While bodyweight exercises are an excellent way to increase strength and sculpt muscle, adding weight to your upper-body workouts allows you to challenge your arms, shoulders, chest, and back in new ways.
And by cycling through a variety of exercises, you can put together a demanding upper-body workout routine at home that targets more muscle groups using minimal equipment. In addition to the usual pull-ups and push-ups, all you’ll need in most cases is a pair of dumbbells.
To build bigger, stronger muscles (upper body or otherwise), here are some things you should keep in mind:
- Keep challenging your muscles. You can do this by adding more weight, doing more reps, or reducing rest periods between sets. Even minor tweaks can help keep your muscles progressing.
- Do more sets. Instead of going as hard as you can for just one set, research has found that lifters who performed three to five sets saw more strength gains, muscle endurance, and hypertrophy than those who just did one set per exercise.
- Eat right. Protein is essential when it comes to building muscle. Make sure you’re eating enough and that you’re eating it at the right time (hint: try after you exercise). Beachbody Performance Recover offers 20 grams of high-quality protein to help your muscles grow and repair after a challenging workout.
1. Wide Bent-Over Row
Appears in: SHAUN WEEK – Insane Weights
Benefits: “No one can ever do enough rows,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S, owner of CORE gym in Boston. By offsetting many of the postural issues associated with sitting hunched over a computer all day, rows can help eliminate back pain and correct your posture, giving your entire body a visual lift, he says.
- Holding a set of dumbbells, stand with your feet hip-width apart and a slight bend in your knees.
- Bend at the hips and lean your chest forward until it’s parallel with the ground, keeping your back straight and your core engaged. Let your arms hang down with your palms facing your shins.
- Drive your elbows up and out, forming a goal post with your arms and squeezing your shoulder blades together as you pull back.
- Release your arms down and repeat.
2. Callahan Press
Appears in: P90X2 – Chest, Shoulder, and Tris
Benefits: Since it hits all three heads of the deltoid, a Callahan press helps with full-shoulder development.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Raise your arms out to your sides with your elbows bent at 90 degrees. Your upper arms should be in line with your shoulders, and your hands should point toward the ceiling. This is the starting position.
- Bring your forearms in front of you and turn your palms in toward your face. Then reverse the movement to return to the starting position.
- Press the weights directly above your shoulders, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Appears in: The Master’s Hammer and Chisel – Max Hammer Strength
Benefits: For those who struggle with push-ups, the bench press allows you to train the pecs, triceps, and shoulders in a different way. For the push-up proficient, the bench press allows you to use more than just your body weight to work these muscles, which is vital to adding significant strength or definition, Gentilcore explains.
- Lay with your back on a flat bench, holding a dumbbell in each hand directly above your chest. Raise your arms straight above your chest, palms facing forward.
- Bend your elbows to lower the dumbbells until your upper arms are parallel with the floor.
- Pause, then press up and slightly in so that you end with your arms fully extended, and repeat.
Appears in: The Master’s Hammer and Chisel – Total Body Chisel
Benefits: This move might look simple, but there’s actually a lot going on — specifically when it comes to building your lats and pecs, Thomas says. Bonus: You’ll feel your core fire up with every rep, too, helping to further round out your upper-body workout.
- Lay with your back on a flat bench, holding a set of dumbbells.
- With your feet planted on the ground and your core engaged, extend your arms to the sky, holding the dumbbells together above your chest.
- With a slight bend in your elbows, slowly lower your arms overhead until your biceps reach your ears.
- Slowly bring your arms back to above your chest and repeat.
Pro tip: You might be tempted to drop the dumbbells overhead by arching your back and lifting your ribs, Thomas says. Avoid this by keeping your core engaged throughout the exercise.
5. Reverse Fly on Bench
Benefits: The posterior-deltoid fly directly builds and strengthens the rear head of the deltoid.
• Sit on an exercise bench holding two light dumbbells.
