10 Unconventional Upper Body Exercises

For Strength and Size

Sometimes even the best lifts stop working. Here are 10 variations to get you growing again.

Sure, you’ve been doing nothing but bench presses and dumbbell curls for the last 10 years. You’re like those guys who only use the missionary position in bed and wonder why your wife or girlfriend has had one, perpetual, blue-balling headache for the last 14 months.

Well, like your girl, your muscles are bored. It’s time to try something new. It’s time to start making progress again.

Most of you know that heavy compound movements with a barbell are the best for size and strength. Similarly, you know that heavy presses and rows should be in every serious lifter’s chest and back routine, and some of the best options for getting massive arms are barbell curls and extensions.

But sometimes lifters will hit plateaus in these bread and butter lifts, caused by technique flaws, a weakness in a lagging muscle group, or just poor programming. To bust free and start progressing again, you need to switch things up, and one of the best ways is to experiment with new exercises.

Below is a list of the 10 best uncommon variations of basic barbell upper body exercises, compiled from strength coaches and athletes from around the country. Use these as assistance lifts or main lifts in your program.

Two Vertical Push (Overhead) Variations

Z Press

  • Strength Building Properties: Core stability and shoulder strength
  • Muscle Building Potential: Entire shoulder region and upper back

The Z press is named after strongman competitor Zydrunas Savickas. Strongman competitors are required to perform a tremendous amount of shoulder and triceps work to prepare for pressing events. This lift is great for increasing core strength and building the shoulder stability necessary to press big weights overhead.

One of the potential problems with standing military presses is that when the weight gets heavy, the lifter may lean back excessively to complete the repetition. This excessive lean becomes impossible when performing the Z press.

The core and upper back regions must be extremely stable to successfully complete a repetition, making this a great shoulder builder and core strengthening exercise.

Set up the pins in a power rack anywhere from clavicle height to chin height and perform overhead presses while seated with the legs in front.

Seated Overhead Pin Lockout

  • Strength Building Properties: Lockout strength for overhead work and strongman
  • Muscle Building Potential: Triceps development

Seated overhead pin lockouts are a Westside barbell staple. This is an awesome exercise for developing the triceps strength necessary for locking out big weights overhead and to support the lockout of a jerk.

I recommend setting a bench at a slight incline (as opposed to using a vertical military bench) for comfort purposes, although both options will work.

Two Horizontal Pulling (Rowing) Variations

Dead-Stop Supinated Rack Rows

  • Strength Building Properties: Lat strength for stability in deadlift and bench press
  • Muscle Building Potential: Lats and upper back development

Dead-stop barbell rows are one of the best back builders you aren’t doing. A problem with traditional bent over rows is that lifters often can’t stay in a good position for the entire set. By setting each rep at the pins, the lifter can keep proper back position and reset their grip as needed. Pulling each rep from a dead start will also help improve starting strength, which will transfer over to the deadlift nicely.

One Arm Barbell Rows

  • Strength Building Properties: Lat and grip strength for stability in deadlift and bench press
  • Muscle Building Potential: Lats, upper back, and forearm development

The one-arm barbell row is a nice addition to a lifer’s back training routine. Using the barbell requires considerable grip strength to balance the load evenly. It’s also a great option for lifters who don’t have access to heavy dumbbells.

Two Horizontal Push (Bench) Variations


  • Strength Building Properties: Builds pressing endurance
  • Muscle Building Potential: Chest and triceps development

Bench presses for moderate to high repetitions are one of the best ways to add serious chest mass and strength endurance. This is also important for football players looking to hit huge numbers for their combine bench press test.

Perform BEEkers like a traditional bench press except alternate a full range repetition with a repetition to a board or some other object (half foam roller shown in video) to limit the range of motion. (Yeah, I know they look a little lame, but they work!)

