Being a trainer for over a decade, I’ve helped hundreds of clients develop their physiques, and almost every single case involved them doing upper-body compound workouts.
Based on my observation, not all compound moves are created equal, as there are some that are way more effective than others.
In this article, I’ll share my personal list of the best compound exercises for the upper body that will maximize your fitness gains.
- The best upper-body compound moves include the bench press, overhead barbell press, incline dumbbell press, bent-over row, and chin-ups.
- Compound moves not only use multiple muscles but also burn more calories and build strength faster than isolation movements.
- A compound workout requires peak performance, and according to NIH research, proper hydration throughout the day and 8-10 hours of sleep are essential for maximizing exercise performance and ensuring optimal muscle recovery.
- In my opinion, it’s best to perform compound moves with a full range of motion to activate as many muscle fibers as possible.
Most Effective Compound Upper Body Exercises
Before diving into our list of the best exercises, let’s first understand why you should do compound moves in the first place.
Essentially, you should do compound workouts because they use multiple muscle groups, which means more equalized and proportional muscle growth.
While isolation exercises help you hit a specific muscle group for targeted hypertrophy, compound lifts require more muscle activation and build more muscle mass faster.
Best Compound Moves for Upper Body Muscle Growth
Here are our top picks for compound workouts that are most effective in building your upper body muscles.
1. Barbell Bench Press
This exercise is great because it actively works out your pecs, triceps, shoulders, and forearms.
It also uses your biceps, back, and glutes as stabilizers.
To do this exercise with perfect form, follow these steps:
- Start by getting under the barbell (with your eyes under the bar) on a flat bench and grabbing it slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Arch your back, brace your abdominal muscles, and lift the bar off the rack.
- Bring the bar down to your chest, hold for a second, and power up back to the starting position.
- Repeat for reps.
“The conventional bench press is not only easier to learn, but also build strength and stability in your core muscles. As a beginner, first master this movement and then gradually move on to other variations.”
- Dr. Anurag Shahi, MD, General Physician
2. Barbell Overhead Press
The barbell overhead press is a killer compound exercise that works your shoulders and back muscles.
With the right form, it also includes glute engagement for stability.
Here’s how you do it:
- Set a barbell on a rack so that it’s an inch or two below your shoulder height.
- Take a deep breath, and lift the barbell with a shoulder-width grip.
- Lift the barbell above your head as you slowly exhale until your arms are fully extended (the top of the movement is where you can breathe in for the following reps).
- Bring the barbell down to the top of your chest and repeat for reps.
Related post: Best Barbell Exercises (Building Muscle & Strength)
3. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
I often recommend the incline dumbbell press, a bench press variation that effectively targets the upper chest, shoulders, and triceps, with the added benefit of the dumbbells allowing for targeting chest muscles from various angles.
Here’s how you perform it:
- Lie on an incline bench, holding two dumbbells, and bring your chest forward, palms facing ahead of you.
- Push the dumbbells up until your arms are straight.
- Bring them back down until your elbows are in complete flexion.
- Repeat for reps.
Related post: 11 Best Dumbbell Exercises
4. Barbell Bent-Over Row
The bent-over barbell row is an excellent compound exercise that targets your back and biceps.
Here’s how you do it:
- Stand in front of a loaded barbell placed on the floor with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing outward.
- Bend your knees and grip with a double-overhand grip at slightly more than shoulder width.
- Engage your core, keep a firm grip, and pick up the barbell by hinging at the hips.
- Your arms should be fully extended, and the bar should be just below your knees.
- Pull the barbell towards your lower chest or upper abdomen, keeping your elbows close to your body (squeeze your shoulder blades together and engage your lats at the top of the movement).
- Slowly lower the barbell back down to the starting position, and repeat for reps.
Chin-ups are one of the best upper-body exercises for your biceps, back, and forearms.
Here’s how you do them:
- Hang on a pull-up bar using an underhand grip with your arms straight in a dead hang.
- Pull yourself up till your chin goes above the bar, and hold this position for a second.
- Slowly lower yourself back to a dead hang, and repeat for reps.
If you can do more than 12 chin-ups with just your body weight, consider adding weight to make them more challenging.
Here are some safety precautions to keep in mind when doing compound workouts:
- Watch the form: Performing every exercise with perfect form activates every muscle involved and prevents injury.
- Start light: You want to perform these exercises with the full range of motion (which engages as many muscle fibers as possible). Doing that will mean starting out very light until you build strength to go heavier.
- Stay hydrated: A compound workout demands high performance. Research by the National Institute of Health (NIH) shows that staying properly hydrated throughout the day maximizes your overall exercise performance .
- Get enough sleep: According to NIH, proper sleep is tied to muscle recovery . Since compound moves use more muscles, we highly recommend getting a full 8–10 hours of sleep for optimal recovery.
- Nutrition and supplementation: In addition to eating a high-protein diet, we also suggest taking safe and trusted protein powders to supplement your diet and enhance muscle recovery.
Combining Cardio With Upper Body Compound Exercises
Combining cardio with upper body compound exercises creates a holistic workout that enhances both cardiovascular health and muscular strength.
This approach maximizes efficiency by elevating the heart rate while simultaneously engaging multiple muscle groups.
For instance, circuit training that alternates between exercises like bench presses, pull-ups, and short bursts of high-intensity cardio like jumping jacks or rope skipping can significantly boost endurance and calorie burn.
This fusion not only improves overall fitness but also promotes better muscle definition and fat loss. It's a time-effective strategy, ideal for those seeking comprehensive fitness results without spending hours in the gym.
What Are the Only 3 Compound Exercises You Need?
The only three compound exercises you need are squats, bench press, and pull-ups. Together, these three exercises work almost all the muscles in your body, build functional strength, and help you achieve muscle hypertrophy.
How Can I Bulk up My Upper Body Fast?
To bulk up your upper body quickly, focus on heavy compound exercises like bench presses, pull-ups, and overhead presses, complemented by a high-protein diet and adequate rest for muscle recovery and growth.
Is It Okay To Do All Compound Exercises?
Yes, it is okay to do all compound exercises as long as you include an isolation exercise or two into your workout routine. The latter helps with targeted muscle hypertrophy, which helps you build a better physique.
Can You Get Big Arms With Compound Lifts?
Yes, you can develop big arms with compound lifts. Exercises like bench presses, pull-ups, and rows effectively work arm muscles along with other groups, promoting balanced growth and significant strength gains in the arms.
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