Beginner Upper Body Workout

If you're just getting started with lifting weights, you probably know you need to lift weights for all of your muscle groups: The chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, core, and lower body. That sounds like a lot, but you don't need to do tons of exercises to get the benefits of lifting weights—benefits such as losing body fat, getting stronger, feeling confident, and making other activities in your life easier.

Beginners often start with a total body workout program, but that isn't the only option. You can easily split your workouts so that you're working different muscle groups on different days. These workouts are shorter and may fit better into a busy day.

This upper body workout is perfect for beginners who want to get started with strength training. It includes easy-to-follow dumbbell exercises that target all of the muscles of the upper body as well as the core. The idea is to begin to build strength and muscle so you can create a strong foundation that will allow you to move on to more challenging workouts.

It's important to choose your weights carefully. Err on the side of caution when you're just starting out; use lighter weights so you can perfect your form. Focus on doing the exercises correctly. Once your body is used to them, you can try using heavier weights.

Getting Started

If you have any injuries or other conditions, please see your doctor before you try this or any workout. You will need various weighted dumbbells and a resistance band. Perform this workout two or three times a week, with at least one day of rest in between.

Begin with a 5-minute warm-up of light cardio or use very light weights with each exercise to warm up the whole body. Perform each exercise for 1 set of 15 repetitions. The last rep should feel challenging but doable. Modify or skip any exercise that causes pain or discomfort.

Modified Push-Ups (Chest)

Woman working out on grass in park doing knee push-ups

undrey / Getty Images

Starting on the hands and knees, walk your hands forward until your back is flat and the hands are wider than the shoulders.

Bend the elbows and lower into a push-up, going as low as you can. It's OK if you can only go a few inches at first. Just make sure your head and neck are in alignment and that you aren't leading with your chin.

If this feels very challenging, walk the hands back a bit to take some of the weight off the upper body. You can also try a modified version such as an incline push-up or a wall push-up if floor push-ups are challenging. You may need to build both upper body and core strength to move on to more challenging push-ups.

Chest Flies (Chest)

chest fly

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Lie on a step, bench, or floor and hold weights (about 5 to 8 pounds for women, 8 to 15 pounds for men; but choose a weight that's right for you). Hold the weights straight up over the chest with the palms facing in.

Brace your core to keep the body stable and keep a slight bend in the elbows as you slowly lower the arms out to the sides.

Take the arms out and down so that they're just under chest level. Going too low will involve the shoulders and you want to keep the emphasis on the chest. Also, the chest is usually stronger than the shoulders, so you can strain your shoulder muscles if you go too low. To complete the exercise, lift arms back up to starting position.

Lat Pulls With Band (Back)

lat pull starting position

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Sit or stand and hold a resistance band in both hands. Your hands should be about 2 or 3 feet apart, although you may need to adjust your hand position to get more or less tension. The closer your hands are, the harder the exercise will be.

To start, hold the arms straight up and, keeping the left hand in place, squeeze the right side of your back and open the band, pulling the right elbow down towards your ribcage. Return to starting position and repeat. Do 15 reps with the right arm, then switch and do 15 on the left side.

Back Extensions (Back)

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Lie face-down on a mat and place the hands on the floor next to the ears, elbows bent. Engage your abs and slowly lift the chest off the ground, focusing on using the lower back muscles.

You can gently use your hands for support if you need to, but try to use your back muscles as much as you can. Lower and repeat.

Another option is to put the hands behind the head, which is harder. Even more challenging: Hold the arms straight out in front of you as you lift the chest off the ground.

Biceps Curls (Biceps)

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For this one, you may be able to use a heavier weight, around 8 to 12 pounds for women or 10 to 20 pounds for men. Stand with feet about hips-distance apart and hold weights in front of the thighs with the palms facing out.

Brace your abs and bend the elbows, curling the weights towards the shoulders. Make sure your elbows don't come forward, but stay right at your torso. Slowly lower back down, without losing tension on the muscle, and repeat.

Bent Arm Lateral Raises (Shoulders)

For this exercise, you'll want to go a little lighter, around 5 to 8 pounds for women and 8 to 12 pounds for men. Stand with feet about hip-width apart and hold dumbbells with the arms bent to 90 degrees, palms facing in.

Keeping the 90-degree angle, lift the arms straight out to the sides, keeping the elbows in a fixed position. Lift just to shoulder level. At the top of the motion, your arms should be parallel to the floor. Lower and repeat. 

Overhead Presses (Shoulders)

overhead press

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

This is a tough one, so start with a lighter weight—5 to 8 pounds for women and 8 to 10 pounds for men. Stand with feet about hip-width apart. Begin by bringing the weights overhead, palms facing out. Make sure you're not arching your back, but keeping your core strong. If you do arch your back, you may need lighter weights.

Bend the elbows and bring the weights down so that they're at about the same level as your ears. Your arms should look like goal posts. Press the weights back up and repeat.

Triceps Kickbacks (Triceps)

triceps kickback

LUNAMARINA / Getty Images

For this exercise, you can place your foot on a step or platform and support your body with one hand while the other side works.

Otherwise, hold a weight in the right hand and tip from the hips until your torso is at about a 45-degree angle or, if you can, parallel to the floor. Rest your left hand on the thigh to give your lower back some support.

Start by bringing the right elbow up so that it's right next to your back. Keep the arm in that position as you extend the right arm straight back, squeezing the back of the arm. Lower and repeat.

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2 Sources
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  1. Ralston GW, Kilgore L, Wyatt FB, Buchan D, Baker JS. Weekly training frequency effects on strength gain: a meta-analysisSports Med Open. 2018;4(1):36. doi:10.1186/s40798-018-0149-9

  2. American Council on Exercise. Standing Shoulder Press.