The Best Science-Based Upper Body Workout for Growth

upper body workout thumbnail

If you want an effective upper body workout optimized for muscle growth, then you need to read this article.

When it comes to picking a workout split that maximizes muscle growth, there’s a lot of factors that need to be considered.

But due to the optimal training frequency and realistic time commitment of an upper lower split, it makes it an effective split for many lifters that can be easily adjusted based on your training experience.

I’ve personally incorporated upper lower splits into my own training regimen for the past couple years and here’s where it’s gotten me (naturally, of course!):

upper body workout

There’s no doubt an upper lower split works.

But the key is choosing the right upper body exercises to make up your upper body workout. In this article, I’ll show you exactly how to do just that in a way that’s backed by science.

What is an Upper Lower Split?

First off, for those who are unaware, an upper lower split simply involves splitting up your workouts into upper body days and lower body days. Often 2 of each is performed every week. Ideally, you’d want to organize the split like so:

MONDAY – UPPER
TUESDAY – LOWER
WEDNESDAY – REST
THURSDAY – UPPER
FRIDAY – LOWER
SATURDAY/SUNDAY – REST

Although the exact days for each workout is not important, it’s best to include a rest day after two consecutive days of training to allow sufficient recovery.

How to Set Up Your Upper Body Workouts

Now as for the best exercises to include in your upper body workouts, a good way to set it up is by sticking to the following guideline:

Horizontal Push (e.g. dumbbell press)

Horizontal Pull (e.g. seated row)

Vertical Push (e.g. OHP)

Vertical Row (e.g. pull ups)

Accessory Movements (biceps, triceps, etc.)

Choosing your exercises in this fashion ensures that your upper body muscles are worked in a balanced manner. This helps prevent imbalances from developing and helps target all of the upper body musculature. This also prevents certain stabilizer muscles from being overworked, since each plane of movement is addressed.

So with that being said, let’s take a look at what the optimal upper body workout might look like.

Exercise 1 (Horizontal Push) – Incline Dumbbell Press

Through the added shoulder flexion of this movement, incline dumbbell presses will put more emphasis on the clavicular head of the pecs, or the upper chest, which is more often than not a weak point for most people.

upper body exercise

One EMG analysis by Bret Contreras found that out of 15 different chest exercises, incline dumbbell presses were found to be the most effective compound movement for upper chest activation.

Therefore, by starting with this exercise you’re able to effectively prioritize the upper chest.

And since utilizing dumbbells as opposed to a barbell more effectively prevents muscle imbalances from occurring and allows a greater range of motion, it makes incline dumbbell presses the ideal option for the horizontal push exercise of this workout.

Now as for the best incline setting, research tends to show that the optimal bench angle is between 30 to 56 degrees.

I’ve personally found the best activation with a 30 degree incline, but experiment with it and see what best activates your chest.

Exercise 2 (Horizontal Row) – Chest Supported Row

You want to move onto a horizontal rowing movement for your next upper body exercise.

As noted in my back workout article, my personal favourite is the chest-supported row which will effectively target pretty much all of the upper back musculature.

chest supported row upper body exercise

One study by Lehman and colleagues found that rowing movements provide similar levels of lat activation as lat pulldowns but more activation in other areas of the back like the traps and rhomboids.

Therefore, it’s essential to include at least one rowing exercise in your upper body workout routine for both back width and thickness.

I suggest using some form of a chest-supported row in this upper body workout because it helps minimize the involvement of the lower back – which as you’ll see will be heavily involved in the next exercise.

Other exercises like the barbell row do have their place for back development. But given that research shows they elicit high lower back involvement relative to other back exercises, their inclusion in an upper body workout needs to be carefully thought out.

Exercise 3 (Vertical Push) – Standing Overhead Press

Next you want to move onto a vertical pressing movement.

The overhead press is an ideal choice due to the ability to easily overload it with weight and target several muscles at once.

standing overhead press

It mainly targets the anterior deltoid with some involvement of the lateral and posterior heads. It also heavily stresses the core, the triceps, and the serratus anterior muscle to help push and stabilize the weight overhead.

