Weight regimen?
May 22, 2013 6:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm not looking to become a muscle guy, but I'd like a weight/exercise regimen that will help me tone my upper body. Can anyone give me a suggestion?

I have been exercising in earnest this year to great effect - I've lost @ 40 LBS, and I'm more comfortable in my skin than I have been in a long time. Most of the exercise I'm doing is lower body stuff. Elliptical machine and arc trainer, stationary bike, things like that.

I wanted to start doing some exercises to tone my upper body a bit so I can add a bit of muscle. I'm not particularly looking to become musclebound, but right now I have very little upper body strength to speak of. I have been using the weight machines at my gym, but I don't really know what I'm doing and I don't have a routine, so I don't think it's having an incredible effect. Does anyone have an upper body exercise routine that has really worked for them?
posted by to sir with millipedes to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
this post?
posted by H. Roark at 6:23 AM on May 22, 2013

posted by dukes909 at 6:23 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you might enjoy the total Body for Life program. It's steamlined and pretty straight-forward.

You combine nutrition with exercise and what's great is that you're not spending hours at the gym.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:24 AM on May 22, 2013

I'm not particularly looking to become musclebound

That's ok because that will never happen by accident.

Bearing in mind that there is no such thing as "toning", Rippetoe's Starting Strength is very well received. However, it is not just an upper body program (and I don't recommend ignoring your lower body - an elliptical or bike is not a lower body workout) but a simple program of compound lifts with free weights. I highly recommend it.

I congratulate you on your progress to date.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:34 AM on May 22, 2013 [9 favorites]

You either build muscle or you don't. You don't "tone" muscle.

It takes a lot of work to build big muscles. Most people who say they accidentally got musclebound generally gained some fat on top of the muscle (it's easy to do while building up, because you're HUNGRY while building muscle). In order to "tone," you build muscle with a slightly-higher-than-normal intake of good food (lots of protein, less fat and reasonable carbs), which will keep you lean while building.

It's common to "bulk-and-cut," which is, to build muscle, then work off the fat you inevitably gain while eating toward muscle growth. I've found that knowing that I'll have to "cut" after "bulking" helped me not panic about a little bit of a gain around my midsection (where I carry my weight) when I was trying to gain some muscle.
posted by xingcat at 6:39 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm seconding Starting Strength. It's really helped me a lot, personally. It takes a LOT of work and 'supplements' to get hugely inflated muscles; it is not something that happens accidentally.

Although it's aimed at women, Stumptuous is a good beginner's site which talks about weights and food.
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:40 AM on May 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Have you considered a session or two with a trainer? I took a beginners weightlifting class at my gym, and it was very helpful to have a knowledgeable person start me out right.
posted by The corpse in the library at 6:44 AM on May 22, 2013

SS is a great program but for the aesthetic look many guys want it usually requires supplemental upper-body volume ("curls for the girls").
posted by schroedinger at 6:53 AM on May 22, 2013

use the newbie program picker!

You're not going to get "accidentally" big. I too recommend using barbell compound movements, like the bench press, the row, and the overhead press. Chin-ups/pull-ups are also good for upper-body development. "Starting Strength" is very popular, but focuses more on the lower body. Reddit's r/fitness FAQ has good information.

The best thing you can do is clearly define your goals. If what you're looking for is a "look" more than lift numbers, I suggest taking a weekly picture in the same pose with the same lighting, in order to see your progress.

Our brains are tricky things.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 6:54 AM on May 22, 2013

Starting Strength and Stumptuous are both good resources.

Stumptuous is devoted to women and weightlifting, and so has some articles, such as weightlifting and menstruation, and the like, that will make you think "why the hell are people recommending this site to me" but it does have good non-gender specific advice as well.
posted by dfriedman at 7:13 AM on May 22, 2013

Nthing everyone saying that getting "toned" just means adding muscle, and that Starting Strength is the bee's knees. However, if you want to focus on the upper body, I'd do Greyskull LP (or here) instead. (Disclaimer: I've never done Greyskull LP myself.) It's in the same style as Starting Strength but focuses on upper body work for aesthetics instead of powerlifting for athletics.

Personally, my upper body went from mediocre to big-for-a-non-bodybuilder with just two exercises: pull-ups and dips. That is, 3 sets each of those exercises, with 3 to 6 minutes of rest between sets, taking each set to as many as I could do with good form, made the muscles from my abs upwards look better than ever. Lats popped out, upper back got meaty, biceps and chesticles appeared. Again, I'm not big, but it was a major difference.

I warm up with 5 minutes of running or jumping rope, I take 10 minutes to loosen up my shoulders and elbows and wrists and spine and hips, then I do my sets. Once I did three sets of 15 or 20, I started using a dip belt with 25 pounds. I make very sure to retract my scapulae during both exercises for safety and form. When I couldn't improve my reps for a week or two I'd focus on shortening the rest periods or doing the reps slower, with more control and maybe some negatives. I recommend doing the dips on bars, not a bench. For best effect I'd combine the dips and pull-ups with sprints, squats, and deadlifts.
posted by daveliepmann at 7:24 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a huge fan of Starting Strength and trained as a powerlifter for years, but unfortunately moved to a city with no convenient powerlifting clubs. Out of desperation I turned to Crossfit just because it was there, and while it doesn't totally scratch my heavy weights itch (I'm not crazy about all the volume) it might get you off to a good start in terms of starting to use your upper body.

