The Best Upper Body Push and Pull Exercises For Maximum Gains

The Best Upper Body Push and Pull Exercises For Maximum Gains

Want to get a bigger upper body? Well, if you want bigger muscles in your chest, shoulders, back, and arms you’ve come to the right place.

Building muscle is actually a fairly simple process, but I wouldn’t say it’s easy. It takes work, and there are no shortcuts. Now, let me be clear ... You don't build muscle in the gym. You actually build muscle through your nutrition, sleep, and recovery.

However, you signal your body the need to build more muscle through the exercises you do in the gym. After all, you can't build muscle without training correctly.

One popular training split often used to build muscle and strength is push-pull-legs. But, what is it about this training strategy that makes it so popular? Also, what are the best exercises for your upper-body on push and pull days?

Let's talk about why the push-pull-legs training split can be so effective. We'll also discuss some of the most effective upper body push and pull exercises. That way, you'll be well on your way to building muscle and seeing incredible results.

What Makes Push-Pull-Legs So Popular and Effective? 

To be honest, there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to training. We all react a little differently to different training splits.

If you don’t know what a training split is, don’t worry. A training split is just the way you organize your workouts every week.

Some people train a different body part every day. Some do full-body routines 3x per week. Some do my personal favorite, which is push-pull-legs.

The push-pull-legs split is my favorite for a reason. It allows you to increase the frequency of training while maximizing recovery. Allow me to explain why this matters.

In order to maximally stimulate muscle growth in your training, we do know a couple of things.

1. You must train close to failure (1). 

It doesn’t have to be every set, but if you never almost fail, then why would your body need more muscle? Your training must send signals to your body that it needs to grow in order to actually grow.

The only way to do that is to push your sets within 1-2 reps of failure. This makes your body think it must grow so that you don’t get close to failing next time. Every set you push close to failure is considered a “hard set”.

2. You must increase the volume of hard sets over time (2). 

Pushing your sets close to failure is one thing you must do to build muscle. If you don’t increase the volume of those hard sets over time though, you’ll struggle to build muscle.

This is because your body is constantly adapting to your training. Your body won’t build muscle unless you make it feel like it has to. Doing more hard sets each week will keep your body feeling the need to grow.

So, why are these points relevant? What does this have anything to do with upper body push and pull exercises?

Well, in the push-pull-legs training split, you get to work each muscle group twice a week. Doing two workouts each week gives you the chance to double the volume you put on these muscles.

Double the volume means you have a much better chance of building muscle. However, that's only if you train close to failure. This is part of what makes push-pull-legs so effective and popular.

Push-pull-legs can also be a great training split for recovery time. Let's talk about why that is as well as what a push-pull-legs training split looks like.

What Does Push-Pull-Legs Training Look Like?

Push-pull-legs is a training split where you separate your workouts into 3 days: push days, pull days, and leg days. 

On the push days, you work only the upper body muscles that perform pushing movements. These are usually your chest, triceps, and shoulder muscles.

On the pull days, you work only the upper body muscles that perform pulling movements. These are usually your back, biceps, and forearm muscles.

On the leg days, you work only the muscle groups below your waist. These are the muscles of your legs. Many people throw their ab training on this day too!

Typically, you’ll do these 3 days consecutively, then separate the next three day split by a rest day. 

With a push-pull-legs training split, your weekly workout schedule might look this: 

Day 1: Push day
Day 2: Leg day
Day 3: Pull day
Day 4: Rest day
Day 5: Push day
Day 6: Leg day
Day 7: Pull day

You can tweak the general schedule however works for you and your body. I prefer to throw my leg day between the push and pull days. 

This allows for an extra day of recovery between training the muscles in the upper body. There will always be some level of those pulling muscles being used on your push day, and vice versa. 

The main takeaway here is this: Instead of having one upper body day, you split it up to give more focus to each muscle group. 

This allows you more days of training and rest for each muscle group. Now, if you ask me, that’s a great way to maximize muscle growth! However, there are also a few other benefits to the push-pull-leg training split.

The Benefits of The Push-Pull-Legs Training Split

The main reason that people use the push-pull-leg split is because it works. 

Research shows that breaking up your workouts like this can lead to more muscle growth than a total body routine (3). 

