The Best Upper Body Exercise

When it comes to deciding what is the best weight training exercise, there is much to discuss. There’s the squat and the deadlift. There are the explosive, combination movements such as the clean and press. These are excellent exercises that should have a place in every workout regimen. However, if we are to place a focus on upper body dominant movements, there is a clear and distinct king of exercises:

The barbell shoulder press (or military press).

The shoulder press is the best upper body movement. There are great arguments that suggest the bench press, or perhaps weighted pull-ups are in fact the best exercises. Although they are great compound exercises on their own that focus and develop large muscle groups, they simply cannot compete with the overhead press, in terms of variety and extent of active muscle groups and potential for development. When asked what muscles are worked during the press, most will answer with the deltoids, triceps, and maybe the upper chest. These are all true, except this is only a small portion of the workload.

Let us examine this movement more closely. A firm overhand grip is used, with hands roughly shoulder width apart, holding the bar just above the clavicles. The bar is then pushed up in a straight line by extending the elbows, until full extension is reached and the bar is stabilized above your head, completing the repetition.

Now where things get interesting, the skeletal-muscular breakdown. The initial part of pressing the bar up involves the abduction of the gleno-humeral (GH) joint, until your upper arm is about parallel to the ground. From that point to the full extension of the elbows, there will be adduction of the GH joint as the arms are brought back towards the midline of the body. Throughout the entire movement, the GH joint is externally rotated, and the scapula will drive the GH joint movement by superiorly rotating as the arms are extended above the head.

To sum up the movements, we have abduction, adduction, and external rotation of the GH joint; extension of the elbow; and superior rotation of the scapula.

Now, the muscles that produce those movements:

  • Abduction (lateral deltoid, supraspinatus, biceps brachii)
  • Adduction (front and rear deltoids, teres major, latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, coracobrachialis)
  • External rotation (infraspinatus, teres minor, rear deltoid)
  • Elbow extension (triceps brachii)
  • Superior rotation of the scapula (trapezius, serratus anterior)

Were you aware this much muscle was involved in your shoulder press?

Although some muscles I listed are considered more prime movers than others, they are all either large muscle groups or significant movers. Anconeus for instance, is an elbow extensor, but is such a small muscle that I didn’t bother to list it here.

Shoulder pressing will not only develop those round shoulder caps and dense upper chest muscles, but will also develop a significant portion of your posterior. A v-shaped back is a result of well-developed lats, traps, and scapular muscles that can all be stressed during the shoulder press.

You will also be developing essential core muscles. Power comes from your core — by shoulder pressing you will activate the abdominal and erector spinae groups extensively. Their function is to stabilize, without a stable core your body would simply fold as you attempt to press the bar over your head. Also, consider that you will also be working the serratus anterior muscles, or more commonly referred to as the boxer’s muscle. Not only are they a powerful muscle group outlining the exterior of the ribs, they are also aesthetically pleasing when developed as well:

Evidently, the shoulder press is a very efficient exercise for developing the musculature of the upper body. It targets multiple large muscle groups, and some smaller, harder to work groups, due to it’s extensive range of motion. The shoulder press should be considered part of the core and foundation of any serious workout program.

Don’t be surprised if you start to enjoy it more than the bench press.

 Read More: 3 Ab Exercises Every Man Must Know

57 thoughts on “The Best Upper Body Exercise”

  1. I cannot think of a better lift that burns more calories, works more muscles, and develops more explosive energy than the clean and press. Combined with separate sets of dead lifts and the barbell shoulder press makes for one hell of a work out. Good article.

  2. The pull-up is the other excellent choice. If you have no equipment whatsoever and could only do one upper-body movement for the rest of your life, the pull-up should be it.
    Good article.

    1. Make that a muscle up, a movement that incorporates the pull and push in the same plane into one exercise, and now you’ve really got something. In fact, I’d say that the muscle up is preperatory for the military press with any real weight on the bar, even if you have the equipment.
      Being able to manipulate your own body is a primary skill. Manipulating objects a secondary one. Every baby learns that, but then we become so fascinated with objects that we forget.
      As for the article, the military press used to be the gold standard for strength. It was supplanted by the bench press because . . . umm, I don’t know; social brain tumor? It is still the gold standard, even if we’ve largely forgotten.

