Looking for simple upper-body exercises
March 25, 2010 5:51 PM   Subscribe

I want to exercise and tone my upper body. Please help suggest SIMPLE exercises.

Normally a klutzy non-athlete, I want badass arms and torso. There are about 8 billion books and web sites suggesting what exercises to do, twisting you into all sorts of positions, but I just want the friggin' 7 or 8 SIMPLEST exercises that I can do a couple of times (or more?) per week and not have to think about. I'm guessing 7 or 8 because of the muscles involved: biceps, triceps, deltoids, lats, traps, obliques, abs. Am I missing any?

I can work with either machines in the gym or free weights; have tried the lat pulldown and triceps machines, and situps. I like swimming, but get winded easily. (Do water barbells actually do anything? I tried them once, but it didn't feel like I did any work!) Don't particularly care for exercise balls; not interested in yoga. Please also include number of reps; am totally new to this. Thank you!
posted by Melismata to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Does your gym have an assisted pullup machine? That will tone your upper body quite well, even if you're using a heavy assist.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:53 PM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

1 comment in and no one has mentioned shovelglove yet?!?
posted by K.P. at 5:56 PM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Since it sounds like you have access to a gym make an appointment with the personal trainer there. If you want max benefit from exercising you need to be doing the exercises properly. The trainer can help with that. FWIW, I do overhead row pulldowns, shoulder presses, either chest presses or flys (I bounce back and forth between them), crunches, curls, and tricep extensions - all on machines. Plus I run for 30 minutes.
posted by COD at 6:25 PM on March 25, 2010

Pushups, dude. Then bench presses and assisted pullups/dips. Change up grips for variety.
posted by mckenney at 6:30 PM on March 25, 2010

1 comment in and no one has mentioned shovelglove yet?!?

With all due respect to people who say this in every thread, I wish they'd stop. "Shovelglove" is just some goofy made-up internet thing. It's not going to kill you, but it's not a particular good way to exercise.

Melismata, you don't need 7 or 8 upper body exercises because you don't need to isolate muscles. You'll spend less time, lift heavier weights, build more useful strength, and progress faster using free weight movements that incorporate several muscles at once. However, the movements that use the most muscles at once, the real "full-body effort" movements that are generally the backbone of beginner weight training programs, use the legs and hips as the prime movers -- squats and deadlifts. So I'd say you're shooting yourself in the foot to start with by focusing on lifting only with your upper body.

That said, for upper body, you can hit pretty much everything with these:

Press: Works your whole body, but especially your shoulders, triceps, and traps. Abdominals and lower back stabilize, and upper chest contributes a little.

Bench Press: Works your front shoulders, chest, and triceps. Pushups work pretty much the same muscles, plus the abs and lower back as stabilizers, so they're good too.

Chinups: Chinups are done with palms facing you, pullups are palms facing away. Chinups work your back and biceps, plus some forearms. If you can't do a single chinup, start with negatives -- step on something or jump to get up to the top of the chinup and then try to lower yourself slowly. These will make you very sore at first, but they'll get you to a real chinup before long.

You can get away with doing those and nothing else for upper body at first. The press and bench press can be done with dumbells or a barbell, but I'd recommend a barbell, as it can be loaded more precisely. For the first two movements, do 3 sets of 5 reps each workout, allowing enough time between sets to fully recover. This could be anywhere from 2-5 minutes. Every time you complete all 3 sets of 5 reps, use more weight the next workout. On the press and bench press, you may be able to add 5 pounds each workout. Before too long, adding 5 pounds a workout will be too much, and you'll want to add 2.5 pounds each time, which means you'll need to get some smaller plates than the 2.5 pound ones most gyms have. I have 4 metal washers with 2" holes which together weight about 2.5 pounds that I use for this purpose.

For the chinups, do 3 sets of as many reps as you can get, and try to do better each time. You could also switch up the bench press with pushups, doing 3 sets to failure. You can also try doing some dips as well. You could do bent barbell rows, but you don't really need to.

Anyhow, that'd be pretty complete for upper body. But again, you'll do better working your whole body, not just the top half of it.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:31 PM on March 25, 2010 [24 favorites]

Focus on compound exercises instead of isolations and USE FREEWEIGHTS (except for assisted pullups, but that is not the same) because they help with stabilization.

