Top Upper Body Workouts
A strong upper body can make life easier and more enjoyable.
By Elaine K. Howley, Contributor Aug. 24, 2020, at 1:56 p.m.
This article is based on reporting that features expert sources.
THE UPPER BODY IS tasked with a lot of important jobs throughout every day, whether it’s carrying groceries into the house, playing catch with the kids or just typing on the computer at work. All of these activities are made easier and more enjoyable when you have a strong, balanced, injury-free upper body. And you can develop that through targeted upper body workouts.
“We have to use our hands to do just about any activity that we do,” says Dr. D. Harrison Youmans, a sports medicine physician with Orlando Health in Florida. “To be able to do all those things, from ironing or working or carrying things, we have to make sure that the upper body stays fit.”
When your upper body is strong, you’re less likely to develop injuries in the shoulder, elbow and wrist, all joints that are involved with many of the activities of daily living, says Matt Camargo, director of ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern, California. “If the muscles, ligaments and tendons are strong and durable, each joint can go through movements in workouts as well as daily life without limitations.”
Building and maintaining upper body strength isn’t just for men, Camargo notes. Everyone needs balance and strength, and because each part of the body is connected to another, when imbalances do develop, that can lead to problems no matter who you are.
What’s more, your grandmother was right – good posture matters. “The upper body is responsible for posture. Just being able to sit and stand with great posture is affected by upper body strength,” says Bianca Spicer, an exercise physiologist and owner of Spicer Fitness in Atlanta.
Improving your posture can help alleviate migraines and other types of headaches and provides other benefits, including improved “neck health and social presence,” or how others see you, says Dan Daly, a coach, trainer and co-creator of the Equinox Group Swim Program EQXH2O based in New York City. For example, if you're turning up to a job interview and have terrible posture, that may give the prospective employer an inaccurate impression of how you'd face the challenges of the role you're interviewing for.
Working Out the Upper Body
The upper body is a complex region with lots of small muscles. Finding the right balance between stressing them enough to strengthen them and not overdoing it is important, so it’s best to check in with a physical therapist, fitness trainer or sports medicine physician before you undertake any targeted exercises for the upper body.
The key components of the upper body that you should focus on when working out include:
Mid- and upper back.
As with any workout routine, you should strive for a mix of cardio and strength training exercises to get the most benefit from your time working out. Aerobic exercises that can help you develop strength, stability and endurance in the upper body include:
Hand cycling. This requires a special machine that looks like a stationary bike for your arms. It’s often found in rehab settings and is a great tool for those starting out with aerobic exercises targeting the upper body.
Rowing. Though rowing is largely powered by the large muscles of the lower body and the core, it offers a calorie-busting aerobic workout with a good dose of upper body strength and stability training as well. It’s also non-weight bearing, which is a good option if you have an injury or medical condition that prevents you from walking and doing other weight-bearing aerobic activities.
Swimming. Swimming is a fabulous full-body workout that can really develop your shoulders, arms and core while also strengthening the lower body and back.
Strength Training for the Upper Body In addition to regular aerobic exercise, you should also add strength training a few times a week for optimal results.
Because the muscles in the upper body are smaller than those found in the lower body, they “require less load to stimulate,” Daly says. “Unlike the lower body, many body-weight exercises alone can be quite challenging for the upper body,” and many of these can be done using just your body weight and no additional gear or equipment.
When planning how to work out the upper body, Daly recommends thinking holistically about all the many movements and activities your upper body is involved in, rather than just focusing on aesthetics. “Many people looking for toned arms would be better suited focusing on pushing and pulling, both horizontally and vertically, to train all of the muscles in the upper body, burn more calories and assist with weight loss, while also toning these muscles.” He also notes that you can’t lose fat in a specific spot, so all the arm curls in the world won’t help you shed fat from the biceps specifically.
Spicer agrees that while it might be “tempting to want to lift heavy or do things just for the aesthetic purpose, you have to take your time, be patient with yourself and don’t rush.” Youmans recommends starting out upper body strength training with “smaller exercises done with bands like those you’d use for physical therapy,” rather than dumbbells or traditional weights. Work on strengthening the rotator cuff and postural muscles in the upper back and the neck.
And be sure your form is good with any exercise you undertake. “If you’re not putting the body in the right position or overworking or fatiguing it, that can lead to pain” or injury, Youmans says. Camargo also cautions that you should be careful to balance the pushing and pulling motions so that you develop the muscles from all angles, rather than focusing on just one particular movement or type of exercise. Overdevelopment of the muscle in one direction could lead to injury or imbalances that impede movement in the long run. 5 Types of Exercises for the Upper Body
If you don’t have access to a gym or special equipment, don’t worry. There are still lots of things you can do at home with no or minimal equipment or makeshift weights. Many of the exercises listed below require nothing more than a little bit of floor space to execute.