    2. I actually agree. No gym pass needed to get ripped. Just a bar outside. There are like over a 100 pull up variations. And that’s not even counting levers, and leg raises and such.

  3. Keep your elbows out in front of the bar. This will keep the bar close to you and improve the physics of the lift.
    Don’t forget to push your hips a little forward so that you can move the bar by your chin/nose/face. Reset them when the bar is not in those locations. You want the bar to go in as much a straight line as possible. Move yourself around the bar and not the other way around.

    1. Yes–this is another winner. Just be sure to warm up those shoulders first–learned that the hard way.

    2. And by the time you’ve gone through the progession to master those, you’ll be built better than Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Just remember to do the opposing motion to maintain muscle balance (inverted rows and pull ups).
      Developing the “male model” physique doesn’t require any equipment at all beyond a pull up bar (body weight Bulgarian and pistol squats will build your legs more than you likely imagine).
      Lifting weights is good because, it teaches you to lift weights, a valuable skill that can avoid injury outside of the weight room, but it isn’t necessary for muscular development far beyond the norm.

      1. Yes to the “opposing motion.” For the military press, this would be pullups. Also, matching the vertical motion with the horizontal is valuable for attaining balanced musculature. For every military press I perform, I make sure that I match it with a bench press, and for every pull-up or curl, I make sure that I match it with a pendlay row.

    3. I second that, compared to military press, handstand push-ups are far less likely to cause shoulder pain in the future, it uses your muscles in a far more natural position, and it doesn’t neglect stabilizer muscles.

  4. I quit barbell pressing in any position except bench. No matter how correct form i use, i always get injured. Some folks suggested i should strengthen my stabilizers or whatever it is called. Injuries seriously prevent me from keeping myself in shape, last shoulder injury i had took 3 weeks to completely cure

    1. I agree. I’ve had the same issue with heavy shoulder presses. Plus shoulder injuries are forever, why risk it? Wide Grip Chins are 10x better compound exercise than bb shoulder presses.

      1. After getting myself in shape, i switched to weighted chin-ups. Are they better or not in terms of muscle building, i’m not certain.

    2. Even with correct form, shoulder press isn’t natural, you could read “convict conditionning” (Roosh recommended it in one article) it explains it very well and give a good alternative (here, the handstand pushup) for every dangerous exercices.

  5. This is an exercise that will really take the wind out of you. After knocking 5 sets I feel like just floaing in the sea for the rest of my life.
    Great exercise, definitely going to notice some gains if you start doing the overhead press

    1. In the same way that sitting while holding dumbells and waving your legs around will achieve the same results as farmer’s walking.
      I am a cycling specialist, and I say this as a cycling specialist; for general strength and conditioning cycling doesn’t hold a candle to weighted walking. Why? Because it isn’t weight bearing. In fact, riding normally on the level you never put anything like your full weight load on your legs. Anything more than your weight load simply raises you off the saddle instead of pushing the pedal down. Chris Boardman had to retire from cycling at 29, because of advanced osteoporosis.
      If you don’t want to turn into one of those old men who “walk” bent over and shuffling, get up on your damned legs. They are the support for everything. Chicks may not notice your legs, but they sure as shit notice if you walk funny and snap a hip just trying to walk up a flight of stairs.

    2. I can’t speak about the specific muscles being worked, but I can speak from experience, and the answer is no. I used to do both seated dumbbell presses and military presses (with dumbbells), now I only do the military. When you stand and perform the exercise, you will notice that you cannot put up the reps or even the same weight as you could while seated. As your reps increase, you will also notice that your form breaks down much easier as your core, lower back, and upper body all struggle together to get the weights up (you wobble and lean). It’s actually quite an initial shock when you first perform them standing, it feels like your spine is going to snap. I don’t know about that wide base with the feet (in the article’s image), maybe that will take some of the strain off of the spine; I perform my presses with my feet together in a “V” shape (as you would stand at “attention” in the military), so any wobbling will immediately recruit my core and back muscles to prevent me from breaking my back or toppling over. To the contrary, if you’re performing the lift while seated, your back and core aren’t even an issue and your biggest worry is dropping the weights on your head.

