Strength training is an essential component of any workout routine, especially for women. As we discussed before, there are various strength training benefits for women that are beyond defined muscles and building strength. But there is often a misconception about lifting weights, many women believe that it will make you bulk up and look manly. This misconception has led to many women neglecting or not training their upper body as much as their lower body. Everyone wants toned legs, a round butt, but what about your arms and back?! They need some love too!
We're here to tell you why you should start focusing on training your upper body regularly AND even give you our 10 favorite exercises for toned arms, back, shoulders, and chest. The great thing is that they can be done by all fitness levels and they're home-friendly so you can workout safely at home or at the gym!
Benefits of upper body strength
Upper body workouts are more essential than you may think. Regularly working out arms, chest, back, and shoulders keeps your upper body strong and give your muscles definition, and other benefits you might not have thought about!
Helps improve posture
A large percentage of people have desk jobs and often spend time hunched over a computer or hunched over driving. This can lead to a weak posterior chain. A posterior chain is all the muscles from your backside, so the muscles from your head all the way down to your feet. It plays a huge role in everyday tasks like picking stuff off the floor, jumping, sitting down, standing up... you name it! So if you don't have strong back muscles your shoulder blades won't be pulled back keeping you upright, instead you end up hunched over 24/7.
Fortunately, there's an easy fix to this - Weight training! Regularly working out your back (and all other upper body muscles) can help improve your posture. It can also help strengthen your core, which will help you sit upright!
Give workouts a boost
Having a strong upper body can even help you excel in other training areas! HIIT workouts and circuit classes often include a lot of exercises that require arm, back, chest, and shoulder strength. A few examples of HIIT exercises that require full body strength are planks, mountain climbers, push-ups. So having a strong base is important to perform well and get the most out of those types of workout classes!
It's also important for endurance-based workouts like cycling and swimming. Cyclists need strong shoulders to help position their body over the handlebars, their arms and shoulders typically take most of the impact. Swimmers also need a strong torso and arms to help propel them through the water.
Makes everyday tasks easier
Many people go in with the mindset that they want to workout to lose weight, but there's more to it than that. You want a healthy body that looks AND feels good, so you can move freely with a decreased risk of injury and potentially live longer! Guess what? Strength training can help with that!
Regularly training can make everyday tasks like - pushing and pulling things, picking up and putting things down - easier. Weight training not only helps build strength, it also helps with balance, coordination, and posture.
Can help build a positive body image
We now know that upper body strength helps with posture, helps boost other workouts, makes daily life easier... all this can lead to more confidence! In fact, studies show that women build a more positive body image when they combine strength training to their usual cardio routine. 
Just remember, lifting weights isn't going to make you bulky! Women produce one tenth of the testosterone that men do and typically don't have a rigorous bodybuilding routine.
Best Total Upper Body Workout
Now that you understand the importance of training your upper body, let's get started! Instead of giving you a full upper body workout that you need to follow to the "T", we'll give you the 10 best upper body exercises that will target these muscle groups:
Push exercises - Targets pectoral (chest) muscles, lats, triceps, shoulders, and trapezius muscles (shoulders and upper back).
Pull exercises - Targets upper back, center of the back, rhomboids (the top of the back), and bottom of the back.
Flexion/Extension exercises - Targets biceps, triceps, wrist flexors and extensors, shoulder muscles, upper abs, chest, and back muscles.
From these, you can create your own home or gym upper body workouts! You can create full upper body workouts, or implement a proper training split to ensure you don't overuse any specific muscle by splitting it up into push and pull workouts.
We wanted to make these exercises adjustable for home and gym workouts, so you won't be needing any fancy or heavy equipment, but you will need these...
- Dumbbells (5-15lbs) - just pick a weight that you're comfortable with, and one that challenges you
- A mat - Not really needed, but good to have if you don't want to sit on the floor
- Bench (gym) or table (home)
Oh, and don't forget to warm-up! Before starting any workout, warm-up properly. Pick a few exercises that will stretch and loosen up the muscles you'll be working. We recommend the following arm stretches: arm circles, lat stretch, cat and camel, triceps stretch, spinal rotations, and banded pull-aparts. To take your warm-up even further, use a long resistance band to mimic movements you'll be doing to activate the muscles before adding a heavier weight. Like doing banded bicep curls, rows, shoulder press, etc. Taking the time to warm-up properly will ensure your muscles are activated and ready for the heavy weight they're about to lift!
Our recommended set and rep range is doing 4 sets and 8-12 reps for each exercise. Again, this is only our recommendation. The amount of sets and repetitions you do should depend on your fitness level and the weight you are using. Here's a good guideline to follow - the lighter the weight is, the higher the reps; the heavier the weight, the lower the reps.
If you have trouble gripping the heavier weights then use lifting straps and/or wrist wraps! They will help protect your grip and stabilize your wrist so you can workout harder and lift heavier.
