Repeating the same routine on a regular basis is a great way to track progress toward your fitness goals. And we have an awesome 30-minute upper-body workout that you can keep coming back to each week as a way to benchmark your arm, back, chest, and shoulder strength.
One reason this routine is worth repeating? It’s super comprehensive, and hits pretty much every muscle in that upper-body area, certified personal trainer Alicia Jamison at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City tells SELF. This includes your deltoids and rotator cuff muscles (shoulder muscles); pec minor and pec major (chest muscles); lats and rhomboids (back muscles); and biceps and triceps (arms muscles).
The below dumbbell routine, which Jamison created for SELF, targets all of those key players with moves like the bent-over row, overhead press, pullover, and single-arm chest press. It also delivers bonus work to your rear deltoids—the small muscles on the back of your shoulders that many people tend to forget about when lifting—with a rear delt raise.
Upper-body strength is important for a whole host of reasons, including making everyday movements easier, but there’s another benefit that’s important too: It’s critical for good posture, Jamison says. Many of us spend much of the day sitting in a hunched posture, and this forward-leaning position leaves our chest muscles tight and overworked and our back and shoulder muscles weak and overstretched. Focusing on building balanced strength in your upper body can help improve both these issues.
“By working your upper body, one, you’re mobilizing your chest,” says Jamison. “And then you’re strengthening your upper back.” This combo of strength and mobility will allow you to stand up taller and generally just feel less achy, she explains.
So a workout that not only hits all these muscle groups but also encourages you to continue building upon your strength can be just what you need to add to your strength training routine.
This upper-body workout is straightforward: There are just five moves, and you do each for the same number of reps. It’s also easy to progress as your strength improves. You can either add more reps, increase the weight you’re holding (a technique known as progressive overload), or follow the tips beneath each move below on how to ramp up the difficulty.
If you choose to amp up the weight, do so in small increments to reduce your risk of injury, Jamison says. Dumbbells usually come in increments of five pounds, so if you make the next step up, you’d be increasing your exercise by 10 pounds total. (Some dumbells at gyms and at-home adjustable go up in 2.5-pound increments, which can be helpful especially for exercises in which you’d use lighter weights to begin with, like the rear delt raise.) After you make your increase, you may want to lower your reps so you can complete your set with good form at your new weight.
If you choose to do this workout once a week, you can keep track of your progress to see how your strength is improving. For instance, if you can do the recommended number of reps for your first workout, maybe the next time you can add one or two more. Then if you want to increase your weight, you may want to track the number of reps you do with it—it’ll likely be lower at first, but with each workout, you may be able to gradually increase!
Ready to get started with this benchmark 30-minute upper-body workout? Before you dive in, take a few minutes to warm up so you don’t start the workout with cold, stiff muscles. Simple moves like gentle stretching, foam rolling your upper back, and resistance band pull-aparts can help warm your body and activate your muscles. You can also try this five-move warm-up routine designed to prep you for any upper-body workout.
What you need: A set of light dumbbells (3–10 pounds) for the rear deltoid raise, and a set of medium dumbbells (10–25 pounds) for the other four moves. (Here are some awesome at-home dumbbells to try.) You may also want an exercise mat for comfort.
Of course, the “right” amount of weight will vary based on your fitness level and other factors, but you can use these ranges as a jumping off point. You’ll know you have the right weight when you complete the prescribed number of reps and feel like you may only be able to crank out one or two more while maintaining proper form.
- Bent-over row
- Kneeling overhead press
- Single-arm chest press
- Side-lying rear deltoid raise
- Aim for 15 reps each move. Rest minimally in between moves (think less than 30 seconds), though of course take breaks if you feel like you can’t catch your breath or your form starts to falter.
- Complete 4 rounds total, resting 1–2 minutes in between rounds, for a total routine that’ll take about 30 minutes. (On days when you’re strapped for time, you can do 2 or 3 rounds total for a quick-but-effective 15- or 20-minute workout.)
Demoing the moves below are Francine Delgado-Lugo (GIF 1), cofounder of FORM Fitness Brooklyn; Alex Orr (GIF 2), a non-diet NASM-certified personal trainer and CNC, and host of The Birdie and the Bees podcast; Gail Barranda Rivas (GIF 3), a certified group fitness instructor, functional strength coach, Pilates and yoga instructor, and domestic and international fitness presenter; and Erica Gibbons (GIFs 4 and 5), a California-based personal trainer.