      1. Well it’s been my experience of repeated back injuries that I stopped this exercise. And I was seated. Just didn’t work with my physique , and that included having guys spotting and instructing me.
        #2 problem is Smith machines or Universal gyms. Arms locked in a motion results in lots of injuries to many guys.

        1. Certainly, there’s no argument with experience except for more time. My experience with M. presses could ultimately result in some weird spinal trauma, which could have been prevented by keeping a wide base rather than a “V” base. I tend to use my intuition, prior experience, and external sources for confirmation and caution with regard to current practices. If you’re uncomfortable doing a lift, you either need further instruction, less weight, or you should not perform it. The “should not perform it” category is inarguable. As for me, I will never take a weight of any size, hold it at my side, and raise it repeatedly to the front or side with straight arms. I learned that the hard way. I don’t care what anyone says to me, I will not do it because I know that I will mess up my shoulder (even with ten pounds). Also, I will not do heavy leg curls. I don’t care how much anyone thinks it will benefit me, I will do it light or not at all, otherwise I know that I will be injured (from experience). I’m sure that given your back problems, there are a number of exercises that you can perform in lieu of the military press or seated overhead press (incline pushups? Holding a heavy object in two hands and pressing it above your head with a close grip?). If not, and you simply will not/cannot perform any sort of overhead pressing movement, make sure that you’re not creating any imbalances with an horizontal equivalent (bench press) or vertical opposite (pull-downs).

  6. What Rippetoe has rightly noted is that the bench press only works the front of the shoulders (anterior deltoids). If you do nothing but bench, your shoulders will become imbalanced, because the side and back muscles will not be properly developed (lateral and posterior deltoids). In contrast, the Press works all of these muscles equally.


    1. The first two are obviously Satan’s children, the third is a human White man. Can you see the difference?

  8. I’m not a trainer but…seems like you could do this, dead lifts, and mix in a couple of other spot exercises (biceps, lower chest etc.) and it would sufficiently work out your whole body. Is this right? Not trying to cut corners, I just think lifts that work out multiple muscles are preferable. Any insight out there?

    1. Assuming you can perform them (i.e. you are injury free, not injury prone for an exercise, not otherwise bumping against particular physical limitations), heavy compound lifts are king. Deadlift, squat, and military press could form the core of any decent workout routine. I’m knee deep in Stuart McRobert’s “Beyond Brawn,” which seems to be a reliable source regarding these things (along with his other book, “Build Muscle, Lose Fat, Look Great.”) In his words, by simply focusing on the “big five,” and not performing a single other lift, he could have achieved his full strength and size potential in a mere five years of dedicated training. The big five are: squat, deadlift, bench press, seated press, pulldown (or a row). Personally, I prefer the military press to the seated press, and I’ll always perform a row for every pullup. As for program design, his tips on “super-abbreviated” programs are insightful. For a two day program: Day One- squat, bench press or parallel bar dip, overhead press; Day Two- stiff-legged deadlift, pulldown or pullup. These can also be done as “full-body” routines, whereby the entirety of the routine is performed in a single day: Routine One- squat, parallel bar dip, prone row; Routine Two- Parallel-grip deadlift, bench press or incline press, pullup or chinup. With a mere three exercises, you could get a pretty good workout at the cost of roughly 45 minutes per week. A word of caution though, “A super-abbreviated program is, out of necessity, imbalanced to a degree. Though it can cover all the major musculature of the body, some of the smaller areas are neglected. While an occasional imbalanced program will not cause long-term problems, the consistent use of the same imbalanced program will set you up for possible postural problems and an unacceptable imbalance in muscular development. Do not make a single super-abbreviated program a year-round schedule. Vary the exercises over successive cycles.” Again, I apologize for the one paragraph format, Disqus refuses to acknowledge my “return” key while responding to a comment.

