Building a stronger back, broader chest, and a great set of pipes (arms) are all at the top of most beginners’ goals. Upper body workouts are not only important to gain serious muscle mass and strength, but they are also beloved by lifters of all ages and abilities. The gym world, however, can be confusing and downright intimidating for some beginners, which is why we are here to help discuss some of the best upper body workouts for beginners.
So, what are THE BEST upper body workouts for beginners? Beginners can benefit from using compound movements, ones like the bench press, pull up, rows, and overhead presses to add quality muscle mass and strength. The majority of upper body workouts should include these types of compound movements, with single-joint exercises like curls and shoulder raises to account for a smaller part of their training program.
With a firm understanding of the basics, beginners can create effective workout programs that can maximize results, increase workout efficiency, and minimize injury.
Additionally, the key to remember is that beginners will most likely see results from just about anything simply because they are starting from, well, the beginning. Pair that fundamental truth with exercise science, and you have some pretty effective exercises and workout splits to help beginners succeed.
Let’s dive deeper into everything beginners, coaches, and even more advanced lifters need to know when looking to build a better workout program and optimize their training
What Upper Body Exercises Should Beginners Do?
Below are five (5) fundamental movement patterns that beginners should train frequently.
It’s important that all but one of these patterns (single-joint exercises) are multi-joint movements, meaning that they promote movement across two or more joints of the upper body (elbows, shoulders, etc).
When multi-joint exercises are used, higher amounts of muscle tissue are used during a rep, making the overall muscle growth potential higher for many beginner lifters while also increasing workout efficiency.
1. VERTICAL PRESSING
Vertical pressing movements include movements that are done while pressing loads away from the body in a vertical manner. This is a spectrum, as the higher the pressing angle, the greater the reliance on shoulder strength and muscle than the chest.
Examples of this would be overhead presses, landmine standing presses, high incline presses, and other forms of shoulder/upper chest exercises.
2. VERTICAL PULLING
Horizontal pulling movements include movements that are done with the hands overhead (or at an angle) and are pulling loads back into the body.
Examples of this would be pull-ups, chin-ups, pulldowns, and various rowing movements if done at certain angles.
Related Article: The At-Home Push Up Workout To Build Your Chest & Arms
3. HORIZONTAL PRESSING
Horizontal pressing movements include movements that are done while pressing loads away from the body in a non-vertical manner. This is a spectrum, as the lower the pressing angle (closer to perpendicular to the body), the greater reliance on chest strength and muscle than the shoulders.
Examples of this would be bench presses, push-ups, floor presses, and other forms of chest exercises.
4. HORIZONTAL PULLING
Horizontal pulling movements include movements that are done with the hands extended in front of your body and are pulling loads back into the body.
Examples of this would be wide grip seated rows, single-arm dumbbell rows, barbell bent-over rows, and various rowing movements if done at certain angles.
5. SINGLE JOINT EXERCISES
Following the completion of the above compound, multi-joint pressing and pulling movements, a program can then include single-joint exercises such as tricep press-downs, bicep curls, shoulder raises, etc
It is important to dedicate the majority of training to more compound movements as a beginner, as this can help overall muscle growth and help establish a sound foundation upon which more advanced training can be built upon.
Related Article: 3 Day Workout Split For Beginners (For Muscle Gain & Fat Loss)
A QUICK NOTE ON BICEPS AND TRICEPS
Every beginner wants to attack arms, and rightfully so. That said, if they properly train the above movements (multi-joint) they will have sufficient training stimulus on the biceps (used in pulling movements) and triceps (used in pressing movements) to see results. If however, they want to add additional arm training, it is best to do so in small doses after completing the fundamental movement patterns discussed above.
Related Article: How Many Exercises Make An Effective Arm Workout?
Should Beginners Use Machines or Free Weights?
Both. And that goes for all lifters, regardless of age, ability, or goal.
Free weights offer immense benefits, such as increased joint stabilization, awareness, and increase range of motion.
Machines, however, offer benefits to not just beginners, but advanced lifters as well. Using machines, lifters can take a muscle to failure and not be held back by supporting muscle fatigue or balance. Additionally, it can be helpful for increasing stability (using a machine) to allow a lifter to promote greater force and learn proper moment patterning and muscle engagement.
Remember, both free weights and machines are ideal for optimal performance and growth. It is key, however, to have a firm grasp and ability to train with free weights, using machines throughout training to assist when needed or to add additional training volume to a specific muscle group (and not overtax other areas in the process).
