Just starting out? Don’t just ask the biggest dude in your gym to show you the ropes. Ask the Buff Dudes! This is their favorite upper-body workout to help young bucks grow up—and out—the right way!
It’s time for a bro workout! But not just any old bro workout. This is the one for that particular kind of bro-in-waiting who has—ominous music—never been to the gym before. It’s time to help one more bro get in the know, yo!
When the question is, “Where do I start?” the answer is our Beginner Bro’s Guide to the Gym: Upper Body, which showcases the compound and isolation exercises we think new lifters should learn and implement immediately. No matter what comes next, you can’t go wrong by starting here and starting now.
It’s like we always say: you’ll never grow if you don’t know. Let’s do this!
Move 1: Lat pull-down, 3 sets of 10 reps
What, no pull-ups? Of course pull-ups are essential, and they’re one of our favorite exercises for becoming a Buff Dude. But when you’re a beginner, you start at the beginning—and for most people, a lat pull-down is far more approachable than pull-ups. Get good at it, and it’s a great training tool for pull-ups, as well as a great back builder on its own.
You’ll see people wage war against the full stack on these all the time, but our advice is to start out with light weight. Even if it feels too light, keep it that way in the beginning to learn the movement. Remember, when it comes to the amount of weight you’re lifting, you are the only one in the gym. Don’t feel pressured or in competition with anyone else. We’re all here to better ourselves, not to have a lifting meet. At least not yet!
When performing the movement, grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder width. When pulling the bar down, do it slowly, so you don’t create any momentum. Pull the bar right past your chin and to your upper chest. Keep your chest up, pull your shoulders back and down, squeeze your back, then slowly bring it back up to the top position.
When you’re doing this exercise, your arms will want to take over. That’s a big reason we’ll be starting lighter—to focus on form. This way, you’ll focus more on the lats and less on the arms.
Move 2: Bench press, 3 sets of 10 reps
When the goal is to add muscle to your upper body and the chest, the bench press is king. It’s our top chest exercise in the “Anatomy of a Buff Dude” series, for the simple reason that it works.
The shortest route to a destination is a straight line, and that’s what we’ll keep in mind when performing the bench press. Keep your hips anchored to the bench, with your feet planted firmly on the ground and a slight arch in your lower back—about big enough to slide your hand under. Grab the bar slightly outside shoulder width, and retract your shoulder blades as you lower the bar to your sternum, keeping your forearms vertical to the floor.
Every one of those classic cues is about making the movement feel more stable. When you’re starting out, the bench press feels shaky. Like, fall-off-the-bench, drop-the-weight unstable. So don’t forget to add clips to ensure the weights stay on the bar.
At first, it may feel like one side of your chest is stronger than the other, but it’s probably your body learning how to properly fire the muscles. Even if it feels awkward, it will become easier over time. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Move 3: Overhead press, 3 sets of 10 reps
What, another barbell move? That’s right. No isolation work yet, young bro. Learning how to make all your muscles play nicely together in compound moves is essential to being as strong as you look. And when it comes to compound moves that work all three heads of the deltoid muscles, the overhead press is where to start.
But here’s the key with this move: Everything needs to be solid. Your knees will be locked, and your hips, butt, and core need to be tight. Begin with the bar around clavicle level, preferably out of a rack. As you raise the weight, your center of gravity will rise with it, so staying tight and locked out will keep you from swaying.
As you begin to raise the bar, move your head back slightly to make room for the barbell to pass. But once the bar passes, bring your head back to its original position. When the bar reaches the top position, lock your elbows and elevate your shoulders slightly, contracting your traps at the top position.
If possible, try to have a mirror handy to check out your form and make sure you’re performing the exercise correctly.
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Move 4: Triceps extension, 3 sets of 10-12 reps
On to the arms! Unlike everything else you’ve done so far, this move is focuses on a single motion at a single joint: the extension in the elbow. The key is to keep it focused there!
Many people make the mistake of going too heavy, moving their shoulders and creating momentum. Keep it light—once again, in order to maintain proper form—and slowly extend your elbow joint, bringing the bar down to the bottom position. Squeeze your triceps momentarily before coming back up. Nice and slow, bro.
Move 5: Biceps curl, 3 sets of 10 reps
When done right, this is another isolation exercise using the elbow joint, but unlike the triceps extension, you flex the elbow rather than extending it. Straight up, straight down, and no movement in the shoulder. Keep it light—notice the pattern?—and slowly flex your elbow up to the top position. Do these right, and your guns will let you know.
The biggest mistake people make here, aside from general sloppiness, is not going all the way down when lowering the weight. If you don’t go all the way down, you won’t fully stretch the biceps. That stretch inflicts the kind of muscle damage that leads to growth. So, bring it to the top position, squeeze, and then slowly lower it all the way down.
Move 6: Dumbbell shrug, 3 sets of 10 reps
Now it’s time to work the traps. You may never see them, but traps are a big muscle group. A lot of people think of traps and just think of the upper portion—you know, the ones located at the left and right of your neck. But there are actually upper, middle, and lower portions that make up a large part of your back. You need to hit all three portions, and the shrug is the best place to start.
With traps, like with everything else, people usually want to go heavy immediately, but as you’ve probably guessed, we’re going to keep it a little lighter and focus on form and full range of motion. Without bending your elbows or rolling your shoulders, shrug your shoulders up to your ears, hold and squeeze, then lower them slowly. Try to create a tempo: 1-2 up, squeeze, 1-2 down, 1-2 up, squeeze.
One other benefit of shrugs is that they will help build your grip strength.
This will assist you on exercises like deadlifts and rows as well as all kinds of other athletic activities.
Become a Homegrown Bro
Now that you know the moves, how often do you need to come in and do this workout? If it’s your goal to build a big upper body, hit this workout three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. But don’t forget to hit that lower body twice a week as well! That’s what we’ll cover next time.
We hope we’ve been a bro and you’re in the know. Until next time, stay buff, dudes!