        1. As for your question about isolation work, this is where you can really fill out your workout routine and see balanced growth with consistent strength gains (in the “big five”). McRobert identifies the “support seven” as: calves, grip, shoulder external rotators, neck, midsection, lower back, and finger extensors. They specifically aid in the prevention of injury, the development of an all around impressive physique, and the development of support muscles that are crucial for increasing poundages in the “big five.” Here’s what one of those “two-day” routines looks like with the addition of an “accessory day”: Day One- squat, stiff-legged deadlift, pulldown or prone row; Day Two (accessory day)- leg curl, calf work, crunch situp, side bend, lateral raise, curl, neck work, L-fly, grip work; Day Three- bench press or parallel bar dip, overhead press. Personally, I prefer to sprinkle in the support work throughout my normal routine; experimentation is required before finding what works best for you. Also, I’ll toss in some shrugs because I like the way they fill out my traps, and dumbbell pullovers have changed the way I think of a chest workout. The “support seven” do not need lots of work; McRobert recommends performing one set, twice a week, or two sets, once a week; grip work can be performed every day. If you’re like me and you like to work each muscle group twice a week, you won’t need to perform the accessory lifts in tandem; don’t bust three sets of curls, twice a week if you’re also doing three sets of pullups and three sets of rows twice a week- you will most likely hinder your progress (depending on where you are). More is not always better; I’m always struggling with my impulse to hit the gym on an off-day, but I resist because I know that I need the time for recovery so that I can get stronger, not just blow off steam and potentially injure myself. Getting back to Nascimento’s article, it’s worthwhile to note that McRobert suggests as a general rule that the overhead press [poundage] should be two-thirds of your bench press. If one or the other is lagging, then you should spend some time making up for the deficiency, and then you can both cure an imbalance and be well on your way to breaking through a plateau that’s been plaguing your progress in the bench/overhead press.

  9. Cant go wrong with squat, dl, military press, and bench. Dont bother training arms they’ll catch up on thier own.

    1. obviously this is the superior method of building strength. someone who really believes that a mil press is awesome on its own for building upper body would never be able to make that jump of faith.

  10. Don’t isolate muscles. What’s the point? Unless you are in a wheelchair, you will never need to lift shopping bags or boxes while seated, so what is the point? All free weight exercises (aside from the bench and leg curls, I guess) should be done standing up- that means arm curls, chest press, everything. All the “twitchy” muscles needed to support balance you and keep you from wobbling need to be activated. And if you can’t lift it, newsflash, its too heavy. Go lighter, and try again next week. I am 42, I lift very heavy, I’ve been lifting since college, I have NEVER had an injury. but then again, I have never been about proving anything. I shake my head at guys in their 30s and late 20s with back & shoulder problems.

  11. I’ve been reading a blog, Chaos & Pain, by a Jamie Lewis. One of the things he loves is the behind the neck overhead press. I’ve incorporated it into my work out.
    I had a shoulder injury from some benching years ago that flares up from time to time. It would even get in the way of holding the bar for squats. Even on lower body and back days, I would do 3 or 4 sets of the BNP with just the bar and it clears up the shoulder problem. I used to stop working out for a month at a time because of my shoulder, but I go light during my upper body days and do the BNP and I have no down time.

  12. OK- there are a lot of well intentioned articles on here about lifting. Most have decent advice. But if you really are serious about it go buy Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe. It is hands down the best foundation you can have for getting stronger. Period. Once you have a good grasp of what the book lays out- it is an OK time to start adding just a few bells and whistles. Also look up a book called 5/3/1 and another program called the cube method. All 3 of the books I referenced are easy to understand and implement. These are no bullshit methods for getting stronger. I sincerely hope someone checks them out and learns from them.

  13. We all know that sex is the best exercise!! Why not get your fellow bud and work out those glutes with an old fashioned anal pounding!

