Upper Body Exercises For Beginners - The Relatable Red (2023)

I have always loved training upper body, especially when I was first starting out. To this day, I still do these upper body exercises even though I have been lifting weights for awhile now. I’m only calling them “beginner” exercises because they are slightly less form intensive than others, you’re less likely to need a spotter for them, and you don’t have to move around the gym too much.

Some important notes:

I am not a personal trainer of any kind. I have zero credentials in the field of exercise or training. However, I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of weight lifting from my own personal experience and research. If you have read any of my fitness related blogs, you know I have done workout plans through a professional trainer with credentials and I always, always recommend him. Check him out, here!

I know how intimidating the gym can be. Just walking in to the gym can be nerve-wracking. Coming up with workouts when you don’t have tons of experience is overwhelming. Trying to do both in the hopes that the workout you picked will actually work for you can be enough to keep someone from even going. That’s why I wanted to help by putting together a basic list of upper body exercises. You can do them all together in an upper body day or split into specific muscle groups (i.e. bicep/tricep day)

If you do all of these exercises on one day, it makes for a longer gym session (i.e more than 1 hour) This is great for someone who can only get to the gym a few times a week. You can hit all your upper body muscles by doing this workout(or a similar variation) twice a week. Or you can split your workouts in to muscle groups and do something like bis/tris, back/shoulders, and chest all separate. If you choose to separate in to different muscles groups, I would do 3-5 exercises for each body part.

Chest:

Don’t neglect chest day ladies! You know that little side boob/armpit fat you get when you wear tank tops? I always thought that was unavoidable and everyone had it –nope! Mine is gone. Plus, and more importantly, chest workouts make you feel like a badass.

1. Dumbbell Bench Press

3 sets of 6-8 reps. My rule of thumb for choosing a weight is your last two reps of each set should be really difficult but not compromising form. Example: I started out at 15-20lb dumbbells and I’m doing 35-40lbs now.

2. Dumbbell Close Grip Incline Press

3 sets of 6-8 reps. These were incorporated in to my more recent strength training plan and I think they really improved my ability to do more weight on a standard barbell bench press.

Shoulders:

Y’all… training shoulders is so underrated. It is my absolute favorite upper body muscle group. It made a huge difference in my physique. Putting on some muscle in your shoulders (& back) gives the illusion of a smaller waist and I am here for it!

3. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

3 sets of 8-10 reps. I tend to superset this shoulder exercise with lateral raises (listed below.) Superset just means you do the shoulder press and then immediately jump in to the lateral raise with no rest in between. Once finished with one set of each exercise, then you rest. It makes for burning muscles and a quicker gym session if you’re in a hurry.

With any exercises, it’s important to keep your core tight. But shoulder press is one upper body exercise that I feel like requires a tight core even more. With pushing over your head, it’s easy to arch your back and wobble even when you’re sitting. Pick a bench that the back sits at a 90 degree angle OR one that has a low back also at a 90 degree angle (hitting right under the shoulder blades.) Unfortunately they didn’t have either of my preferred benches at this Planet Fitness so keeping my core tight was even more crucial. And you can see by the last couple reps, I was getting a little wobbly.

4. Dumbbell Lateral Raise

3 sets 8-10 reps. These are easy to cheat so make sure you’re looking at yourself in a mirror. Make sure you’re not raising/shrugging your shoulders or using momentum to move the weights. It’s always better to do lower weight and more reps if you can’t do the higher weight with correct form. Most gyms have a rack of weights that includes 3lb, 5lb, 8lb. Start low to get your form right and work your way up. The most weight I can do correctly is 10lbs.

Biceps:

5. Dumbbell Hammers

3 sets of 8-10. Just like using a hammer but slow and controlled. Keep your elbow pinned against your side and make sure at the bottom of the movement you are extending all the way straight to get the most range of motion possible.

6. Cable Rope Bicep Curls

3 sets of 8-10. Using cables with different attachments is great when the gym is busy because you can work lots of different upper body muscle groups in one spot. Similar motion to hammers but I like to think about splitting the rope. Again, keep your elbows pinned to your side and your core tight. You do not want to be leaning backward or using momentum to get the weight up. If one weight is too heavy and the other is too light, do the lighter weight and slow the movement down. Take 3 seconds from the top of the movement to the bottom.

Triceps:

7. Dumbbell Overhead Tricep Press

3 sets of 8-10. These work best if you can get a bench to sit on that has a low back. Best case scenario the back support will hit right under your shoulder blades so you have room to lower the weight. The Planet Fitness I was at did not have the low back bench so I had to make do. Keep your elbows in and your core tight. Start with low weight on these if you don’t have a spotter there. These can be done on a bench with no back but its not my favorite.

8. Cable Rope Tricep Push Downs.

3 sets of 8-10. This is essentially the opposite of the cable bicep curls. They are great to do together as a superset because you can stay in one spot and just move the attachment up and down. Think of your arms as a lever. Keep your elbows pinned to your side, and your posture up right. Split the rope down to each side of your body.

Back

Don’t neglect back exercises! I did for a long time and it totally affected the rest of my workouts. Once my back was stronger, everything else improved. With back exercises, they can be hard to “feel” the muscle which can be discouraging at times because it makes you question whether you’re performing the exercises correctly. Stick with it!

9. Cable Lat Pull Downs

3 sets of 8-10. Grab the bar slightly outside of shoulder width and pull down past your chin. Try not to arch your back. Lean back just far enough that you can pull the bar down without hitting your face. It’s not fun and quite embarrassing… ask me how I know. ANYWAY… with back exercises I have to close my eyes to focus on really using the correct muscles. Think about starting the pull movement with your shoulder blades and then follow through with your arms.

10. Seated Cable Rows

3 sets of 8-10. With back exercises, you don’t need to focus on heavy weight right away. It’s so much more beneficial to get your form down first. Knees should be slightly bent, core tight, and again start the movement with your shoulder blades. If you are raising your shoulders/shrugging, the weight is probably too heavy. With any back exercise, keep the entire movement slow and controlled. For this particular exercise, think about pinching your shoulder blades. If you have a gym buddy, it can be helpful to have them put their fingers in the center of your upper back and then think about pinching their fingers with your shoulder blades.

Training upper body will not make you bulky.

It takes a long time, a lot of progressive overload and usually a caloric surplus to really get bulky, especially for women. I tend to put on muscle in my upper body rather quickly and I am still not bulky, despite training for 2 years. I was the girl that neglected back and chest for a long time because you don’t see much physical change (especially for chest). Don’t do that. My physique and overall strength benefitted dramatically from allotting time for each muscle.

I hope you found this blog helpful and are feeling fired up to get those gains! If you have any other questions, feel free to leave me a comment or direct message me. I am happy to help.

-The Relatable Red

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