Try looking for "compound upper body lifts" or something like that.
posted by mckenney at 6:34 PM on March 25, 2010

Do exactly what ludwig_van says. It works.
(Student in kinesiology here)
posted by Monte_Cristo at 7:18 PM on March 25, 2010

I've got a bit of time tonight.
So you want to work out, huh? Alright, first you need to define where you want to go so you'll find the best way to get there. So what are your goals? You want to lose weight? Do you want to gain muscle? You said you want a toned body, which generally implies that you want to reduce your bodyfat so you have more definition. Or are you petite and want to pack on some muscle to better show off? I'm not trying to be intrusive but if you want to see results it would be easiest if you clearly set some goals based on where your at and work from there. To get the best results from any workout you do, will depend on the amount of intensity and time you apply.
So you've got your goals all set. You want to lose some bodyfat and have some hard rock abs, or whatevs. Next you would get your diet in order. Cutting out calories by reorienting your macro-nutrient profile is one easy way to do this ie: stop drinking soda and all simple sugar snacks, increasing protein intake, etc..
Now let's look at a workout. Weight training isn't really that complicated. For simplicity you can break it down into pushing and pulling. Your back and biceps pull things, chest and triceps push things, and the shoulders have three distinct heads but again for simplicity you can just split them in half and say they perform both pushing and pulling. The lower body doesn't break down as simply but in the same vein you could say the hamstrings pull, and quads push. I'm not sure why you don't want to do any lower body weight exercises but just doing upper body exercises won't be nearly as effective without including them. If you pick some multi joint exercises as mentioned above you won't need as many exercises. Offhand exercise suggestion, without really knowing what you're looking for, you could do some Bench Presses, Barbell Rows, Chin/Pull Ups, Dips, Overhead presses or Lateral Raises, and Situps or Leg Raises. You could do full body and pick one big exercise for pushing and then one for pulling. One or two supplemental and some ab work, but we'll look at sets and reps for overall volume in a second. That would typically be a lazy regular run of fhe mill writeup of a general upper body gym program, but don't be fooled into thinking you should be confined to just these exercises. There are plenty out there and ultimately you should do a workout that you want to do, and that will draw you back to working out again and again.
The volume of work you perform per workout is figured by sets x reps x weight. Again, it's not really that complicated just a little bit of math and you can see where differing amounts of variables add up to differing amounts of volume. Let's look at reps first:
Rep schemes; listed with first, second, tertiary priorities & effects:

% of Max / Reps / Dur.(in Sec.) / =Effects
85-100 / 1-5 / 5-20 /
=1st Strength increase through enhanced neural eff.
=2nd Stimulation of functional muscle hypertrophy
=3rd Increase in muscle density
80-85 / 6-8 / 20-40 /
=1st Stimulation in functional muscle hypertrophy
=2nd Strength increase
70-80 / 9-12 / 40-60 /
=1st Stimulation of functional & non-functional muscle hypertrophy
=2nd Increase in muscle endurance and lactic acid tolerance
50-70 / 13-30 / 60-120 /
=1st Increase in non-functional hypertrophy
=2nd Increase in muscle endurance
=3rd improved capillarization
-50 / 30+ / 120+ /
=1st Increase in muscle endurance
=2nd Improved capillarization
=3rd Active recovery
=4th Speeds up recovery from tendon injuries

You can see that the most specific muscle gains are made somewhere between 6 and 12 or so reps. To figure out the amount of sets you should be doing will depend on the amount reps. The more reps you do the less sets you'll want to do. At the 6 to 12 rep range you'll probably only want to do between 2 to 4 sets.
Anyway that's a simplistic way to lay out a workout.

As far as unconventional means of working out, like shovelglove, I don't think there's anything wrong with that, unless you get sloppy and tweak something. And actually our idea of conventional exercises these days is new compared to the history of exercise. The shovelglove is closer to some exercises that have been around hundreds (and hundreds) of years as opposed to the bench press which has only been considered a viable exercise for maybe the past century. So if you do end up swinging around a club of some sort and you really like it, more power to you. You can get just as good a workout at home using that as you could slogging down to the gym three or four times a week.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:47 PM on March 25, 2010 [3 favorites]

Listen to ludwig_van. Generally speaking, if you want to go simple, focus on exercises that work a lot of muscle groups (this is what I still do, because I'm lazy). If you want to get ripped eat well and burn fat using high intensity cardio and weight training (the more muscle, the more you burn). HIIT is good to look into.