Related Article: Wave Loading: What Is It? Why It Works? How To Do It?
How Often Should Beginners Train a Muscle?
While there is not a magic number of days per week, sets and reps, etc, it is generally recommended that training a muscle with moderate volume and intensity can help promote muscle growth and prolonged training (staying with a program more than a few weeks).
Rather than training the chest to complete failure one day, and not being able to walk for a week, splitting that workout up into two or even three separate days (each day only doing a few sets, spreading them out across the entire week rather than one day) may actually allow for greater strength gains, increased recovery, decreased soreness, and enhance one’s ability to continue to progress over time.
Therefore, in the below sample workout plan, all muscle groups are trained two, sometimes three times a week. The overall weekly volume (key for muscle growth) is also often higher when split up like this, rather than performing all of one muscle group sets in one day.
For example, instead of doing 10 sets of chest on one workout per week, which would be a lot of volume for an individual training day, you can do three workouts per week doing 4 sets of chest each workout. In this scenario, at the end of the week you get 12 total sets of chest versus the 10 total sets if you only did one grueling training session.
Related Article: 11 Compound Exercises For Arms (Plus, Sample Workout)
How Hard Should Beginners Train?
While many people THINK training to complete failure and exhaustion is what is needed to grow muscle and have success, the reality is that a beginner (and even more so for advanced lifters) should NOT train to complete failure every day.
Beginners should aim to train at a 7 or 8 on a 1-10 difficulty scale. This means that they have roughly 2-3 good repetitions left in them every set before failure or poor form/technique.
Leaving some reps “in the tank” ensures proper technique, minimizes overuse injury, and can be a useful way to have the lifter progress the following week without having to simply add more weight too soon and risk injury.
Related Article: 2 Day Workout Split for Beginners (That Actually Works)
Sets x Reps for Beginners?
Beginners should ideally be subjected to a variety of rep ranges to establish a spectrum of control and coordination with both heavier loads and longer duration sets (fatigue).
The first repetition range that can be used is 6-8 reps to ensure muscle strength, neural adaptations, and movement efficiency under load. The other repetition range often used is 8-12 repetitions, which can help further muscle hypertrophy, build muscle endurance, and still reinforce some neural and movement adaptations.
It is generally recommended that beginners do NOT train with heavy loads (often meaning in the 1-4 repetition range) OR in the 15-20 repetition range.
If loads are heavy and the beginner has not built a foundation, they could be subject to form breakdowns and injury. Likewise, if they use light weights and high repetitions, beginners may succumb to excessive fatigue (muscular and psychological) and lose quality of movement and increase risk of overuse injuries.
The Fitbod app recommends precise training loads, sets, and reps based on logged workout history. The Fitbod algorithm also recognizes how hard a muscle group has trained and will program the right exercises based on your optimal levels of recovery.
How Much Weight Should Beginners Use?
Beginners should use light to moderate loads relative to their strength and abilities. Choosing a load that allows them to complete the prescribed repetition ranges (see above) using proper technique and movement coordination, feel the muscles working, and have roughly 2-3 repetitions left in the tank is key.
It is important to note that just like using too heavy of weight is not ideal for beginners, there is also such a thing as using too light of weight. Therefore, stick to a load that is challenging, yet allows for proper technique and at the same time does not completely exhaust the muscle/body.
How Long Should Beginners Rest Between Sets?
Generally speaking, rest periods for beginners should be between 1-2 minutes. Resting longer than two minutes significantly cuts down on workout efficiency, but also is not necessary if you are using loads and lifting within the correct repetition ranges. Resting too long can also decrease accumulated muscular fatigue, which is exactly what we want to achieve in order to build bigger, stronger muscles.
Conversely, not resting enough can also impede results by not allowing the muscle to recover enough to properly perform the movement without form breakdown. Additionally, shorter rest periods (for beginners, under a minute) may result in too light of loads being used, which may or may not be enough stimulus to ensure optimal muscle growth and strength gains.
Note, that as a beginner progresses and transitions into higher-rep based training or more maximal strength training phases, they can manipulate the amount of rest periods accordingly.
Beginner Tip – Many more advanced lifters can spot a beginner in the gym not by how much weight they can lift but by the amount of time they spend looking at their phone during a workout. It’s OK to log your workout on your phone/app, however, that should only take 30-60 seconds between sets, MAX. Don’t be the person who camps out on a piece of equipment and surfs social media, as that is a sure way to make a bad name for yourself in the gym.
How Can Beginners Progress Their Workouts?