And, as explained in my shoulder workout article, I’d argue it’s the only upper body exercise needed for the anterior deltoid.

This is because studies like this one by Behren & buskies found the overhead press to be the best exercise for the anterior deltoid. It was shown to outperform dumbbell front raises by 41%!

Thus, this exercise is plenty of volume for your anterior deltoids.

Exercise 4 (Vertical Pull) – Pull-ups OR Lat-Pulldowns

Finally, you want to move onto a vertical pulling movement.

For those who are capable, I’d suggest adding in pull-ups given that they work pretty much all of your back musculature and also heavily involve your shoulder and scapular stabilizers.

upper body exercises for back

One study by Ness and colleagues found that pull-ups elicit similar lat activation as lat-pull downs but more biceps involvement.

In addition, one study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning showed that subjects were able to pull 25% greater total weight with pull-ups as compared to lat pulldowns.

Therefore, one could make a case for the superiority of pull-ups to lat pulldowns.

But given that pull-ups are generally a lot more fatiguing, lat pull downs might be the better option here given that the previous upper body exercises are quite energy demanding.

So it’s really up to you, but again, including both in your weekly routine is definitely the best option.

Exercise 5 (Accessory Movement)– Incline Dumbbell Curls

The next two exercises are optional accessory movements for your upper body workout. These are more applicable for intermediate/advanced lifters as opposed to beginners, but I’ll talk more about this towards the end of the article.

With that being said, for the biceps, my go-to choice would be the incline dumbbell curl. As noted in my biceps workout,  it preferentially emphasizes the long head of the biceps which often doesn’t get as much attention.

incline dumbbell curls

And as shown in this study from the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, it enables the biceps to be active throughout the whole range of motion. This is beneficial since many biceps exercises only elicit high biceps activation at the start or end of the movement.

Since this exercise targets the long head of the biceps, you could simply choose a biceps exercise that emphasizes the short head on your other upper body day during the week. This way, both heads will be developed in a balanced manner overtime.

Exercise 6 (Accessory Movement) – Incline Overhead Dumbbell Extensions

Similar to the biceps, due to the flexed position of the shoulder, this exercise is going to emphasize the long head of the triceps. The long head head doesn’t get much attention otherwise, which is why I suggest including this exercise.

upper body exercise for triceps

Dumbbell extensions on a inclined bench are a good way to prevent muscle imbalances from occurring and minimizing the momentum used. And the incline of the bench helps put the shoulder in an even more flexed position, leading to greater emphasis on the long head.

But keep in mind that any tricep exercise that involves shoulder flexion (where the arm is raised overhead) will effectively target the long head. There’s a variety of exercises that do this, so experiment and see which you like best.

Upper Body Workouts Based on Your Training Level

So to sum up the video, if you’re a more intermediate or advanced lifter, here’s what your upper body workout could look like.


Incline Dumbbell Press: 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps

Chest Supported Row: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps

Overhead Press: 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps

Pull-ups OR Lat Pulldowns: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps

Incline Dumbbell Curls: 2 sets of 8-12 reps

Incline Dumbbell Extensions: 2 sets of 10-15 reps


You could also add face pulls or chest flies as an additional exercise if you feel that your rear delts or chest needs more work.

On the other hand, if you’re a beginner and just starting out then this upper body routine will be excessive in volume.

Research has shown that for beginners, isolation exercises don’t provide more muscle growth when compound movements are already used.

Therefore, rather than performing the 2 or 3 extra isolation movements, I’d simply stick to the 4 main upper compound exercises like so.


Incline Dumbbell Press: 3-4 sets of 6-10 reps

Chest Supported Row: 3 sets of 8-10 reps

Overhead Press: 3 sets of 6-10 reps

Pull-ups OR Lat Pulldowns: 3 sets of 8-10 reps


And as for your second upper body workout during the week, you want to stick to the same general outline I showed earlier in this video but switch up the exercises.

