If you’re new to lifting weights, this upper-body workout for beginners is a great way to start building strength in all the major muscle groups in your top half.
In this workout, which was created by NYC-based personal trainer Alyssa Expósito, you’ll be cycling through just four moves. But each of these moves is foundational and plays an important role in building upper-body strength. In fact, these basic exercises will help you master the fundamental movement patterns you need to get stronger over time.
The exercises in this upper-body workout focus specifically on pushing and pulling movements, Expósito tells SELF. Pushing and pulling are two types of functional movements, which means they are motions we perform in everyday life; just think about pushing or pulling a door open. So focusing on them during your strength training workouts will not only help you lift more efficiently in the gym, it will also simply help you move better in everyday life.
You’ll work on your pushing strength with the alternating single-arm chest press and the shoulder press, while the bent-over row will help you build pulling strength. With pushing exercises, you primarily work the muscles in the front of your body, like your pectorals (chest muscles) and deltoids (shoulder muscles), while pulling muscles hit the back of your body, like your latissimus dorsi (the large triangular muscle spanning from your armpit to your back) and your rhomboids (small muscles that allow you to retract your shoulder blades).
Plus, there’s a fun bonus to this upper-body workout: You’ll engage your core too, Expósito says. There’s one core-focused exercise in the routine, but your core is also firing during your other moves to keep your body stable.
Remember, a workout routine does not have to be complicated to be effective—you don’t have to do tons of exercises. Progress comes from consistency and (if your goal is to get stronger) continually challenging yourself to lift more weights or complete more reps.
As for how much weight you should use for these moves? A good rule of thumb is to choose weight that is challenging enough that the last couple of reps feel difficult: Your form shouldn’t falter, but you also shouldn’t feel you have loads more reps in the tank.
“You don’t want to go too heavy, but you also do not want weight you can perform 30 reps with,” Expósito says. “You shouldn’t be able to exceed 15 reps with the weight chosen. All movements should be performed with full range of motion, in a slow and controlled way.”
Before getting started, Expósito stresses, it’s important to do a dynamic warm-up to get your body ready for the work ahead. If you need an idea, here’s a 5-minute one you can try.
Ready to get started with this fun, efficient, and straightforward upper-body workout for beginners? Here’s what you need.
What you need: A pair of medium-weight dumbbells. The actual weight varies for everyone, but you’ll know you’re on the right track if your last couple of reps start to feel really challenging. You’ll also need a set of sliders, though two towels or paper plates will work too. An exercise mat can help for comfort as well.
- Body saw
- Alternating single-arm chest press
- Bent-over row
- Shoulder press
- Complete 12 reps of each exercise, moving from one to the next in circuit form. After all four exercises are done, rest for 2 minutes. Complete 3 rounds total.
Demoing the moves below are Amanda Wheeler (GIF 1), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and cofounder of Formation Strength; April Nicole Henry (GIFs 2 and 4), a strength athlete based in New York City; and Cookie Janee (GIF 3), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve.