Your Mix-and-Match Upper Body Workout
Define and tone your arms, shoulders, and back with these Canyon Ranch-approved exercises.
If your upper-body training is so routine that the weights know you’re coming, then kudos on your dedication to this important aspect of fitness! However, mixing things up and keeping your muscles guessing (they adapt if you always do the same workout, which can hamper results), can tailor your sessions to achieve your health goals and help keep things interesting.
"Research shows that resistance training provides many health benefits to the body in addition to increasing lean mass and conditioning to move easily,” explains Heather Giordano, Performance Scientist at Canyon Ranch Lenox.
“If you're doing the same old thing because nothing new comes to mind, then consider choosing from this list of moves that target your arms, shoulders, and chest, as well as your back muscles,” she says. Focus on three during your next workout, choose a new combination next time and so on. “Make sure to keep your routine balanced between “push” and “pull” exercises,” continues Giordano. “Having a variety of movements in different directions with proper mechanics will help to improve posture and prevent injury.”
Below, you’ll find a mix of upper body strength-training moves to weave into your workout routine.
What It Does: Strengthens your chest, triceps and shoulders
How to Do It: Kneeling on a mat or rug, place your hands on the floor and position them in line with your chest, a little wider than shoulder-width apart. Tuck your toes underneath you and press back into your heels until your whole body is lifted off the floor. Keep your abdominals engaged to avoid sagging your back. Slowly bend your elbows, lowering your chest between your hands, and then press down to rise back up again. Repeat up to 15 times; complete two to three sets.
To make this exercise easier, drop your knees to the floor, keeping your feet in the air. You can increase the challenge by lifting one foot off the ground or lowering yourself more slowly.
Be Careful Not To: lift your hips. Maintaining a straight line through your spine is key to properly working your upper body.
Overhead Shoulder Press
What It Does: Strengthens your shoulders and triceps
How to Do It: Start in a staggered stance, with one leg forward and the other leg behind you, to keep your back stable and safe. Hold a dumbbell in each hand (choose a weight that challenges, not overtaxes you). Bring your hands up to ear level, palms facing forward and elbows slightly in front of you. Press your arms up overhead, and then lower them back down to ear level. Complete three sets of 10 to 15 reps for each arm.
Use lighter weights if you’re having trouble completing a few reps. For a bigger challenge, alternate your arms.
Be Careful Not To: let your elbows drift backward. Lifting the weights overhead when your elbows are too far back puts strain on your spine.
What It Does: Targets and strengthens your triceps
How to Do It: Sitting on a mat or rug, hold a dumbbell in your right hand and roll onto your back. With your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, extend your right arm straight above your chest. Use your left hand as light support for your right triceps, keeping the upper part of your arm vertical. Lower your right hand back by your right ear and then raise it back up, straightening your elbow. Repeat for 15 times and switch sides; complete two sets for each arm.
Use a lighter weight if you’re having trouble completing a few reps.
Be Careful Not To: move your upper arm. Keep it vertical throughout the entire exercise to ensure you’re targeting the triceps.
What It Does: Strengthens your biceps
How to Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Start with your hands at your sides and your palms facing forward. Bend your elbows and lift the weights toward your shoulders and then back down to your thighs. Keep your abdominals engaged and your spine stable throughout the exercise. Repeat 10 to 15 times for each arm; complete three sets.
To make this exercise easier, try using an exercise band or a lighter weight while seated. To increase the intensity, alternate your arms balance on one leg.
Be Careful Not To: move your whole body. Your forearms should be the only part of your body moving during this exercise, in order to target your bicep muscles.
Bent Over Dumbbell Row
What it Does: Strengthens the upper, mid- and lower-back, shoulders, and biceps, and stabilizes the core.
How to Do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand by your sides, palms facing in toward your body. Move your hips back to hinge your torso forward while keeping your knees soft. The dumbbells should hang straight down in front of your knees. Brace your core so that you keep your back completely flat. The spine should be as close to horizontal as you can get. Row the dumbbells up toward your ribcage, bending your elbows as you do so that they pass your torso. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pause at the top of the movement.
Keep your core and spine stable as you extend your arms and lower the dumbbells so that they hang by your knees. Repeat 15 times and perform two to three sets.
Be Careful Not To: round the back or lift torso upright as you make the pulling movement.
The Dumbbell Chest Press
What It Does: Strengthens chest muscles, anterior deltoids, and the triceps.
How to Do It: Sitting on a mat or rug, hold a dumbbell in each hand as you roll onto your back. Bend your legs, keeping your knees pointing toward the ceiling and both feet flat on the floor about two feet from your buttocks and hip-width apart. Raise the dumbbells above your chest, retaining a slight bend in your elbows. Inhale and draw your elbows down toward the floor without touching it, and then exhale, pressing them back up to the original position above your chest.
Repeat 10 times; complete two to three sets.
Use lighter weights if you’re having trouble completing a few reps.
Be Careful Not To: hold the dumbbells over your face. Making sure your hands are above your chest ensures that those muscles are being worked.
The Bent Arm Pullover
What It Does: Improves overall shoulder mobility
How to Do It: Grab one dumbbell and lay flat on your back on a mat or rug. Lift the dumbbell above your chest, grasping the weight on each end so your palms are against the outsides of the dumbbell. Keep your elbows bent slightly throughout the exercise. Move your arms backward over your head and then pull the weight back to your starting position. Repeat 12 times; complete three sets.
Use a lighter weight if you’re having trouble pulling the weight back up.
Be Careful Not To: move too fast. The key to properly engaging your shoulders is moving the weight in a controlled motion.
What It Does: Works your chest, triceps and shoulders
How to Do It: Lay over an exercise ball so your belly is on the top and both hands reach down to the floor, palms flat. Walk your hands out to a plank position until the ball is under your shins and your hands are directly under your shoulders. Keep your abdominals and back muscles contracted and pull your belly into your spine. Bend your elbows and lower your chest toward the floor. Stop when your upper arms are parallel to the floor and push back up. Repeat 10 times; complete two sets.
You can modify this exercise by only rolling out to your thighs.
Be Careful Not To: shift sideways. While balancing on the ball can be tricky, it’s important to remain stable so that all your upper body muscles are worked evenly.
What It Does: Strengthens your triceps
How to Do It: Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Press your palms into the edge of the chair on either side of your legs, and then shift forward so your buttocks are suspended in front of the seat. Lower your buttocks toward the floor (without touching it), bending your elbows, and then press back up to your suspended starting position.
To make this exercise easier, dip your buttocks only halfway toward the floor. For a bigger challenge, move your feet further forward, or fully extend your legs so only your heels are on the ground. Repeat 15 times, completing two to three sets.
Be Careful Not To: let your elbows go outward. Fully engage the tricep muscles by bending your elbows straight back as you dip your buttocks.
Single Arm Row
What it Does: Strengthens the upper back, shoulder, and biceps
How to Do it: Hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Lean over to place your left knee and left hand on a bench to support the body. Back should be flat with your head aligned with your spine. Start with your right arm hanging at the side with arm extended. Pull the dumbbell upwards, bending the elbow and pulling your upper arm backwards. Slowly lower dumbbell back towards the floor while maintaining a flat back and retracted shoulder blades.
The knee should be directly under the hips on the bench and the supporting hand should be directly under the shoulder on the bench. Repeat 15 times on each side and perform two to three sets.
Be Careful Not To: round your back or rotate your trunk during the movement.
This article was originally published on January 9, 2021, and has been updated as of the above date.