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What is the Best Upper Body Workout for Women?

Holly Smith

By: Holly Smith, M.D. - Osteopathic Medicine, B.S. - Dietetics, NASM-PES Certified Trainer,

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

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Warm weather is here, and part of getting that summer beach body is building a strong, toned upper body. But what is the best upper body workout for women?

Upper body workouts can help you lose weight, build stronger bones, and enhance your strength and endurance.

It's not just about looking toned and tight! But … if you want to be able to whip out the tank tops and show off your chiseled arms, then start with these upper body workouts for women!

Build Upper-Body Strength

In order to build a strong, toned upper body you need to include exercises that target multiple muscle groups.

This includes the arms, chest, shoulders, and back.

Women often shy away from lifting weights to build their upper body due to the fear of getting “bulky.”

But the truth is, strength training is just as important in women as it is in men.

The importance of resistance training goes beyond looking “fit.”

Resistance training helps improve blood pressure, blood sugars, and other markers of chronic disease.

One study even found that women who engaged in twice-weekly strength training programs were able to improve their body composition and decrease their obesity risks.

Since women do not produce as much testosterone as men, they won’t typically achieve the same muscle bulk as men doing the same exercises.

But, upper-body weight training is still just as important for women. Strong arms allow you to push, pull, and carry objects and perform everyday activities.

Plus having a toned upper body will have you looking great and feeling confident about your body!

Target the Arms, Chest, and Back

Building strong biceps, triceps, and shoulders are essential in toning up your arms.

Working all of these muscle groups is necessary to build a strong upper body.

Also, compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups in the same movement are excellent ways to efficiently strengthen the arm muscles.

In addition to the arms, you need to target the chest and back muscles to build a complete upper body.

All of these muscles need to be strengthened, not just to look great on the beach, but to improve all of your day-to-day functions.

Incorporate Super-Sets to Increase Efficiency

A great way to get an effective and efficient upper body workout is to incorporate super-sets.

This means doing two workouts back to back with minimal rest.

There are different patterns of super-sets, which are:

Same Muscle Group (Pre-Exhaustion)

You can target the same muscle group in a super-set by starting out with an isolation exercise, and then following this up with a compound movement.

In this way, the muscles become “pre-exhausted” in the first set.

You then push past this in the second set to help increase muscle growth.

Same Muscle Group (Post-Exhaustion)

This is similar to the pre-exhaustion super-set, however this time you start with compound exercises, and then follow that up with an isolation movement.

Opposing Muscle Groups

This is a very common type of super-set, where you target different muscle groups.

For example, doing a pushing chest exercise followed by a pulling back exercise.

This gives the muscles in the first group time to recover.

In addition, the muscles tend to generate a stronger contraction when preceded by a contraction in an opposing muscle group.

Staggered Super-Sets

In a staggered super-set, you do exercises in two completely different muscle groups.

For example, squats followed by bench press.

Since this is an upper body workout you won’t be utilizing this type of super-set, but it’s good to keep in mind for future workouts.

By doing this, you are making the most out of your workout time.

Instead of taking long rest periods without doing any work, you use the time that you are resting one muscle group to work the next.

Plus, since some of the muscles used in each exercise overlap slightly, you are getting the most bang for your buck!

In addition, research has shown that super-sets can also help increase fat burning by increasing calorie burning and energy expenditure even after your workout is over!

The Ultimate Upper Body Workout for Women

Here is a great upper body workout to start adding to your weekly fitness routine.

To maximize strength gains, you should be doing strength training at least twice per week, and even up to three times weekly as your strength improves and time permits.

Perform 8-10 reps of each exercise then move right into the next set.

Super-Set 1 — Chest and Back

For this you will do one set of bench press, then move right into the lat pull-down.

Take a one-minute rest after that, then repeat the super-set two more times.

Dumbbell Bench Press

  • Lie back on a flat bench.
  • Using a medium width grip, hold the dumbbells straight over you with your arms locked.
  • Breathe in and begin moving the weights down slowly to your middle chest.
  • Pause briefly and then push back up to the starting position as you breathe out.
  • Lock your arms and squeeze your chest in the contracted position at the top of the motion.

Lat Pull Downs

  • Grab the bar with your palms facing forward at about shoulder width.
  • Bring your torso back around 30 degrees or so while creating a curvature on your lower back and sticking your chest out.
  • Pull the bar down until it touches your upper chest by drawing the shoulders and the upper arms down and back.
  • Your upper body should remain still and only your arms should be moving.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blades together for a brief pause, then slowly raise the bar back to the starting position.

