I think we’ve all been in the situation where we want the best upper body workout routine possible to maximise our muscle growth. Nothing is more frustrating than a flat chest when bulking up.
In this guide we will cover some of the theory of building an effective weightlifting program before constructing our own. We will cover:
- Why compound movements are vital to build chest muscle
- How to use supplementary movements to maximise your pec development
- The merits of full body and split programs and which to pick
- The pro’s and con’s of different rep ranges
- Building an example upper half split program
So lets get started.
What are compound movements?
A compound exercise is one that works out multiple muscle groups at once, these activate more muscles than doing supplementary (also known as isolation) movements.
Think of your body as a chain, and each muscle is a link. The benefit to compounds is that supporting muscles will get exercised indirectly so your entire “chain” will develop true strength. Too much isolation on your arms for instance and you may have big biceps, but if you have weak shoulders and chest you won’t be able to actually exploit the muscle power and therefore the chain would break. You are only as strong as the weakest link.
This can extend to being dangerous, for example strong chest and a weak back can round the shoulders severely limiting your range of motion.
Most compounds mimic “real life” movements, for example:
- Bench press – pushing
- Squat – bending down
- Bent over row – pulling
- Deadlift – lifting/picking up
As a result of weightlifting sensibly with each day centred on the above lifts, your entire “chain” will gain strength and size meaning you won’t have any obvious weak links as you would doing purely isolation lifts.
One caveat to these lifts is that while they use a lot of muscles they work some more than others. For instance a bench press uses legs to stabilise you, your legs will therefore be involved but not as intensely as your chest and triceps. This is, broadly speaking, the opposite with back squats. You therefore need to include a range of compounds in any routine to make sure you get good all over development.
Do isolation lifts have a place in the best upper body workout routine?
It probably seems like I’m down on isolation lifts, but I’m not! Focused, supplementary exercises are awesome for strength and size when used correctly.
Think back to the “chain” analogy. Once you reach a certain point plateau of development, compounds will progress certain “links” quicker than others.
Consider a weightlifter who follows Stronglifts. He will only squat, bench press, overhead press, bent over row and deadlift as per the programs guidance. Will he have bigger biceps than an otherwise identical weightlifter who has been doing one set of bicep curls a week alongside Stronglifts program? It is unlikely.
In the example above an isolation movement [curls] has been chosen to compliment and supplement the existing program. Supplemental movements therefore can be used to focus training on the weaker links to ensure your whole body develops at the same pace.
Generally, these complementary lifts can be changed around a lot to modify the focus as you progress. For example you may want to focus on arms for a month, then move on to develop your calves if they are lagging. It is best to work on one “weak point” at a time in my experience.
Should I do a split program?
A full body workout will focus on hitting a few big compound lifts, usually 3x a week. This provides more opportunity to increase the weight on the bar quickest as you’re doing the exercise at least twice as often, frequently up to 4 times as much. A typical such program would be back squats, bench press, bent over rows, deadlifts.
These routines are more suitable when you don’t need to work out on consecutive days, are training for sport or are able to add weight to your lifts frequently (usually beginners or when recovering from injury/cut). As the weight increases you need to be disciplined enough to follow reload procedures or you will overtrain and plateau.
A split program is usually over 2-5 days a week and each session focuses on a different area (e.g. upper and lower). This allows you to perform all the big compounds you would do in a full body program, but split over a number of days. While this means the compound movements are done less frequently, it leaves some time and energy to add in some smaller movements into each workout which will work the target muscle group with increased focus thus developing weaker areas of the human muscle “chain” we spoke about before.
For example you may bench press, then incline press before targeting your biceps separately with some barbell curls, finishing with some dumbbell decline flys. Your chest therefore gets two great compound lifts, a supplementary lift in the fly AND your arms get some direct work. This will be much more intense on your upper half than a full body workout would. The disadvantage is you need to wait longer (as you will then do a lower half day) to go again and attempt with more weight. Splits therefore lend themselves to those who are not adding weight to the bar as frequently like intermediate/advanced lifters.
Both types of program have their merits, but splits have a great advantage in allowing you to work out on consecutive days as the muscle groups are not common between days. This is great if you need to be a little flexible when working out.
How many reps should I do?
Firstly do not get caught up in this too much. Gaining strength will increase size, and gaining size will increase strength. The range will tweak the focus, but size and strength are NOT mutually exclusive, and for all but the most extreme weightlifter the two are very likely to move together in the real world.
To summarise the main schools of thought on rep ranges:
Low reps (0-5 lifts per set) target strength gains. The trade off here is a lower time under tension, but increased intensity as you attempt higher weights. As you can lift heavier weights, you get stronger. Compounds are the best movements in this range as they strengthen the whole muscle chain. This is broadly considered the best range for beginners with many entry level programs focusing on this range only.
