The Best Fitness Exercises to Target Your Entire Upper Body

Senior Airman Kyle Honeycutt performs one-arm dumbbell rows at Creech Air Force Base, Nev.
Senior Airman Kyle Honeycutt, 432nd Operations Support Squadron aviation management airman, performs one-arm dumbbell rows in the Predator Fitness Center at Creech Air Force Base, Nev., Dec. 11, 2014. (Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen/U.S. Air Force photo)

There are countless ways to get your workout done. You can opt to do the entire upper body in a session or split the upper body into pulling and pushing movements over two days. A third option is to work the entire body in a single workout.

This workout combination will feature useful combinations of upper-body pushing and pulling exercises for an effective workout. If you are looking for a few good options to take with you to the gym, check out these ideas, along with some guidelines to make your training effective and fun to do:

Push-Pull Combinations

Warm up with calisthenics: Pull-up/push-up half pyramid from 1-5 (15 reps) with short jogs and dynamic stretches between sets: One push-up, one pull-up; two push-ups, two pull-ups until you get to five of each. If that is too easy, climb the ladder to 10/10 (55 reps each).

Repeat three times.

  • Bench press 10
  • Dumbbell rows 10/arm

This push-pull combination is useful as it balances out the pushing and pulling muscles of the same plane (direction) of the upper body. Plus, it is easy to bring dumbbells to the side of the bench, and between bench-press sets, kneel on the bench and perform the row exercises without fear of losing the bench press. You can also do both exercises with dumbbells.

The next section will focus on the push-pull in a different plane:

Repeat 3-4 times.

  • Pull-ups max or pulldowns 8
  • Military press 10
  • Biceps curls 10
  • Rest with a core exercise of your choice for one minute

This combination is a good way to work the pushing and pulling muscles overhead. If time permits, consider adding a 15- to 20-minute cardio section as a higher-intensity workout or a cooldown. That depends on your goals and energy levels at this point.

Another addition you can do to cool down is the PT Reset, which features exercises that allow you to work more upper-body, torso balancing exercises of the upper and lower back.

The PT Reset circuit. This core system circuit helps balance out many sets of push-ups and sit-ups by working the upper and lower back.

Repeat two times.

Guidelines to Consider

Embrace the benefits of this workout routine, which is designed to be done twice weekly with a dedicated leg day and cardio. Adding a leg day or two between your upper-body workout days allows you to adopt a push-pull-leg split routine. This approach allows you to choose whether to do the upper-body push-pull together on the same day or separate them for their day at the gym, giving you flexibility and variety in your training.

When doing calisthenics exercises or weights, push yourself to the point where you do not fail to finish your last repetition but have 1-2 more reps left each set. This will make the recovery between sets take less time. If you want to push yourself to that perceived limitation, save it for your last workout set for that exercise.

Mix in pairs of exercises when doing push-pull combinations in your workout to get more done with the available time, versus resting after each exercise. Circuits and supersets work well if you aim to get exercises done in a limited time.

Take control of your training by selecting exercises that suit your preferences and goals. Mix it up with various options, including calisthenics, free weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells) and other tools such as sandbags, weight vests or suspension trainers. Choose 2-3 exercises per circuit set and alternate the push-pull exercises to "rest" while working the opposing muscle group. This flexibility allows you to tailor your workout to your needs, making it more effective and enjoyable.

Select a repetition range of your choice. I like to push maximum reps on calisthenics, then limit weighted repetitions to five, if heavy, or 10-12, if lighter. Common set and repetition ranges are three sets of eight reps (3x8), four sets of 10-12 or five sets of five reps (5x5). Depending on your ability and time available, select a set/rep range that works for you and your goals. Heavier weight is ideal for building strength; higher repetitions will aid muscle stamina and growth.

Play around with the different options and see what you like best or what works best for your weight-room setup. Finding what works for you is the fun part of this journey.

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