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5 Best Barbell Exercises for Upper Body Muscle Mass

5 ways to grow muscle and strength.

Upper body strength and muscle mass play a significant role in both fitness and aesthetic goals.

Whether you’re aiming to improve your athletic performance, enhance your physique, or simply increase your overall functional strength, developing a robust upper body is crucial. While there are various tools and equipment available to strengthen these muscles, barbell exercises stand out as highly effective and efficient.

Barbell exercises offer numerous benefits when it comes to targeting and developing upper body muscles. The barbell, with its inherent stability and versatility, allows for compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This leads to improved muscle coordination, increased strength gains, and enhanced overall muscle development. Furthermore, barbell exercises promote the principle of progressive overload, which is essential for muscle growth and adaptation.

chandler smith competes in crossfit semifinalSource: Photo courtesy of CrossFit Inc.

In this article, we will delve into the top five barbell exercises specifically designed to build upper body muscle mass. These exercises have been carefully selected based on their ability to engage a wide range of muscles in the upper body, including the chest, shoulders, triceps, back, and biceps. By incorporating these exercises into your training routine, you can maximize your efforts and achieve substantial gains in upper body strength and muscle size.

So, whether you’re a seasoned weightlifter or just beginning your fitness journey, join us as we explore the best barbell exercises that will help you carve a stronger, more muscular upper body.

Bench Press

The bench press is a classic compound exercise that primarily targets the muscles of the chest, triceps, and shoulders. It is widely recognized as one of the most effective exercises for building upper body strength and muscle mass.

To perform the bench press correctly, start by lying flat on a bench with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, ensuring a firm and secure grip. Lower the barbell to your mid-chest, maintaining control and keeping your elbows tucked at a 45-degree angle.

Proper form and technique are crucial for maximizing the benefits of the bench press. Maintain a tight and stable upper body throughout the movement, engaging your core and keeping your shoulders pressed against the bench. Push the barbell upward explosively, extending your arms fully without locking out your elbows.

One of the key advantages of the bench press is its ability to facilitate progressive overload. This means gradually increasing the weight or intensity of the exercise over time. By consistently challenging your muscles with heavier weights, you stimulate muscle growth and strength gains.

Variations of the bench press can further target specific muscle groups and add variety to your training routine. Incline bench press targets the upper chest, while decline bench press emphasizes the lower chest. Close grip bench press places more emphasis on the triceps. Incorporating these variations can help you address muscle imbalances and achieve a well-rounded upper body development.

CrossFit Games 2019 photosSource: BOXROX

Incorporating the bench press into your training regimen can yield remarkable results in terms of upper body muscle mass and strength. Remember to start with an appropriate weight, focus on proper form, and progressively increase the load to continue challenging your muscles and promoting growth.

Overhead Press

The overhead press, also known as the shoulder press or military press, is a compound exercise that targets the muscles of the shoulders and triceps. It is a fundamental movement for building upper body strength and developing well-rounded shoulder muscles.


To perform the overhead press with proper form, start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grip the barbell with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing forward. Lift the barbell from the rack and position it at shoulder level, resting on the front of your shoulders.

Maintain a tight and stable core throughout the movement to provide a solid base of support. Brace your core, engage your glutes, and avoid excessive arching of the lower back. This ensures optimal stability and prevents injury.

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To initiate the overhead press, push the barbell upward using your shoulder muscles. As you press the barbell overhead, keep your elbows slightly in front of the bar to maintain control and stability. As the bar reaches its highest point, fully extend your arms without locking out your elbows.

It’s essential to maintain a straight bar path during the movement. The barbell should move in a vertical line directly above your head, rather than in an arc. This maximizes the activation of the shoulder muscles and minimizes unnecessary strain on other body parts.

Variations of the overhead press can offer different benefits and challenges. Seated overhead press can provide additional stability and isolate the shoulder muscles further. Standing overhead press engages the core more intensely, as it requires greater balance and stability. Another option is the push press, which involves using a slight leg drive to generate momentum and lift heavier weights.

To progress in the overhead press, gradually increase the weight while maintaining proper form. Additionally, you can incorporate techniques such as drop sets or pyramid sets to further challenge your muscles. These variations and progression options allow you to continually stimulate muscle growth and increase strength in the shoulders and triceps.

Incorporating the overhead press into your upper body training routine will help you develop strong and well-defined shoulders, enhance upper body strength, and improve overall upper body aesthetics. Focus on mastering the proper form and gradually progressing to heavier weights for optimal results.

Bent-Over Row

The bent-over row is a fundamental exercise that primarily targets the muscles of the upper back, including the latissimus dorsi (lats) and rhomboids. It is an excellent compound movement for building strength and thickness in the back muscles.


To perform the bent-over row with proper form, start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in your knees. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Hinge forward at the hips while maintaining a neutral spine, allowing the barbell to hang directly in front of you.

Maintaining a neutral spine is crucial for proper form and preventing injury. Keep your back straight throughout the movement, avoiding excessive rounding or arching. Engage your core muscles to provide stability and support for your lower back.

To initiate the row, pull the barbell towards your lower chest, driving your elbows backward. Focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together and engaging the muscles of your upper back. Maintain control and avoid using momentum to swing the weight.


Variations of the bent-over row can offer different benefits and target specific areas of the back. The Yates row, named after bodybuilder Dorian Yates, involves using an underhand grip and bringing the barbell towards the abdomen.

