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The Beginner's Upper Body Workout

August 22, 2019

"Strengthening the upper body means stronger muscles, which can increase posture, flexibility, and greatly reduce your risk of injury."

Continuing with her exercise series, today’s episode is tailored toward those of you who are either new to working out or haven’t worked out in awhile and you’re just getting back into it. It is not advanced, but it is healthy!

Today, Dr. Nancy Lin, PhD, will explain the importance of keeping upper body muscles strong as we age, breaking it down by muscle. Then she’ll demonstrate her top 10 proven upper body strength movements for beginners that can be done anywhere. 

Video Highlights

  • 04:21: The Importance of Upper Body Strength
  • 10:42: Let’s talk about equipment 
  • 15:15: Warm-up 1 — Chair Lifts
  • 15:48: Warm-up 2 — Simple Pushups
  • 18:36: Cobra Press
  • 21:01: Back Extensions
  • 23:17: Downdog Push-ups 
  • 27:47: Single Arm Chest Press
  • 30:59: Bicep Curls
  • 32:34: Overhead Press
  • 34:54: Bent-over Rows
  • 37:18: Tricep Kickbacks
  • 40:05: Resistance Band Pull-Apart
  • 46:13: Wrap Up

Let’s learn some upper body strength movements. No equipment? No problem. 

Dr. Nancy will show you some exercises that require no equipment at all, and give you some ideas of how to add resistance using items you probably have lying around your house at this very moment. 

The Importance of Upper Body Strength

Did you know that strength training is good for your heart? 

Doing strength training two or more days per week can not only make opening that jar of pickles a heck of a lot easier, but it can help you:

  • Increase muscle mass, which helps you maintain a healthy weight
  • Reduce your risk of injury, like muscle strains and bone fractures
  • Strengthen the muscles and joints, improving bone density and flexibility
  • Improve your posture and balance

So, what do we mean by “upper body”?

The muscles generally targeted during an upper body workout include:

  • The deltoids, which is a muscle group of the shoulder
  • The rotator cuff, another shoulder muscle group
  • The biceps
  • Triceps
  • Forearms
  • Trapezius muscles
  • Pectorals
  • Lats
  • Serratus anterior
  • Neck
  • Abs

We’re going to work on all the major muscles associated with the upper body today so get ready!

For most of the movements we’re going to do today, we recommend you do about 15 reps. If you’re someone who is new to exercise or you’re recovering from a condition like a heart attack, stroke, or injury, it’s very important that you talk to your doctor before you embark on a new workout routine. If you’ve been given the go-ahead, work up to those 15 reps. Maybe 8 or 10 or 12 is where you’re at today. 

The muscles you’re working should be so tired that getting through the entire set should feel almost impossible. So, if you get to 12 and you feel like you have a few more in you, go for those 15!

It sometimes can be a real balance between challenging yourself and setting yourself up for an injury. 

Let’s talk about equipment 

If possible, we recommend you invest in a set of 3 to 5-pound weights and a resistance band. There are two types of resistance bands: loops and resistance bands with handles. Resistance bands are super versatile and give you the ability to do all kinds of different exercises. The loops are great because they generally come in a set, giving you some options when it comes to resistance, but either kind will be fine for the workout we’re doing here. 

If you don’t have weights or resistance bands, or you’re a little gun-shy about going out and purchasing anything because you’ve had a hard time sticking to a workout routine in the past, don’t sweat it. You can use: 

  • 2 cans of beans, which are equal to 1-pound weights, 
  • Quart-sized cartons of almond milk, which are equivalent to 2-pound weights.
  • A bag of oranges or onions is equivalent to a 3-pound weight,
  • A bag of potatoes or large bag of rice can be used in place of 5-pound weights

Another recommendation is to start light and gradually go heavier with your weights. Again, you want to challenge yourself, but you don’t want the moves to be so challenging that you give up because you don’t think you can do it. 

Before we get into the Top 10 upper body movements, let’s do a few quick warmups:

Chair Lifts

You can use any chair with arms for this simple exercise. Simply sit in the chair, keeping your back straight, put your hands on the arms of the chair, and use them to lift yourself up and lower yourself down.

This gets your rotator cuff, shoulders, and triceps lubricated for your workout!

If it’s too easy, try lifting your legs up, keeping the knees bent, and doing them that way.

Simple Pushups

This is another great warm-up for the upper body, especially the shoulders, chest, triceps, biceps, and pectorals. If the classic push-up is too difficult, put your knees on the ground. You can also vary the pushups by changing the amount of space between your hands, making it wider (a little easier) or narrower (a little more difficult). Keep your back straight, and as you lower yourself down, envision your nose touching the ground, but don’t allow your head to bend forward. Keep it in line with the rest of your body. Just do 5 - 10 of these as a nice warm-up.

