The Best 5 Upper Body Barbell Exercises

You do not need a large variety of barbell upper body exercises to create excellent results in the weight room. It can be done with a handful of exercises that will both effectively create strength and hypertrophy adaptations consistently. Here are a list of what are the most effective barbell upper body exercise in each movement category you will be using in the gym.

6 min read
Sean Klein
Written by
Sean Klein
Published on
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In This Resource
  • Benefits of Upper Body Barbell Exercises
  • Strength Adaptation
  • Muscle Gain
  • Athletic Performance
  • Training Recommendations
  • For Muscle Gain
  • For Strength Training
  • The 5 Upper Body Barbell Exercises For Strength and Hypertrophy

Benefits of Upper Body Barbell Exercises

Strength Adaptation

The barbell is one of the most effective tools for increasing the strength of the muscle in the upper body including the shoulders, upper back and pectoral muscles. As the barbell is so easy to load and you can use a rack to start the exercise it is much easier than say the kettlebell or the dumbbell for making strength adaptations.

Muscle Gain

The barbell will likely be part of most high-level bodybuilder's training programmes for a reason, it is very effective at inducing hypertrophy gains and increasing levels of both testosterone and growth hormone. Growing the muscles of the upper body with a barbell is both effective and simple, but it requires a lot of work and a lot of repetitions.

Athletic Performance

As the barbell upper body exercises offer enhancements in both muscle size and muscle strength they can be very beneficial to athletic performance. For many athletic endeavours, the size and strength of the upper body play an important part in an athlete's success. This is especially true of contact sports where pulling and pushing strength becomes a very important physical attribute.

Training Recommendations

For Muscle Gain

In order to induce muscle gain in the muscles of both the upper and lower body, enough volume must be produced by performing sets and repetitions of movements. Volume is the amount of work done in a specific movement (exercise) or movement pattern (horizontal pull), this is usually calculated as the number of working sets performed in a week. Understanding this concept of creating volume to create hypertrophy adaptations is very important as it will allow you to achieve your goal of gaining muscle.

Every muscle is different in how much volume it needs for growth, and every individual is also different on top of that, meaning prescribing sets can be difficult. However, some broad rules can be used to ensure you’re creating the adaptation you’re looking for when training for hypertrophy. If you can aim for 8-12 working sets in the week on a specific muscle group or movement pattern then you’ll be able to be confident your performing enough volume to create muscle gain adaptations.

For Strength Training

Strength training involves increasing the neural recruitment in the muscle, not making the muscle larger like in hypertrophy training. This will involve lifting heavy weight on a consistent basis. Unlike hypertrophy which is traditionally done with 50-70%, strength training is done at 80-95% of your 1RM and creates very different adaptations. Also the amount of repetitions performed will be very different, using around 3-5 repetitions at a weight you consider heavy for 3-5 sets will be a good rule of thumb to create strength adaptations. Let’s say you might want to make your bench press stronger, you might perform two sessions in a week of 5 sets at 85% of your 1RM for 3 repetitions. This sort of repetition range will be excellent for creating strength gains.

The 5 Upper Body Barbell Exercises For Strength and Hypertrophy

The bench press is the principal barbell upper body exercise for increasing both muscle mass and strength of the triceps and pectoral muscles. It is excellent for those who are training for performance, health or aesthetics as it is the compound life for the upper body that creates the most stimulus in the pressing movement pattern.

The bent-over row is by far the best upper-body pulling variation, yet it a challenging exercise to perform because it requires the lifter to limit the amount of momentum they use. The lift can easily be made “lighter” if momentum is created with the hips and not pulled with the muscle in the upper back. This means that less adaptations will occur and the exercise will be progressed to a point where more and more momentum is required. So make you that when using this exercise to increase strength or size in the back you’re not using momentum to lift the weight.

The strict press is a difficult exercise that is very effective at improving strength and adding muscle to the shoulder (anterior deltoid) muscles. It can be a little difficult if you have limited range of motion in the shoulder joint, in which case you might want to use a single arm (unilateral) variation like the half-kneeling dumbbell press. But if your shoulder range of motion is good and you can lift the barbell (15-20kg) then this is an excellent exercise to incorporate into your training plan.

Barbell skull crusher can be a little bit uncomfortable for some people, yet it still remains the most effective tricep isolation exercise with a barbell. It needs to be done slowly with control, especially as the barbell moves towards the head. One of the key element of this exercise is keeping the elbows in a fixed position and ensuring you’r lifting the weight with the triceps as much as able rather than other muscles in the upper body.

The barbell curl is the perfect barbell isolation movement for building your biceps. The biceps may require some extra volume as they can take a lot of volume to create the desired stimulus so you may want to perform this exercise multiple times a week. Remember not to use any momentum when performing this exercise as it takes away from the stimulus on the bicep, which is the goal of performing this exercise.

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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.

Sean Klein


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