That’s a pretty good reason in itself as to why the push-pull-leg split is worth trying out. That’s not all though. There are even more benefits to consider: 

• Your routine is spread out over several days. This can help reduce overworking or straining your muscles

• It allows each muscle group to rest and recover between sessions

• Having more focused workouts per muscle group allows for more creative isolation exercises

Basically, the push-pull-leg method is flexible, adaptable, and designed to build muscle. Plus, it’s even a great workout routine for beginners! 

So, let’s take a look at some of the best upper-body push exercises, followed by the best upper-body pull exercises.

Push Exercises for Your Upper Body

Looking for some of the best exercises to do for your upper body push workouts? While there are a lot of great exercises out there, here are 6 of my personal favorites (and I've tried a lot).

Incline Dumbbell Chest Press

This is a variation of a bench press that targets the upper chest, shoulders, and triceps. Using dumbbells instead of a barbell can add some extra difficulty which won’t hurt either.

Here’s how to do an incline dumbbell chest press: 

1. Set an incline bench back at about 45 degrees.

2. Hold one dumbbell in each hand as you lay back against the bench. Pull your shoulders down and back to set their position. Keep a slight arch in your upper back to puff your chest out.

3. Hold the dumbbells at either side of your chest with your elbows roughly 45 degrees from your body.

4. Exhale as you push the dumbbells straight up over your chest.

5. Squeeze your pecs for a second, then slowly lower the dumbbells to the starting position.

6. Repeat this for reps!


Proper dips require equipment to perform, but the good news is that most gyms will have a dip station. 

You can also perform dips with a pair of parallel bars or by setting two chairs next to each other. You can even do bench dips with nothing more than a bench, which every gym has.

Here’s how to perform dips: 

1. Place your hands on the dip bars with your palms facing each other.

2. Jump up so your arms are straight and your feet are no longer on the ground. You'll be supporting your whole body weight with your arms.

3. Bend your elbows back behind you and lower your chest in between your hands. Keep your elbows close to your sides and avoid swinging your torso back and forth. Also, make sure not to allow your feet to touch the ground. If you're tall, you may have to keep a bend in your knees to prevent this.

4. Lower yourself until your elbows are at a 90-degree angle. From here, squeeze your chest and triceps to push yourself back up to the starting position.

5. Repeat this for reps.

You can also adjust the angle of your body while you do dips. If you angle your torso forward, you’ll work your chest more. If you keep yourself vertical, you’ll work your triceps more. 

Both are good variations on push days.

Bench Press

The classic barbell bench press is one of the most popular exercises in every gym. It works your chest, triceps, and shoulders heavily.

If you want to lift some heavy weight with your upper body, the bench press is the exercise for you!

Here’s how to do a bench press: 

1. Lie with your back on the bench so your head is roughly at one end of the bench, and your butt near the other end.

2. Position yourself beneath the barbell, with the barbell directly above your eyes. 

3. Grab the barbell with an overhand grip a little wider than shoulder-width apart. 

4. Unrack the barbell and hold it straight above your chest. Be sure to have a spotter there to help you in case you need it!

5. Slowly lower the bar by bending your elbows about 45 degrees away from your body and toward the floor.

6. Touch the barbell to your lower chest or upper abdomen.

7. Pause for a moment, then squeeze your chest and triceps to press the bar back up to the top.

Squeeze your chest at the top for a second, then repeat for reps.

Incline Dumbbell Flys

Dumbbell flys are another exercise you can do with an incline bench and dumbbells. That’s all the equipment you’ll need too. It's a great push exercise for a bigger and stronger chest.

Here’s how to do this exercise: 

1. Start by laying your back on an incline bench set at about 45 degrees with a dumbbell in each hand.

2. Pull your shoulders down and back to get them set, and keep a slight arch in your upper back to puff your chest out.

3. Hold the dumbbells above your chest with your palms facing each other, and elbows slightly bent.

4. To start, allow your arms to separate as you lower each arm out to the side. Keep lowering with slightly bent elbows until you feel a little stretch in your chest.

5. Pause for a second, then squeeze your chest to raise the dumbbells back to the starting position.

6. Repeat this for reps.

Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

This is a great shoulder press variation that works your shoulders, chest, triceps, and core. Doing them standing rather than sitting increases the difficulty greatly too!

