Upper Body Exercises


Upper body exercises are for the chest, back, shoulders, sides, and arms. They are designed to tone and strengthen the upper body muscles: trapezius and deltoids (shoulder); pectoralis (chest); trapezius, rhomboids, and lower back (back); biceps, triceps, and brachioradialis (arms); and latissimus dorsi (sides and back).


Upper body exercise can either tone or increase muscle mass and contribute to overall health and fitness. Most fitness routines in North America incorporate upper body exercises as part of a whole-body workout. Fitness magazines regularly contain articles on upper body exercises, from mild yoga movements to violent karate chops. Some people do upper body exercises to tone or strengthen muscles. A smaller number do it as part of a bodybuilding routine that greatly strengthens muscles and increases muscle size (known as muscle hypertrophy), often to enter bodybuiling competitions, including ones for teenagers, women, and older adults (age 50 and above.)


Upper body exercises are done by both men and women, adults, and teenagers.


Regular exercise as a way of promoting health can be traced back at least 5,000 years to India, where yoga originated. In China, exercises involving martial arts, such as tai chi, qi gong, and kung fu, developed at least 1,500 years ago. The ancient Greeks had exercise programs 2,500 years ago that led to the first Olympic games in 776 BC. Olympic sports geared toward the upper body include javelin throw, shot put, archery, rowing, canoeing, and kayaking. Nearly all general fitness programs have an upper body component. Within the last 100 years the scientific and medical communities began documenting the benefits that even light but regular exercise has on physical and mental well-being.

Although weight training became popular with a small number of people in the 1940s, it was not until the 1960s that regular exercise programs began to flourish throughout North America and Europe, with much emphasis of upper body exercises, primarily for the upper arms and chest. Gymnasiums, once used mainly by male bodybuilders and boxers as training facilities, now are common throughout the United States, Canada, and other industrialized nations. Modern day gyms and health and fitness clubs offer a wide range of exercise activities for men and women that can fit every lifestyle, age group, and exertion level. Most have exercise machines, along with barbells and dumbbells that target specific upper body muscles.


Aerobic exercise—
Any brisk exercise or physical activity that requires the heart and lungs to work harder and promote better oxygen circulation in the blood. Running, jogging, swimming, and cycling are aerobic exercises.
High blood pressure.
Martial arts—
Various methods of armed and unarmed combat, using the arms, hands, feet, and legs as weapons, that originated centuries ago in Asia, primarily China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. The most popular styles include karate, kung fu, jujitsu, judo, aikido, t‘ai chi, and tae kwon do.
A disease in which the bones become very brittle, porous, break easily, and heal slowly, especially in post-menopausal women.
A system of exercises that originated in India 5,000 years ago involving breathing exercises and postures based on Hindu yoga.

Upper body exercises can be divided into three types: stretching, resistance with machines and weights, and resistance without machines or weights. Stretching is usually done for five to ten minutes before and after an exercise regimen. Specific upper body stretches include neck rolls, shoulder shrugs, arm circles, side stretches, wrist curls, torso twists, and overhead triceps stretches.

Upper body exercises using machines include t-bar rows (back, sides, arms, and shoulders), vertical bench press (chest, arms, shoulders), military press (shoulders), back extension (lower back), reverse preacher curls (biceps), and lat pulldowns (back and upper body). Nonmachine upper body exercises include routines that use a medicine ball, barbell, dumbbells, and exercise bands. Among nonmachine exercises are push-ups (upper arms and chest), pull-ups (arms), reverse grip chin-ups (back, sides, and biceps), dumbbell bent-over row, barbell curls, snatch (back and shoulders), dumbbell or barbell bench press (chest and upper arms), and dumbbell pullovers (chest).


Anyone considering a regular exercise program should consult first with a physician. Persons with serious health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, AIDS, asthma, and arthritis should only begin an exercise regimen with their doctor's approval. Any upper body exercise routine should generally be preceded with a warm-up of 5–10 minutes. When exercising at home or the gym, loose and comfortable clothes and athletic shoes are helpful. Any exercise program should end with 5–10 minutes of stretching and cool-down exercises.


For most people, the main risk associated with upper body exercises is overexertion. This can lead to muscle and tendon strains, sprains, tears, and other injuries. Upper body exercise does not need to be strenuous to be beneficial. People with certain chronic health problems should take special precautions. People with diabetes should closely monitor their glucose levels before and after upper body exercises. Individuals with heart disease should never exercise to the point of chest pain or angina. Upper body exercise can induce asthma. It is essential for people with asthma to get their doctor's permission before starting an exercise program.

The primary adverse side effect of upper body exercising can be sore muscles and stiff joints a day or two after beginning an exercise routine and lasting for several days.



Upper body exercise promotes overall good health and well-being. Hundreds of studies during the past several decades link regular exercise to reduced risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, hypertension, and osteoporosis.

See also arm exercises .



Faigenbaum, Avery, and Wayne Westcott. Youth Strength Training: Programs for Health, Fitness, and Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2009.

Knopf, Karl. Healthy Shoulder Handbook. Berkeley, CA: Ulysses Press, 2010.

Schlosberg, Suzanne, and Liz Neporent. Fitness for Dummies. Hoboken, NJ: For Dummies Publishing, 2010.

Wuebben, Joe, and Jim Stoppani. Stronger Arms and Upper Body. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.


Bornstein, Adam. “Bulletproof Your Upper Body.” Men's Health (April 2010): 36.

Clements, French. “Strengthening Your Upper Body.” Dance Magazine (June 2009): 36.

Hartman, Bill. “Strong Shoulders Ahead.” Men's Fitness (November 2009): 106.

Nilsson, Nick. “The Best Arm Exercises You've Never Heard Of.” Joe Weider's Muscle & Fitness (February 2010): 50.

Unke, Sarah. “Upper Body Builders.” Tennis (May 2009): 97.

Wilson, Eboni. “Eboni Wilson's Back Routine.” Flex (July 2011): 84.


Asaff, Beth. “Upper Body Stretches.” Love To Know: Exercise. http://exercise.lovetoknow.com/Upper_Body_Stretches (accessed January 19, 2017).

Cutlip, Kimbra. “Upper Body Workout for Women.” LiveStrong.com . June 18, 2015. http://www.livestrong.com/article/467351-upper-body-exercise-routine-for-women/ (accessed January 19, 2017).

“Upper Body Strength Training Exercises.” Department of Kinesiology and Health, Georgia State University. January 22, 1998. http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwfit/upperbod.html (accessed January 18, 2018).


American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, Fax: (858) 576-6564, support@acefitness.org, http://www.fitness.gov .

Canadian Association of Fitness Professionals, 110-225 Select Ave., Toronto, M1X 0B5, Canada, (800) 667-5622, Fax: 1 (416) 493-1756, info@canfitpro.com, http://www.canfitpro.com .

National Association for Health and Fitness, 10 Kings Mill Ct., Albany, NY, 12205, (518) 456-1058, aerobic2@aol.com, http://www.physicalfitness.org .

President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860, fitness@hhs.gov, http://www.presidentschallenge.org .

Ken R. Wells

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.