If you want to get in a good upper body workout, there’s a simple rule of thumb that can guide you: Make sure your workout hits the major movement patterns.
In order to do this, it helps to understand which kinds of movements work which muscles. Pushing movements—either vertical (like with an overhead shoulder press) or horizontal (like with a chest or bench press)—work the muscles in the front of your body, like your shoulders and chest muscles, ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, owner of Strong with Sivan in Baltimore, tells SELF. Pulling movements, such as a bent-over row, work the back of your body, like your latissimus dorsi (known simply as your lats, which extend from your armpit to your lower back) and your rhomboids, or your upper back muscles.
The most effective way to work these movements in a complete upper body workout is to focus on compound exercises, says Fagan. These are exercises that work a big group of muscles across multiple joints, whereas an isolation move works only one specific (and often small) muscle.
Working with compound moves is going to be the most effective use of your time, since one exercise will allow you to hit a bunch of different muscles—both your big muscle groups and the smaller muscles which come in to “assist” the primary players, says Fagan. Take the bent-over row, which is a popular compound exercise, and compare it with a biceps curl, which is a popular isolation move. With the bent-over row, you’ll work a bunch of back-of-the-body muscles, like your lats and rhomboids, as well as your biceps (which come in to assist). If you’re doing a biceps curl, though, you’ll only be working your biceps.
In the upper body workout Fagan created for SELF below, you’ll be focusing primarily on compound moves for bigger lifts, like with the chest press, bent-over row, and overhead press. But you’ll also be doing some isolation moves, which will be focusing on areas people tend to neglect while strength training—your rotator cuffs and your rear deltoids—which could end up leaving you vulnerable to injury.
Combined all together, this is a complete, strength-building upper body workout that is great for someone just getting started with strength training, or a more advanced lifter. If you’re looking for an even greater challenge, you can make the first three compound moves single-armed instead of bilateral, which will allow you to use more weight per side, challenging your muscles even more while helping you build balanced strength, says Fagan.
What you need: A pair of moderate and light dumbbells, a mini-band, and an exercise mat for comfort.
- Chest press
- Bent-over row
- Shoulder press
- Single-arm rear delt raise
- Banded shoulder external rotation
- Complete 12-15 reps of each exercise as a circuit, moving from one exercise to the next without rest. Rest for 2 minutes at the end of the round. Complete 3 rounds total.
Demoing the moves below are Nathalie Huerta (GIFS 1 and 4), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland; Cookie Janee (GIF 2), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; Rachel Denis (GIF 4), a powerlifter who competes with USA Powerlifting; and Angie Coleman (GIF 5), a holistic wellness coach in Oakland.