Help me get a gorgeous upper body
March 7, 2010 7:41 AM   Subscribe

Help me fix my ugly back and upper arms. And gosh why are these pushups killing my lower back?

I tried on a bunch of strapless wedding gowns yesterday. I love how I look from the front and HATE how I look from the back and side. I have ridiculously wide shoulders and my upper arms are these huge flabby mounds of ick. I want pretty and well-defined triceps and biceps and a leaner back. I've started doing pushups (because everyone seems to be all excited about on AskMe these days) and in two weeks I went from being about to do half a pushup to more than twenty but they kill my lower back. I try to keep my back as straight as possible and it's getting better but still kills. And the pain stays all day. So two questions:

1) How can I do more pushups and get less back pain? And these are going to make me look hella awesome right?

2) What else can I do to make my back and upper arms looks awesome? I've got a year until the wedding.

A ton of random info:
As of right now, I have no gym to go to and no carpet in my apt. I'm willing to buy a yoga mat. I *will* have a gym membership to a super huge yuppy gym starting this June so for right now I need stuff I can do in my own home on a wood floor but I'm open to learning about what I can do once I can get to a gym too. I used to be a competitive swimmer (age 7-18) and I have a "swimmers body" except not toned anymore. I'd rather not get bigger shoulders, just nicer looking and more lean I guess? I think I have a really weak core too which I'm guessing is the biggest reason my lower back kills when doing pushups (I'm compensating for lack of tummy muscles somehow I'm guessing).
posted by kthxbi to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Try doing pushups while resting on your knees. You're probably getting pain in your lower back due to bad form or weak core muscles. Also, pushups are OK but also try doing pullups or trap pulldowns.

Though I would recommend you getting to a gym, there are other options for you that are really effective.

1) Bungee cord exercises -- Lots of sites and books that explain how to do a workout with these elastic cords with handles. E.g.

2) Stability ball -- Use one of those big rubber balls too. E.g.

You don't have to do much to get results. =)
posted by teedee2000 at 7:57 AM on March 7, 2010

Seconding getting a stability ball (aka a "swiss ball" or an "exercise ball") to do push-ups, ab exercises (and other exercices) from. For the push-ups, it will allow you to try a variety of positions that may be more comfortable for your lower back.

If you decide to stick with the home push-up regimen (and not join a gym), you might want to also check out getting "perfect pushup" handles. This will introduce some additional difficulty into the exercise and incorporate more arm muscles. It will also take a lot of the strain out of your wrists with better posture.

In terms of your arms looking awesome, probably a lot of it also stems from diet and body far percentage, in addition to building out toned muscles.
posted by jameslavelle3 at 8:13 AM on March 7, 2010

Get a couple of hand weights and start doing simple curls with them. That'll work on the arms specifically.

By simple curls I mean:

* start with the weights in your hands, arms down, hands facing forward -- bring the weights up to your chest, then bring them back down. Repeat.

* Now, start with the weights in your hands, arms bent so you're holding your weights in front of your shoulders. Slowly bring the weights down to your waist, then back up to your shoulders. Repeat.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:20 AM on March 7, 2010

If you're going to buy a yoga mat, you might want to check out Yoga Journal for some basic poses you can do at home. Yoga will work your core a lot and your arms/back.
posted by astapasta24 at 8:25 AM on March 7, 2010

Response by poster: Well re: the diet and body fat % .. I've lost about 45 pounds in the last 1.5 years. All of it the healthy way - I started being more physically active and started eating better and the weight just started falling off. To be honest, I didn't even really try. It all happened the time I got into my relationship with my fiance after just having started an internship on the west coast and after moving out of the dorms and ending my love affair with (not all you can eat) college food courts. According to this my bmi is 26.5 (yes yes I know, true bmi's can only be calculated by trained professionals .. I'm using it as a rough guide) so I think I'm close to a "normal weight". Another thing I plan to do when I get to that gym in June is to talk to a personal trainer or someone else who can give me a more accurate assessment of my current status.
posted by kthxbi at 8:30 AM on March 7, 2010

Response by poster: *happened around the time
posted by kthxbi at 8:31 AM on March 7, 2010

If you lower back hurts while you do push-ups your abs are not doing their job. Either you just aren't keeping them tight enough or they are out of shape. Do some ab exercises to build them up.
posted by caddis at 8:35 AM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The plank is a great exercise for building up your abs so that your back won't be doing so much of the work during pushups. Just don't overdo it - I can see this straining your back in the same way the pushups do.

Make sure that you are engaging your core when you do your pushups, and that you are tilting your pelvis forward. Reach your tailbone away from your ribs.
posted by kitcat at 8:59 AM on March 7, 2010

Don't do push-ups to a point where they kill your lower back and leave you in pain all day. You don't need that. You have a whole year until your wedding, there is no need to rush! Caddis is right, your abs are weak if your back is hurting. Cut down the push-ups to sets that you can do without hurting your lower back. Just doing bigger and bigger sets of push-ups will end up having diminishing returns on the appearance of your back and arm muscles, as all you're doing after a point is training your neural system, not your actual muscles.

I think you will have no problem getting your back and arms looking just fine for your wedding so long as you lose a little more weight and keep doing exercises that hit those areas. Adding some yoga is fine for variety. You could do handstands against the wall. You could buy a pull-up bar and start doing some jumping pull-ups. When you get your gym membership, overhead presses work pretty much everything you need to work to get good-looking arms and shoulders. You are gonna keep having broad shoulders no matter what, so work with all that muscle you built from your days of swimming and leave people commenting on how you are a buff bride.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:02 AM on March 7, 2010

I'd rather not get bigger shoulders, just nicer looking and more lean I guess?

