Upper Body Workout for Chest, Back, Shoulders, and Arms

Creating a strength training program can be daunting, especially when it comes to choosing your exercises. How do you know what to include in a basic upper body workout? One approach is to choose one or two different exercises for each muscle group, which is what this effective and efficient, workout includes.

Precautions

See your doctor if you have any illnesses or medical conditions. Also be sure to speak to your healthcare provider if you are returning to workouts after a pregnancy or injury.

Equipment

You can also do any of these with no weight and simply use your bodyweight. You can also use various weighted dumbbells, an exercise ball and/or a bench or step.

Tips

This plan is tailored to beginners and those who are intermediate/advanced. You'll hit the chest, back, shoulders and arms with classic moves you'll easily recognize. This workout is great for just about any fitness level. Follow these basic tips to make the workout more effective.

  • Beginners should perform 1 set of 12–16 repetitions
  • Intermediate/advanced exercisers can perform 1–3 sets of 8–12 reps using enough weight that you can only complete the desired number of reps.
  • Rest for 30–60 seconds between sets and exercises
  • Warm up with light cardio or warm up sets of the exercises. And don't forget to do a short cool down.

Bench Press

Bench press

 Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Start your upper body workout with a large muscle group, the chest. The smaller muscles that help out, like the arms and shoulders, are rested so you can usually lift a little heavier here. You can use small weights in each hand or a barbell. If you are using heavier weight, make sure you have someone to spot you.

To prepare to do a bench press, lie on a bench or step.

  1. Begin with the weights in each hand, or the barbell, straight up over the chest, palms facing out. 
  2. Bend the elbows and lower the arms down until the elbows are just below the chest—arms should look like goal posts.
  3. Press the weights back up without locking the elbows and bring them together over the chest. 
  4. Lower and repeat. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps.

Push-Ups

pushup

 Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Move on to push-ups after chest presses once the muscles are warm. This version involves using an exercise ball, which can make it harder or easier, depending on where you rest your legs on the ball.

To do this push-up variation, begin by rolling forward onto the ball until the ball is under the thighs (easier), shins (a little harder), or feet (hardest). Make sure you keep the hands under the shoulders. You may tend to drift back if you don't control the ball. 

  1. Bend the elbows into a pushup
  2. Push back up and repeat.
  3. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps.

Bent-Over Row

bent-over row exercise

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

After the chest, move on to the next big muscle group: the back, or more specifically, the lats. Bent-over rows work those big muscles on either side of the body and the biceps and shoulders get some bonus work, too.

To do a bent-over row, hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your palms facing the body. Another variation is to the try a one-arm row.

  1. Hinge at your hips, at about a 45-degree angle, keeping your back straight and your core engaged. Breathe in.
  2. While exhaling, lift the weights straight up toward your body. Your arms should go no higher than parallel with the shoulders. In this move, your lower body remains stationary. Do not squat down and up after the initial pose. No movement of the legs occurs throughout the exercise.
  3. Lower the weights with control to the starting position while inhaling.
  4. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps.

Back Extensions on the Ball

Next, hit another area of your back, your lower back. This one uses a ball, but you can easily do this move on the floor if you prefer by laying on your front and lifting hands behind your head, slowly rising and falling by reaching your upper body toward the ceiling. If you have access to a gym, you can also do a machine back extension.

To prepare for this back extension, roll forward onto the ball and, balancing the knees against the ball (easier) or toes (harder), place the hands behind the head. Try having someone stabilize the ball if you need.

  1. Curl forward over the ball so that the chest comes closer to the ball.
  2. Then lift the chest up, bringing it just to torso level (you don't want to hyperextend here). 
  3. Lower and repeat.
  4. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps.

Overhead Press

dumbbell overhead press

  Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The overhead press works the next largest muscle group, the shoulders. The shoulders have three heads—the front, middle, and rear deltoid. Your upper body workout should include exercises that hit all three heads. The overhead press works the middle and front deltoid.

Stand with feet about hip-distance apart holding weights with the elbows bent to 90 degrees, palms facing out and arms like a goal post.

  1. Press the weights overhead, without locking the elbows
  2. Keep the back straight, abs braced.
  3. Lower back to start and repeat.
  4. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps

Reverse Fly

reverse fly exercise move

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Also known as a rear lateral raise, the reverse fly works the rear deltoids, making this a great compliment to the overhead press. It also works the upper back, a nice bonus.

Sit on a bench or chair (or you can stand and bend over), bend forward (back should be flat) weights behind the calves.

  • Keeping the neck in good alignment and the abs braced, lift the arms straight up to about torso level, elbows slightly bent.
  • Try not to jerk the arms up, but really use the shoulders to lift the weight.
  • Lower the weights and repeat.
  • Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps

Biceps Curls

curls

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Move on to a good biceps exercise, the biceps curl. As you will feel, in this position and at this angle, you really concentrate all those muscle fibers in the biceps muscle.

Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Arms should hang alongside the body so that the elbows are close to the ribs. Place one weight in each hand. Start with palms facing forward.

  1. Bending at the elbow, lift each weight so that they come closer to the shoulders
  2. Try not to left the elbows drift away from the ribcage.
  3. Lower the weights to the starting position and repeat.
  4. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps.

Kickbacks

For the last muscle group, the triceps, work on some triceps kickbacks. This exercise is perfect for targeting all three heads of the triceps muscle and you also get some extra bonus work on the core.

To begin, hold a weight in the right hand and bend forward, resting the forearm on the left thigh for support. The back should be straight, abs braced.

  • Pull the elbow up next to the torso, like you're squeezing something in your armpit.
  • Hold that position as you extend the arm behind you.
  • Lower and repeat, but try not to swing the weight. 
  • Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps.

Triceps Extensions

woman doing overhead tricep extension

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The last exercise in the series is another move for the triceps. It's called the triceps extension and it is usually performed in a seated position (although standing is an option).

Sit on a bench or ball and place a weight in your hands. Extend the arms straight up over the head, palms face each other.

  1. Bend the elbows and lower the hands. The weight will come back behind your head. Keep the upper arms close to your ears.
  2. Squeeze the triceps to straighten the arms and return to the starting position.
  3. Complete 1–3 sets of 8–16 reps
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