Upper body growth can be difficult for some women, however, the right exercises and understanding of how to challenge yourself every week can make all the difference in your success.
The 15 best upper body exercises and workouts for women looking to gain strength and lean muscle are:
- Smith Machine Bench Press
- Barbell Bench Press
- Hammer Chest Press
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press
- Smith Machine Shoulder Press
- Barbell Shoulder Press
- Seated Cable Row
- Smith Machine Bent Over Row
- 1-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Machine Assisted Pull-Up
- Lat Pulldown
- Pull Up
- Cable Bicep Curl
- Cable Lateral Raise
- Cable Pushdown
To maximize your upper body workouts, I will share how to integrate these exercises into your routine.
If you struggle to build upper body strength and muscle, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.
Anatomy Of Upper Body Musculature
The upper body is primarily broken down into five distinct muscle groups.
Pectoral Muscles (Chest)
The chest muscles (pec major and pec minor) cover the upper front of the body and are responsible for pressing the arms away from the body (in front or on an upward angle, but not so much when lifting overhead).
Latissimus Dorsi (Back)
The lats span from the back of the neck to the base of the lower back and have muscle fibers that run at many different angles, which is why you want to perform pulling movements from both horizontal and vertical angles to best develop a well-rounded back.
The deltoids are made up of three heads (front, lateral, and rear delts). These muscles are often trained during horizontal pushing and pulling movements, however, they can be trained more directly with isolation exercises (i.e. lateral raises, front raises, rear delt flys).
The triceps are the muscles on the back of the upper arms. These muscles work to straighten the elbow. The triceps aid the chest and shoulders in all pressing movements and can also be further trained and targeted with isolation exercises like tricep pushdowns.
The biceps cover the front of the upper arms and are responsible for bending the elbows. They do the opposite of the joint action of the tricep. The biceps aid the back during all pulling exercises (especially when the palms are up), and can also be further targeted with isolation exercises like bicep curls.
Related Article: Best 3-Day Workout Plan for Women
Benefits Of Upper Body Workouts For Women
The benefits of upper body training for women are:
Improved Upper Body Strength
Training the upper body will help you develop pushing and pulling strength. Most females struggle more with upper body strength than lower body strength (often due to narrower shoulders and less muscle tissue in the upper body relative to males), which is why training the upper body is so beneficial.
Building upper body strength is important for everyday life and to continue progressing in the gym.
More Muscle Definition
Working out with weights helps to build lean muscle tissue which becomes more apparent as you lose body fat.
Building muscle and losing fat will help you develop a more “toned” physique. Contrary to what some individuals may believe, building muscle will not make women look “bulky”.
Most women claim that they want to have a toned upper body, but it’s impossible to get the toned look you’re going for without strength training.
When you strengthen a muscle by having it move through a full range of motion under load, you start to reinforce better posture while also strengthening the muscle that may be undeveloped.
The reinforcement of better posture occurs while lifting due to your awareness of “pulling the shoulders back” and “sitting upright”.
So if you want better posture, perform the movements that put you in better positions more frequently to repattern your movement and strengthen the muscles that support your upper body.
Working toward better posture by training your upper body muscles can also reduce back, shoulder, and neck pain.
15 Upper Body Exercises For Women
Below are 15 exercises (5 movement categories, 3 per category) that you should add to your workout program.
1. Smith Machine Bench Press
The smith machine bench press is a good exercise to build the chest, triceps, and front delts. This exercise allows you to train the bench press while on tracks, so your bar path will not limit you.
You could also do this on a slight incline to target more upper chest and front delts.
This works well for beginners who aren’t confident enough to use a regular barbell and for advanced lifters who want to isolate the chest without worrying about other muscles taking over.
- Place a bench in the smith machine rack. Lie down on the bench facing upward and grab the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip (1-2”).
- With your palms facing away from you and feet placed flat on the ground, arch your upper back to puff your chest up and push your head and hips into the bench.
- Lower the bar to your middle chest, with your elbows on a 45-degree angle out from the body. You may need to adjust the position of your bench so that the bar can touch your middle chest as you lower it.
- Push the bar back to the starting position with elbows straight, and repeat.
2. Barbell Bench Press
The barbell bench press is a free-weight exercise that allows you to train the chest, triceps, and front delts to build strength and muscle. You can also do this on an incline bench to target more of the upper chest.
- Lie down on a bench and grab a barbell from the rack with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip (1-2” outside the shoulders).
- Plant your feet, hips, and head on the bench and arch your upper back to puff up your chest.
- Unrack the weight and position the bar over your shoulders.
