Tone Your Upper Body With Just 3 Simple Exercises For Strength

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Every woman should incorporate these 3 basic upper body exercises for strength into their fitness routine to get a toned & feminine physique.

I’ve had many women ask me how to get “toned.” Which always feels like a vague question with a vague answer. It is so subjective!

I usually assume that most women mean the “lean muscle” look. Where there is muscle definition but not “bulk” or a lot of muscle mass. They want to look like they work out but not like they are bodybuilders.

Again, that can be subjective. Because even when I was my “bulkiest” and I was doing a lot of strength training using close to a hundred pounds or more on a regular basis.

However, I still would not consider myself bulky. More defined and muscular than your average woman, for sure. But I don’t think I could pass for a body builder or even a competitive strength athlete.

comparison of before and after workout

As a woman, if you resistance train and maintain a healthy body fat percentage, you will look “toned.” You won’t get bulky unless you strength train following a very specific hypertrophy (muscle mass building) program and diet/supplement for that goal.

The key to building that lean upper body muscle is to lift weights, resistance train, and GET STRONG.

What exercises improve upper body strength?

As a busy mom, you may not have a lot of time to spend in the gym or on your workouts in general. You need efficient workouts that help you perform your best as a mom and in the gym.

The most effective upper body exercises for building strength are the overhead press, push-up, and bent over row. You only need these three because as functional, compound exercises they hit all of the major and minor muscle groups in the upper body.

This helps to maintain muscular balance by getting push and pull contraction within the most functional range of motion.

As far as getting “toned,” these exercises are great because our large muscles will be the prime movers for each of these exercises. That would be the back, chest, and shoulder muscles. This means they will carry a majority of the intesity (weight) and grow stronger.

These large muscles will improve core strength and stability and give you a tighter waistline.

The smaller muscle groups, such as the biceps, triceps, and shoulder stabilizers carry less weight (intensity) but are worked in all three exercises. Working these smaller muscle groups at a lower intensity in a higher volume will encourage an increase in muscular endurance rather than size.

All helping you to achieve a “slim and toned” upper body physique.

How to perform the push up

The push-up is essential for your upper body routine due to it’s total upper body engagement, enhancement of core strength, and ability to be modified for every fitness level.

It has been and always will be one of my favorite upper body exercises for strength. Mostly because of how dynamic the movement is.

There are so many variations to target different muscle groups and to adjust the intensity of the exercise. Truly making it an ALL LEVEL exercise.

I also love how this exercise exposes your areas of strength and weakness, especially in the core and abdominals.

Push-ups are the most effective exercise at building upper body strength because it uses every muscle group in the upper body and requires deep core activation to be performed without compromise.

Any muscular imbalance will show during failure to complete the exercise. It is unforgiving and cannot be cheated.

The push-up is the best exercise to measure upper body strength. Count the number of repetitions you can complete with correct form until fatigue to measure your upper body strength over time.

Get a further explanation on why the push-up is The Best Exercise To Improve Women’s Upper Body Strength Training.

How to perform the overhead press

The overhead press should be prioritized and included in your upper body routine because will help to strengthen your shoulders, chest, and upper back while increasing core strength and stability.

This movement is not something we typically do in our day to day life. Maybe with the exception of reaching for a high shelf or an occasional stretch.

When we don’t use a joint within it’s full range of motion often enough, we can hinder mobility. Poor mobility can lead to injury or pain overtime.

Learn about the importance of mobility training in my post How To Improve Strength Training With Mobility Workouts.

And in my experience with senior clients, lack of shoulder mobility is the most common as well as hindering in their daily lives. Although, I’m sure most of you probably don’t think about how your workouts will affect your golden years.

However, in my experience with clients, I have found shoulder pain and injury to be prevalent among people that are young and active, too.

How to perform the bent over row

The Bent Over Row may be exceptionally challenging because it is posterior chain (back of the body) focused.

Being a pull exercise that uses the largest back muscles, this exercise is an extremely important part of building functional strength.

Many women, especially mamas, have a fairly weak back. It is an area of the body that is easily and the most often neglected. Mostly due to poor posture, a lot of time spent sitting, and a focus on anterior chain (forward) exercise.

This movement can help to relieve back pain and improve longevity in posture health. It is often performed incorrectly or with poor mechanics so make sure you take the time to watch the video above!

How can I build my upper body strength from nothing?

As a beginner, you may need to modify the upper body exercises to a level you can perform with proper technique. You will also need to incorporate progressive overload using the same exercises.

Modify upper body exercises

The push-up, overhead press, and bent over row can all be done at any fitness level with modification as needed.

To modifiy the push-up, you can perform it with your hands elevated on a wall, bench, or any stable surface. You can also perform the push-up on your knees if you do not have a surface available.

To modify the overhead press, you would simply use a light enough weight that allows for completion of the rep range goal.

And to modify the bent over row, you can post the non-moving hand on an elevated surface if you lack core strength to hold a mid-air hinge.

Use progressive overload

Progressive overload is the training method that gradually increases stress on the body to cause adaptation for a given goal of improved fitness.