But listen to ludwig_van.
posted by dubitable at 10:02 PM on March 25, 2010

But listen to ludwig_van.

Especially about shovelglove; that shit is wack.
posted by dubitable at 10:03 PM on March 25, 2010 [2 favorites]

P.O.B. and ludwig are very on-point. Just to break it down a little differently: if you push and pull, vertically and horizontally, you'll take care of everything above your waist. And if you alternate exercises you might burn fat easier (and it economizes time). So one system could look like this: alternate dumbell bench press and chest-supported row, and then alternate military press and chinups. The less rest between sets, the better for cardio and fat-burning; for just pure muscle-building purposes, take as much rest as you need. So how you do it depends on your goal. Eating protein after you lift is pretty key to gaining muscle. And as others have said, there's really no good reason to avoid legs.

But it depends what you mean by "tone". If you're skinny and want to get big, that's one thing; if you're more doughy and want to get ripped, that's another.
posted by creasy boy at 4:12 AM on March 26, 2010

First, I think it is relevant that you're a woman. Women generally have less upper body strength than men. If you find it impossible to do a regular push-up from the start, you can start by doing them with your knees bent and on the floor. Once you can do a few that way, you can move onto regular push-ups.

Second, some women's magazines often have a particular idea about "toning", which is that you can improve the look of a particular part of the body by doing lots of reps with light weights. But that's widely regarded as a myth (Google). There isn't really any difference between toning, and strengthening muscle: they're the same thing. The most efficient way to do it is to do relatively few reps (8 to 14) with heavy weights, as heavy as you can manage with the correct form (good posture, good positioning and slow smooth movements).

Other than that, the way to get good muscle definition is to lose fat. Spot reduction is also a myth, so there's no point in doing very long periods of exercise with the body part you want to lose fat from. General aerobic exercise like running or cycling is fine: even though they're exercising the lower body, you will lose fat from all over, and the large muscles of the lower body can burn more calories. You can also diet, but you will find it harder to build up muscle if you're on a strict diet.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 4:33 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for such great answers! Any advice or tips on swimming?
posted by Melismata at 7:11 AM on March 26, 2010

Oh, and to answer questions: yeah, I'm aware that spot reduction is a myth. Am already doing cardio (elliptical 3x a week, 1/2 hour) and this seems to have toned my lower body (quads, hams, butt) fairly nicely. (Maybe I should try some other machines for those too.) But I've got this annoying little gut and flabby arms, which I would like very much to go away. Not looking to be a bodybuilder or anything, just a little more muscle and a little less fat. Have improved my diet enormously in the past couple of years, which helps.
posted by Melismata at 7:18 AM on March 26, 2010

If you find it impossible to do a regular push-up from the start, you can start by doing them with your knees bent and on the floor. Once you can do a few that way, you can move onto regular push-ups.

I'll add to this how I made the transition from knee push-ups to regular ones. At the start I could do 20 knee push-ups but only about 4 or 5 toe ones. I built up to 25 toe pushups by first doing as many toe pushups as I could manage (until complete fatigue) and then as many knew push-ups as I could do (within the same set - it may be 7 toe then 18 knee on the first set, 6 toe and 19 knee on the second set, whatever got me to where I couldn't possibly do another). Eventually, the number of toe pushups became high enough that I didn't need to supplement with the knee ones. But I don't think it has to be either/or.
posted by Kurichina at 7:42 AM on March 26, 2010

I'm aware that spot reduction is a myth. Am already doing cardio (elliptical 3x a week, 1/2 hour) and this seems to have toned my lower body (quads, hams, butt) fairly nicely.

I was going to say something before about toning, but I was trying not to write a novel. As others have pointed out, the way most people use the word "toned" refers to muscle definition or visibility. Muscle definition is mostly a function of bodyfat percentage, and you can't target a specific area for bodyfat reduction. So in that sense, using the elliptical doesn't really "tone" your lower body in particular, although it can contribute to fat loss. But fat loss is mostly going to be a function of diet.

