Upper-Body Progression: Beginner Through Advanced

This upper-body progression workout shares how to go from beginner exercises to their more advanced versions. You'll know you're ready to move to the next level once you can easily perform two to three sets of up to 16 reps with perfect form.

To use this progression as a workout, you can either do each exercise listed under a specific fitness level (say, do all the beginner exercises) one after the other for 10 to 16 reps each, or you can do one at a time for up to three sets of 10 to 16 reps. You can also mix and match exercises from different levels if you wish.

See your doctor before beginning this or any other workout program if you have any injuries or health conditions. This helps ensure that these are safe exercises for you.

Pushups Progression

how to do a pushup


Beginner:  Pushups on an incline
The beginner version of the pushup is performed with your hands on an elevated surface, such as a weight bench or a wall.

Intermediate: Pushups on toes
By lifting your knees and shifting your weight to your toes, you now have your entire body involved. A strong core is needed to do this move with good form.

Advanced: Decline pushups on a ball
Elevating your feet on an unstable surface, such as an exercise ball, makes this an advanced exercise.

Chest Press Progression

Man doing chest press in gym

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Beginner: Chest press on a stable surface
Doing a chest press on the floor, a bench, or a step offers some stability and support while working your chest muscles.

Intermediate: Chest press on a ball
By moving to a ball, you add instability to the exercise. This forces you to work your legs and core at the same time as you work your chest.

Advanced: One-arm chest press on a ball
The ball adds plenty of intensity, but try one arm at a time and you'll really feel your entire body work on this exercise.  Another advanced progression is the incline chest press.

Chest Fly Progression

Photo of a woman doing a chest fly exercise.
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Beginner: Chest fly on a bench or step
The fly is a classic chest exercise targeting the outer portion of the chest.  Keep your elbows slightly bent as you lower the weights down to torso level. As a beginner, you can also use a chest fly machine.

Intermediate: Chest fly on a ball
Doing the chest fly on a ball means you have to use your legs and core to stay balanced as you lower the weights. 

Advanced: One-arm chest fly on a ball
Using one arm at a time is a challenge, especially if you're on an unstable surface. The incline dumbbell fly is another advanced version of this exercise.

Back Extension Progression

Woman doing back extension on exercise ball

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Beginner: Back extension
The basic back extension is a simple, easy way to work the lower back.

Intermediate: Back extension, upper and lower
You can add intensity to this movement by lifting both your chest and legs off the floor at the same time.  

Advanced: Back extension on a ball
An exercise ball adds instability and, therefore, intensity to the traditional back extension. That makes it good for strengthening both your back and core.

Lat Progression

Exercising lats

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Beginner: Lat pulldown
This is a great exercise for beginners. It targets the latissimus dorsi muscles, which are the large muscles on either side of the back. You can use a resistance band, suspension trainer, or a lat pulldown machine.

Intermediate: Dumbbell row
The dumbbell bent over row also targets the lats and is a bit harder because you're bent forward at the waist, which challenges your abs and back.  

Advanced: One-armed row on one leg
Standing on one leg and lifting just one arm at a time makes the dumbbell bent over row even more challenging.  Keep your hips square to the floor throughout the move.

Overhead Press Progression

Woman doing overhead dumbbell press during fitness class in gym
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Beginner: Overhead press
This move is great for the shoulders and can be done seated or standing.  

Intermediate: Overhead press on one leg
Make this exercise more difficult by standing on one leg, creating more of a balance challenge. A transition to this intermediate move could include first doing the overhead press while kneeling on one knee.

Advanced: Z press
The Z press is an extremely advanced way to work your shoulders because you are sitting flat on the ground, reducing your ability to use your leg muscles to help stabilize your body. A slightly easier, yet still advanced option is the one-arm press.

Triceps Progression

A young main does triceps dips on parallettes at a park.

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Beginner: Triceps extension with a band
There are different types of extensions, and this version is great for beginners. Keep one hand in place as you straighten the other arm, squeezing your back muscles.

Intermediate: Triceps dips
Keep your hips close to the chair or step as you bend your elbows, and only lower to about 90 degrees. You can add intensity by extending your feet further out. (If you have shoulder or wrist problems, you may want to skip this exercise.) 

Advanced: Ball triceps dips
By using a ball instead of a chair or step, you add difficulty to this exercise. This is a tough move and your balance will be compromised, so you may want to prop the ball against the wall your first time.

Bicep Progression

A bicep curl exercise.
A bicep curl exercise.

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Beginner: Bicep curls
When doing bicep curls, make sure you don't swing the weights and that you keep a slight bend in your elbows rather than locking the joints. You can use dumbbells, a barbell, resistance bands, or cables for this move.

Intermediate: Bicep curls on one leg
By standing on one leg, your balance is challenged right along with your biceps, making this exercise great for your upper body and core.

Advanced: Preacher curl
One way to add difficulty to bicep curls is by changing the angle of the move, as in the preacher curl. Perform this exercise slowly and in a controlled motion to avoid injury.

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."