- Slowly lower the bar to the middle of the chest, keeping the shoulders 45 degrees from the body.
- Touch the chest, and then press the weight back up so that the hands are in line with the shoulders at the top, and repeat.
3. Hammer Chest Press
The machine hammer chest press is a chest exercise that allows you to train the chest and arms independently (like dumbbells) but helps you maintain a proper bar path so that you can focus more on building muscle (and less on form).
This is a great way to place lifters in the proper position and let them attack heavy and high rep sets and train to failure to build more muscle without worrying about technique.
- Sit down in the machine, and set the seat height so that the handles are in line with the middle of your chest at the bottom of the movement.
- Push your head, hips, and back into the seat and grab the handles with a palms-down grip.
- With the elbows in line with the wrists and shoulders, press the weight up and pause at the top of the movement with straight elbows.
- Slowly lower the weight back down, pause in the deep stretch (while keeping tension on the muscle), and repeat.
1. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
The dumbbell shoulder press is a shoulder exercise that can be done to train the shoulders independently to help address muscle imbalances.
Inexperienced lifters may find this movement challenging because of the need to control both dumbbells independently. More advanced lifters may also find it challenging to get heavier dumbbells into the proper pressing position.
- Sit down on an adjustable bench, with the back support at about 80 degrees.
- With the dumbbells resting on your shoulders, push the weights overhead in a vertical path.
- Once the dumbbells are locked out overhead (elbows straight) and shoulder width apart, slowly lower them back to the shoulders and repeat.
2. Smith Machine Shoulder Press
The Smith machine shoulder press is a shoulder exercise that allows you to train the shoulders with heavier or moderate loads to failure without being limited by your ability to control the bar path.
This is a great exercise for those who feel limited by factors other than strength when training with dumbbells.
- Place an adjustable bench in the Smith machine, with the seat upright (80 degrees).
- Grab the bar with a shoulder-width grip (or slightly wider) and your palms facing away from you.
- Sit down and adjust yourself so that the bar touches the top of your shoulders when seated.
- With your head out of the way (recline the seat more if needed), push your elbows forward under the bar so they are stacked below the wrists.
- Push the bar overhead until the elbows are straight.
- Slowly lower the bar back to the top of the shoulders, and repeat.
3. Barbell Shoulder Press
The barbell shoulder press is an overhead pressing movement that trains the shoulders, upper chest, and triceps. This is a great way to build muscular shoulders and improve general upper-body pushing strength.
This variation is easier to control than the dumbbells because both arms are working together, but requires more stability and bar path awareness than the smith machine shoulder press.
- Place a barbell in a squat rack and set it at chest level.
- Grab the bar with a palms-down grip, with the hands slightly wider (1-2”) than shoulder-width.
- With the bar resting on the tops of your shoulders, push your elbows up and under the bar so the wrists are directly above the elbows.
- Push the bar up overhead to line it up over the back of your head, and straighten the elbows.
- Slowly lower the weight back to the top of the shoulders, ensure your elbows are under your wrists, and repeat.
These exercises train the back muscle fibers, improve posture, and help balance out the pushing exercises listed above.
1. Seated Cable Row
The seated cable row allows you to train the back in all rep ranges without being limited by hamstrings flexibility or lower back fatigue. This variation is ideal for all levels as you can train the back muscles directly without being limited by other factors.
- Sit down on the bench and place your feet on the platform.
- Grab the bar attachment (straight bar or concave bar) with any grip, and scoot your hips back so that your knees are slightly bent (but not uncomfortable on the hamstrings).
- Push back enough that the weight is off the stack in the starting position.
- With the back straight and shoulders stacked above the hips, pull the elbows back so that the bar touches your lower chest without you leaning back or slouching forwards.
- Slowly straighten the arms to the starting position and repeat.
2. Smith Machine Bent Over Row
The Smith machine bent-over row is a great way to train the bent-over row as it keeps the bar on the right path throughout the entire set. This is also an excellent way to add more stability to the row by engaging your entire posterior chain (i.e. erectors, hamstrings, glutes) to maintain the bent-over position.
- Stand over the bar set in the lowest position.
- With the feet stacked under the bar, push your hips back to bend over, keeping your shins perpendicular to the ground.
- Puff your chest so that your back is flat and parallel to the ground.
- With the arms straight, grab the bar with palms facing you, shoulder-width grip.
- While keeping the hips and shoulders in line with one another, row the bar to the lower or upper chest and pull the elbows into the sides of the body.
- Slowly straighten the arms to the starting position and repeat.
