Want to learn the best upper body strength training exercises that deserve a spot in your routine? Find out which moves are worth your time.
Starting a strength training plan can feel daunting. Where should you start? Which exercises will make the most impact? And how often should you do it? But once you learn the ins and outs of strength training—particularly for your upper body, which tends to be ignored if you’ve generally only focused on cardio in the past—you’ll realize just how enjoyable and empowering strength training can be.
Below, we’ll review the benefits you’ll start to experience when strength training your upper body and help you find a schedule and routine that works for you. We’ll also walk you through proper warm-up techniques and the strength training exercises our Peloton team has found most effective, so you have enough knowledge to safely incorporate this practice into your routine.
What Are the Key Benefits of Upper Body Workouts?
Well, for starters, the benefits of upper body workouts go far beyond any aesthetics. The more your body ages, the more urgent it becomes to focus on building muscle mass. The somewhat harsh (yet also motivating) reality is that muscle mass decreases about 3 to 8 percent per decade after the age of 30, so it's important to continue to load your muscles.
Wherever you are on your fitness journey, by establishing a workout routine that includes consistent upper body exercises and incorporates weights and resistance, you’ll improve your flexibility, help you prevent the risk of injury, and safeguard your shoulders, core, and back.
What’s more, strength training increases your resting metabolic rate, according to research published in Current Sports Medicine Reports. So, in addition to improving your flexibility and mobility, strength training is the key to building muscles that will help your body burn more calories—even when you’re just resting.
While upper body workouts can be done simply using your own body weight as the resistance, the added resistance of dumbbells or other weight is the key to getting results you can actually see.
How Often Should I Train My Upper Body?
There are different schools of thought as to how often the upper body should be trained, but at the end of the day, everyone needs to find a routine that’s sustainable for their own body and helps them meet their own goals. You’re probably familiar with the concept of “arm day,” and may prefer to dedicate a full workout once a week just to your upper body. (If that’s your preference, Peloton instructor Rebecca Kennedy says Friday is the perfect day for a strength class.)
On the other hand, Peloton instructor Andy Speer has created a program that involves full body strength training at least three days a week. This way, you’re hitting all the important muscle groups, with rest days in between. As long as you’re devoting time and energy to your upper body muscle growth at least once a week, you can start to lay a foundation for a routine that accomplishes long-term results.
Warm Up Stretches Before Your Strength Training Session
Before you begin your upper body exercises, you need to take some time to properly warm up. This will help you increase your heart rate and get more blood and oxygen flowing to the muscles you’re about to use. You may be tempted to skip this part, but just know that the reward of injury prevention, greater flexibility, and better performance will be worth the extra time. According to the American Council on Exercise, it takes about 8 to 12 minutes to fully warm up, so plan to devote a good amount of time to warming up your upper body muscles before you dive into the weighted exercises further down. Here are a few warm ups to help you get started.
Neck stretch: This warm up will help with any tightness in your shoulders, neck, or upper back. Start out standing. Drop your right ear to your right shoulder and press your left palm toward the floor. Take your right hand and place it gently on your head, over your left temple. Pull down lightly, letting gravity do most of the work, to stretch the neck muscles for about 10 breaths. Repeat on the left side.
Shoulder stretch: This will help relieve tension in your shoulder muscles, increase your mobility, and reduce your risk of shoulder injury. While standing, take one arm and pull it across your chest. Using your other hand, grab onto the outer forearm of your crossed arm, and push it into your body, making sure to keep your elbow right around shoulder height. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on your other arm.
Upper body rotation: This warm up will improve your upper body mobility and flexibility. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, rotate your torso to the left, and grab your left knee with your right hand. Place your left hand on the floor behind your body to deepen the stretch. Hold for at least 30 seconds, and then repeat on your right side.
Wrist flexing: This will help you increase your wrist mobility, which will help while holding your weights. Hold your arm straight out in front of you with your palm facing up. Bend your wrist, pointing your palm to the floor and your fingers towards the ceiling. With your other hand, gently pull your fingers back until you feel a mild stretch in your wrist and forearm. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on both sides a few times.
Jumping jacks: These will help get your heart rate up. Stand with your feet together and arms by your sides. Jump up while spreading your legs, clapping your hands together above your head. On the next jump, return to your starting position. Keep this up for at least 30 seconds.
Most Effective Upper Body Strength Training Exercises
Now that you’ve warmed up, you’re ready to get started. The below exercises are some of the most effective strength training exercises for building upper body strength. Looking for more? Check out upper body strength training classes on the Peloton App.
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It’s recommended that you also have a few different weight options on hand, but it’s OK to start out nice and light. (And if you’re not sure, Peloton instructor Ben Alldis has tips on how to choose the right weights for your training.)
Stand with a straight back. Hold dumbbells with an overhand grip at shoulder height, with thumbs facing inward. Exhale, raising weights above your head in a controlled motion. Pause when your arms are straight (don’t lock your elbows!), then inhale and return the bar/weights to your shoulders.
Muscles worked: Shoulders and core stability
Wide-Grip Chest Press
With your back flat on a mat (or bench), hold dumbbells at your shoulders, with hands above your elbows. Exhale, lifting the weight overhead. Hold for a moment, and then inhale, bringing the weights back to your chest and your hands back to your shoulders.
Muscles worked: Chest, shoulders, and triceps
With your back flat on a mat (or bench), knees bent, hold dumbbells at your shoulders, palms facing in, with arms extended above chest. Flex elbows as you lower hands towards head. Return to start.
Muscles worked: Triceps, forearms, chest
Wide Grip Bent-Over Row
Hold your heavier dumbbells with an overhand grip, keeping your hands shoulder-width apart. With a straight back and legs slightly bent, bend your upper body until it’s perpendicular to the ground. (To modify, lower back knee to the ground as pictured above.) Keeping your elbows wide and palms facing your body, row the dumbbells towards your chest on an exhale. Hold it for a breath, then inhale, returning to starting position.
Muscles worked: Mid back, shoulders, lats, and biceps
Hold your heavier dumbbells with an underhand, shoulder-width grip by your sides. Exhale, curling the weight to your chest, keeping your upper arms stationary, elbows at sides. Pause, then lower back to the starting position.
Muscles worked: Biceps and forearms
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Relax your shoulders and hold light to medium dumbbells at the top of your thighs, palms facing your body.
With elbows slightly bent, and exhale as you raise your arms to shoulder height. Pause at the top, then inhale as you lower the weight back to start.
Muscles worked: Shoulders, chest, biceps
Dumbbell Hammer Curl
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Relax your shoulders and hold your arms at your side, palms facing in. Bend your elbows, exhale, and pull the weights toward your shoulders. Hold them there for a breath, then lower the weights on your inhale.
Muscles worked: Biceps
Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
From standing with a dumbbell in one hand at your side, step the opposite foot back into a lunge. Lean chest slightly forward and place free hand on thigh. Dumbbell should be in line with front knee. Engage your back and shoulder as you drive elbow back towards ceiling, bringing dumbbell in line with chest. Return to start. Switch sides; repeat.
Muscles worked: Back, shoulders, triceps
Progress Over Perfection
By incorporating these moves into your routine, you can make upper body strength training a consistent part of your workouts. It’s important to remember that you can start small. Doing just one or two of these upper body exercises, along with your current routine is a great place to start. Remember to listen to your body and follow its cues.
Want a full upper body focused class? Check out the Peloton App. (Pro tip: Our four-week Total Strength program is a great place to get started.) And above all, make sure you find a way to embrace the process and appreciate the small wins as you find the upper body strength training routine that works best for you.