A lot of newcomers to the workout scene are primarily interested in upper body workouts. Maybe it’s because you walk a lot and want to balance things out. Maybe you figure that you’re more likely to have a bare upper half than a bare lower half.
Whatever your reasons for your upper body focus, we’re here for you. We’ll talk about the major muscle groups of the arms and torso and how to give them a good workout without a lot of expertise and equipment.
The Upper Body
How people divvy up the body in terms of workouts can vary greatly from source to source. This may be a source of some confusion if you use our blog in collaboration with other sources or trainers.
Divvying up the body for working out can be important to workout the whole body over the course of several exercises to get a well-rounded exercise without overworking anything or having too repetitive a workout. However, exactly how you divvy it up isn’t that important.
The chest is often set as its own group, as are the arms. The back may be set aside as its own muscle group. Or, the upper back might be lumped in with the chest or the upper arms, while the lower back, together with the abs and obliques, are labeled “the core.”
For this article, we’ll be calling the “upper body” anything above the waist. That means that we’ll be talking about the lower back, upper back, abs, chest, shoulders, and arms. When discussing terminology first and exercises later on, we’ll try to make it clear what muscle groups we’re talking about so that you can skip around if you have to.
This should be a good generalist article for the true beginner, or for anyone at any level to bookmark as a reference. We’ll also be linking other more specific articles on our blog so that you can dive deeper into specific regions and muscle groups in the upper body if that’s what you need.
Major Muscle Groups of the Arms and Upper Body
Before we get started talking about upper body workouts, let’s talk about what you’ll be working out.
Major Muscles of the Torso
When you think ‘upper body’ you might really be thinking ‘chest’. The biggest and most superficial muscles of the chest are the pectoralis major muscles, or “pecs” (Casciolo, p. 8) These giant muscles originate on the sternum and insert on the upper arms. The workouts for these muscles are all big on upper arm movement.
Below the chest, are the famous abdominal muscles. The superficial abs are the rectus abdominis, and they get all the attention. However, deep to these are the transversus abdominus.
Again, there are a lot of other muscles in play, including the intercostals and obliques but the abs are the most superficial and the largest (ibid, p. 16). In the simplest terms, they move the chest with reference to the lower body. This leads to some creative exercises for working the abs and their oblique neighbors.
On the back of the body, the muscle groups are arranged similarly, with the trapezius muscles across the upper back and the lateralis muscles below. You can think of the obliques as wrapping between the abs and the lats (ibid).
Major Muscles of the Shoulders and Arms
The pecs, traps, and lats all insert on the upper arms. That means that a lot of the exercises for these muscles, which we’ll get to in a moment, will also involve the arms and shoulders.
Working out the shoulders and upper arms is important for a number of reasons, including stability. Many of the muscles that we’re going to look at are part of the rotator cuff. This group of muscles helps to hold the upper arm in place, so neglecting it can lead to injury.
As a recurring theme, the shoulder is made up of a lot more muscles than we’re going to talk about today. However, many of them are going to be worked out by exercises discussed here.
The largest muscle of the shoulder is the deltoid (ibid, p. 12). This muscle wraps around the top of the shoulder and is involved in most arm movements to some extent.
Below the deltoid is the tricep muscle (ibid, p 4.). This muscle, so named because of its multiple points of insertion, covers much of the arm between the elbow and the shoulder and is largely used for moving the lower arm. The upper arm is also known for being home to the bicep, with its characteristic swell just above the elbow.
However, as you move closer to the wrist, it is also home to a number of too-oft-neglected muscles involved largely in the manipulation of the hand and digits (ibid). These muscles, the radialis muscles and the forearm flexors, are a little difficult to target, but we’ll get there.
Beginner Upper Body Workouts
As you saw, a lot of the workouts that we’ll be discussing workout multiple muscle groups at once. So, we’ll be sorting by workout rather than by target area.
Most of the workouts that we’ll be discussing are called “body resistance exercises” meaning that they don’t require machines or – in many cases – weights. However, as we go, we’ll be linking back to some other articles on this blog – most of which involve weights and gym equipment.
A Quick Note on Reverse Muscle Action & Antagonists
Before we get into the exercises, let’s talk about reverse muscle action and antagonistic muscle pairs. These are fairly advanced concepts, but a quick overview can make all the difference.
Throughout this article, we’ve been throwing around the terms “origin and insertion.” Usually, a muscle originates on a larger structure and inserts on a smaller structure. When the muscle contracts, it brings the insertion closer to the origin. However, cases of reverse muscle action, activating a muscle brings the origin closer to the insertion.
Antagonistic muscle groups are groups of muscles that perform opposite functions. When you flex your bicep, your tricep relaxes and the forearm moves. When you flex your tricep, the bicep relaxes and the forearm returns to its starting position.