For example, these exercises are a good option for your next upper body workout during the week as they compliment the ones I mentioned in this video.

upper body exercise alternatives

There’s endless possibilities when it comes to structuring your upper lower split and upper body workouts. So experiment with different exercises but stick to the general outline I mentioned earlier.

I’ve also made a free Upper Body PDF Routine that you guys can access here – it contains the workout with exercise tips, a progression scheme to use, and provides insight into how to set up your other upper body day. It’s useful to have at the gym when you perform each exercise, so I highly suggest you at least check it out!

Feel free to let me know if you have any questions down below. And give me a follow on Instagram , Facebook , and Youtube where I’ll be posting informative content on a more regular basis. Cheers!

84 thoughts on “The Best Science-Based Upper Body Workout for Growth”

  1. Hi Jeremy
    Dosn’t send me the Pdf to my email, tryed with two different email account, nothing in junkmail either

        1. Being an almost 40yr old training newbie, the lower body video is going to help immensely. Just want to say thanks for the very informative videos and guides.

  2. Jeremy,
    Thanks so much, another awesome post with some great information. I look forward to the lower body workout.

    –edge

  3. Great site with simple explanation, thumbs up!
    How does the second upper body routine vary from the first one, no changes in percentages or rep ranges?

    1. One option is to make one upper body day “strength-based” (lower rep range) while the other can be higher reps with a lower % of your 1RM. As for whether this is better than using similar rep ranges on both upper days is unclear – I’d suggest experimenting with it!

  4. Hi Jeremy,

    Nice guidelines and always like videos!

    One question I have is how much calories will this cost if I perform all the upper body work out? Thanks if you can answer that, I am trying to match that with my daily nutrition plan.

    Keep up the good work and looking forward to your lower body guideline!

    Best,

    Justin

    1. That’s very difficult to say and will vary for everyone. I’d advise not to try to calculate your calories burned per day as it tends to overcomplicate things. If you calculate your TDEE, it will already factor in your activity level.

  5. Elizabeth Ogorek

    Would love a lower body routine! Also didn’t send me the PDF but I love the video! Thanks so much!

  6. Thanks for your video, I have some questions, If you are using the best exercises for best activation according to the studies, how long do you maintain the same routine and then, how do you change it?, do you use the same exercises and change reps?, and/or do you change the exercises for similar ones?, etc., could you explain? thanks!

    1. You want to progress it with weights/reps until you plateau, and then you can either change your progression scheme, change up exercise order, or change up a few of the exercises. There’s a lot of possibilities, but you generally want to stick with the same exercises for at least a couple months if they’re progressing well for you.

  7. So ive been trying to find a routine to body build while having 2-3 days of cardio (since Im Army Reserve so cardio is a most/ part of the job) so when i stumbled on this Upper lower split it was perfect. So Big thanks! If you were to add more workouts what will they be?

  8. Really appreciate all the content and information you put out for free.
    For people who are having problems receiving the email with the workout PDF, try looking under your promotions tab and not primary tab in your email. That is where it showed up for me.

    Thanks again.

  9. Thank you very much for your work!
    I would be curious to know your opinion on agonist / antagonist splits like:
    – Day 1 (legs)
    – Day 2 (Arms)
    – Day 3 (Chest and Back)
    – Day 4 (Core / Lower Back / Shoulders)

  10. Hi Jeremy, I noticed there’s a lack of deadlifts in this program. Would you say they are unnecessary here? Should I still find a way to implement them?

  11. Hey Jeremy,

    Thanks so much for the great article! Do you recommend doing each exercise in a sequence, completing the total amount of sets for one exercise before moving on to the next, or completing them in a circuit?

  12. Hey i didnt get the pdf can you send it please to miki2992@web.de
    And can you do a upper/lower routine with the sheme of How Many Sets Are Needed to Maximize Muscle Growth? (Ft. Brad Schoenfeld) ?

    ty

  13. Hi Jeremy,

    Thank You for such Awesome article.

    I had two questions
    1. Can we add Dumbbell Side Lateral Raises as Accessory Movements.
    2. How can i add Cardio in a upper & lower body split.