If you find these to be hard on your wrists, just sit up and wring out your wrists between sets. Over time, you’ll get stronger!

Top 10 Basic Upper Body Strength Movements

Cobra Press

Bingo wings, bat wings, granny bye-byes — whatever endearing term you have for your underarm area, the Cobra Press is an excellent exercise to tone those triceps and firm them up so they don’t become “bingo wings”! 

  • Begin by lying on your stomach with your hands out in front of you like a sphinx. 
  • Press up through the triceps and lower back down. If you notice this feels uncomfortable after you do the move, take your hands out a little wider in front of you. Another option is to also widen the feet a bit to take the strain off your low back.
  • The key here is to keep your core engaged and keep the spine in one nice, long line. You don’t want to come up looking like a snake – you want the head, shoulders and torso to come up together in one line, like I said. 
  • Do as many as you can for 30 seconds and gradually start to build up to a minute the stronger you get. 

Back Extensions

This move, as you may have guessed, intended to strengthen the muscles in your back. 

  • You’ll still be on your stomach for this move but bring your elbows in towards your body with your hands more in line with your ears. 
  • Again, engage your core. You want to do this with every move, and you really want to avoid pushing the stomach out – that will do nothing for your core and your abs. 
  • Try not to use your hands as you lift your chest off the ground. Lower down and repeat, completing 15 reps. 

  • If you need more of a challenge, place your hands behind your head to complete the move, or for even more of a challenge, extend the arms straight overhead in front of you. 

Downdog Push-ups 

These can be a little challenging, but you can handle it! Downdog is a yoga move that provides a wonderful stretch for your back and your legs, but, on its own, it also helps strengthen your arms, your shoulders, quads, and ankles. We’re going to level up this pose by creating a variation on the standard old push-up. 

  • Begin in Downward Facing Dog pose. So, if you’re still on your stomach, press up to all fours and lift the hips toward the sky so you’re in an upside down “V” shape. It’s perfectly fine if your heels don’t touch the ground but press them in that direction. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart and you want to try and press into the floor or the mat with all ten fingers evenly, especially with the middle knuckle of each finger. To take some pressure off your wrists, maybe press down a little more with the thumb and forefinger side of your hand. 
  • Make sure that you breathe! Try and keep your inhales and your exhales as even as possible. Don’t hold your breath!
  • Now, listen. This, right here, might be enough for you. If you think this is where you’re at for today, stay here for 30 seconds, gradually working up to a minute if you want. Believe it or not, Downdog is considered a resting pose in yoga!

  • If you want to add the push-up, you’re simply going to splay your elbows out to the sides as you bring the crown of the head toward the floor. No worries if it doesn’t get there! Even getting a micro-bend in the elbows is a start. Then push into Updog, by pressing into your arms and gazing up, then push back up to Downward Facing Dog. Try for 8 to 10, gradually building from there.

  • If this is too hard, you can do a modified version on your knees by starting in the plank position with your knees on the ground, then doing a push-up, moving into updog, and moving back to child’s pose.

Single Arm Chest Press

Let’s work the chest now!

  • Come back down onto your back and hold a weight in each hand. Your knees are bent and your feet are flat on the floor. 
  • Start with your arms bent at 90 degrees straight off the shoulders, holding the weights in the air. 
  • As you exhale, press the weight in your right hand toward the ceiling, straightening your arm but keeping the shoulder pressing down into the floor. Inhale and lower, bending the elbow. 
  • Repeat on the left side.
  • Continue to alternate sides, until you’ve completed 8 to 12 on each side.
  • Alternately, you can do both sides simultaneously. 

Bicep Curls

  • If you can, go for holding a heavier weight in each hand, and begin by standing with your feet hip-width apart, your hands down at your sides, palms facing forward. 
  • Tuck the tailbone and engage your core, standing up nice and tall with the shoulders drawing toward each other slightly. 
  • Keeping the elbows locked into your sides, bend the elbows, curling the weights up toward your shoulders. 
  • Slowly, lower back down. 
  • Repeat, aiming for 15 reps. 
  • If raising both hands at the same time is too difficult, alternate sides like we did with the Single Arm Chest Press. 

Overhead Press

Switch to a lighter weight for this next exercise, which is called the Overhead Press.

  • You should still be in the same stance you were for the Bicep Curls – feet hip-width apart, core engaged, tailbone tucked, shoulders drawing toward each other. 
  • This time, the weights are going to come to rest right above your shoulders, your palms still facing forward. 
  • On an exhale, raise the weights overhead, straightening your arms. Bend the elbows and lower the weights back down to shoulder height on an inhale.
  • Few things to check in on – if you notice you’re arching your back when you raise the weights overhead, you need lighter weights. Also, keep the shoulders down when lifting the arms overhead – don’t let them hike up around your ears. 
  • Again, as with the previous move, feel free to alternate sides if raising both arms at the same time proves too difficult. 
  • Do 15 reps. 