Progressing workouts week-to-week can be done adding weight, increasing reps, and even improving the way you perform movements. Beginners can manipulate more than just weight, making progress much more sustainable and individualized. In an ideal world, progressions would be made with all of these variables in mind, often multiple happening at once.
1. ADD MORE WEIGHT
Adding more weight is about as basic as you can get, and is an effective means of progress IF AND ONLY IF you are properly performing the movement.
Unfortunately, many beginners think (as well as more seasoned lifters) that the only way to progress is to add more weight. Not only is this a flawed way of training (because you cannot add more weight in a linear manner forever), it is also one that will surely catch up to you (and often end in lifting plateaus, injury, and frustration).
Be sure to read the other ways beginners can progress each workout without adding more weighT.
2. PERFORM MORE REPS
Using repetition ranges (as suggested above) is a great way to offer another way to progress week to week.
For example, a beginner is prescribed 4 sets of 6-8 reps of machine bench press using 100lbs, and performs sets of 8-7-6-6 reps.
The following week, rather than increasing the weight to 105lbs, the lifter could simply repeat the sets at 100lbs but aim to perform all sets at 8 reps (an overall training volume increase of 16% from the previous week, if they performed all four sets for eight reps).
If they fall short again, the third week they can either choose to then go up to 105lbs and try to match their total rep count in week 1, or stay at 100lbs and beat their total repetition count from week 2.
3. ESTABLISH MORE CONTROL / BETTER QUALITY OF MOVEMENT
Lastly, a beginner can progress from a previous week by simply challenging the way they perform a movement. While this is a less objective way of progression, it is extremely effective at increasing movement patterning, enhancing technique, and decreasing injury in the long run.
This is a more advanced progression hack that many advanced trainers and coaches use, and can be done by simply repeating a workout that previously was challenging and/or felt awkward while performing the movements.
It can be helpful to record the sets and look at movement characteristics like sticking points, form breakdowns, and/or how much you struggled in a movement. If there is progress from week to week without increasing loads and reps per set, that is still progress.
3 Upper-Body Workouts for Beginners
Below are three upper body workouts for beginners. Each workout includes a warm-up segment, free weights, and machines. Ideally, all three of these workouts would be used in training programs to ensure adequate training frequency.
If you want workouts tailored to your individual goals, personal training history, gym equipment, and other personal preferences, download the Fitbod app and get 3 free workouts. You’ll also get exercise videos for each of the movements so you don’t have to wonder whether you’re performing the exercise correctly or not.
WORKOUT 1 (CHEST, BACK, AND ARMS)
Warm-Up (2-3 Rounds)
All 4’s T-Spine Rotations – 10/movement
Hang from Bar – 30 seconds
Smith Machine Flat Bench: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
Incline Bench Dumbbell Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Seated Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Dumbbell Floor Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Cable Triceps Pushdown: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Reverse Bar Curl: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
WORKOUT 2 (SHOULDERS, BACK, AND ARMS)
Warm-Up (2-3 Rounds)
Dumbbell YTW – 5/movement
Deep Thoracic Breathing – 10 breaths
Seated Barbell Overhead Press: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Band Assisted Pull-Up: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
Barbell Seal Row: 4 sets of 8-10 reps
Standing Landmine Shoulder Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps per side
Close Grip Push Up: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Preacher Curl: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
WORKOUT 3 (UPPER BODY MUSCLES)
Warm-Up (2-3 Rounds)
Band Pull-Apart – 10 reps
Shoulder Circles with PVC Pipe – 10 circles
Push Press: 4 sets of 6-8 reps
Eccentric Chin Up: 4 sets of 6-8 reps (3 seconds on way down)
Machine Row: 4 sets of 8-10
Push Up (add weight if need): 4 sets of 8-10
Skullcrusher: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Farmers Carry: 3 sets of 20-30 steps
To maximize results as a beginner, it is important to stay consistent and trust the process. Many beginners try to rush things, switch workouts on a weekly basis, or simply don’t have a plan to achieve their goals.
Hopefully this article shed light on WHY you should be training upper body, how to do it more effectively, and how to ensure growth over weeks and months to come using these 3 upper body workouts.
Remember, frequency is key, as well as proper technique, not training to all-out failure, and focusing your workouts so that you FEEL your muscles working. If pain exists, (pain is different than muscle soreness or discomfort), seek help from a more experienced lifter or fitness professional!
Oh, and PS, while this is an upper body-focused workout article, it is VITAL to optimize the muscle growth and strength development of your legs as well with just as much intensity and frequency as the upper body!
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.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition.
In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.