    1. Jeremy Ethier

      Thanks!

      1) I’d recommend using side lateral raises on your second upper body day as your primary shoulder movements.
      2) Add it sparingly, increasing only when necessary. It can be done after your workout or on rest days.

  14. Hi Jeremy,

    Thanks for the posts. You’re videos and articles are always very informative.

    Two questions I have..

    1. Do you currently follow an upper body/lower body split or are you doing something else (i.e. PPL, 5×5 big lifts)

    2. When doing the upper body/lower body split, can I use my rest days as an active rest day? I.e. can I do boxing classes/workouts on those days or is it recommended to fully rest?

    Hope to hear back soon. Thanks!

    1. I also want to mention that the boxing workout would be intense. Comparable to insanity so it wouldn’t be a “light” active rest day

    2. 1) I do incorporate an upper/lower split into my training.
      2) For sure, I always make my rest days “active”. As long as the boxing workouts don’t cause muscle soreness that could hinder your next workouts, then that’s perfectly fine and recommended.

  15. I tried putting in my email for the pdf and did not get it either. I love your channel and I think your content is great.

  16. Hello Jay! Couple of questions:

    1) Do you increase volume overtime? E.g. start off at 3 sets for every exercise and add a set to 1 exercise the next week. (Following the overreaching principle as explained by Mike Israetel)
    2) Why do you consider lateral raises as a primary ‘push’ exercise?
    3) I’m sensitive to shoulder impingement syndrome as my supraspinatus tendon is very thick, can I swap the vertical pulling movement on one day for a horizontal pulling movement?
    4) An upper/lower split usually has a push:pull ratio of 1:1, wouldn’t it be wise to do some face pulls (3×15) as a staple exercise to offset this for general shoulder health? The external rotators are also overlooked and often neglected muscles.
    5) Do you consider the modified reverse pyramid training scheme a good rep scheme? (E.g. rep range 8-10, warm-up, start off with the heaviest weight – 100lbs – set 1: 9 reps, set 2: 8 reps. Next set you won’t get the rep range so you lower the weight, set 3: 8 reps with 95lbs.)

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Glenn,

      1) Yes, that’s a good option for more advanced individuals. I wouldn’t increase every week though, instead increase every 2-3 weeks while managing your volume for other muscle groups.
      2) Because they’re likely your best (and safest) option for hitting the lateral deltoids.
      3) Yes.
      4) Yes, as I mentioned, I recommend adding in face pulls as an accessory movement. Another option is adding them into your “mobility/prehab” routine if you have one – I will make a future article/video discussing this.
      5) I think it’s’ a good scheme and personally use it on some lifts. I wouldn’t use it on all compound lifts though.

  17. Hey Jeremy!
    First of all thank you very much for your hard work! I really appreciate what you are doing 🙂
    I just wanted to ask you what you think about my Push, Pull and Leg split.
    For Push: Benchpress, Incline Dumbell Benchpress, Landminepress, 3 Isolation excercises for each part of the shoulder with light weights, cable Pushdowns and tricep extensions
    For Pull: Pull ups, one arm lat cable row, T-Bar Row, One arm dumbbell row, Glute Ham raise, incline dumbbell curls
    For Leg: very similar to your lower body workout
    I´am really thinking about switching to your Upper/Lower Body Workout. At the moment I try to go 5 times a Week: Push,Pull,Rest, Push,Pull,Leg
    I would really be happy if you answer my comment 🙂

    1. Hi Sean,

      The push workout is quite excessive in volume. I’d stick to just 2 chest exercises, 1 rear delt movement and 1 anterior/lateral delt movement, and 1-2 tricep exercise. As for the pull workout, switch glute ham raises to your legs body workout.

  18. Hi Jeremy.
    First of all thank you for the hard work and amazing content.
    I a 30 years old newbie lifter and I’m inspired by you so here I am following this upper-lower split workout you gave us for free but I have a question:
    do you think those exercises are enough to build also bigger arms?
    From my inexpert opinion it seems to my it’s lacking of bicep targeting exercises. Imo.
    I’d like to know your thinkings.
    thank you.