Pushups “The best upper body exercises at home are push-up and plank variations,” Camargo says. Pushup variations could include:
Traditional pushups. Lie down on your stomach. Place your hands flat on the floor with arms straight, under your shoulders, and anchor your toes into the floor, keeping your body and spine straight. Lower your body as far as you can and then push back up.
Kneeling pushups. These are usually a little easier as the knees take some of your body weight. Start in the same position as a regular pushup, but instead of anchoring the toes, lower your knees to the mat and bend the lower legs up. You can cross the lower legs as you lower and push your upper body down and up.
Clap pushups. This is an advanced move that requires you to push up with enough force to allow you to bring your hands together under the body to clap before catching your body as gravity takes over and pulls you back down.
Incline pushups. Incline pushups are like traditional pushups but you’ll place your hands on a table or bench instead of the floor. Depending on the height of the platform, this may make it easier to execute a pushup.
Decline pushups. Decline pushups go the other way. You’ll anchor the feet on a bench or other elevated surface and place your hands on the floor to execute a more challenging pushup.
Planks Planks are similar to pushups in the initial position, but there are several variations that you can use to work different upper body and arm muscles. These variations can include:
Traditional plank. Planks are harder than they look like they should be. They work the core and upper body like few other exercises can. Start by placing your forearms on the floor (elbows directly under the shoulders and palms flat on the floor) and anchoring your toes to the floor like you would for a traditional pushup. Then simply hold your body still, with the spine straight, core engaged and shoulders down. Keep the neck firm, but not stressed. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds, rest and repeat.
Low plank. In a low plank, the arms are moved to the sides and you’ll plant your palms into the floor next to the ribs. This plank helps strengthen the wrists and arms, as well as the core. It’s also sometimes called the four-limbed staff pose.
High plank. A high plank starts out like a traditional plank, but instead of keeping the arms bent, plant your palms into the floor directly under the shoulders and hold that pose – which will look like when you’ve reached the top of a traditional pushup.
Side plank. The side plank is a traditional plank turned to the side. You’ll place one forearm on the floor with the elbow bent and directly under the shoulder. This opens the front of your body to the side. Relax the arm that’s not holding you up to along the side of your body and place that hand on the upper hip. Hold the pose with a strong core and straight spine.
Rowing Exercises With Weights If you have a bench and some free weights or another heavy item that can pinch-hit for a dumbbell (or band or kettlebell), you can perform a wide variety of rowing motions. A common one is the one-arm dumbbell row, in which you place one knee on a padded bench, the other foot flat on the floor. Hinge at the hip and stabilize your body with the arm on the same side as the bent knee. In the other arm, hold a weight and simply pull it up toward the body, keeping the elbow close to your side. Keep the abs engaged and look forward. Execute a number of reps, 5 to 15 is a good target, then rest and do the same on the other side. Complete two or three sets or as directed by a trainer. Start with light weights, such as a soup can or a 5-pound dumbbell and work up to a heavier weight over time. You don't need to go super heavy to get a benefit, though, and generally speaking, performing more reps with a lighter weight will result in longer, sleeker muscles and fewer reps performed with a heavier weight, which is more likely to bulk up the muscles.
Overhead Press The overhead press moves a weight overhead to strengthen the shoulders and upper back. Be careful that you’re ready for such exercises and work with a spotter if you’re using heavy weights.
Overhead press can be done with a therapy band, a weighted bar, dumbbells or any other kind of weight. The idea is to stand up straight and tall with feet flat on the floor and spine straight with a bar or the weights at shoulder level. Press the bar or weights up over your head and extend your arms (don’t lock the elbows). Pause for a moment and then slowly lower the bar down to shoulder level.
There are many variations on this basic movement that can target individual muscles and muscle groups in the upper body, and a trainer can help you find the ones that will work best for you. Again, start with a light weight like a soup can and work your way up to heavier objects or a barbell over time as your strength improves.
Pull-ups The original body weight exercise, pull-ups challenge you to lift your body up with your hands, arms, shoulders, back and core. They’re really difficult, and you may need to work up to it over time. A door frame pull-up bar or a jungle gym set up at the park can work well as your pullup bar.
You can mix up overhand and underhand grips on the bar. Placing your hands at different widths apart can target different muscles in the upper back. If you’re new to this move, start with a dead hang, where you just grip the bar and hold yourself off the ground for several seconds or as long as you can. Assisted pull-ups with a friend supporting some of your body weight or with a thick elastic band around the knees to do the same can also help you work up to a full pull-up.
Sources Matt Camargo, MS, CSCS, Camargo is director of ProSport Physical Therapy and Performance in Southern California.
Dan Daly, CSCS, SFG, PN2, FMS2, Daly is a coach, trainer and co-creator of the Equinox Group Swim Program EQXH2O based in New York City.
Bianca Spicer, MS, Spicer is an exercise physiologist and owner of Spicer Fitness in Atlanta, Georgia. D. Harrison Youmans, MD, Youmans is a sports medicine physician with Orlando Health in Florida.