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Got bat wings?

Soft flabby arms that jiggle?

No muscles to be seen?

Yeah. Been there, fixed that. Introducing the Best 20-Minute Upper Body Workout for All Levels! 

PRO TIP: You get what you give. Half ass your upper body workout and you’ll get half-assed results. If you’re going to spend 20 minutes doing upper body exercises – and you are – you might as well put in the max effort. Maximum effort for maximum results.

Equipment Needed for the Upper Body Workout

You’ll need some weights and a bench.

If you’re at the gym – hit the free-weight section. If you haven’t been to the gym before, don’t be intimidated! Here’s a great guide to getting started at the gym. Guide to Starting at the Gym.

If you’re at home, or on the road, or wherever – use what you’ve got. Dumbbells, kettlebells, grocery bags, small dogs. Plus a bench, chair, stair, sturdy table. 

Lightest Dumbbell Alternatives (0.5 kg / 1 lb each)

1) 500mL / 16.9 fl oz bottle2) A Can of Soup or Beans3) About 10 Spoons or Forks (use an elastic band to keep them together)

Lighter Dumbbell Alternatives (1 kg / 2 lbs each)

1) 1 L / 1 Qt of Milk/Soy Milk2) A Small Bag of Rice (, check the package for the precise weight)

Light Dumbbell Alternatives (1.5 kg / 3 lbs each)

1) A bag of Apples or Oranges2) A standard bag of onions

DIY Dumbbell Alternatives

  1. Take empty containers that feel comfortable in your hand (water bottles, detergent bottles, rice bags, grocery bags, whatever you’ve got).
  2. Fill them with water, sand, rocks, cement, basically anything to add weight.
  3. Weigh your item. Make a note somewhere (on it would be good) of the weight.
  4. Use it like a dumbbell. And voila, free dumbbells. 

No excuses not to be lifting now.

The Exercises: Muscles Worked, Progressions & Alternatives

These upper body exercises will hit all the upper body muscle groups: chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps.

Exercise #1: The Pushup

Pushups are one of the best upper body exercises.

They work a lot of upper body muscles. They’re a great (although difficult) exercise. You should definitely be doing them. 

Primary Muscle Group: Pectorals (chest)

Secondary Muscle Groups: Triceps (back of upper arm), biceps (front of the upper arm), deltoids (shoulders)

Pushups are challenging. But they’re a top exercise. Luckily, there’s a progression to follow so anyone can do some type of pushup. Work your way through it from newbie to advanced! 

For more information, check out the benefits of pushups.

Newbie: Wall Pushups

Beginner: Incline Pushups **to go from beginner to intermediate, you should slowly progress your incline down until bam, you’re flat on the floor.

Intermediate: Floor Pushups

Advanced: Decline Pushups

MODIFICATIONS: I can’t do regular pushups. It’s not that I lack the upper body strength (although, it’s kind of that).

I have a wrist injury that prevents me from flexing my wrist and putting weight on it. So I modify. 

Personally, I feel that pushups are an ideal exercise so I don’t substitute something else. Instead, I adjust my own body to accommodate. I have a set of push-up bars. They work great. 

Before I bought the bars, I used dumbells but often found them to be a little awkward to hold. I also tried using beanbags and yoga balls but prefer to have my hand grip all the way around.

If you have an injury you should not push through it. Find a way to make it work for you, or find an alternative exercise.

Exercise #2: Lying Dumbbell Flyes

Lying Dumbbell Flyes are the best kind. They give you the best range of motion and thus work the most muscles.

Lay down on a bench (or bench alternative) to do your dumbbell flyes!

Primary Muscle Groups: Deltoids (shoulders) & pectorals (chest)

Secondary Muscle Group: Biceps (front of the upper arm)

The progression for the lying dumbbell fly is all in the weight. If it’s too easy, you should use a heavier weight. Be aware of your form and speed. If you don’t feel it primarily in your chest, you’re either lifting too light or too fast.

Exercise #3: Pull-ups

Pull-ups sometimes get a bad rap. Sometimes, they’re called the hardest exercise to do. But they’re also called one of the best exercises to do.

Primary Muscle Group: Latissimus Dorsi (Lats / Upper Back)

Secondary Muscle Groups: Biceps, Forearms, Core, Deltoids

There are pull-up progressions you can try, but you should really be trying to do pull-ups. Check out the benefits of pullups for a progression to get to your first pull-up.

Exercise #4: Hyperextensions (aka Back Extensions)

Hyperextensions are good for mobility, flexibility and lower back strength.

Primary Muscle Group: Lower Back 

Secondary Muscle Groups: Upper Glutes (minor!) 

This is another progression that’s all about weight. Add weight SLOWLY – you don’t want to overdo it and injure your lower back. 

But why? It’s estimated that 10% of the world’s population suffers from lower back pain. A 2009 study found that “more than 80 percent of Americans will experience an episode of low back pain at some time in their lives.” 

Do you want to be part of back pain statistics? No. Hyperextensions, done properly, can help reduce your likelihood of developing lower back pain.