Super-Set 2 — Biceps and Triceps

For this you will do one set of barbell (or dumbbell) curls, then move right into the tricep pull downs.

Take one minute of rest, then repeat the super-set two more times.

Barbell Curl

  • Hold a curl bar down in front of you, palms facing forward, and keep your back straight and chest up.
  • You can add weight to the bar or just curl the bar alone depending on your current strength.
  • Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows and curl the bar toward your shoulders.
  • Slowly lower the bar back to the starting position, straightening your arms completely.
  • Complete three sets of 8-12 reps.

Tricep Rope Pull Downs

  • Attach a rope attachment to a high pulley and hold the rope with your palms facing each other.
  • Bring your torso forward at about a 30-degree angle.
  • Contract your triceps to pull the rope down until your arms are fully extended.
  • The upper arms should always remain stationary and only the forearms should move.
  • Hold for a pause and then bring the rope slowly back up.

Super-Set 3 — Shoulders and Back

For this you will do one set of the overhead press, then move right into the bent-over rows.

Take one minute of rest, then repeat the super-set two more times.

Overhead Press

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand at the front of your shoulders.
  • Press the weights directly overhead until your arms are straight, then lower it to the start.
  • That’s one rep.
  • After 8-10 reps, lower the dumbbells to your thighs.
  • Rest briefly and then start the bent-over rows.

Bent-Over Rows

  • Hinge forward from your hips with arms straight.
  • Row the weights up towards your chest, leading with your elbows, then lower it under control.
  • Rest for 60 seconds after the final rep, then repeat the super-set two more times.

Super-Set 4 — Chest and Triceps

This super-set will really challenge the triceps as this muscle group will also have to work during the chest exercise.

Take one minute of rest after the one arm kickbacks, then repeat the super-set two more times.

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

  • Lie back on an incline bench with a dumbbell in each hand.
  • The palms of your hands will be facing each other.
  • Lift the dumbbells one at a time so that you can hold them at shoulder width.
  • Once you have the dumbbells raised to shoulder width, rotate your wrists forward so that the palms of your hands are facing away from you.
  • Push the dumbbells up and pause at the top for a second.
  • Then start slowly lowering the weight back down to your shoulders.

One-Arm Kickbacks

  • Start with a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing your torso.
  • Keep your back straight with a slight bend in the knees and bend forward at the waist.
  • Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
  • Keep your upper arms close to your torso and parallel to the floor.
  • Your forearms should be directed towards the floor as you hold the weights, with a 90-degree angle between your forearm and upper arm.
  • This is your starting position.
  • Keep your upper arms stationary and contract your triceps to extend the weights behind you until your arms are fully extended.
  • Focus on moving the forearms and try not to swing the upper arms.
  • After a brief pause at the top slowly lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position to complete one rep.

Super-Set 5 — Shoulders and Biceps

The compound move of dumbbell curl to shoulder press will really challenge the arms and shoulders.

Follow this with a burn out exercise of isometric bicep holds to finish out the workout.

Dumbbell Curl to Shoulder Press

  • Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Your arms should be hanging at your sides with your palms facing forward.
  • Flex your elbows to curl the dumbbells up in a controlled movement.
  • At the top of the curl, rotate your shoulders and turn your wrists so that your palms are facing forward again.
  • Press your arms up above your head.
  • Pause at the top of the motion then slowly lower the dumbbells to your shoulders.
  • Turn your palms so that they are facing you again, as they were at the top of the curl.
  • Then lower the dumbbells to the starting position for one rep.

Isometric Biceps Hold

  • Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides, palms facing forward, and keep your back straight and chest up.
  • Bend your elbows and curl the weights until your arms form a 90-degree angle.
  • Hold here for 30 seconds, then lower back down.

No Equipment? No Problem!

If you don’t have access to a gym or weights, you can still get a great workout with bodyweight exercises.

Just like with the above workout, utilizing super-sets will help you induce muscle hypertrophy to build strength and get into amazing shape.

Studies have shown that muscle growth can be achieved using either high weights with low reps or high reps with lighter weight, as long as the exercise is done to failure.

So on the days where you aren’t able to use weight plates or dumbbells, you can still challenge yourself by increasing reps of bodyweight exercises to fatigue your muscles.

The Ultimate Equipment-Free Upper Body Workout For Women

Aim for 8-10 reps of each exercise.

Rest for one minute after the second part of the super-set, then repeat twice through before moving to the next super-set.

Super-Set 1 — Chest and Back

Standard Push-Ups

  • Push-ups are the ultimate body-weight chest workout.
  • Position your hands under your shoulders with your feet straight behind you.
  • Lower your chest towards the ground, pause, and then extend your arms to push back up.

