Laura Flynn Endres
The 5 Best Upper Body Exercises for Home Workouts (Plus Ways to Make Them Easier and Harder!)
A well-rounded upper body workout must include exercises that push, exercises that pull, and hit shoulders, chest, back, biceps and triceps.
Ideally, you'll have a few key pieces of equipment like dumbbells (a pair of light, a pair a medium, and a pair of heavy DBs is perfect), a set of resistance bands, and a set of loop mini-bands. This will allow you to work your upper body in a variety of ways, hitting main lifts as well as accessory exercises to hit smaller muscles and build muscular endurance.
Because there are so many important exercises for upper body, we can't usually get to them all in one workout, so we'll spread them out over two workouts, and whatever muscles we don't hit in the main strength training portion of the workout, we'll hit later in the accessory / maintenance portion!
Here are the 5 best upper body exercises you should be doing in your home workouts!
#1 - PUSH-UPS
Sorry! (Not sorry.)
You need to be able to push yourself up off the floor and push heavy things away from you, so push-ups are at the top of the list.
You're familiar with the standard push-ups, so let's talk about variations. My goal is for my client to work full range, meaning I want them to touch their chest to the floor or to the edge of whatever they're pushing against. That means we might not start with standard push-ups! Most people start with some sort of inclined push-up, placing their hands on a tabletop, on the firm end of a couch, on a workout bench, etc.
Once you can do 15 reps touching your chest to the edge, you're ready to use a lower incline.
High Inclined Push-Ups:
A level up from inclined push-ups will be Negative Push-Ups. For negatives, you press up on knees, but then lift your knees so you're in standard push-up position. From there, you lower your body to the floor, aiming to maintain the push-up position all the way down.
Hand-Release Push-Ups are another way to train depth, as you go all the way to the floor, release, then brace your core and press back up, maintaining proper form. Wicked hard!
A word on knee push-ups... I'm not entirely opposed, but I don't usually program them for clients. I prefer high inclined push-ups.
For clients who can handle more challenging variations, I might assign variations like Push-Up to Side Plank, Push-Up to Downward Dog, and Declined Push-Ups (those are especially evil).
Build shoulder strength with this overhead push exercise! You'll also challenge your triceps, upper back, and even abs which you'll need to engage to maintain proper form.
You can do these with palms facing forward or palms facing inward. I usually change it up OR tell clients to do the one that feels best for their shoulders.
You can also hold one dumbbell by the bells, press a barbell, press a kettlebell overhead.
Overhead Press with Band or Dumbbells:
Another exercise to challenge shoulders is the Lateral Raise. You'll need lighter dumbbells for these than you use for the overhead press.
BENT DUMBBELL ROWS
This pull exercise is arguably one of the most important exercises you'll do. And, it's super adaptable for all levels. Simply use heavier or lighter dumbbells as appropriate!
Bent Dumbbell Rows:
You can also do a single-arm variation.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows:
Because we do most pulling in everyday life in a standing position. cable or band rows are great too. You can change your grip to be palms facing up, palms facing down, or palms facing inward, or you can row high and wide like in the video below.
Which way to the gun show? Get those biceps pumped with some good ol' bicep curls! Another great pull exercise.
Or if you really want to go bro, do concentration curls. These really isolate the biceps! Do your weak arm first for as many reps as you can, then match the number with your strong arm. You can do a couple "cheater reps" at the end where you assist through the "sticky point" with the other hand, using the lightest touch.
And don't tell anyone or I'll lose my gym cred, but I like to use variations like Band Bicep Curl Scoops, Alternating Front and Side Curls (to further ruin my "gym bad-ass" rep, I look like a real derp in that video, haha), and Simultaneous Curls as accessory and maintenance exercises, and I don't care who knows it.
Your triceps - the three muscles on the back of your upper arm - can be especially weak and fatigue easily, but they're super important to building the sculpted arms most people crave, so we gotta hit 'em. Plus your triceps play an important supporting role in essentially all other upper body exercises. Add this push exercise to your workouts!
I'm getting a little rambunctious with those - I actually recommend you do them with a bit more control. (I often film these at the end of workouts when I'm feeling fatigued, which is dumb....)
Here, these are a bit better.
Band Tricep Kickbacks:
Other great tricep exercises are Overhead Tricep Extensions, Tricep Bench Dips, and Skullcrushers, aptly named, so be careful lest you, well, crush your skull!
For dozens more exercises for upper body, check out my Upper Body Exercise Playlist on YouTube!
You might not be able to do all 5 upper body exercises in a single workout. You can divide them up over two workouts. You could do all pushing in Workout A - push-ups, overhead presses, and tricep kickbacks - and all pulling in Workout B - bicep curls and bent rows.
There are other fantastic exercises for upper body, but these are the fundamentals I include in most workouts. Master these, and you'll be sporting some impressive upper body strength and tone!
I have three options for working with you!
Play my Game! This is the most affordable option, and also the most fun!
Join my Online Zoom Group! Group workouts, twice a week, beginner-intermediate level.
Train with Me! I usually have space for one or two more private clients.