Let’s face it, repetitive upper-body workouts can be pretty boring and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to strengthening your arms and torso. But, with a plethora of fun, effective upper-body exercises out there, there really is no reason for your gym-based workouts to become monotonous.
You probably associate upper-body workouts with heavy weights, but while strength training using equipment will help you grow muscle, incorporating bodyweight movements into your workouts could be a game-changer, improving coordination and balance which is helpful when it comes to lifting.
This workout from personal trainer Hannah Ashby (opens in new tab) combines a number of barbell exercises with bodyweight movements to help you tone and strengthen your entire upper-body. Make sure you warm up with some dynamic stretching exercises (opens in new tab) and lighter bodyweight movements before getting started, then you're ready to get started.
1. Hand release push-ups
Reps: 10 Sets: 3
- Place your hands slightly further than shoulder-width apart. Keep your back and legs in a straight line and brace your core. This should put you in a straight-arm plank position.
- Bend your elbows to lower your chest towards the ground and perform a traditional push-up.
- When your chest is as close to the floor as you can get it, allow your entire body to rest on the ground and lift your hands by about an inch.
- Place your hands back on the ground and push yourself back up to the starting position.
Tip: Full push-ups require plenty of strength. If you struggle to perform this movement, try using knee push-ups to build pushing power by increasing the strength of your chest and triceps.
2. Plank shoulder taps
Reps: 10 Sets: 3
- Start in a straight-arm plank position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your body in a straight line.
- Lift your right hand to your left shoulder, return to the starting position, then touch your right shoulder with your left hand — that's one rep.
- Repeat this ten times.
Tip: Try to avoid moving your torso and hips while completing the repetitions to challenge your core.
Upper-body barbell and bodyweight workout
We've listed the number of reps and sets you need to complete of each exercise below. Rest for 60 seconds between sets.
Pick a weight you find challenging for the prescribed number of reps, but don't go for a load so heavy that it forces you to compromise on your form.
Several of these exercises are performed as supersets (two complimetary exercises paired together and completed with no rest in between them). Where this is the case, we've labelled the movements as "a" and "b". So, perform the prescribed number of reps of exercise "a" then move straight on to exercise "b". Once you've done one round of both exercises, rest for 60 seconds.
1. Strict overhead press
Reps: 10 Sets: 5
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hips tucked under your stomach.
- Hold the barbell in front of you at shoulder height with your hands facing forwards.
- Push the bar overhead, locking out your arms out and pushing your head forward at the top or the rep.
- Return to the starting position to complete the rep.
Tip: Keep your torso straight and avoid bending the legs. Start with a fairly light weight or just the barbell, then work up to your maximum weight capacity for ten reps.
2. Bench press
Sets: 4 Reps: 10
- Lie on a flat bench with the barbell racked behind your head.
- Grip the barbell with an overhand grip, placing your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Lift the barbell off the rack and hold it directly above your chest. Bend your elbows to bring the bar down to your chest.
- When the bar lightly touches your chest, drive your feet into the floor and push it back up to the starting position.
Tip: Start with a fairly light weight or just the barbell and work up to a weight that feels challenging but manageable for ten reps. Your arms should form roughly a 45 degree angle with your torso throughout the movement.
3. Incline push-ups
Reps: 10 Sets: 4
- Place your hands on a bench, box or other raised surface, with your arms straight in a push-up position so you’re body is at an incline.
- Bend your elbows to bring your chest to the bench, keeping the rest of your body stable.
- Push your body away from the bench until your elbows are straight but not completely locked out. That's one rep.
Tip: Keep your core tight throughout the movement for perfect form (and a bonus ab workout).
4a. Upright row
Reps: 12 Sets: 4
- Pick up a light barbell with an overhand grip, placing your hands shoulder-width apart.
- Pull your elbows directly upwards towards the ceiling, moving the bar upwards with you.
- Control the barbell back down until your arms are fully extended then repeat the movement.
Tip: It's unlikely you'll be able to lift as much weight with this exercise as you would for compound exercises (opens in new tab) like the bench press and shoulder press. Instead, pick a light load to begin with and really focus on dialling in your form.
4b. Tricep dips
Reps: 12 Sets: 4
- Place your hands on the edge of a bench or raised surface behind you with your fingers facing forwards. Plant your feet on the floor so they don't slip.
- Bend at your elbows, dipping the body down, then drive through the hands to activate the triceps and straighten your arms.
Tip: If you’re a beginner, keep your legs bent or if you’re looking to make the movement more challenging, straighten your legs out.
5a. Bent-over rows
Reps: 12 Sets: 4
- With your feet shoulder-distance apart, hinge at the hips so your torso forms a 30 degree angle with the floor.
- Engage your core and pick the barbell up from off the floor with an overhand grip.
- Squeeze your lats (the back muscles found below the shoulder blades) and pull the barbell towards your hips, bending your arms at the elbows so they move directly behind your body.
- From there, control the barbell back to the starting position to complete a rep.
Tip: Keep your chin tucked and your spine in a neutral position to create a strong base and avoid injury.
5b. Plank shoulder taps
Reps: 20 Sets: 4
- Just like in the warm-up, start in a straight-arm plank position with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and your body in a straight line.
- Lift your right hand to your left shoulder, return to the starting position, then touch your right shoulder with your left hand to complete a rep.
Tip: Keep your body tight throughout this move, keeping your hips as still as possible, to build stability in your shoulders and core.
Each superset in this workout pairs a barbell movement with a bodyweight movement. This will allow you to reap the benefits of both weight training and bodyweight training, targeting your chest, triceps and back muscles in particular.
All exercises also engage the core, and a strong core is key to both upper-body strength and overall health. Not only will it help with everyday tasks, from walking to carrying shopping home from the supermarket, but it could also improve your balance and reduce back pain.
To ensure you’re properly engaging your core during these exercises, focus on mind-muscle connection, squeezing your core muscles during each movement. Research published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (opens in new tab) has shown this can increase muscle activity.
Try not to rush through this workout, as moving slowly and intentionally through the exercises will help you to get the most out of the movements and avoid injury.
Alice Porter is a freelance journalist covering lifestyle topics including health, fitness and wellness. She is particularly interested in women's health, strength training and fitness trends and writes for publications including Stylist Magazine, Refinery29, The Independent and Glamour Magazine. Like many other people, Alice's personal interest in combining HIIT training with strength work quickly turned into a CrossFit obsession and she trains at a box in south London. When she's not throwing weights around or attempting handstand push-ups, you can probably find her on long walks in nature, buried in a book or hopping on a flight to just about anywhere it will take her.
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