How to Sculpt a Strong Upper Body Without Bulking Up

Flat abs and lean legs are great and everything, but come spring, the thing most people are coveting are sculpted shoulders and arms. After all, short sleeves and warmer temps mean bearing our arms, but it’s never fun to feel self-conscious about them. Often women find themselves wanting a strong, sculpted upper body but are afraid to do what is necessary to achieve such a goal for fear of “bulking up."

Bulking Up Is a Common Misconception

Woman's back
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It’s a common misconception that lifting heavy weights—especially for the upper body—will make a woman bulk up and look more like a man. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Why? Bulking up comes from three things: hormones, calories, and lots of time in the gym working out. Of course, good genetics help too. Let’s take a look at how each of these plays a part in making bigger muscles.

Hormones: First, women do not have enough natural testosterone to make big, bulky muscles. The women you see in bodybuilding competitions have likely used anabolic steroids or other hormone injections to give them the needed substance to increase their muscle to that size. Also, most women with large, sculpted muscles have that type of body built into their genetics. That, coupled with a strict training regimen gets them to where they are. It does not happen by accident. And of course, any growth in your body—whether fat or muscle—requires extra calories.

Food: Bulking up can only happen when enough calories are added to your diet to support muscle growth. A skinny high school boy who goes to a trainer to put on muscle mass is told one very important thing: eat. Boys can be told to eat as much as 7-8,0000 calories a day or more to gain any weight at all. Gaining any mass on your body—muscle or fat—must be accomplished through extra calories. If you keep a healthy, moderate diet, you will not bulk up by weight training. You will simply remove some of the fat that covers up your muscle below.

Training: Finally, those big bulky muscles you see are not achieved without spending many, many hours in the gym lifting very heavy weights. Lifting weights for 30-45 minutes, 2-3 times a week will not make you bulk up. It will only help you achieve a more sculpted, fit appearance.

Why Going Heavy With Your Weights Makes a Difference

Why going heavy with weights matters for strength training.
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Now that your fears of bulking up are allayed, let me remind you of one important fact about achieving a sculpted and shapely upper body: you need to lift heavy weights. Tiny little dumbbells are great for recovery from injury or to keep older adults in a functional fitness program. And sure, some moves that take the weight farther from your body (like side or front shoulder raises) might require something lighter. But if you are interested in making changes to the shape of your body and in losing fat, you need to lift weights that challenge you.

So pick up those weights—those heavy weights—and let’s get started. The following workout covers all upper body muscles and takes you through something called “supersets.” It means you will work two different exercises in a row for the same muscle group. This will push you more swiftly to the results you are looking for! How do you know what size dumbbells to choose? Remember, if you perform 12-15 repetitions and could keep going for more, your weights are too light. However, if you can’t even get to 8 repetitions without muscle failure, the weights are too heavy. Choose something challenging but doable. Exercises pictured are the first exercise in the set; for photos for all exercises, simply click on their name to be shown a visual demonstration.

Back Strength Super Set

Renegade Row
Ben Goldstein
  • Start with legs together and sit back into a slight squat engaging abdominal. Arms are in front of the body holding dumbbells at hip height with palms facing the ceiling.
  • Draw elbows back past hips gently hugging the side body, so you feel lats and triceps engage and return forward with control.

Renegade Rows (pictured)

  • Begin in a full plank with dumbbells in hands, arms extended, and on toes. (kneeling variation is fine if you are not able to do a full plank) Engage your abdominals drawing the belly inward towards your spine.
  • Pull the right dumbbell up toward right hip bone keeping the weight close to your side. Slowly return it to the floor and repeat with the left dumbbell.

Chest Strength Super Set

Multi-ethnic group of people working out at fitness facility
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Shoulder Tap Push-Up

  • Begin in a plank position with hands directly under shoulders and feet hip-width apart. Keeping abdominals and legs tight as you slowly lower your chest toward the ground with elbows bending and pointing behind you.
  • Exhale as you push back up to lengthen arms into plank then lift your right hand to tap your left shoulder at the top. Repeat with the other arm tapping.

Chest Fly (pictured)

(NOTE: you can do a chest fly on the stability ball or also on a bench or the floor.)

  • Lay back on a bench or the floor and hold a pair of dumbbells close to your chest (if on the ball, place your shoulder blades and head on top of the ball).
  • Raise dumbbells together straight above the chest, palms facing in.
  • Slowly lower arms out to the side with a slight bend in your elbow, until elbows are about chest level.
  • Squeeze chest and bring hands back together at the top.

Shoulder Strength Super Set

Shoulder Overhead Press
Ben Goldstein

Shoulder Press (pictured)

  • Start with feet hip distance apart. Bring elbows out to the side creating a goal post position with arms, dumbbells are at the side of the head, and abdominals are tight.
  • Press dumbbells slowly up until arms are straight. Slowly return to starting position with control. Repeat for the desired number of reps.

Lateral Raise

  • Begin in standing position, feet a few inches apart and arms alongside body holding dumbbells.
  • Keeping a slight bend in the elbow, lift your arms to the side until they are parallel to the floor, and return back to the starting position with control.

Bicep/Tricep Strength Set

Tricep Overhead Extension
Ben Goldstein

Bicep Curl

  • Stand with feet hip distance apart arms fully extended with a slight bend in the elbow.
  • Bring weights in towards shoulders to complete bicep curl, lower slowly back to start.

Tricep Extension (pictured)

  • Standing with feet hip distance apart holding dumbbells straight overhead and keeping your spine long and abs tight.
  • Bend elbows lowering dumbbells behind the base of the head. Keep your elbows hugging in towards your head and pointing forward. Then extend your arms long returning to your starting position working the triceps.
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