13 Upper-Body Exercises That Trainers LOVE For Strength and Muscle Building

As a trainer, one thing I’ve noticed is that women avoid doing upper body like the plague. The two most common reasons I hear are that they’re afraid of getting bulky and that they aren’t strong enough.

First, bulking up won’t happen because women don’t produce enough testosterone, according to a 2006 review in the Journal of Sports Medicine. And as far as strength is concerned, in order to get stronger, you’ve got to actually train those muscles!

If your goal is to get stronger and tighter arms, ahead are a few moves I love to do. Don’t do them all in a single strength session or you will be insanely sore. Instead, choose four to six push/pull exercises (an example of a push is a push-up and an example of a pull would be a pull-up) to create an upper-body workout. To build muscle, consider doing three to five sets of six to 12 reps with a weight that’s between 75 to 85 percent of your one-rep max.

Banded Assisted Pull-Up

  • Place a large resistance band securely around a pull-up bar. A band with more resistance will provide you with more assistance/momentum to pull yourself up.
  • Stand on a stable object (a bench will work), and grip the pull-up bar. With one hand, place the band around the arch of your shoe. Fully extend the banded leg.
  • With a neutral spine and your abs engaged, pull yourself up. The band will provide you with momentum to lift your body up. Lower back down to the starting position.

Cable Pullover

  • Attach a triceps rope handle to the pulley on the carriage of a cable station. Adjust the carriage so that it’s near the top third of the machine. The exact position will vary based on your height.
  • Next, select the amount of resistance you want: 10 to 15 pounds is a great starting point. As you begin to become more comfortable with the movement, feel free to increase the weight.
  • Facing the pulley, grab the rope and step approximately one foot away from the machine. Stand with a slight bend at your hips, your knees, and elbow joints.
  • On an exhale, drive your elbows back, pulling the rope down to your thighs. Be sure to keep your shoulders relaxed and your back flat. This completes one rep.

Single-Arm Glider Push-Up

  • Start in a plank position with a glider underneath your right hand.
  • Engage your core as you lower down into a push-up with control. As you lower your body, simultaneously extend your right arm out in front of you. Lower down as far as you can go without losing your form. Be sure to keep your back flat.
  • With control, push your body up as you simultaneously pull your right arm back in so that it’s directly underneath your shoulder.
  • This counts as one rep.

Dumbbell Bench Press

  • Grab a set of dumbbells, and sit on a flat workout bench.
  • With one dumbbell in each hand resting on your thighs, lie back onto the bench.
  • Hold the dumbbells above your chest, shoulder-width apart, creating a 90-degree angle between your upper arm and forearm. Palms should be facing forward.
  • Exhale as you push the dumbbells up, fully extending your arms. Hold for one second.
  • Inhale and lower the dumbbells to the sides of your chest with control.
  • This counts as one rep.

Burpee Squat Press

  • Begin standing with a 10-pound dumbbell on each side of your body. If this is too heavy and you find that your form is incorrect, use lighter weights.
  • Holding onto the dumbbells, lower down and perform a burpee. If this is too much pressure on your hands or wrists, you can set the dumbbells down in front of you for this part. If you’re a beginner, you can perform a modified burpee.
  • With control, push your body off of the ground as you simultaneously pick up the dumbbells. Be sure to keep your core engaged and your spine in a neutral position when pushing yourself off the ground.
  • Standing tall with your core engaged, bend your arms and hold the dumbbells on or slightly above your shoulders and lower down into a squat. As you stand up, push both dumbbells overhead.

Single-Arm Row

  • Hold a dumbbell in your right hand — 10 pounds is a good starting point — and place your left knee and left hand on a bench. Your hand should be underneath your shoulder and your knee should be underneath your hip. Your spine and head should be in a neutral position.
  • Engage your core, relax your shoulders, and extend your right arm towards the floor. Do not rotate your torso or let your shoulder lower towards the floor.
  • On an exhale, pull the dumbbell up with control, driving your elbow towards the ceiling. Do not rotate your torso.
  • On an inhale, lower the dumbbell back down to the starting position. This completes one rep.

Burpees

  • Lower into a crouching squat with your hands on the floor.
  • Do a squat thrust by jumping your feet back into a plank position.
  • Do one basic push-up, bending the elbows and then straightening back to a plank.
  • Jump the feet forward to the hands, and come into a squat.
  • Do an explosive jump straight up, getting as much height as you can.

Push-Up

  • Start in a plank position, with palms spread out evenly and your shoulders over your wrists and legs out behind you. Pull your belly button in, and keep your back straight.
  • As you lower and exhale, bend your elbows outward to the sides. Hold at the bottom before you raise back up to complete one rep.

Renegade Row

  • Start in high plank, each hand holding onto a dumbbell that is resting on the floor. Move feet wider than shoulders.
  • Pull right elbow back, raising dumbbell toward chest, keeping right elbow close to torso, abs tight, and hips facing down.
  • Lower weight for one rep; repeat on the opposite side.

Modified Single-Arm Glider Push-Up

  • Start in a modified push-up position with your knees on the ground and a glider underneath your right hand.
  • Engage your core as you lower down into a push-up with control. As you lower your body, simultaneously extend your right arm out in front of you. Lower down as far as you can go without losing your form. Be sure to keep your back flat.
  • With control, push your body up as you simultaneously pull your right arm back in so that it’s directly underneath your shoulder.
  • Complete two sets of 10 reps on each arm.

Plank With Triceps Kickback

  • Start in a plank position holding a weight in each hand. Bend your left elbow and pull it up so it’s in line with your shoulder.
  • Pull your navel toward your spine to engage your abs, which will help you stay balanced.
  • Exhale as you do a triceps kickback by extending your left hand behind you. Inhale to bend your elbow. This counts as one rep. Perform exercise on both sides of the body.

Push-Up With Shoulder Tap

  • Come into plank position with your arms and legs straight, shoulders above the wrists.
  • Take a breath in, and as you exhale, bend your elbows out to the sides and lower your chest toward the ground. Stop as soon as your shoulders are in line with your elbows. Inhale to straighten the arms.
  • Maintaining a plank position, lift your left hand and tap your right shoulder. Place your left hand back on the ground. Repeat with the right hand. Keep your hip bones pointing towards the floor to prevent rotating your torso. This counts as one rep.
  • If this is too difficult, perform the push-up with your knees on the floor.

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