Most people think about muscle action and ignore reverse muscle action and think about agonists while avoiding antagonists. That also means that they’re working out half of their muscles half as often as they could be!
When you do a situp, spend as much time letting yourself down as you do pulling yourself up. You’ll work your abs twice as hard and will work antagonistic muscles you probably didn’t even know you had (the transversus abdominis). This can be applied to double the productivity of every workout in this article.
Meanwhile, getting creative with exercices that
Pushups (Chest, Back, Shoulders, Upper Arms)
Hear us out.
The pushup is universally recognized as just about the most basic upper body workout there is. Hands under shoulders, straight back, push up, lower down, repeat ad infinitum. However, there’s a lot to be said for this basic fitness tool.
For example, the basic pushup described above actively works just about all of the major muscle groups in the chest, upper back, and upper arms. Further, when you consider that the pushup is basically a plank that moves up and down, it actually involves most of the muscles in the core and legs as well.
Further, the pushup can be modified in endless ways to make it easier for the beginner, harder for the advanced, and to target specific muscle groups.
Situps (Abs, Lats, Obliques)
Situps, like pushups, are under-rated because of how basic they are. However, there’s also an endless world of modifications for them.
The standard situp is ab-heavy. Feet flat (possibly under a bed or couch frame, held down by a partner, etc.), knees bent, fingers interlaced behind the head. Bending at the waist, bring the chest toward the knees.
A lot of people recommend having the arms crossed over the chest because it avoids the temptation to pull the head toward the knees using the arms. That’s a real threat to your form as well as your neck. However, the modifications that we’ll discuss work better with the interlace form.
Two simple modifications to the situp bring in more lower back muscles and rotational muscles, including the obliques.
For the first modification, as you come up, rotate at the knee touching one elbow to the alternate knee. Then, go back down and repeat on the other side.
For the second modification, come up straight as you do in the standard form. Stop at the top and then rotate from the waist, touching each elbow to the alternate knee two times and then going back down.
By adding a twist, both of these modifications incorporate the obliques and lats, which are largely neglected in a standard situp. The second modification also adds intensity to your ab workout because your abs are keeping you up right while you twist.
Leg Raises (Abs)
If you are worried about your neck or if the bending involved in situps is difficult for you because of an injury or because you’re out of shape (you’re a beginner, it’s okay) Leg raises are a great alternative.
For this exercise, lie on the floor with your hands under your glutes. Keeping your legs straight, lift your legs from the waist.
They may sound like a leg exercise, but they’re a reverse muscle exercise for the abs. Keeping the legs engaged does work the upper legs as well.
Curls (Biceps, Triceps)
Doing a curl requires some kind of weight. This can be a weight at the gym, a weight that you get from fitness stores, big box stores, or thrift stores, or even something that you have lying around the house.
To do a basic curl, take the weight in your hand with your hand. For a seated and supported curl, the elbow should be bent at 90 degrees. For a standing curl, your hand can be down at your sides. Then, bring the weight toward your shoulder.
This initial action targets the biceps, but remember, with a little extra thought, you can make this a great tricep workout as well.
Presses (Chest or Upper Back, Shoulders, Upper Arms)
There are dozens of presses out there, but you can look at all of them as curls upside down. The curl involves pulling the weight toward you. The press involves pushing the weight away from you.
For the classic chest press, you lie down on your back, usually on a bench. Your arms should be bent 90 degrees at the elbows, holding the weight above you. You then press the weight up by extending your arms and then lower the weight back down. This exercise works your chest, shoulders, upper arms, and, to some extent, your upper back.
The Standing press is a little different. For one thing, it doesn’t require a bench. It also targets your shoulders and upper arms more. It still targets your chest but it incorporates your upper back more. Any standing exercise also passively involves your core and legs.
To do this press, you hold a weight in each hand with your elbows bent. Your hands can be out by your ears or in front of your chest. Then, raise your arms up above your head.
Squeezing Anything (Lower Arm)
Targeting the muscles of the lower arm is tough. These muscles are mainly involved in manipulating and rotating the hand and fingers.
Doing a pushup with your hands together so that your thumbs and index fingers make a diamond shape on the floor does some good.
However, gripping and squeezing things are the best exercises for these muscles. There are a lot of tools specifically for these exercises, but things like stress balls work just as well. Playing stringed instruments like the guitar can also work these tricky muscles.
This article is running long and there are so many great exercises that we haven’t covered! Hopefully, this list will get you started working out your upper body with versatile exercises and minimal equipment.
Casciolo, C (ed.). “Total Body Workbook.” Men’s Health. 2007.