Here’s how to do the standing dumbbell shoulder press: 

1. Grab a dumbbell in each hand, and curl them up to hold them at your shoulders. Pull your shoulders down and back to get them set.

2. Keep a slight bend in your knees, and stay in an athletic stance. Swing your elbows out to either side of your body until your palms are facing forward.

3. Brace with your core, and use your chest, shoulders, and triceps to press the dumbbells overhead. Be sure not to lean back or over-arch your back as you press.

4. Squeeze your shoulders at the top for a second, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

5. Repeat this for reps.

Dumbbell Triceps Extensions

Tricep extensions are a great isolation exercise to target your triceps. There are many variations, and you can’t go wrong with any of them!

Here’s how to do dumbbell triceps extensions: 

1. Start with a dumbbell in your right hand, and stand with your feet hip-width apart. 

2. Lift the dumbbell overhead and turn your thumb to face behind you. With your left hand, reach across your body and place your hand on your right oblique. Be sure to keep your core engaged throughout the movement.

3. To start, bend your right elbow to lower the dumbbell back behind your head. Do your best to keep your shoulder and upper arm stable. Your elbow should be the only joint moving.

4. When your elbow is fully bent, squeeze your right tricep to press the weight back overhead.

5. Repeat for reps, and do the same number of reps on both sides.

Pull Exercises for Upper Body

Now that we've covered some good exercises for your push workouts, let's move on to pull. Remember, pull day will involve mostly the muscles of your back and your biceps. All of these pull exercises are staples on my pull days.


The pull-up may sound like a basic exercise, but it’s arguably one of the best back exercises there is. There are many variations for it too. All you have to do is adjust your grip for a completely different type of pull-up.

You’ll need a bar off the ground that can hold your entire body weight to do this exercise. 

Here’s how to do a basic pull-up: 

1. Grip the pull-up bar with your arms about shoulder width apart with an overhand grip. 

2. To start, pinch your shoulder blades together and squeeze your lats to pull your body up to the bar. Pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar.

3. Focus on pulling your elbows down so you don't emphasize your arms too much. That way your lats do most of the work like they should.

4. Squeeze your lats at the top for a second, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

5. Repeat this for reps.

Barbell Rows

You’ll need a barbell to perform this exercise. That’s it!

Here’s how to do barbell rows: 

1. Walk up to a loaded barbell and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.

2. Hinge forward at your hips and squat down to grab the bar with an overhand grip outside of shoulder width.

3. Stand up just enough to keep the bar a little below your knees. This is the starting position. Make sure to keep your core tight and your back straight throughout the movement.

4. To begin, pinch your shoulder blades together as you use your lats to pull your elbows behind you. Keep pulling until the bar reaches your abdomen.

5. Squeeze your lats at the top for a second, then slowly lower the bar back to its starting position. 

6. Repeat this for reps.

Chest-Supported Dumbbell Rows

If you liked the barbell rows, you can try a variation of them with dumbbells instead. This time though, you'll support your upper body on an incline bench. This is a great way to isolate your back a little more by taking your core out of the movement.

Here’s how to do chest-supported dumbbell rows: 

1. Set up an incline bench at 45 degrees, grab some dumbbells, and lay your stomach on the bench. Your chest should be around the edge of the bench with your arms hanging down in front of you.

2. To begin, pinch your shoulder blades together and squeeze your lats to pull your elbows behind you.

3. Keep pulling them up until the dumbbells are at your sides.

4. Squeeze your lats at the top for a second, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

5. Repeat this for reps.


This is a great exercise to target your upper traps. These are the muscles that sit above your shoulders on both sides of your neck.

Big traps can make anyone look more jacked, and it sounds like that's what you're looking for. All you'll need for this exercise is a barbell or pair of dumbbells.

Here’s how to do shrugs: 

1. Grab a barbell with an overhand grip at about shoulder width apart and stand up with it.

2. Gripping the bar tight, keep your arms straight as you squeeze your traps to pull your shoulders back and up.

3. Squeeze your traps hard at the top, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

4. Repeat this for reps.

Straight Arm Pull-Down

This is a great way to isolate your lats and can help you get more pull-ups when you get strong. It will use your triceps a bit too, but very minimally. 

