Fitness

Basic Upper Body Strength Workout for All Levels–See All 4 Moves

Welcome to day 1 of the SELF New Year’s Challenge! We can’t wait for you to see what we have in store, starting with this upper-body strength workout. Over the next four weeks, you’ll complete 20 transformational workouts designed by Christa Sgobba, C.P.T., an ACE-certified trainer and SELF’s associate director of fitness and food, along with a few workouts created by Justin and Taylor Norris, founders of the LIT Method. All of these workouts are aimed at helping you build your strength while improving your cardiovascular fitness.

Each week you’ll be tasked with five workouts: three strength routines (one upper-body, one lower-body, and one full-body) that use external resistance (we’ll show exercises with dumbbells here) and two cardio-based workouts that require just your bodyweight. You’ll cap off each session with an optional finisher; in weeks 1 and 2, it’ll be a 60-second burnout, consisting of a single exercise, and in weeks 3 and 4, it will be a 4-minute EMOM (every minute on the minute) with two moves. The goal of this challenge is to master basic movement patterns and refine them as the month goes on so you can keep challenging your muscles. These exercise routines won’t be easy, but in the end they’ll definitely be worth it.

Today we’ll begin laying the foundation for your fitness journey with a four-move, upper-body strength workout that will introduce you to some seriously fundamental movement patterns: a vertical and horizontal push, and a vertical and horizontal pull. Expect to hit your chest, back, shoulders, triceps, and biceps. These straightforward upper-body exercises will serve as a foundation for more advanced versions of the same exercises that you’ll see later in the challenge.

And you’ll only need one training tool to get started: the dumbbell.

While you may have heard the phrase “never skip leg day,” the same actually applies to your upper body, too. That’s because a strong upper body sets you up for success in everyday activities, from lowering a heavy carry-on from the plane’s overhead compartment to carrying your toddler around the house to pushing a cart of groceries at the supermarket. It can also help you perk up a lackluster posture caused by slouching.

One thing to keep in mind before you get started with this workout—especially if you’re new to strength training with dumbbells—is that it’s important to choose the correct weight for each move: You want to make sure to choose a weight that’s not too heavy and not too light. A good rule of thumb is to pick one that allows you to maintain correct form throughout each exercise, where the last two reps feel challenging but not completely impossible. If you go too heavy before you’re ready, you can risk injury. If you go too light, you might not be challenging your muscles enough to achieve the primary purpose of this session: to build strength and muscle.

In general, you can choose heavier weight for moves that work larger muscles (like rows, deadlifts, and squats), and lighter weights for isolation moves that work smaller muscles like your biceps, triceps, and shoulders. You may want to use 10-20 pound weights as a testing point for moves that work larger muscles, and 5-8 pounds for moves that work smaller muscles. If you’re struggling by the time you reach the lowest part of the rep range listed below, you probably should go down in weight; if you can easily tack on a few extra reps above the highest part of the rep range listed, you may want to try heavier weight. Remember, the most important part is choosing a weight that allows you to complete the moves with good form while still challenging your muscles!

Before you get started, don’t forget to warm up first. (Here’s a great one to try.) Priming your body prior to your workout session will take it from a resting state to one that’s ready to move by increasing your blood flow and getting you into the mental space to perform. The big payoff: It helps reduce your risk of injury, positions your body to maximize results, and boosts your overall performance.

Keep scrolling to get the details on how to do today’s upper-body strength workout. Let’s go #TeamSELF!

The workout below is for day 1 of the SELF New Year’s Challenge. Check out the full four-week workout program right here. Or go to the workout calendar here. If you’d like to sign up to receive daily emails for this challenge, you can do that here. 

WORKOUT DIRECTIONS

Aim for 8–12 reps of each exercise. Rest for up to 30 seconds between exercises. Rest 1–2 minutes after each round. Complete 2–5 rounds total.

EXERCISES

  • Chest Press
  • Bent-Over Row
  • Overhead Press
  • Pullover

BONUS MOVE

After your last circuit, try the bonus move for 60 seconds.

  • Triceps Overhead Extension

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