The legitimate meaning of muscle tone, though, is the amount of passive contraction in a muscle, or how hard a muscle is when it's at rest. So in that sense, you can see some increase in the muscle tone from using the elliptical, but the best way to increase muscle tone is to increase strength, which means moving heavy weights for low reps.

Different rep ranges will have different effects on the muscle. Very roughly, low reps with heavy weights are the best for strength, which means neural efficiency (how much of your muscle your nervous system is able to recruit to move a load) and muscle density. Higher reps with lighter weights is better for hypertrophy, meaning muscle size. Low reps would be around 1-3, high reps would be 10-15. Sets of 5 are good for beginners because they strike a good balance between different types of muscle growth, although they fall more on the side of strength and density than size. They also don't allow fatigue to become a big factor the way it is in a longer set, so they're good for learning new movements. Powerlifters, whose focus is strength, tend to do a lot of sets of 5 or less. Bodybuilders, whose focus is muscle size, tend to do more sets of 10+. So squatting and deadlifting with low reps will do a lot more for lower body muscle tone than the elliptical.

The lifting routine I outlined above is geared towards strength more than size or fat loss or endurance (although you can lose fat doing it, provided your diet is in order). Weight training can be set up to create more of a cardiovascular/fat-loss effect by stringing exercises together and/or limiting rest periods. This is what CrossFit calls "metcon," a.k.a. metabolic conditioning, or what other folks refer to as circuit training. If you do a bunch of exercises in a row with a barbell and don't set the bar down between them, that's called a barbell complex.

I wouldn't recommend that approach to a beginner just learning the movements, though, because when you're limiting your rest periods you're accumulating a lot of fatigue, and as a beginner your movement patterns are not ingrained very well. As a result your form can deteriorate severely through your workout, leading to inefficiency or injury.

TL;DR: lift heavy, lift correctly, eat plenty of good food, and you'll be in good shape.
posted by ludwig_van at 7:45 AM on March 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Don't neglect the dand. Or any of many tie-in exercises, like pullovers or weighted (or un) barbell twists. That is, if you care about functional strength.
posted by cmoj at 10:20 AM on March 26, 2010

As you can see Melismata the type of exercise is what drives the exercising rather than the exercises itself and you've had four or five different types of ways suggested. They're all viable but I would reiterate that you should look at it from a standpoint of what you're trying to do and then find what you like to do that fits within that framework. You mentioned toning which doesn't have any real definition other than being a subjective aphorism, but a closer defining goal would be dropping some bodyfat. I know you mentioned you aren't interested in reading blogs but I think you may need to inform yourself by checking out some other sites that have a bit more knowledge and disparity of data that you will know is actually factual. The most basic and easy to read is ExRx.Net, it's a simple and easy to read & use.

Good luck!
posted by P.o.B. at 1:50 PM on March 26, 2010

Good advice in this thread, so I'll only add: when bench pressing with a barbell ALWAYS have someone spot you.
posted by AceRock at 4:56 PM on March 26, 2010

Oh, and to answer questions: yeah, I'm aware that spot reduction is a myth. Am already doing cardio (elliptical 3x a week, 1/2 hour) and this seems to have toned my lower body (quads, hams, butt) fairly nicely. (Maybe I should try some other machines for those too.) But I've got this annoying little gut and flabby arms, which I would like very much to go away. Not looking to be a bodybuilder or anything, just a little more muscle and a little less fat. Have improved my diet enormously in the past couple of years, which helps.

Variety! Now that it's getting warmer and the days are longer, I would highly recommend getting outside (bike, run, kayak) or if you can't, at least, get on some other machines (stairclimber, stationary bike) or swim.

In my experience, one doesn't have to do a lot of exercises (I usually have time for only two sets). I mix up these basic pairs of exercises, and always, ALWAYS include abdominal exercises. This doesn't include the lower-body stuff. I am always mixing it up in terms of the type of movements, using a balance ball or a bench, using a machine or free weights, and I think that plays a big difference.

Chest press with dumbbells / seated or free weight rows
Shoulder press / lat pulldown
Fly / reverse fly
Biceps and hammer curls / tricep curls
Front raises / lateral raises
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 10:09 AM on March 27, 2010

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