  14. Seriously? The MILITARY press is down as your best upper body exercise? lol! It works a bunch of shoulder muscles, sure, but only lightly trains them the weight is spread out so much, and it’s dangerous to go too heavy for an amateur. It’s so useless for building shoulders, you’d be better off doing deltoid isolation training (laterals, front raise, upright rows, reverse fly, to better focus them). I’ve done military press for over a decade and I just quit. It’s not worth it. This fellow agrees: Also I would agree with dragnet, the pull up is an essential compound movement, wide grip for the V shape, and chins for biceps etc.

  15. The best total upper body exercise is weighted dips hands down… In theory, the military press might sound good.
    But nothing ever works perfectly in line with theory… Most dudes mess up this lift with poor form. They arch their back to much so most of the lift is felt on the lower back. They also use their legs a lot taking away from the upper body.
    Dips on the other hand put the entire upper body under stress with no involvement from the legs. Plus, you can’t really mess up on form.
    This article seems like it was written based entirely on theory/internet research vs. actual experience in the gym…

  16. The best total upper body exercise is weighted dips hands down… In theory, the military press might sound good.
    But nothing ever works perfectly in line with theory… Most dudes mess up this lift with poor form. They arch their back to much so most of the lift is felt on the lower back. They also use their legs a lot taking away from the upper body.
    Dips on the other hand put the entire upper body under stress with no involvement from the legs. Plus, you can’t really mess up on form.
    This article seems like it was written based entirely on theory/internet research vs. actual experience in the gym…

  17. I’m down with the shoulder press. Definite amazing compound exercise that uses the entire body.

  18. I personally tried the military press with 50 pounds of weight but only did one set of ten for the first attempt out of pure impulse.
    I immediately felt the difference and felt my gut getting a lift, for a lack of a better term.

  19. one of the best upper body exercises is the bent arm pullover followed by close grip bench presses. You lie on a flat bench with no obstructions from your head forward. use a 4 inch close grip and with the barbell on your chest lower in an arch over you head as far as you can comfortably in an arc and return to your chest. Do this for 12 reps. Then immediately without changing had positions do 12 close grip bench presses. Then immediately do 6 more bent arm pullovers followed by 6 more close grip bench presses. This is one set. Exercise sounds simple and easy but beware. Use a light weight until you get the hang of it. This exercise will work the triceps, lats, pecks and upper back in a great manner. Do 2-3 sets of this and you will feel it….excellent for those with limited time and want a great upper body exercise. Helps keep my 19 inch arms toned with minimum time
    saves your elbows unlike skull krushers!

  20. He is a excellent one from many moos ago. high
    preferably. Take a barbell from
    adjustable squat stands , pull it over yourself or have a training partner hand
    it to you. You cannot do this exercise
    on a bench with fixed weight supports by your head.
    Have the hands about 12-14 inches apart with the barbell on
    your chest.
    lower the barbell over as far has comfortable possible in an
    arc motion like a bent-arm-pullover.
    pull it back over to your chest for 12 reps.
    then immediately with the same grip perform 12 close grip
    bench presses
    without pausing perform 6 more bent arm pullovers
    when you have completed 6 reps of pullover immediately do 6
    reps of close grip bench presses.
    do 2-3 sets of this exercise.
    Important–make sure you have warmed up properly when doing
    this exercises so the range of motion (ROM) can be full and you will not pull
    muscles in the rib box.
    Do not get hung up on weight so much as performing the reps
    as strict as possible.
    It is a great compound upper body exercise when you are just
    a regular weight trainer or pressed for time–works pecs, triceps, lats and
    upper back muscles.
    I am 63 and use this exercise in my training . I am 6-3 and
    265 and my arms measure almost 19.4 inches COLD. Oh yes! I do 80-degree simultaneously seated
    dumbbell presses with solid 105s for 5-7reps per set. I have worked a full time
    job all my life and earned a doctorate degree in clinical health psychology so
    I do not live in gyms.
    I have NEVER used any steroids, PEDS, etc and seldom use
    protein powder. I have been training almost without interruption except for
    occasional injury or a planned layoff since early 1968.

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