk of injury. The fly movement—going above and outside your shoulder with a load—can overstretch the front of your shoulders and cause impingement syndrome. (That’s a painful condition in which the muscles or tendons of your rotator cuff become entrapped in your shoulder joint.)
Squeezing the weights together as hard as you can during a dumbbell bench press, however, has the same training effect on your chest without the joint stress. Plus, you’re using a neutral grip during the squeeze, which is especially shoulder friendly.
How to do it: Grab a pair of dumbbells and lie on your back on a flat bench. Start with your arms straight, holding the weights directly over your chest. Now press the weights together forcefully, feeling the tension in your chest. This is the start. Keeping the dumbbells pressed together, bend your elbows and lower them to your chest. Pause, and then immediately push them back to the starting position.
5. Trap Bar Deadlift:
Why the hell did I include a lower-body exercise in here? Because the trap bar deadlift isn’t just a lower-body exercise. The movement also works your forearms, traps, and upper back.
I prefer the trap bar to conventional deadlifts because it’s safer for the lower back. The user- friendly bar design accommodates different body types—short legs and long torso, long legs and short torso, tall build, short build—better than a straight bar. And I’m pretty sure you’ll feel how effective it is for your upper body the day after you do it.
How to do it: Load a trap bar and stand inside it, your feet shoulder-width. Bend at your hips and knees and grab the handles. Brace your core and keep your lower back straight as you drive your body upward and thrust your hips forward until you’re in a standing position. Lower the bar to the floor and repeat.
To hit your upper body even harder, pause for three to five seconds at the top of each rep.