The strength and definition of a toned upper body is a highly sought after trait, but what most gym rats may not realize is there is much more to gaining upper body strength than simply being able to bench press more than the next weightlifter. True upper body power is gained from balanced overall strength; employing muscles in the back, chest, shoulders and arms. When done effectively, a strong upper body will bring improvements in running, posture and overall fitness.
When beginning an upper body workout routine, all major upper body muscle groups must be considered. For proper strength training, exercises working each of these areas should be performed, said Kathleen Trotter, personal trainer and pilates equipment specialist in Toronto.
For those who are new to gyms, using machinery initially is suggested, as it is simpler to manage and helps the user maintain control of the weight. Once accustomed to a workout routine, free weights are encouraged since they are more dynamic, meaning they can be used on more than one plane such as side-to-side, forward and back, and up and down.
“Having to stabilize the weight makes free weights trickier and engages the muscles more,” said Mary Lam, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., certified personal trainer.
For those who don’t feel comfortable in the weight room or simply don’t have time to spend hours in the gym, there are many ways to work the upper body at home. Simple push-ups, plank exercises and pull-ups are great ways to build total upper body strength, Lam said. There are also countless exercises using workout bands for easy in-home workouts.
“The body works as a unit,” Trotter said. “A proper arm swing is vital in generating power throughout the running stride. If an athlete doesn’t have a functionally strong upper body, their running stride may suffer.”
Upper body strength isn’t complete without incorporating upper-back exercises into workout routines. Strong back muscles will not only assist in pull-ups and other upper body exercises, but will help balance muscle growth to prevent injury, Trotter said. Back muscles provide stability and help with posture, which is necessary in running, biking, weight-lifting and other aerobic activities. Additionally, back muscles assist in the pull-ups required as part of the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test.
If you are unable to perform a pull-up, you can build up strength by using the negative pull-up technique, Trotter said. To perform a negative pull-up, use a chair to position your chin above the pull-up bar, like for the beginning of the flexed arm hang. Slowly, let yourself down until your arms are locked out. Repeat this in sets over time until able to perform a pull-up.
Getting the most out of your upper body workout requires that you have a goal in mind, Lam said. Your workout should be tailored to these goals intentionally.
“If you want to bulk up and grow in muscle mass, lift heavier weights at lower repetitions,” Lam said. “If you want to simply tone up, do a higher number of repetitions with a lower weight.”
Regardless of your reasons for working the upper body: large muscular arms, toned muscles, or increased fitness test scores, this can only be achieved through an entire upper body workout of the chest, back, shoulders, triceps and biceps.