What exercises can I do to strengthen my upper body?

F. Michael Gloth, III
Geriatric Medicine
Upper body strength training exercises include:
  • Standard curls with bar (advanced) -- These exercises are great whatever your level of strength. Use a weight that is appropriate and maintain good posture. You can use a straight bar, add weights to both sides as appropriate and comfortable, or you can use a single barbell (dumbbell) type of weight and exercise one arm at a time. Either way, keep your shoulder and upper arm in position as you flex at the elbow. Form is far more important than the amount of weight. Use a weight that you can comfortably curl 20 times. Do not attempt to use the heavy weights unless you are in top condition.
  • Dumbbell curls -- Make sure that your elbow stays in position and keep your back straight.
  • Reverse curls -- These are similar to standard curls, except the weight is grabbed from above the bar.
  • Wrist curls -- These exercises use weights that are usually lighter than for regular curls. Again, use the weight that is comfortable for 20 repetitions. Many older women will find 2-5 pounds more than adequate for this exercise, depending upon the number of repetitions.
  • Pull-ups or chin-ups (very advanced) -- Grab the overhead bar with both hands and knuckles facing out. Pull up your own weight until your chin passes the bar. This is for moderate to advanced individuals, because many people cannot do this exercise without special equipment found in many gyms that allow partial weight support while doing the pull-up or chin-up.
  • Reverse pull-ups -- These are similar to the pull-ups, except that the grip is reversed. Grab the overhead bar with both hands and knuckles facing toward you. Pull up your own weight until your chin passes the bar. This is also for people with moderate to advanced levels of strength and conditioning.
  • Back arm extensions -- Take a single weight and hold it in your hand with your arm fully extended over your head. Flex at the elbow, lowering the weight behind your head. Return the weight to the original position and then repeat until you start to become fatigued.
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Grocery-Bag Curls
Muscles worked: biceps (upper arms)

  • Starting point: Standing or walking, arms straight down at your sides, palms facing forward, grocery-bag handle gripped in one hand.
  • Action: As you walk, every time you step with your left foot, bend your arm at the elbow to lift your bag up to chest level; straighten and lower your arm back down every time you step with your right foot. Complete one 1 set of 10 to12 reps. Switch hands and repeat with the other arm.
  • Tip: Keep your wrist straight and your elbow directly beneath your shoulder with each curl.
  • Time: Aim for 5 minutes. 

Grocery-Bag Rowing
Muscles worked: deltoids (shoulders)

  • Starting point: Standing or walking, arms straight down at your sides, hands in front of your thighs, palms facing your thighs, a bag handle gripped in each hand.
  • Action: Pretend that there is a golf club connecting the bags in your hands. Lift the golf club up toward your chest, bending your elbows out to each side as you lift. Complete one set of 10 to 12 reps.
  • Tip: Keep your hands about 3 inches in front of your body as you lift.
  • Time: Aim for 5 minutes.

    To strengthen your upper body you want to do a combination of pushing exercises to strengthen the chest, shoulders and triceps, and pulling exercises to strengthen the back and biceps. Pushing exercises like pushups, bench presses, over head presses are excellent exercises for the chest, shoulders and triceps. Movements like pull ups, lat pull downs, and dumbbell rows are a great pulling exercises to strengthen your back and biceps. To get stronger focus on lower repetitions and higher weights, perform 8-9 total sets for pushing or pulling muscles using a 4-7 repetition load each set. Perform 1-2 workouts a week per area with at least 24 hours rest in between sets. This will allow you to gain good amounts of strength in the upper body. 

    Do the following exercises to strengthen the upper body:

    • Standing or sitting with the light weight strapped around your wrist, raise your arm upward toward your head and then back to the side of your body. Repeat once, then twice; gradually increase up to 10 times, twice daily.

    • Do arm circles with the 1-pound weight strapped around your wrist. Start with a small circle, and then gradually increase the size of the circle. Repeat once, then twice; gradually increase up to 10 times twice daily, if you can do this without pain.

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    Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.