3. 1-Arm Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row is a one-arm movement that allows you to train each side of the back independently, which can help you address any muscle imbalances.
This can also help you use your other arm muscles to provide stability so that you can train the row harder (heavier and with more reps) without being limited by your back endurance.
- Place your right knee and hand on a bench (knee under the hip, wrist under the shoulder).
- With your left leg on the ground (slightly bent), grab a dumbbell with your left arm and bend down so that your shoulders are level with your hips and your back is flat.
- With your chest puffed, pull the dumbbell up and back so that it comes to the side of the rib cage.
- Make sure the weight is directly under the elbow.
- Once the weight is in line with your ribcage, slowly lower and straighten the arm fully to the starting position and repeat.
These exercises train the back muscles but from a different angle. Training both vertical and horizontal pulling movements will help strengthen and grow your back muscles effectively.
1. Machine Assisted Pull Up
The machine-assisted pull-up may be the best option even if you can do pull-ups, as they allow you to do them in higher volumes (more reps and sets) and focus on keeping good form and control.
- Place your knees on the pad and grab the pull-up handles with a shoulder-width grip and palms facing away.
- Set the weight on the stack. The more weight used, the easier the pull-up will be.
- Pull yourself up from a straight-arm position until your chin passes the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself to the starting position, and repeat.
2. Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown targets the lats and is a great way to build muscle without having your grip or own body weight be a limiting factor.
This is also an excellent way to overload the muscles by doing drop sets and training to failure (as you can easily change the weight and do more reps without your grip or ability to do pull-ups limiting you).
You can also do this with a chin-up grip (palms facing you), called the reverse grip pulldown, to target the back and biceps.
- Sit down on the machine’s seat and place your knees under the pad.
- Grab the straight bar with a shoulder-width grip, with your palms down, and wrap your thumbs around the bar.
- Sit up tall and pull the bar down to your chest.
- Straighten the arms back to the start positioning and repeat.
3. Pull Up
The pull-up trains the lats, similar to the machine or pull-down versions. If you can do regular unassisted pull-ups (at least 5), the pull-up could be an excellent option to build muscle and strength.
If you cannot do regular unassisted pull-ups, try using the other two movements above or eccentric pull-ups (slowly lower yourself down and use a partner to help you back up).
Note: Band-assisted pull-ups are also an option; however, they aren’t the best option for developing strength and building muscle.
- Grab the pull-up bar with a shoulder-width grip, with your palms facing down.
- Pull yourself up to the bar from a hanging position (arms straight) without letting your shoulders round forward.
- Once your chin passes the bar, slowly lower yourself to the station position and repeat.
The following exercises are single-joint exercises, meaning they only have to move one joint and are therefore better at isolating a muscle.
Cables are one of the best pieces of equipment to perform isolation exercises; however, you can also use machines or free weights.
Free weights tend to be the least effective for most people because form and technique often break down before the muscle reaches failure (which is why I generally like cables and machines for all levels).
1. Cable Bicep Curl
The cable bicep curl targets the bicep muscle and can be done with various attachments (straight bar, angles bar, rope).
- Stand facing a cable pulley in the lowest position, with the straight bar attached.
- Grab the bar with a palms-up, shoulder-width grip. Your elbows should align with your ribcage (not behind the shoulders).
- Step back 1’ and stand up tall.
- Bend the elbows to curl the weight until the forearms touch the biceps, making sure not to let the elbows move behind the shoulders.
- Slowly straighten the elbows with control and then repeat.
2. Cable Lateral Raise
The cable shoulder lateral raise targets the lateral head of the deltoids (side of the shoulders). Unlike with dumbbells, this keeps constant tension on the muscle, especially when it is at the bottom of the movement.
Maintaining tension on the shoulders throughout the entire movement encourages more muscle growth.
- Stand facing the universal cable stack with two handles in the lowest position.
- Grab the right handle with the left arm and the left handle with the right arm, crossing the cables.
- Step back 1’ or until there is tension on the cables.
- Lift the arms out and slightly in front of you (more outwards) while you keep the elbows straight.
- Once the hands are lifted to head height, slowly lower the weights (slowly is key) and repeat.
3. Cable Pushdown
The cable pushdown targets the triceps, especially the long head of the triceps. This exercise is great for targeting the triceps more directly so they aren’t limiting your pushing power in horizontal and vertical pushing exercises.
- Stand facing a pulley set in the highest position with a rope or straight bar attached.
- Grab the attachment with a palms-down grip (bar) or thumbs-up grip (rope).
- Bend the elbows fully and pull them down to the sides of the chest, with your thumbs in line with the trunk.
