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What's The Best Upper Body Workout For You?

by grace gallagher - January 19, 2021

If you’re hoping for more defined shoulders, arms or chest, you may also be wondering which is the best upper body workout out there. There are so many different exercises, and it can be hard to know where to start, and what will get you results fast (without causing injury). Lively spoke with Ben Walker, a fitness specialist and Founder of Anywhere Fitness, about the best upper body workouts, plus the exercise moves you can do at home to work your arms, abs, shoulders and chest.

Vital Note: This article has been made available for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Your licensed healthcare professional can best provide you with the diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition and assist you as well in deciding whether a dietary supplement will be a helpful addition to your regimen.

What is the best workout for the upper body? 

Walker says there are several key factors to consider when deciding the best upper body workout for your specific goal.

"It's important to make sure that your program is functional while targeting agonist and antagonist muscle groups. This means putting equal emphasis when training opposite muscles such as your chest and back," Walker tells Lively. "When your goals are building muscle, you need to stay conscious about training one side and neglecting the other."

If you frequently practice push-ups, for example, and never perform any back exercises, your chest will likely over-develop and the postural muscles in your back can become weak and imbalanced, he explains: "As a result, your shoulders [may] be pulled forward giving that 'hunchback' effect." 

For this reason, the best moves for the upper body are those that target various muscle groups simultaneously. These exercises are generally dynamic (they include more than a single movement, with muscle groups working together) and call for minimal equipment. 

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Is it okay to work out the upper body every day? 

Trying to get results quickly? You may be wondering if it's a good idea to work out your upper body every day. While it may be tempting, it’s actually not the best move. "Like every muscle group, you need roughly 48 hours before training any given muscle again," Walker says. "When we break down our muscle fibers, they need protein and rest to recover and build. If we train our upper body every day, we don't allow the muscles to recover and counteract the process by making them weaker. Allow 2-3 days before training each muscle again."

How can I slim my upper body? 

If you’re not looking to put on a ton of muscle but instead are interested in slimming the upper body, Walker recommends the rowing machine. “This machine is the ultimate upper body slimming machine. It targets your aerobic and anaerobic fitness and burns carbs, fat and sugar. The movement also requires constant work from our legs, triceps, rhomboids and posterior delts. This makes it elite for slimming and keeping muscle tone in the upper body,” he says.

5 upper body exercises that work

The following sample exercise is suggested by Walker, and each move is a great way to tone the upper body with minimal equipment needed.


1. Front Raise To Band Pull Apart

Muscles Worked: Front Shoulders (Deltoids), Rhomboids (Back), Posterior Deltoids (Shoulders/Back), Pec Major (Chest), Biceps, Traps & Abs

Equipment Used:Light Power Band (Resistance Band)

The front raise works most muscles on the anterior chain of the body. While extending both arms forward, we're primarily working the front of the shoulders, chest, biceps, and strengthening the core and lower back muscles while stabilizing the movement. Transitioning into a "band pull apart," we now target the muscles in the posterior chain of the upper body. While separating the band, our posterior delts, rhomboids and traps all work together to complete one repetition.

How To:

  1. Stand on the power band roughly hip width apart.
  2. Hold the band at your thighs with an overhand grip. 
  3. Keeping both arms straight, raise them up to shoulder height (90 degrees). 
  4. Transition to a band pull apart by pulling the band outwards and away from the body in a lateral direction. 
  5. Finish the movement when your arms are aligned with your body on each side. 
  6. Slowly perform the same movement in reverse to return to the starting position. 


2. Face Pulls

Muscles Worked: Posterior Deltoids (Rear Shoulders), Rhomboids (Middle Back), Traps, External Rotators & Triceps

Equipment Used: Light/Heavy Power band (Resistance Band)

If performed correctly, face pulls are great for strengthening your core while pulling the band towards your face and the midline of the body. When pulling the band upwards and towards the body, the posterior delts and triceps are engaged as prime movers. When your elbows surpass your body, your rhomboids and traps in your middle/upper back become active. Together, this exercise is great for building definition in the back of the arms, shoulders and middle/upper back. It's highly functional for increasing shoulder mobility and reducing muscular stress.

How To: 

  1. Tie a power band to a bar or railing. 
  2. With your arms extended, hold the band with an overhand grip (palms facing down).
  3. As you pull the band towards your face, stand straight and look ahead. 
  4. Pull the band towards the midline until your elbows slightly surpass your body.
  5. Release slowly back to the starting position.


3. Push-Up Planks

Muscles Worked: Chest, Shoulders, Biceps, Triceps, Abs & Obliques

Equipment Used: Mat or Bench

Push-up planks are a highly functional workout for targeting muscles in the anterior chain of the upper body. Its high level of transitional movement is great for elevating your heart rate, boosting your fitness level, and burning a significant amount of calories. Constantly transitioning from a "high plank" to "elbow plank" position, this routine will test your arms, shoulders, abs, obliques and most of all, your chest. Beginners and intermediate-level athletes can even benefit from doing this drill on a bench before taking it to a mat. This routine is also great for strengthening your wrists.

How To:

  1. Start in a push-up position on your hands and toes. Keep your lower back straight.
  2. With your hands situated directly below your shoulders, transition into a "low plank" by coming on to your elbows.
  3. Hold this position for a split second. Push off each hand to return to a high plank position.
  4. Repeat this movement for numerous reps before performing on the other side.


4. Push-Ups

Muscles Worked: Pec Major (Chest), Shoulders, Serratus Anterior, Triceps & Abs

Equipment Used: Mat or Bench

Push-ups are the king of exercises for building functional strength in your chest. While maintaining a neutral spine (straight back), this exercise also targets your abdominals, shoulders and lower back. Beginners can benefit from practicing push-ups on a bench before perfecting their form on a mat.

How To:

  1. Start by coming on to all fours on a mat or bench.
  2. Extend your legs back. Make sure your back is straight and aligned with the rest of your body. 
  3. Lead with your face first as you lower yourself to the mat or bench.
  4. Push yourself back to the starting position just before you approach the floor.


5. Overhead Press

Muscles Worked:Shoulders, Upper Traps, Pec Major & Triceps

Equipment Used: Light/Heavy Power band

The overhead press is one of the most important exercises to perform for the shoulders. Apart from giving you that round boulder shoulder look, the overhead movement is necessary for improving muscular function of the shoulders and traps. It reduces tightness in these muscles and improves range of motion. The triceps and serratus anterior are also heavily activated during the concentric phase.

How To:

  1. Stand hip width distance apart on one end of a light/heavy power band.
  2. Hold the band in overhand stance at your chest (clavicle height).
  3. Extend your arms above your head until completely straight.
  4. Slowly lower the band to your chest and perform again. 

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