#1 - Incline push-ups
This exercise works your biceps, triceps, shoulders, lats, chest, abs, and obliques.
- Place your hand on the edge of a bench or table just beyond shoulder-width apart.
- Hold your torso up at arm's length with your toes on the floor. This is your starting position.
- Slowly lower yourself downward until your chest nearly touches the bench or table.
- Squeeze your chest and slowly press your upper body back to the starting position. Pause briefly at this position.
Beginners tip: The higher the placement of your hands, the easier it is to perform.
#2 - Floor dumbbell chest press
This exercise works your pectorals (chest), arms, and shoulders.
Place a mat on the floor. You can also use a bench or table if you don't want to lay on the floor.
- Grab dumbbells with an overhand grip and lie flat on your back. Bend knees with feet firmly planted on the floor.
- Extend elbows to a 90-degree position, triceps resting on the floor, while holding dumbbells above your chest.
- Exhale and brace core while simultaneously extending dumbbells toward the ceiling.
- Pause, and retract back to starting position.
#3 Bicep curls
This exercise targets target your biceps, wrist extensors and flexors, shoulder muscles, and upper back.
- Stand up straight with a dumbbell in each hand at arm's length.
- Keep your elbows close to your torso and rotate the palms of your hands until they are facing forward. This will be your starting position.
- Keep the upper arms stationary, exhale and curl the weights while contracting your biceps. Continue to raise the weights until your biceps are fully contracted and the dumbbells are at shoulder level.
- Hold the contracted position for a brief pause as you squeeze your biceps.
- Inhale and slowly begin to lower the dumbbells.
#4 Triceps extension
This exercise concentrates mainly on the triceps, but it also targets biceps and upper back muscles.
- Position one dumbbell overhead with both hands under the inner plate (heart-shaped grip).
- With elbows overhead, lower forearm behind the upper arm by flexing elbows. Flex wrists at the bottom to avoid hitting the dumbbell on the back of the neck.
- Return to the starting position by raising the dumbbell over your head by extending elbows while hyperextending wrists.
#5 - Bent over triceps kickback
This is an isolation exercise that targets triceps. It's specifically meant to strengthen and tone, not bulk.
- With a dumbbell in each hand, and palms facing your torso, bend your knees slightly and bring your torso forward by bending at the waist, while keeping the back straight until it is almost parallel to the floor.
- Keeping the upper arms stationary, use the triceps to lift the weights as you exhale until the forearms are parallel to the floor, and your entire arms are extended.
- After a second contraction at the top, slowly lower the dumbbells back to their starting position as you inhale.
#6 - Bent over row
This exercise targets your back muscles and opens up the chest.
- Grab 2 dumbbells. Bend slightly at the hips, keep your back straight.
- Pull the dumbbells up into your chest. Your elbows should be inline with your shoulders.
- Hold for a second and bring dumbbells back to the starting position.
#7 - Bent over lateral raise
This exercise targets your chest and really works on the pecs. Also tones triceps and tightens the upper back muscles.
- Hinge from the hips until your body is almost parallel to the floor, without curling your back.
- Allow the arms to hang straight down from the shoulders with a neutral grip.
- Take a deep breath and pull the dumbbells towards the ceiling using the rear deltoids.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position under control.
#8 - Bent over front raise
*You don't need a bench
This exercise works the upper and lower back, shoulders, chest, biceps, and triceps.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, hinge from the hips until your body is almost parallel to the floor without curling your back.
- Inhale and raise the arms vertically while keeping the elbows bent slightly.
- Once the arms are parallel with the floor, exhale and slowly lower the dumbbells back to the starting position.
#9 - Overhead shoulder press
*Can be performed standing or seated
This exercise targets shoulders and upper back. The overhead press is one of the main shoulder exercises that you should perform regularly.
- Position dumbbells to each side of shoulders with elbows below wrists.
- Press dumbbells upward until arms are extended overhead.
- Lower to sides of shoulders and repeat.
#10 - Lateral raises
This exercise targets shoulders, especially the lateral and anterior heads of the deltoid.
- Grasp dumbbells in front of thighs with elbows slightly bent. Bend over with hips and knees bent slightly.
- Raise upper arms to sides until elbows are shoulder height. Maintain elbows' height equal to wrists.
- Lower and repeat.
There are so many arm exercises, but these are the top 10 that we recommend you perform regularly. Train your arms consistently and eat a healthy well balanced diet to achieve that toned arm look you've been wanting! Don't forget to workout your lower body to build and maintain total body strength.
BTW - If you want more home workout ideas then check out Fit With Iulia (founder of UPPPER). Iulia has home and gym programs for all fitness levels! She plans new workout routines every week for you and categorizes them by fitness goals. So you no longer have to do the planning, just open the FWI App, select your goal, and start your workout! Plus the first workout of every goal is available for FREE for everyone to try!