The Favorite Upper Body Exercise of Top Fitness Pros


And we are back with another edition of the “favorite exercise” but the “bros” may get more out of this exercise. We know most of you skip leg day anyways. We got the crew back to tell us their favorite upper body exercise.

The group brought the heat again with some great upper body exercise variations. Enjoy!

Johnny Tea

The Push-Up

Push-ups happen to be one of my favorite upper body exercises that can help you build strength and power. There are tons of reasons why I absolutely love this simple but not easy exercise, but I’ll just narrow it down to three:

  • No equipment is needed, so it can be done anywhere (hotel room, park, weight room, etc.)
  • It can be modified based on your current strength levels. Too easy? Try wearing a weighted vest, chains, or varying the tempos. Too hard? Try performing them with your hands on an elevated surface (bench, barbell on a squat rack, or a plyo box).
  • As a coach, it can be used as part of a workout or movement screen to assess the individual’s core stability and upper body strength.

No matter your current strength level and/or limitations, there’s a push-up variation for you. The different variations is what makes it one of my favorite upper body exercises.

Note from Mitch: Want more push-up variations, check out this article HERE on push-up variations.

Well that and this great Chuck Norris Meme:

Instagram: @johnny_tea_

Meg Julian

My favorite upper body exercise is the TRX Row.

I love it because:

  • It’s simple to make easier (step back) or more challenging (step forward)
  • It’s like a standing planking, so you’re working your core as well
  • It helps work the little muscles in our shoulders and wrists that are easy to neglect

Set up:

  • Put the straps to the highest setting
  • Grab handles and step back until the straps are tight and handles are near your armpits
  • Lean back and keep bum & abs squeezed, eyes on the anchor
  • Pinch your shoulder blades together and pull your elbows just barely behind your hips until you are standing (or just about standing) back up

Reminder: Avoid tensing your neck and don’t keep your arms pinned to your sides.

You should feel this most in your back, but also your arms

For more exercises like this, check out my instagram @TrainerMegJ

Mike Anderson

When Mitch asked me to contribute my favorite upper body exercise to this article I thought “oh that’s easy” and instantly ran through about 27 biceps curl variations that I might want to use. After deciding against that idea I settled on “rows”; from there my decision making got much much harder.

Any variation of a row is amazing for a ton of reasons; they help make you stronger for lifting, more durable for sports and they help you fill out all of your t shirts better. It turns out, though, that my favorite row variation is the chest supported dumbbell row. Why? Well ultimately because it’s fool proof. With the bent over row variations you have to be able to ensure that the athlete is able to get their back into the right position. With seated cable rows people tend to use a lot more body english than necessary and with inverted rows less trained people get themselves into a compromised extended lower back position. Chest Supported Rows? You just lay down and start tugging (after getting your thoracic spine extended).

To up the difficulty you can do these flat as a “seal row” with a barbell!

Instagram: @andersonstrengthfitness

Justin Ochoa

It’s extremely tough for any gym bro to settle on just ONE favorite upper body exercise, but I think I’ve got a really solid contribution to the list with the Overcoming Isometric Bent Over Trap Bar Row.

This is an exercise that I had accidentally stumbled upon while messing around in the gym a few years ago, just having fun and being creative. I loved it, but at the time I never fully understand why or just how beneficial it could be.

Later, I stumbled upon a Joel Seedman article dedicated to Overcoming Isometrics and realized that he had fully explained my hunch for this exercise, plus learned a ton more from his explanation than I could have ever come up with.

So, in a roundabout way, I’m saying I stole this from Joel Seedman and he is an evil exercise genius that you should listen to.

Overcoming Isometrics, or contracting against an immovable object, are a great tool to employ to really increase post-activation potentiation, maximal contraction forces, power outcome and core stabilization. Plus they feel flat out awesome.

In this example, the Tar Bar gives you an extremely comfortable body position with the handles on your side, with the load evenly distributed. I prefer this set up over all other bent over row variation.

Pulling the row up to end range and then running into an immovable object, such as the safety pins of the rack, allow you to really squeeze at that very important phase of the lift. Your goal is to break through the immovable object. Although impossible, that should be your goal and mindset for the lift. Your body will be challenged from head to toe, but you can feel a true difference immediately compared to a standard lift.