Bent-over Rows

  • Take your feet hip-width apart, a weight in each hand. 
  • Soften the knees and, with the core engaged, bend forward slightly at the hips. You want your torso at a bit of an angle – you don’t want to be all the way bent over so your torso’s parallel with the floor. 
  • Take your gaze to the floor about 3 to 5 inches out in front of you. 
  • Holding the weights, extend your arms toward the ground with your palms facing toward one another. Be sure to keep your shoulders drawing toward each other on the back – this is really important. 
  • To perform this move, you’re going to row up with your weights, pulling them toward your chest. As you do, squeeze the shoulder blades together at the top and hold for a beat before lowering the hands back down. Keep your elbows locked in tight toward the body. 

  • You can also do this with a resistance band instead of weights, by putting the band under your feet.

  • Do 12 to 15 reps. 

Tricep Kickbacks

  • You have a few options for this one as far as stance goes. You can be in that same position as you were during Bent-over Rows or you can stand with your right foot slightly behind the other and the front knee bent in this mini-lunge position. Another option is to place the right foot on a stool or a step. 
  • Whatever stance you’re in, hinge at the hips so your torso is at that 45-degree angle.
  • For this move, you’re going to start with your right arm in the top of that Bent-over Row position. so, your elbows are bent, the shoulder blades are squeezing, and the weight is in line with your chest. 
  • Your left hand can rest on your left thigh or your left hip. 
  • Extend the right arm back, squeezing the back of the arm as you do. This move targets the triceps so that’s where you want to feel it. Bend the elbow and bring the weight back to start. 
  • Do 12 to 15 reps and then switch sides, making sure you switch the front foot, as well, if you’re in that mini-lunge position or if you’re using a step. 

  • You can also do this with resistance bands!

Resistance Band Pull-Apart

If you have a resistance band, I’m going to show you how to do the Resistance Band Pull-Apart. If you don’t have a resistance band, either try this move without it or hang tight – I’m going to show you another move that targets the same muscles, but without the band. 

  • Grab the resistance band in both hands and hold it out in front of you at shoulder level. Make sure the arms are pulled into the sockets. A good way to check if you’re doing this is to reach your arms forward then plug them back in, drawing the shoulders toward each other. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, your core should be engaged, and your tailbone should be tucked. 
  • Pull your arms out to your sides and slowly, with control, bring them back to start. 
  • Do this 8 to 10 times, take a 20 second break, and do the move 8-10 more times. 
  • If you’re trying this without the resistance band, I want you to engage the muscles of your arms and your back as best you can. Don’t simply move your arms out to your sides and bring them back in – that won’t do anything. You need to use the resistance of your own bodyweight to reap results. 
  • Another option, if you don’t have a resistance band, is to do this lying on your back with either one 5-pound weight held in both hands or one 2 to 3-pound weight held in each hand. 
  • To perform the move, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, hip distance apart. 
  • Now, you’re going to engage your core, but for this move, I want you to also press your low back into the floor. You want to try and do this the entire time you perform each move. 
  • Holding the weights, extend your arms toward the sky straight off the shoulders. 
  • You’re going to lower the weight overhead as far as you can without letting that low back come up off the ground. Slowly lift up to the start. Do 15 reps. 

Make Sure to Stretch!

After any type of workout, it is so important to stretch. Come onto your feet if you were lying on the ground and inhale deeply as you take the arms overhead. Exhale and take your arms back down. 

Draw the right arm across the chest, gently taking hold with the left hand above the elbow. Take a few breaths here and switch sides. 

Stretch out the triceps by taking the right arm overhead and bending at the elbow so your hand is on your back. Gently press on the elbow with your left hand. Hold for a few breaths and switch sides. 

Next, clasp your hand behind your back. Tuck the tailbone as you draw your hands toward the floor, opening the chest toward the sky. This one should feel really good on your arms, chest, and even your neck. 

For your last stretch, let’s come into a forward fold. Start by tucking the chin into the chest and curling down one vertebra at a time. No worries if your hands don’t touch your toes. You can rest your hands on your shins, or you can clasp opposite elbows and just hang out for a few breaths. When you’re done, slowly come up to standing, again, one vertebra at a time. 

You did it! 

Wrap-Up 

Today, we focused on the upper body, which includes the muscles in the arms, chest, back, shoulders, neck, and even some core.

Strengthening the upper body means stronger muscles, which can increase posture, flexibility, and greatly reduce your risk of injury. Doing upper body strength training at home or at a gym two or more times a week will help you see these benefits, as well as improve heart health and give your confidence and mood a boost!

Please remember to consult with your doctor before starting a new workout routine and go slow. Start gradually, using lighter weights and build up to doing more reps, using heavier weights.

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