    1. Jeremy Ethier

      Thanks! Yes, I think it’s enough if you’re a newbie lifter. Adding in isolation movements should be done further down the road once you progress with the compound movements.

  19. Hi J.

    Nice work, i follow you from Belgium ! I have one question . You think that is possible to add to your upper boy workout some squat exercises for getting a full body workout ?

    1. Jeremy Ethier

      Yes you’d have to tweak some other things as well. I’ll make a full body workout video in the future.

  20. Hi thank you so much for your information.
    Here I just have a few question to ask:
    1. I often see other people doing 4 to 5 exercises to aim at one muscle group, is it trained enough to only follow your upper/lower body workout plan for different muscle groups?
    2. You haven’t incorporated abs training in this workout plan, should we do it on rest day or add it after working out upper and lower body workout?
    3. How many sets do u think will be enough to train a muscle group in a week? Some say 20 to 25 sets?
    4. I am trying to gain weight, should I incorporate some exercise in the rest days?

    1. Jeremy Ethier

      1. It’s better to spread the volume out for each muscle group throughout the week instead of on one day.
      2. Do abs on rest days or after the workout.
      3. Based on my interview with Dr. Brad Schoenfeld, at least 10 sets per week is ideal.
      4. No, stick to the plan and focus on progressing the exercises.

  21. Thank you so much for your videos. I only listen to your vids because of the scientific approach. I had been seeing great results. Please email me a copy of the upper and lower body workout. chinokizmo@yahoo.com. Thank you and Mabuhay all the way from the Philippines.

  22. Hey Jay! I’d like to focus more on upper body, because for the last 6 months I’ve only been training legs due to a shoulder injury. My legs have seriously outgrown my upper body. Problem is, I’ve only got time to workout twice a week until July. What would you recommend me to do? Can I just do 2 upper body workouts a week and skip the leg training for now?

    1. Jeremy Ethier

      I would do 2 upper body workouts, with 3-4 sets of squats and 3-4 sets of a hamstring-dominant movement (e.g. leg curls) on one of your upper body days.

      1. Thanks for the reply! Turns out I have a labral tear… So I won’t be working out anytime soon unfortunately. Seeing a surgeon next week to discuss the need for surgery.

  23. Mudassir Alam

    Hi, my concern is that I do excerxise with dumbells and barbell at home. My schedule is first day chest shoulders and triceps, next day back and biceps, off, legs and abs, off. Can u let me know what are best excerxise as per this schedule.

  24. Hi Jeremy, I have a couple of questions:

    1) I prefer to work out 3 days a week, but this Upper-Lower split requires 4 workouts per week.
    What if I used a 3-day Full Body workout? Do you like this option?

    2) Let’s say I follow your Upper-Lower split and I hit each body part 2 times a week, with 3-4 sets each time, that’s a total of 6-8 sets per week per body part.
    But, I watched one of your videos with Brad Schoenfeld and he suggested that for non-beginners it is better to do 10+ sets per week per body part. So if we are to follow Brad’s advice, do we need to add more exercises per body part to the workout program you suggested on your videos?

    1. 1) Yes that’s a good option.

      2) I would start off with how it’s written out. Then as you get more familiar with the movements, more sets can be added.

  25. Hi
    Great website and advice. Will be adding a lot of it to my workouts.

    Quick question and sorry if you have already answered it…..

    What are your thoughts on Supersets with same and different (chest and back for example) muscle groups.

    I want to try and get the very most out of the 45-60minutes I spend on my Gym sessions, so in the past have always tried to include a few to increase the efficiency/volume.

    Thanks

    1. I think that they work well if you’re running short on time but they do have their limitations. Will make a vid on it in the future!

  26. Hi Jeremy, i love your work. Im a novice gym goer and like a sheep without a Shepard. Can you please send your upper body program pdf and become my Shepard? Thanks in advance !! ^-^ it doesnt come to my email at joseph.abrem@gmail.com , not garbage either

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