All you'll need is a cable machine, and a straight bar or EZ bar attachment.

Here’s how to do this exercise: 

1. Set the cable to the highest height with a straight bar, or EZ bar, attachment.

2. Grab the attachment as wide as you can, and step back to lift the weight off the rack.

3. Pull your shoulders down, and give your knees and hips a slight bend. As ironic as it sounds, keep a slight bend in your elbows throughout the movement.

4. To begin, squeeze your lats and pull the bar down until it hits your waist.

5. Squeeze your lats for a second, then slowly raise the bar back to the starting position. 

6. Repeat this for reps.

Bicep Curls

All you need for this exercise is a set of dumbbells. There are so many variations, but we’ll go with the traditional standing bicep curl.

Here’s how to do bicep curls: 

1. Stand upright with your feet about hip-width apart.

2. Hold one dumbbell in each hand. 

3. Let your arms relax down at the sides of your body with your palms facing forward.

4. Keep your upper arms stable and elbows pinched to your sides throughout the movement.

5. To begin, squeeze your biceps to bend your elbows to pull the dumbbells up toward your shoulders. Be sure to minimize any rocking of your body for momentum.

6. Squeeze your biceps at the top for a second, then slowly lower the weights back to the starting position.

7. Repeat this for reps.

Get A Push-Pull-Legs Program and Reach Your Goals With 1st Phorm

If you want to build muscle, the push-pull-legs training split is a great one to try!

If you do it right, you can train 6 days per week and hit every muscle twice. That gives you twice the volume all around, and plenty of time to recover!

As long as you train close to failure on your working sets, and increase your volume over time ... This program can completely change your physique. However, that's only true if your nutrition is on point too. This is where most people struggle.

It's not that people don't know how to eat well. In fact, a lot of people have a clean diet when they're trying to reach their goals. The problem is, there's a big difference between eating healthy and eating effectively to reach a specific goal.

The process of reaching your goals can be a complicated one for this reason. Your nutrition, workouts, and recovery all need to be on point. That's where we can help.

Our goal at 1st Phorm is to help real people like you and me see real and long-term results. That's why we developed the 1st Phorm App to simplify the process of reaching your goals so you can look and feel your best.

Not only does the 1st Phorm App give you a full push-pull-legs program to get started with, but also a full library of programs for your goals. More importantly, you also get assigned your own certified advisor inside the app. This is someone who's there to guide you through the process of earning results.

Your advisor will help with your nutrition, answer your questions, and help hold you accountable. You'll even be able to log your custom nutrition plan and meals directly in the app to stay on track.

Inside the app, you can also measure your progress, watch educational live streams and videos, and so much more. The 1st Phorm App is the ultimate all-in-one tool for reaching your health and fitness goals.

If there's anything we can do to help out, don't hesitate to reach out! We have a full team of NASM Certified Personal Trainers and Nutrition Coaches right here in St. Louis, Missouri. Just send us an email at or give us a call at 1-800-409-9732 any day from 6 AM to 10 PM Central. We're happy to help!

Ready to simplify the process of seeing results and finally reach your goals? Download the 1st Phorm App today!

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(1) Santanielo N, Nóbrega SR, Scarpelli MC, Alvarez IF, Otoboni GB, Pintanel L, Libardi CA. Effect of resistance training to muscle failure vs non-failure on strength, hypertrophy and muscle architecture in trained individuals. Biol Sport. 2020 Dec;37(4):333-341. doi: 10.5114/biolsport.2020.96317. Epub 2020 Jul 5. PMID: 33343066; PMCID: PMC7725035.

(2) Bernárdez-Vázquez R, Raya-González J, Castillo D, Beato M. Resistance Training Variables for Optimization of Muscle Hypertrophy: An Umbrella Review. Front Sports Act Living. 2022 Jul 4;4:949021. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2022.949021. PMID: 35873210; PMCID: PMC9302196.

(3) Bartolomei S, Nigro F, Malagoli Lanzoni I, Masina F, Di Michele R, Hoffman JR. A Comparison Between Total Body and Split Routine Resistance Training Programs in Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 Jun 1;35(6):1520-1526. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003573. PMID: 32168178.


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