“Rack 'Ems”

  • Strength Building Properties: Lat strength for unracking and stabilizing big benches
  • Muscle Building Potential: All pressing muscles and lats

“Rack 'Ems” is the best exercise for lifters who have trouble unracking the weight in the bench press. It’s simple to perform – just put the weight in the rack and unrack it after every bench press repetition.

It’s important to pull the weight out of the rack versus pressing it out of the rack – think of doing a pullover followed by a bench press. “Rack 'Ems” help strengthen the lats, which is extremely important for stabilization in the bench press, while increasing pressing strength.

Two Triceps Variations

JM Floor Press

  • Strength Building Properties: Lockout strength for the bench press
  • Muscle Building Potential: Triceps development around the elbow

The JM press, popularized by JM Blakely, has many variations used by powerlifters worldwide. This JM Press variation is a great way to build triceps size and strength that will carry over to a big bench press.

Lifters new to the JM press often have difficulty figuring out where to stop the range of motion. Some perform these presses very shallow while others lower the bar until the forearm contacts the biceps. The floor variation makes it very easy to gauge depth – simply bring your elbows down until your triceps touch the floor, pause for one-second and explode up.

Triangle Triceps Extensions

  • Strength Building Properties: Strength for locking out pressing exercises
  • Muscle Building Potential: Triceps development

The triangle triceps extension is the distant cousin of the rolling dumbbell extension popularized by Westside Barbell. I first learned this movement from powerlifter Mark Bell, who has benched over 800 pounds in competition. One issue many advanced lifters have with extensions is elbow wear and tear. This variation is a little easier on the elbows. The eccentric portion of the extension – which tends to stress the elbows – is essentially eliminated.

Lower the bar to the chest like a close grip bench press, roll back toward the face, and then extend up like a regular barbell extension. Give these a try if you have elbow issues when performing extensions.

Two Biceps Variations

One Arm Barbell Curls

  • Strength Building Properties: Helps keep balance in the arms for strongman competitors and powerlifters
  • Muscle Building Potential: Biceps

Direct arm training is important for overall strength and size development. The one-arm barbell curl is a great option for advanced lifters with limited equipment.

This is a great biceps variation if you don’t have access to a dumbbell but still want to do one-arm curls. Much like the one-arm barbell row this exercise is hard to stabilize and will challenge the lifter’s grip much more than a traditional curl, in addition to the core muscles.

Power Curls

  • Strength Building Properties: Helps keep balance in the arms for strongman competitors and powerlifters
  • Muscle Building Potential: Biceps

The power curl is a great alternative to the cheat curl. Set up like a sumo deadlift and use the hips to drive the weight up to a standing position and then lower under control. This is a good way to use more weight than normally used on a barbell curl while sparing the low back, which can be exceedingly overused with cheat curls.

To really benefit from the power curl, concentrate on the eccentric portion and lower the weight under control.

Putting It All Together

Interested to see whether your physique might benefit from a break from the same old lifts? While you can always slip a new exercise into your current workout, why not jump into the deep end of the pool?

Here are two routines composed entirely of the new exercises listed above. Replace your upper body workouts with the following for the next six weeks.

Workout 1

Exercise Sets Reps
A BEEkers * 3 6-8
B Dead-Stop Supinated Rack Row (mid-shin height) 6 5
C Seated Overhead Pin Lockout 3 6-10
D1 Triangle Triceps Extension 3 8-12
D2 One-Arm Barbell Curl 3 8-12/side

* BEEkers — Alternate reps to chest with reps to 2-board.

Workout 2

Exercise Sets Reps
A Z Press 3 5
B One-Arm Barbell Row 6 8/side
C Rack 'Ems 3 10
D1 JM Floor Press 3 8-12
D2 Power Curl 3 8-12

Wrap Up

Rest assured, the basics work – which is why they’re called the basics. But a little variety can go a long way in overcoming plateaus and avoiding overuse injuries – not to mention boredom!

Stay tuned for the next installment, where I’ll give you 10 lower body exercises you’ve never tried for strength and size!