- With the elbows positioned under the shoulders. Straight the elbows and extend your arms without letting the elbows move back or forward (they should be fixed in the same spot).
- Once you have straight elbows, bend them again and return to the start position.
Upper Body Workout Considerations For Women
Now that you know which exercises to include, it’s important to understand how to include them in your program to optimize your results.
Do 10-15 weekly sets per muscle group (spread across 2-3 workouts). This is a great starting point as it will deliver enough volume (total work) to encourage strength and muscle gain and still allow you to train 2-3 days a week.
For each session, I recommend that you target whatever muscle you are training with 6-8 total sets (examples of what this would look like below).
Most of your training should be in the 8-15 rep range. This is a great rep range to lift heavier loads and still get enough reps to deliver volume.
When lifting heavier loads with lower rep ranges (1-5), the main goal would be to get stronger (which can also be part of your program). However, this can be highly fatiguing and place high stress on the nervous system and connective tissues (which can also work in your favor if you do not overdo it).
If you want to get stronger, do no more than 1-2 main movements each session, and try to keep 1-5 rep ranges workouts to 25% of your weekly training time or less.
Training higher reps can also be beneficial (15+ reps). However, they can also be highly tiring and mentally challenging. I suggest you aim to spend no more than 25% of your training week in this rep range and put 100% of your effort into every set when you do train it.
Most workouts will have 8-15 total reps, which equates to 50-80% of one’s max.
If you do not know your one rep max for a particular movement (most people don’t), then you can simply choose a weight where you could only perform one or two more good reps before failing.
When looking to train for muscle growth, it is vital to push your training intensity (loading and effort) to an 8 or 9 out of 10, meaning you only have 1 to 2 reps left in the tank at the end of your set.
Research shows women fatigue less than men at any % of their maximums, which means they can generally do more reps at a given % than males.
For example, if a man and woman both lift 75% of their max, the man might only be able to do eight reps, whereas the woman may be able to push her reps to 10 or 11.
The bottom line is to avoid getting hung up on percentages when training for muscle growth and, instead, put your best effort into every set (especially the first set or two) to set the tone for muscle growth.
Train each muscle group at least twice weekly to maximize your growth potential.
If you only train each muscle group once a week, you will be spending 2-3 days of your week in a state where your muscles are ready and able to train again, and you’re missing out on it. This means that your muscles won’t grow or get stronger as fast as they could.
Some more advanced lifters could get away with training each muscle group three or four times per week if they only train the muscle group with 4-6 total sets per workout (a full-day split).
You will first want to train whichever muscle group you want to develop the most in that session.
For example, if you are doing an upper push day and hoping to build your shoulders, then train the shoulders first in that session.
If you do not have a preference for which muscle group you’d like to focus on, then I suggest training the larger muscle groups first to train them when you’re the freshest.
The bottom line, train whatever muscle first that you want to develop the most (or that you struggle to develop).
Related Article: Female Bulking Diet and Workout Plan
Sample Upper Body Workout For Women
Below are three sample workout programs for women to develop their upper body.
Note: Each exercise can be found in the Fitbod app. However, the exact workouts are not found there exactly as they are written below. You can use these workouts to build your own program in the Fitbod app.
Workout #1: Upper Body Workout
This workout trains the entire upper body (back, shoulders, chest, and arms). This format is great if you train less than 5 days a week.
- Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 8 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Machine Assisted Pull Up: 4 sets of 8 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Smith Machine Incline Chest Press: 4 sets of 12 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Seated Cable Row: 4 sets of 12 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Cable Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
Workout #2: Upper Body PUSH Workout
This workout trains the upper body muscles that press and push loads (chest, shoulders, triceps). The workout should be done twice per week and can be paired with the PULL workout (which should also be done twice per week). Then, you could train your legs twice per week (6 workouts a week).
- Barbell Bench Press: 4 sets of 8 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Hammer Chest Press: 4 sets of 8 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Smith Machine Incline Bench Press: 4 sets of 12 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Cable Pushdown: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Cable Lateral Raise: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
Workout #3: Upper Body PULL Workout
This workout trains the upper body muscles that pull (back, biceps, rear shoulders). This should be done with the above PUSH workout. If you train less than 5-6 total days per week, I suggest you use Workout #1 as your upper body workout routine.
- Machine Assisted Pull Ups: 3 sets of 8 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown: 3 sets of 12 reps, resting 2 minutes between sets
- Smith Machine Bent Over Row: 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Cable Curl: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Machine Reverse Fly: 4 sets of 15 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.