That's because, while you can read all the books about strength training you like, if you're a beginner you really need someone to show you how the lifts work, proper technique, programming etc. I also don't feel comfortable lifting without an experienced spotter to correct form and step in for any 'oh shit' moments. The problem is it can be really hard to find places where you can learn in a more formal way. That's why I loved training at a powerlifting gym with a coach. For all its faults (I mean, ENOUGH WITH ALL THE ACRONYMS), Crossfit is a good, structured way to learn some basic lifts with the support of a trainer and have a fun workout.
posted by nerdfish at 7:37 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Bearing in mind that there is no such thing as "toning", Rippetoe's Starting Strength is very well received. However, it is not just an upper body program (and I don't recommend ignoring your lower body - an elliptical or bike is not a lower body workout) but a simple program of compound lifts with free weights. I highly recommend it.

There is also StrongLifts 5x5. (Link may seem a little schmoozy, but it's totally legit.)
posted by nrobertson at 7:43 AM on May 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

Like everyone else here, I'll echo that there's no such thing as toning. There are some great answers here and I guess the bottom line is chose a program that makes sense to you and stick to it, but I notice that you don't mention doing any weight training with your lower body. Do remember that your body is a unit and that you should rain all muscle groups. If you want to look like you're in shape you need to take care of your lower body and your core as well as your upper body. Any regimen that doesn't do that is a bad regimen. The last thing I'll add is that diet is very, very important. As in "half the battle" type important.
posted by ob at 7:50 AM on May 22, 2013

2nding the r/fitness FAQ and also Harsh's worksheet, both of which cover all the basics of getting started with training and link to many external resources.

Becoming "musclebound" -- which I'm not totally certain how you meant, but is typically used to refer to a person who has supposedly become clumsy and inflexible on account of their muscularity -- shouldn't really be a concern. Performing a balanced strength training routine with full-range-of-motion exercises and an appropriate diet will most likely increase your flexibility and athleticism. To that end, as the above links will emphasize, you'd be wise to perform a full-body routine, rather than focusing on your upper body only.

And yeah, you'll find that you'll catch flak from some folks for using the word "toning," and not without reason; there isn't really a distinct goal there apart from losing fat and/or gaining muscle.
posted by ludwig_van at 8:03 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of the information at exrx.net
posted by COD at 8:15 AM on May 22, 2013

I've never been able to get into Stumptuous, for some reason, perhaps because it's web-based and I prefer a reference sheet when I'm lifting weights, or I just don't click with the tone of the site, but what's really worked for me is the abs/legs/arms routine in The Abs Diet book (which, apparently, is a whole cottage industry now). I believe I photocopied the routine used in The Abs Diet for Women. I understand you workout at the gym, but you may want to consider an at-home workout using barbells as an alternative. (If I had to visit the gym every time I wanted to workout, I'd never do it!)

The reason I find it useful:

- it's a quick enough routine to get done in as little as 20 minutes (if you choose just the arms one day), or you can double the reps and have a 40 minute workout. I split the legs and arms exercises. You may like the routine because it won't make you super-muscley (I don't think!) but you will become more toned, to use your terminology.

- you do need barbells, but you can pick these up at Target or Walmart pretty cheaply; I bought heavier barbells at a sports specialty store once I progressed through the smaller weights.

Congratulations on losing 40 lbs!
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:28 AM on May 22, 2013

Starting Strength is great, and if you are serious about doing this, all you need is one session with a trainer to help you get your form right. Alternatively, if you can get some video of yourself performing the moves, you can find workout forums where people can critique your form, and help you to get it right.

The only way to become musclebound is to spend your life dedicated to that. To say you don't want to become musclebound is like saying you want to learn to play twinkle twinkle on the piano, but you don't really want to be able to play every Mozart piece. Unless you really focus your life around training right, eating right, and supplimentation, you just aren't going to be musclebound. Even if you wanted to be, it would take years of intense work before you'd be at the point where people on the street would start to notice.

If your goal is strength, than Starting Strength is your best bet. If your goal is to look better, than you'll want to take more of a bodybuilding approach (more reps per workout with longer rest for each bodypart). If being better at sports is your goal, something like P90X which incorporates lots of reps along with some cardio stuff would be a good program.

When working towards strength/muscle, it's important to remember to get enough protein in your diet, and to get plenty of rest. Your muscles don't grow at the gym, they get broken down at the gym. They grow inbetween, which is why you don't workout the same body part several days in a row. That is effective for building endurance, but not for muscle building.
posted by markblasco at 9:04 AM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'll also say that nerdfitness.com is a fantastic resource, since there isn't the same level of testosterone there as you'll find in many bodybuilding forums.

Also, to touch on what MoonOrb said, keep in mind that while you see most people working their chest and biceps at the gym, the two muscle groups that do the most for your appearance are your shoulders and back. These are also the muscle groups which will help you the most in everyday life, since they make lifting things easier, as well as improve your posture. Big arms and chest on someone with a small back don't really look impressive unless you're flexing. A solid back and shoulders makes you look better every second of the day.
posted by markblasco at 9:09 AM on May 22, 2013

Many Crossfit gyms offer beginning weight training courses. I highly recommend this path.
posted by fieldtrip at 12:07 PM on May 22, 2013

I do the Practical Programming novice program as described here - basically, this is Starting Strength but with pull-ups and chins instead of power cleans, which are much easier to learn IMHO. (I actually had another reason for choosing this program as well, which was a weird congenital elbow issue - but that probably doesn't apply to you.)

Incidentally, as far as upper body exercises go, I heartily endorse pull-ups. I used to be able to do zero, so I had to use an assist machine; I can now do around 12 with my own bodyweight, which is a really satisfying and obvious change. And it's fun to be able to bust out a couple outside the gym - it's a very functional movement and it's given me a new appreciation for climbing around on stuff in life. And based on what muscles I can feel working during the exercise, I think it's done even more for how my upper body looks than pressing/benching.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:16 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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