Medium reps (8-12 lifts per set) target size gain. This is often termed as the ideal “hypertrophy” window which leads to optimal muscle growth. Size is generally top of most lifters priorities, however never moving outside this window can lead to plateaus as your body reacts well to variation when performing resistance training.
High rep reps (15-20 lifts per set) target endurance gains. The weights will be lower and these sets will be a little closer cardiovascular training than traditional weights. The primary focus here is to endure the lactic acid build up and condition you to higher time under tension. These will be performed at a lower weight and provide a great chance to really nail your form.
Personally, I’ve worked in all these rep ranges and have seen a number of pros and cons. I prefer working in lower rep ranges usually as I enjoy moving heavy weights, but forcing myself into the upper ranges occasionally has yielded fantastic results.
I suggest working through a mix of the above ranges. I like to focus compounds on strength with a nod towards growth (8-5 reps) to focus on strengthening the “chain” as the foundation. I complement that with isolation lifts firmly within the growth and endurance windows (10-15 reps) which juice up those muscles that are lagging a little.
Building the best chest workout
As promised we will now build a great top-half routine. Remember, following on from above, we want to:
- Focus each day on a compound movement (push, squat, pull, lift)
- Add supplementary isolation exercises to compliment our compounds
- Work through different rep ranges depending on the movement
Now assuming we will follow a 4 day split I would suggest the following timetable:
- Monday – Push
- Tuesday – Squat – will be covered in separate post
- Wednesday – Rest
- Thursday – Pull
- Friday – Rest
- Saturday – Lift – will be covered in separate post
As we are focusing on the top half in this article, the two relevant routines in this split (push and pull) would be:
Monday – Push day:
|Exercise||Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
|Barbell Benchpress||3 sets of 10 reps||4 sets of 8 reps||5 sets of 5 reps|
|Incline Dumbbell Press||5 sets of 5 reps||3 sets of 15 reps||4 sets of 8 reps|
|Decline skullcrusher||5 sets of 5 reps||3 sets of 15 reps||4 sets of 8 reps|
|Barbell Upright Row||5 sets of 5 reps||3 sets of 15 reps||4 sets of 8 reps|
|Weighted leg raises||5 sets of 5 reps||3 sets of 15 reps||4 sets of 8 reps|
As you can see we focus on the master bench press here to add serious mass to the pecs. We move to dumbbells for the supporting exercise as you have to do a little more stabilisation thus engaging more peripheral muscle groups. The weight lifted will be a little lower however.
We’ve thrown in some weighted hanging leg raises to focus on our abdominals here too.
Thursday – Pull day:
|Exercise||Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
|Barbell bent over row||3 sets of 10 reps||4 sets of 8 reps||5 sets of 5 reps|
|Standing barbell overhead press||3 sets of 10 reps||4 sets of 8 reps||5 sets of 5 reps|
|Weighted Pullup||5 sets of 5 reps||3 sets of 15 reps||4 sets of 8 reps|
|Flat bench dumbbell row||5 sets of 5 reps||3 sets of 15 reps||4 sets of 8 reps|
|Standing barbell curls||5 sets of 5 reps||3 sets of 15 reps||4 sets of 8 reps|
The bent over row takes centre stage here to really build our strength. We’ve cheated a little and taken a key push movement, the overhead press, into pull day. This is great for the shoulders so fits in with the rest of the day so trust me on this!
Pullups offer a great vertical pull so I suggest throwing them in. We’ve also included a set of bicep curls as everyone loves them!
Picking weights and progressive loading
Before engaging in the above workouts, you should take two days in the gym to work out what your current comfortable weight is for the ranges. For example you should get comfortable that your bench press is 50kg for 10 reps, 60kg for 8 reps and 70kg for 5 reps. Do this for each exercise and you have a starting point.
As you complete each week, note down any failures. If you can lift all your sets without any failed reps then increase the weight by 10% for the next 3 week cycle for that rep range. This progressive loading will be the driver for growth and is a universal trait of the best programs so make sure you do this!
If you fail to make the reps, hold the weight at the same level for next time. If you fail two cycles in a row, reduce the weight by 15% for cycle 3. This is deload and allows you time to recover before strengthening. Again this is a feature of the best programs so do not overlook this!
Note that you can progress an exercise for different ranges at the same time, e.g. you may pass the 3×15 upright row so increase the weight 10%, but fail on the 5×5 thus keep it the same.
So there you go, a comprehensive guide to building the best upper body workout routine! Even if you choose to create a different program from the one above, the above principles should keep you on the right track to a huge chest!