Arm Haulers

  • Lie on your stomach with your chest lifted and arms behind you.
  • Extend your arms out to the side and then swing them around until they meet in front of your face.
  • Then slowly swing the arms back behind you again.
  • Keep your chest lifted throughout this exercise.
  • This exercise will engage the lats as you move your arms in front and extend the arms behind your body.

Super-Set 2 — Biceps and Triceps

For this you will do one set of barbell (or dumbbell) curls, then move right into the tricep pull downs.

Take one minute of rest, then repeat the super-set two more times.

Soup Can Curl

  • Hold a soup can in each hand.
  • Without moving your upper arms, bend your elbows and curl the cans up to your shoulders.
  • Slowly lower back to the starting position, straightening your arms completely.

Tricep Dips

  • Place your hands on the edge of a stable surface, like a chair.
  • Place your feet out in front of you.
  • Lower your body until your upper arms are parallel to the floor, then push back up.
  • You can change the position of your feet in front of you to vary the intensity of this move.
  • The closer your feet are to your body, the easier the exercise will be.
  • To really challenge yourself, place your feet up on another chair to perform this exercise.

Super-Set 3 — Shoulders and Back

Pike Push-Up

  • Start in a push-up position.
  • Lift your hips so that your body forms an upside-down V.
  • Your legs and arms should stay as straight as possible.
  • Bend your elbows and lower your upper body until the top of your head nearly touches the floor.
  • Pause, and then push yourself back up until your arms are straight.
  • This bodyweight exercise will target the shoulders as you are lowering your body from a higher angle than a standard push up.

Superman Pulses

  • Lay on your stomach on the floor or exercise mat.
  • Extend your arms in front of you.
  • Contract our glutes and back to raise your arms, legs, and chest off of the floor.
  • Once in this position pulse your arms up and down by squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  • Lower your arms, legs, and chest back down after the 30-second interval.

Super-Set 4 — Chest and Triceps

This super-set will really challenge the triceps as this muscle group will also have to work during the chest exercise.

Staggered Hand Push-Ups

  • Place your left hand below your shoulder and your right hand near your ribs.
  • Slowly lower your chest to the ground.
  • Pause, then push yourself back up to the top of the push-up.
  • Switch your hand position so now your right hand is below your shoulder and the left hand is near your ribs.
  • Repeat.
  • Continue alternating sides.

Military Push-Ups

  • These are done in the same manner as standard push-ups, but with a narrow hand position.
  • Come down slowly while maintaining a tight core and straight back.
  • You can come to your knees if you find your back is arching or you cannot push yourself all the way to the top.
  • This bodyweight exercise will target your triceps as well as your chest.
  • Since your hands are placed in a narrow position, your pectoral muscles cannot assist as much from this angle.
  • You can come down to your knees if your form starts to falter.

Super-Set 5 — Shoulders and Biceps

Soup Can Curl to Shoulder Press

These are going to be the same exercises as in the upper body workout with equipment, however, instead of dumbbells, you will use soup cans instead.

You will still be targeting your biceps and shoulder, you just may need to increase the number of reps to feel a similar burn.

Instead of 8-10 reps, try 15-18 reps of this move.

Isometric Biceps Hold

Again, this is the same exercise as above, but to get a similar effect, try holding the cans at a 90-degree angle for 45 seconds up to a minute if you can.

Building a Toned Upper Body — With or Without Equipment!

These amazing upper body workouts will not only build a great looking upper body, but they will also have you feeling stronger and more confident.

As you can see from these workouts, you really have to target all of the muscles in the upper body to gain balanced strength and build a toned physique.

Utilizing super-sets in your upper body exercises will make your workout more efficient and increase your calorie-burning potential.

This means improving not just your upper body strength, but your overall health as well.

So start today on the road to toned, strong arms and an overall healthy lifestyle with this ultimate upper body workout for women!

Holly Smith
Holly Smith

Writer, The Fit Father Project & Fit Mother Project

Holly is an osteopathic physician, runner, triathlete, and fitness and nutrition enthusiast.

She is board certified in nephrology and internal medicine, has a bachelors degree in dietetics and is a certified personal trainer with NASM-PES certification.

Holly has completed four full ironmans, twelve marathons, countless half ironmans, olympic distance triathlons, half marathons and numerous other road races.

Holly joined the Fit Father Project in May 2019 as a regular writer, contributing articles on health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition.

She has also recently qualified for the 2020 World Championships for Ironman 70.3, in New Zealand!

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