Exercise #5: Bicep Curls

Bicep curls are an isolation exercise – meaning it’s only focused on one muscle. Usually, I’m not a fan of isolation exercises but the Bicep Curl is an excellent exercise. It’s efficient, requires nothing except some weight, and is unlikely to cause injuries in beginners. 

Primary Muscle Group: Biceps 

Secondary Muscle Groups: Deltoids, Forearms 

How to progress? Add more weight! Make sure you’re feeling the burn in your biceps! 

Alternatives to bicep curls aren’t very good. I’ll usually do lunges, step-ups or squats while doing my bicep curls. This way, it’s not an isolation exercise but a full-body one. Try it.

Exercise #6: Lateral Raises

The lateral raise is an excellent exercise for shoulder mobility. We move our shoulders all the time, for all kinds of reasons, so increased mobility (and strength) is all upside. 

Primary Muscle Group: Deltoids (shoulders) 

Secondary Muscle Groups: Trapezius (upper back) 

This is another progression that’s all about weight. Slowly add small amounts of weight as you’re able to complete a full set, properly. 

The lateral raise is deceptively hard. Whatever weight you think you can use, start lower. Seriously. CHOOSE LESS WEIGHT.

Exercise #7: Dumbbell Overhead Press

Want sculpted sexy shoulders? Of course you do. The overhead press is your ticket to get drool-inducing shoulders. 

Primary Muscle Group: Deltoids 

Secondary Muscle Groups: Triceps, Traps, Upper Chest 

You can do an overhead press seated or standing. But, the seated variation is better. The seated variation limits your ability to thrust the weights up. We never want to be thrusting our weights around – we want controlled, strong movements. 

The reason we’re choosing dumbbells instead of a barbell is to prevent our dominant arm from pressing more of the weight. To progress with the overhead press, increase the weight.

Exercise #8: Triceps Bench Dips

There are a ton of crazy triceps exercises out there. A lot of which will do more harm than good. Tricep bench dips are one of the safest and most effective tricep exercises. Plus they require very little equipment ( only a bench or substitute) and are easy to learn. 

Primary Muscle Group: Triceps 

Secondary Muscle Groups: Deltoids, Chest, Lats 

Tricep bench dips are a progressive exercise. 

Beginner: Legs bench, feet on the floor close to your body 

**to go from beginner to intermediate, you should slowly progress by moving your feet further away from your body and straightening your legs. 

Intermediate: Legs straight & extended, feet on the floor 

Advanced: Prop your feet up on another bench 

SuperStar: Add weight to your lap. WARNING: Bench dips are another deceptively hard exercise. You should feel the burn in your triceps. If you don’t, check your form. Make sure your back is straight and you’re keeping close to the bench as you descend.

The Upper Body Workout Plan

This should take you about 20 minutes. You should try to do this workout twice a week.

Option 1: A Circuit Workout

Do each exercise for 1 minute. Rest 15-20 seconds in between exercises. Do 2 sets. 

  • The Pushup
  • Lying Dumbbell Flyes
  • The Pullup
  • Hyperextensions
  • Bicep Curls
  • The Lateral Raise
  • The Overhead Press
  • Triceps Bench Dips 

*Choose variations and/or weights to suit your level for each exercise.

Option 2: Traditional Workout

Complete 2-3 sets of each exercise before moving on to the next. Rest 30-60 seconds between sets.

  • The Pushup
  • Lying Dumbbell Flyes
  • The Pullup
  • Hyperextensions
  • Bicep Curls
  • The Lateral Raise
  • The Overhead Press
  • Triceps Bench Dips 

*Choose variations and/or weights to suit your level for each exercise.

Keeping Track of Your Workouts

So, you’ve started doing the 20-Minute Upper Body Workout twice a week. Congrats! But you should make sure to keep track of your workouts. 

What version are you doing? What weight are you using? Bonus: How did you feel afterward? Was it too hard, too easy? 

If you don’t keep track, how will you know if you’re improving? You won’t. You might remember-ish- but you won’t remember everything. It only takes a minute to keep track.

I use Jefit (there’s an app and a web-version) and love it – but you could also use a bullet journal, a piece of paper, a google doc, whatever. It doesn’t matter HOW you keep track, just as long as you do.

A SMARTER Workout Goal

Goals are important if you want to live the best life possible. How can you get what you want if you don’t have goals?

Learn all about SMART Goal Setting and begin setting health and fitness goals today. Here’s an example of a SMARTER exercise goal you could try. 

It’s Better With a Buddy

If you’ve ever had a gym buddy, you know that they can help keep you accountable and motivated. Let This Bitch & Her Readers be your workout buddy! Tell us how you’re doing in the comments below! Post links to your progress pictures, stats or your trackers. We’d love to see them.    

You Do You – But Better

Pin this: A 20-minute upper body workout

If you want to do split workouts (upper body one day, lower body another) this is an excellent upper body choice. Or make it a whole body workout by adding a Squat Challenge. The workout can progress with you. There are variations and progressions to suit anyone.

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