Choosing the best exercises: Upper body

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Last updated on February 26, 2023

To build a lean muscular upper body, you need to be doing the right exercises. Unless you select moves that allow you to fully extend and contract the working muscle through its full natural range of motion, following the direction of the muscle fibers and using the same strength curve as the muscle, you will never get optimum results.

In this article, we will identify the single best exercise to work each of the major muscles of the upper body. Those muscles are:

  • Pectorals
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Trapezius
  • Deltoids

 We will cover the biceps, triceps and core in the next article.

Just as we did with the lower body, we will take a brief look at the anatomy and function of each of these muscles to help us identify the best exercise for them.


The pectorals are a fan-shaped muscle that cover the top third of your upper body. Technically it’s divided into three parts based on where the muscle fibers originate. The majority of those fibers originate on the sternum, with the others originating on the clavicles and the ribs. All of the fibers insert on the upper part of the humerus (upper arm).

The function of the pectorals is to move the upper arm forward and into the centreline of the body. Both of these functions – moving forward and in together – must be part of an effective  chest exercise. While the barbell bench press is touted as a great chest exercise, it only does one of these functions – moving the arms forward. It does not allow you to bring your hands together.

A far better option is the dumbbell bench press. Because your hands are separate you can bring the weights both up and together to simulate the natural movement of the pectorals. Because the pectoral fibers travel in a diagonal from origin to insertion, the best angle to do the dumbbell bench press is with a 30° decline.

So, the best exercise to work the pectorals is the dumbbell bench press on a 30° incline bench.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi, commonly known as the lats, covers roughly half of your back area. Your lat fibers have their origin on the lowered two thirds of the spine, the lower third and fourth rooms on the bottom tip of the scapula. All of these fibers travel up in a diagonal direction to insert on the humerus in the area where your arm pit is located.

The function of the lats is to draw your elbow down and back towards your hip. This, combined with the direction of the muscle fibers, tells us what the ideal lat exercise must look like; it needs to pull the arm from an upward and outward direction of about 45° down and in towards the hip.

This ideal motion is very different from what you see on most commonly done ‘lat’ exercises like the lat pull-down or the pull-up. With these exercises you are pulling directly down against either the force of gravity or the vertical direction of the lat machine cable pulley. Yet, that is not what the lats do. As a result, pull ups and lat pulldowns are hitting the posterior delts more than they do the lats.

The single best exercise to work the lats is the lat pull in. This exercise has you working one side of the lats at a time on a cable pulley machine.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Set the pulley so that it is above your outreached hand and diagonal to the body at 45°. Place a seat in front of the bench and position yourself on it.
  2. Grab the handle in your outside hand and reposition so that your arm is fully extended at that 45° angle.
  3. Now pull your elbow down and in towards your hip, aiming to touch the bone. Fully contract the lats in the contracted position and then stretch back out to the full extension.


Your trapezius is a large kite shaped muscle that sits on the upper third of your back. It runs from the base of the neck down to the mid spine and from the outer edge of the scapula on one side to the outer edge of the scapula on the other side.

The trapezius muscle fibers pull the scapula on the outer end of the clavicle up. The middle fibers pull the scapula back and inwards towards the spine. The lower fibers pull the scapula down and inward.

It is important to note here that the trapezius is not connected to the arms. So any type of rowing movement will not work for them. Neither the traps nor the lats get fully activated when you are rowing – most of the work is done by the posterior delts.

To work the upper trapezius, you need to perform a shrugging motion. That is why any type of shrug is an effective exercise. You can do shows with a Barbell, and dumbbells or a cable machine – they are all as effective as each other.

To work the middle and lower traps, you need to do an exercise that allows you to bring the shoulder blades together under resistance. The only way to do this is with a cable machine or resistance bands with an exercise called scapula retraction.

Here is how to do the scapula retraction on a double pulley cable machine:

  1. Set the pulleys at shoulder height and as wide apart as they will go.
  2. Place a seat between the two pulleys about seven feet back from the machine.
  3. Grab hold of the pulleys and sit on the seat.
  4. Reposition yourself so that your arms are extended at a about 30° angle.
  5. In the start ,perform a scapular retraction by squeezing your shoulder blades together and bringing your elbows to be in line with your body. Imagine that there is a pencil between your shoulder blades and your job is to keep it from falling into the floor.
  6. Reverse the action to extend your arms back out.

The two best exercises for the trapezius are shrugs for the upper traps and scapular retractions for the middle and lower traps.


The deltoids are quite unique among the major skeletal muscles of the body. That is because they are made up of three separate heads, each with different origin and insertion points. Even though most of the other muscles also have more than one head, they generally have the same origin and insertion points.

The fact that the deltoid heads start and finish at different places is very significant. It means that,unlike the other muscles, you have to do separate exercises to work each of those heads.

The three ends of the deltoids are the:

  • Anterior (front)
  • Medial (side)
  • Posterior (rear)

The anterior deltoid helps to move the arm forward and upward towards the clavicle. The medial deltoid moves the arm out to the side to be parallel with the shoulder joint. The posterior deltoid moves the arms downward and outward  away from the hips.

The ideal exercises for each of the three heads will simulate the actions just described.

The single best exercise for the anterior deltoids is the seated anterior deltoid cable press.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Set the pulleys on a double cable press machine at shoulder height and shoulder distance apart.
  2. Place a bench with an upright back about 5 feet in front of the machine facing away from.
  3. The cables and sit on the machine with your hands at your hips and your elbows slightly behind your torso. Your palms should be facing up.
  4. Press your arms forward and upward in a scooping motion so that your hands touch and about the level of your sternum.
  5. Lower under control and repeat.

The best exercise for your medial delts is the cable side lateral raise. The cable version of this exercise is far superior to using dumbbells because the directional resistance is in line with the muscle fibers rather than straight down. Cables are also early phase loaded, being hardest at the beginning of the movement but keeping constant tension on the muscle throughout.

Here’s how to do the cable side lateral raise.

  1. Set the pulley on a cable machine at a hip height.
  2. Standard side on to the pulley and hold the cable handle with your outside hand, resting it on the thigh.
  3. Without bending your elbow, bring the arm up to shoulder height.
  4. Lower under control back to the start position.

The best exercise for the posterior delts is the reverse cable fly.

This exercise is also done on the double cable pulley machine. Here’s how:

  1. Set the pulleys as high and wide as they will go. Take the handles off the pulley cables.
  2. Grab the cables with the opposite hands so that your hands are crossed over in front of you.
  3. Readjust your position so that your arms are straight and crossed in front of your chest.
  4. Pull your arms down and out to end up fully extended to your sides.
  5. Reverse under control and repeat.


The best deltoid exercises are:

  • Anterior delts – seated anterior deltoid cable press
  • Medial delts – cable side lateral raise
  • Posterior delts – reverse cable fly

In the next article we will complete our exercises selections with the best exercises for the biceps, triceps and core muscle.

Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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