• Lean forward about 45 degrees keeping your back flat, allowing the weights to hang down towards the floor to the outside of your feet, palms facing in.
• Keeping your torso still, slowly raise the dumbbells directly out to the sides until your arms are parallel to the floor, squeezing your rear deltoids and mid-back at the top of the move.
• Slowly reverse the move and repeat.
6. Alternating Biceps Curl
Benefits: Apart from building the biceps — everyone’s favorite vanity muscle — biceps curls are actually excellent for promoting shoulder stability, Gentilcore says.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding two dumbbells at arm’s length by your sides, palms facing forward.
- Keeping your core braced and elbows at your sides, curl the dumbbell in your right hand toward your shoulder.
- Pause briefly at the top of the move, and return to the starting position.
- Repeat the movement with your left hand.
- Continue alternating sides, performing an equal number of reps with each arm.
Pro tip: Fight the “ego lifting” urge. Choose weights that you can lift by only bending your elbow, not allowing any movement elsewhere in your body. If your shoulders move, elbows flare, or torso leans, or you find yourself bouncing, you need to go down in weights.
7. Floor Chest Fly
Appears in: P90X3 – Incinerator
Benefits: This move targets the chest muscles in ways other upper-body exercises like push-ups and bench presses can’t, Thomas says. And you don’t even need a bench — just a set of dumbbells!
- Lay with your back on the floor, your knees bent and your feet flat, holding a pair of dumbbells directly over your chest with your palms facing each other. Allow a slight bend in your elbows.
- Slowly lower the dumbbells out to your sides, creating a wide arc with your arms until your upper arms lightly touch the floor.
- Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to the top, and repeat.
8. Tower Dip
Appears in: Sagi’s BOD exclusives – Bis and Tris
Benefits: A foundational upper-body exercise, the dip works the triceps in conjunction with the shoulders and chest, placing particular emphasis on the pectoralis minor.
- Grab the handles of a dipping station and jump or step up to the starting position: feet off the floor, arms straight, ankles crossed.
- Keeping your forearms vertical and elbows in (not flared), allow your torso to lean forward as you lower your body until your elbows form about a 90-degree angle.
- Reverse the movement, returning to the starting position. Repeat for as many reps as possible.
Too tough? Perform the move with your hands on a sturdy chair or bench behind you and your feet on the floor.
9. Skull Crusher Press
Appears in: INSANITY: The Asylum Vol. 1 – Strength
Benefits: Biceps may get most of the glory when it comes to upper-body muscles, but the triceps actually account for more upper-arm mass. Not only does this move help you build triceps that will pop, but the press action also activates your shoulders.
- Stand holding a single dumbbell with both hands by the weighted ends at shoulder height, with your elbows tucked.
- Press the weight straight overhead.
- Without moving your upper arms, lower the weight behind your head.
- Reverse the movements to return to the starting position, and repeat.
Pro tip: You might be surprised how light a weight is required to perform this exercise. Start with lighter loads to maintain proper form, and add weight as you become more experienced with the move.
10. Seated Overhead Triceps Extension
- Seated at the end of a bench, hold one end of the dumbbell with both hands behind your head, arms bent at 90 degrees.
- Keeping your back flat and your elbows tucked, slowly push the weight up, stopping just short of full extension.
- Pause, and then lower the weight slowly back down, and repeat.
Pro tip: Keep your torso straight throughout the movement and resist the urge to lean forward. You can also perform this move standing, which will require greater use of your core for added stability.
Appears in: P90X3 >> The Challenge
Benefits: The ultimate pulling movement, the chin-up works your lats and rear deltoids, while placing slightly more emphasis on your biceps than its overhand-grip equivalent, the pull-up.
- Grab a pull-up bar with an underhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width, and hang at arm’s length (a position known as a dead hang).
- Pull yourself upward until at least your chin clears the bar, keeping your back straight and core tight.
- Pause, and then lower yourself back to a dead hang.