Upper Body Workout for Beginners

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

If you're just getting started with lifting weights, you probably know you need to lift weights for all 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—such as losing body fat, getting stronger, feeling confident, and making other activities easier.

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

This beginner upper body workout is perfect for those who want to start 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 building strength and muscle to create a strong foundation that will allow you to move on to more challenging workouts.

It's essential to choose your weights carefully. Err on the side of caution when you're just starting; 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.

Beginner Upper Body Workout

  • Chest push up
  • Chest flies
  • Lat pulls
  • Back extensions
  • Bicep curls
  • Bent arm lateral raises
  • Overhead presses
  • Triceps kickbacks

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 possible. It's OK if you can only go a few inches at first. Make sure your head and neck align, and you aren't leading with your chin.

If this feels very challenging, walk the hands back to take some 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 your upper body and core strength to move on to more challenging push-ups.

Chest Flies (Chest)

chest fly

Christa Boaz / Getty Images

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 a slight bend in the elbows as you slowly lower the arms to the sides.

Take the arms out and down, so 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 your 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)

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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 using your back muscles as much as possible. Lower and repeat.

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

Biceps Curls (Biceps)

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

For bicep curls, you may be able to use a heavier weight. 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 at your torso. Slowly lower back down without losing tension on the muscle, and repeat.

Bent Arm Lateral Raises (Shoulders)

For the lateral raise exercise, you'll want to go a little lighter. 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 to the sides, keeping the elbows in a fixed position. Lift to shoulder level. At the top of the motion, your arms should be parallel to the floor. Lower and repeat. 

Overhead Presses (Shoulders)

Dumbbell Overhead Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Overhead presses are tough, so start with a lighter weight. 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 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 the triceps kickback 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 support your lower back.

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.

A Word From Verywell

When you are starting to lift weights, it's wise to use simple exercises that are effective and efficient, like the ones above. Practice them for a while before attempting to push your limits with weight to ensure you have proper form and range of motion. If you need help with this, seek the guidance of a personal trainer.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How should a beginner train upper body?

    A beginner should train the upper body by incorporating one or two exercises per upper body part to do on multiple days of the week. Aim to hit each muscle group at least twice per week. If you are new to lifting weights, twice per week is enough. Choose compound and isolation exercises that use body weight, weights, or bands.

  • How do gym beginners build upper body strength?

    Gym beginners can build upper body strength by doing compound upper body exercises like push ups, bench press, back rows, and assisted pullups. Try to work your upper body twice per week with weights that challenge you. Using heavier weights with lower reps is often recommended for building strength.

2 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  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.

By Paige Waehner, CPT
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."