Although this can be applied to several different lifts, I love the rows because of the importance your back musculature plays in the rest of your training and performance.

Any edge you can get… take full advantage of it! Try this out and let me know what you think.

John Papp

Instagram: @johnpappfitness

Picking my favorite upper body exercise is tough, there are so many great options. But ultimately that pick is the pull up as the ultimate measure of upper body strength. Don’t get me wrong I love presses, rows, and the bro lifts for the arms but I am a firm believer that anyone who is serious about strength and fitness should be able to perform a basic pull up regardless of size or gender.

When I say pull up I mean a strict pull up with the core braced tight and the chest coming all the way up to the bar. No swinging or kipping allowed. Grab the bar slightly wider than shoulder width and hang from the bar with arms outstretched. Squeeze the glutes and abs tight to maintain a tight, rigid structure and pull your chest towards the bar. Make sure not to arch excessively in the cervical spine by arching the head back hard to try to get over the bar. Once your chest reaches the bar, maintain the rigid structure and lower your body until your arms are straight.

Note from Mitch: can’t do a pull-up? Here is an article I wrote about getting your first pull-up.

Joe Mosher

Instagram: @ggc_strengthatc

We find ourselves at another crossroads in the world of sports performance. When asked to pick your favorite upper body exercise I’m sure a lot of coaches (male coaches in particular) would pick the bench press. I would not argue with them for making that choice but I also would not agree with them. There are plenty of athletes that could and do increase performance through bench pressing but in my experience you can build strong and injury resilient athletes without every touching the bench press. Now I’m not saying we don’t horizontally press, I am just saying that the bench is not my go to horizontal press.

I wish I could write “I’ve been doing this a long time” and my opinion would carry more weight because of that phrase but that’s not going to happen. I do however, read a lot from people who can say that. Dan John has been a major influence on my thought process and me when I train athletes. That influence has lead me down the path of the single arm over head press (S/A OH Press). This exercise is in one way or another worked into almost all over my programming through out the year.

The number one reason I like the S/A OH Press is because it is almost impossible to screw it up. The coaching cues are pretty straight forward and with it being single arm the weights tend to be on the lower side so if something were to go wrong the total load crashing to the floor is not something that the athlete can not safely bale from underneath with little issue. My second reason includes the fact that my athletes are standing. They have to brace everything if they want to push a significant load over their head. If there is a weak link in the system, these pressing variations with most likely find it. My list of reasons could go on forever (maybe not forever but you get the point) but I will wrap up my reason with this one. This reason could be my favorite of the group, Irradiation. The fact that when you grip, your rotator cuff engages and helps to centralize the shoulder joint. The harder you squeeze the tighter your rotator cuff fires. To me, there is no other way to take advantage of irradiation on a pressing exercise. A straight bar just does not give you the instability a DB or KB gives you. This is great for any athlete but does wonders for any over-head athlete, i.e. baseball, volleyball, quarterback etc. It is a much safer way to introduce over-head strength while keeping it friendly to the shoulder itself.

There you have it. Simple and effective. If you want to take it up a notch, try the bottoms up kettle bell version of this lift.

My Turn!

Picking one exercise for the upper body exercise can be difficult. I could go with typical “bro” answer and say the bench press because

That would be too easy. When picking my favorite exercise I must be more creative than that and also try to give you the most bang for your buck. Typically I would say the inverted/TRX Row but Meg beat me to it…and I want to able to give you something else.

In a close race with the TRX Row I have to choose the Landmine Press as my favorite upper body exercise. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A pressing variation for those who cannot press overhead
  • Gets you on your feet, making it more functional.
  • Unlike the bench press, it allows your scapulae to move freely as it should.
  • Tall and half-kneeling variations for those who do not have the core control for the standing variation
  • Plenty of progressions to keep things fresh such as the squat to press or the push press variations

I go much deeper into the landmine press in this article here but here are a few keys to consider when performing the landmine press

  • Contract anterior core to prevent lumbar hyperextension
  • Reach through the end of the press and allow your shoulder blade to protract around your rib cage