This variation places more emphasis on the lower lats. The Pendlay row, named after weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay, emphasizes explosiveness and strict form, with the barbell coming to a dead stop on each repetition. This variation enhances muscle recruitment and promotes strength development.

Incorporating bent-over rows and their variations into your training routine can help you develop a strong and well-defined back. By targeting the lats, rhomboids, and other muscles of the upper back, you improve your posture, enhance upper body strength, and create a balanced physique. Remember to prioritize proper form, engage the appropriate muscles, and gradually increase the weight to continue challenging your back muscles and promoting growth.

Barbell Curl

The barbell curl is a fundamental exercise that primarily targets the biceps and forearm muscles. It is an effective way to build strength and size in the upper arms, creating well-defined and impressive biceps.

The barbell curl primarily focuses on the biceps brachii, the large muscle group on the front of the upper arm. Additionally, the muscles of the forearm, such as the brachialis and brachioradialis, also play a supporting role in the movement.


To perform the barbell curl with proper form, start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in your knees. Grip the barbell with an underhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Allow your arms to fully extend, with the barbell hanging in front of your thighs.

Keep your elbows close to your sides throughout the movement to isolate the biceps. Initiate the curl by flexing your elbows, bringing the barbell towards your chest. Focus on contracting the biceps and maintaining control throughout the ascent and descent of the movement.

When performing the barbell curl, it’s important to avoid excessive swinging or using momentum to lift the weight. Maintain a steady and controlled pace, ensuring that the biceps are doing the work. Avoid leaning back or using your lower back to lift the barbell.

Additional Techniques

To maximize muscle growth and variation in your training, consider incorporating additional techniques. Cheat curls involve using a controlled cheat or body swing to lift heavier weights than you would typically handle. This can help stimulate muscle growth through overload. Drop sets are another effective technique where you perform a set with a certain weight, then immediately decrease the weight and continue with another set. This intensifies the workout and promotes muscle fatigue.

By incorporating barbell curls into your training routine, you can develop strong and well-defined biceps and forearm muscles. Focus on maintaining proper form, engaging the biceps throughout the movement, and gradually increasing the weight to continue challenging your muscles. By utilizing techniques like cheat curls or drop sets, you can introduce variety and intensity to your training, maximizing muscle growth and strength gains.

Barbell Skull Crusher:

The barbell skull crusher is an effective exercise that specifically targets the triceps, the muscles located on the back of the upper arm. It is a compound movement that isolates and strengthens the triceps, helping to develop impressive arm definition and strength.


To perform the barbell skull crusher with proper form, lie flat on a bench with your feet firmly planted on the floor. Hold the barbell with an overhand grip, hands slightly closer than shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms fully, positioning the barbell directly over your chest.

Bend your elbows, lowering the barbell towards your forehead in a controlled manner. Keep your upper arms stationary and perpendicular to the floor throughout the movement. The key is to focus on the movement happening at the elbows, with your forearms moving in an arc-like motion.

Maintain control and avoid bouncing the barbell off your forehead or letting it drift too far forward. Once the barbell is near your forehead, pause briefly, and then extend your arms to return to the starting position. Keep your elbows in a fixed position to ensure maximum engagement of the triceps.

Variations of the skull crusher exercise can provide further development and variation for the triceps. The close grip bench press is a similar movement that targets the triceps, but with a narrower hand placement on the barbell. This variation places more emphasis on the triceps and less on the chest muscles. Another alternative is the French press, where the barbell is lowered behind the head instead of towards the forehead. This variation increases the stretch on the triceps and can enhance muscle activation.

By incorporating barbell skull crushers into your training routine, you can effectively target and strengthen the triceps muscles. Focus on maintaining proper form, controlling the movement, and gradually increasing the weight to continue challenging your triceps. Introducing variations like the close grip bench press or French press can add further diversity and stimulation to your triceps training, leading to greater development and strength gains.


In this article, we have explored five of the best barbell exercises for building upper body muscle mass. These exercises, including the bench press, overhead press, bent-over row, barbell curl, and barbell skull crusher, target various muscle groups in the upper body and provide a solid foundation for strength and muscle development.

The bench press engages the chest, triceps, and shoulders, while the overhead press primarily targets the shoulders and triceps. The bent-over row focuses on the upper back muscles, the barbell curl works the biceps and forearms, and the barbell skull crusher isolates and strengthens the triceps.

It is important to remember that proper form is crucial for maximizing the benefits of these exercises and preventing injuries. Pay attention to grip width, elbow positioning, range of motion, and core stability. Always prioritize maintaining good form throughout each repetition.

Progression is key to continued muscle growth and strength gains. Gradually increase the weight, challenge yourself with variations, and incorporate techniques like progressive overload, cheat curls, or drop sets. Consistency in training is equally important. Stick to a regular schedule and stay committed to your upper body training program.

To achieve optimal results, it is recommended to incorporate these barbell exercises into a well-rounded upper body training program. Combine them with other exercises, such as compound movements and targeted isolation exercises, to ensure balanced muscle development. Remember to also include proper warm-up and cooldown routines, as well as adequate rest and recovery.

By consistently practicing these exercises with proper form, progressing over time, and maintaining consistency in your training, you can achieve significant gains in upper body muscle mass, strength, and overall fitness. So, grab that barbell and get ready to sculpt an impressive upper body physique. Your hard work and dedication will surely pay off in the long run.

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