Just keep in mind that short of injecting steroids or testosterone, you won't be able to get big shoulders. Although you can get much stronger through exercise, you lack the necessary hormone to build muscle mass. In addition, looking lean is a product of low body fat, not muscle size. And it sounds like you're off to a great start there. If I were you, I'd continue the weight loss (45 pounds is fantastic) and add in some Olympic weight training. Specifically, squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bench presses and power cleans (if you can find someone to help you with the technique - I found them tricky to learn). You won't get bulky, but you will get much stronger. Which will cause you to consume more calories, help that core strength, and improve your posture. Avoid the machines and go straight to the barbells. Machines put you in seated or reclining positions that prevent your core from getting involved. And thus your core doesn't get stronger.

There are a lot of myths out there about weight lifting - take a little time to google "starting strength", "5x5 strength training program", and "women's strength training myths" and read up on what you find. You'll quickly learn to work out correctly, and see results much faster.

Finally, form is really important for olympic weight lifts. The amount of weight you lift isn't, so long as you're challenged. Be sure to get someone to show you proper technique, even if you need to pay a personal trainer.

Good luck!
posted by centerweight at 9:17 AM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite] is probably responsible for more causing more injuries and imbalances than strength and fitness. Forget about it and do an actual exercise program. The best/fastest way to change how you look is to work your entire body together, which is how it functions, not in indivdual parts.

Deadlifts and overhead presses will do the most for your back and triceps. Bench presses and dips will work your shoulders and triceps as well, and pull-ups are good for your lats. Squats will also work your back and "core" muscles, not to mention your legs. You can do all of these exercises with just a barbell and plates, and a bar for the pullups. Don't waste your time on a stability ball. Info on most of these lifts here and here. This stuff will build strength and muscle; you'll have to lose the flab through diet and cardio.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:19 AM on March 7, 2010

add in some Olympic weight training. Specifically, squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, bench presses and power clean

FYI, there are two Olympic lifts -- the clean and jerk and the snatch. The power clean is an abbreviated version of the clean.

posted by ludwig_van at 9:23 AM on March 7, 2010

Just wanted to chime in as a fellow female who carries a lot of fat in her arms even when relatively thin: weight training and added muscle will make your arms look better even if you don't lose a lot of weight. You might check out exrx to see what you can improvise at home as well as what you can do once you have access to a gym. Good luck!
posted by ecsh at 9:23 AM on March 7, 2010

-I would recommend getting some dumbbells and adding standing one-arm overhead presses to your routine.

SOPs are great stuff because not only will they work the arms and shoulders, they involve the entire body in moving the weight. Doing it from your feet also improves your balance.

They've also the bomb for strengthening the midsection. Don't use a weight belt. Engage your abs, clench your glutes (imagine pinching a coin between them), and you will develop a stronger core overall. At this weight, all a belt will do is not require you to strengthen your core muscles.

-Don't join a gym with lots of machines. Machines are a waste of your time and money and designed for the ease of use by the gym operator, not because they're particularly effective.

-If you want to try bodyweight exercise, check out Convict Conditioning. When you're locked in a cage for 20 years and need to get strong to fend of predators, this is how it's done.

-And lastly, I believe the kettlebell is the greatest strength tool I've ever met. And From Russia With Tough Love is a great intro to them for women. Get the DVD & Book combo if you do. They compliment each other excellently.

Congratulations and Power To You!
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:26 AM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hold on. Stop, stop, stop.

What are your goals? Do you want to be leaner and have smaller arms and shoulders, or do you want to have more muscular arms and shoulders? Or both?

Let's get back to that after we look at your questions:
1) How can I do more pushups and get less back pain? And these are going to make me look hella awesome right?
2) What else can I do to make my back and upper arms looks awesome? I've got a year until the wedding.

1)There are tons of ways to do more pushups, but doing them may or may not be mutually exclusive from the pain. Otherwise the answer to your second question makes the first moot. Doing a lot of pushups will not make you look hella awesome in and of themselves.
2)This relies on your answers to what I asked about your goals above. If your goal is to be more muscular then it would be gain weight, but if it's to look leaner or lean and "muscly" then you are looking to loose weight.

Appearance questions, or "how do I look like this?" are always going to follow a couple of simple steps of listed by priority.
1)Get your diet in order to achieve desired goal(s)
2)Use the most appropriate workout program to achieve desired goal(s)

So what are your goals? Is there anyone in particular you want to look like? Could you be more descriptive of what you want to look like? To make it simple, do you want to be bigger or smaller? Keep in mind, losing fat or gaining weight does not happen only in specific body parts.
posted by P.o.B. at 2:01 PM on March 7, 2010

This is probably going to sound weird, but consider hoop dance (a combination of hula-hooping and dance). I started in June 09, and developed well-toned arms, upper back and core, without even intending to. I just got so into learning new moves/tricks, that before I knew it, I was looking more toned that I have in years. It's a fun way to get fit, especially if you like dancing and/or working out to music. (Although I didn't decide to start hooping to get fit; it just looked like fun. For me, that's the secret to a successful exercise program—it needs to be something I enjoy doing. I tend to get really bored with most exercise routines, especially weight/rep workouts.)

I learned everything I know from online tutorials/classes. There are off-body and on-body moves; I've found that chest/shoulder hooping and some of the off-body tricks really work the arms/shoulders/upper back in particular. (I've recently added yoga to my routine, which has helped with flexibility and further development of core strength.)

If you decide to try it, just make sure you get an adult-sized hoop. Here's a previous mention of hooping on the blue. There's more info at, and my favorite community, Hoop City.
posted by lovermont at 2:17 PM on March 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

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