You only need these six moves to build upper-body strength and work your core

Build muscle in your chest, back, shoulders and arms with this gym workout

Woman in gym leans on a barbell in a squat rack. Her hair is in a pony tail and she is wearing red glasses and a black tank top with the words "sweat today smile" visible
(Image credit: Emma Innocenti / Getty Images)

No one can accuse me of skipping leg day. For instance, I love hip thrusts so much I even agreed to do hip thrusts every day for a Fit&Well challenge. But equally, I love spending time in the gym working my upper body, hitting several muscles in one go. I walk away feeling like I've really conquered the gym. So this workout, pulled together by my PT Will Duru, is a winner in my eyes.

"These exercises combined will target your back, biceps, triceps, shoulders and chest, as well as the muscles in your core," says Duru. "This will help improve your posture as well as overall strength to help you move through life more comfortably."

How to do this upper-body workout

Work through the sets and reps below, resting for between 30 and 60 seconds between sets.

Select a weight (or level of assistance for the chin-ups) that allows you to complete all of the reps with perfect form, with the final couple of reps of each set posing a challenge. There's no reason you can't adjust the weight between sets, or even mid-set.

1. Chin-up

Sets: 4 Reps: 4-5

  • Grip a pull-bar, or the bar on an assisted pull-up machine, with your palms facing you and your hands shoulder-width apart.
  • Engage your core and squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  • Pull yourself up until your chin is just above the bar.
  • Pause, then lower under control.

If don't have access to an assisted pull-up machine and need assistance, use a long-looped resistance band. Loop this over the bar and place your feet or one knee inside the loop.

2. Bench press

Sets: 4 Reps: 10

  • At the bench press station, lie back on the weight bench underneath the racked barbell and your feet flat on the floor.
  • Take hold of the bar with your palms facing forward and your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart.
  • Engage your core, then remove the bar from the rack and hold it above your chest.
  • Bend your elbows to lower the barbell to your chest.
  • Let the barbell lightly touch your chest then push back up explosively.

3. Seated row

Sets: 4 Reps: 12

  • Sit in the seated row machine and adjust the chest pad so it sits roughly at the center of your chest.
  • Sit upright, push your chest into the pad, take hold of the handles, engage your core and retract your shoulder blades.
  • Pull the handles towards your chest.
  • Return to the start under control.

4. Weight plate upright row

Sets: 4 Reps: 12

  • Stand holding a weight plate (one with gaps for you to use as handles work best) from the top in both hands.
  • Engage your core, then lift the plate to chest height, leading with your elbows.
  • Lower under control.

5. Half-kneeling rope pull

Sets: 4 Reps: 12

  • At the cable machine, move the pulley to the top, clip the rope attachment onto the pulley and adjust the weight at the plate stack.
  • Holding the rope attachment in both hands with your palms facing down, step backward and bend both knees to adopt a half-kneeling position. Your arms should be extended and there should be tension in the cable. If there isn't any tension, shuffle backward until there is.
  • Engage your core and retract your shoulder blades.
  • Pull the handles to either side of your face, letting your elbows move out to the sides.
  • Squeeze your back muscles, then return to the start position under control.

6. Gym ball knee tuck

Sets: 3 Reps: 12

  • Place the tops of your feet and shins on a gym ball.
  • Get into a high plank position with your hands under your shoulders, your body in a straight line from head to heels, and your core engaged.
  • Slowly bring your knees to your chest.
  • Pause, then straighten your legs to return to the start.

Because you can't adjust the weight, reduce the number of reps if you're unable to maintain good form for 12 reps.

Lucy Gornall

Lucy is a freelance journalist specializing in health, fitness and lifestyle. She was previously the Health and Fitness Editor across various women's magazines, including Woman&Home, Woman and Woman’s Own as well as Editor of Feel Good You. She has also previously written for titles including Now, Look, Cosmopolitan, GQ, Red and The Sun. 

She lives and breathes all things fitness; working out every morning with a mix of running, weights, boxing and long walks. Lucy is a Level 3 personal trainer and teaches classes at various London studios. Plus, she's pre- and post-natal trained and helps new mums get back into fitness after the birth of their baby. Lucy claims that good sleep, plenty of food and a healthy gut (seriously, it's an obsession) are the key to maintaining energy and exercising efficiently. Saying this, she's partial to many classes of champagne and tequila on the rocks whilst out with her friends.