In order to see continued progress overtime, your workouts will need to vary in goal and therefore, form of stress (load, volume, instensity, frequency, etc.).

Starting from nothing, or as a complete beginner, improving muscular endurance will be the most appropriate. This form of strength training is done with light intensity (weight) and high repetition.

Muscular endurance training improves strength, with an emphasis on increasing total volume before the muscle fatigues. This is optimal for a beginner as you improve exercise technique and motor control.

Focusing on muscular endurance will establish a foundation of strength before moving on to a higher intensity of hypertrophy training.

Hypertrophy training is a form of strength training that builds muscle size. Increasing muscle size increases the cross-sectional area and therefore the force capability (i.e. strength). This is done with moderate to high intensity (weight) and moderate repetition.

After increasing muscle size and capability, you can increase muscular strength by training with a heavy load (volume and intensity).

How long does it take to build upper body strength?

In the early phases of resistance training, strength gains are due to neurological factors such as improved motor control and movement patterns rather than an increase in muscle.

After these initial adaptations, strength gains are attributed to an increase in cross sectional area, or hypertrophy. Over time, our bodies become stronger and more efficient, resulting in a plateau if there is no variation in our training routine.

To encourage progression, you will need to sequence your strength goals.

As a beginner, plan to spend the first 2-4 weeks on muscular endurance training to establish a foundation of correct movement patterns and motor control. Spend the next 2-4 weeks focusing on hypertrophy training to increase muscle mass and force potential.

These initial 4-8 weeks will condition and prep your body to train with a heavier load (volume and intensity) for muscular strength improvements (force output). Spend the next 4 weeks training for muscular strength using a small volume and a high intensity (weight).

To increase your upper body strength, plan to spend 12 weeks training each muscle group 2-3 times a week.

Use the following programming to increase your upper body strength.

  • Weeks 1-4 : Muscular Endurance. Submax intensity (light weights) & high volume (2-3 sets of 10-20 reps)
  • Weeks 5-8 : Hypertrophy. Moderate intensity (moderate weights) & moderate volume (3 sets of 8-12 reps)
  • Weeks 9-12 : Strength. High intensity (heavy weights) & low volume (4-6 sets of 4-6 reps)

How can I increase my strength at home?

As a busy mom like you, I have found home workouts to be my favored method of exercise. I don’t need to waste time getting to the gym and I can still hit my fitness goals.

Due to it’s convenience, you can get fit with at home workouts using minimal equipment and space. At home workouts are my Fitness Hack For Moms.

The most effective way to improve strength at home is with dumbbell, resistance band, and bodyweight workouts. You will increase your strength as long as you are challenging yourself in your workouts with intensity or volume.

What exercises build strength without equipment?

The prone back extension (superman), push-up, and tricep dip are all upper body exercises for strength training that do not require equipment.

All three of these bodyweight exercises will hit every muscle group in the upper body and can be modified and progressed based on your fitness level.

Each exercise will also work each muscle group in different planes of motion, comparatively. Using just these three moves will provide a well-rounded and balanced approach to your upper body strength training.

All three exercises aide in improving mobility and core strength as well.

What is the best workout to build upper body strength?

The most effective and efficient way to build upper body strength is with workouts that include 4-6 compound, functional upper body exercises. This would be multi-joint exercises that use multiple muscle groups at a time and mimic everyday movement patterns.

Your upper body strength routine should include a variety of push and pull exercises to maintain balance. These exercises should incorporate deep core engagement and full range-of-motion.

When building strength, your workouts should take the muscles close to fatigue due to total load (volume and intensity).

Functional upper body workouts for strength and coordination

Use any of these at-home workouts for women designed with functional upper body exercises for strength training. Ranging from 10-25 minutes in length using resistance band, dumbbell, or bodyweight exercises.

Every workout is programmed with functional upper body exercises to help you build strength to support your every day tasks as a mom.

Tips for incorporating upper body exercises into daily routine as a mom

Moms are busy, and some days the time escapes us and we miss a workout. Or maybe you want to squeeze in any extra credit that you can in between your daily tasks.

Adding in a set or two of any upper body exercise of your choosing will help increase your total load over the course of the week and will help you build strength.

Some ways you can do this is with a set of push-ups or back extensions when you are laying on the ground with your kids. Knock out a set of tricep dips at the kitchen chair while you make dinner. Do a few bent over rows with your laundry basket when you pick it off the ground. Use your baby as a weight and press them overhead during play time.

Any way that you can sneak in a few extra reps will add up over time and you will feel yourself getting stronger each day!

Get strong to get toned

Like I said earlier, the secret to getting toned is to resistance train and strengthen your muscles. Chances are, regardless of how you do it, you will see physical and functional results that will motivate you to keep going. Just stay consistent, eat healthy, and I’m confident you will love the way you look and feel!

Now that you know my favorite upper body exercises, take a look at The Most Important 3 Lower Body Exercises. With video demonstration and a full breakdown, you will have the tools you need to get full body results. See you there!

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About the Author

Coach Zoe

Fitness trainer and mom of 3! I love working out, hanging out with my family, and motivating others.

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  1. Thanks for this information. I am a full-time RVing wife and mom of 5 kids 7 and under. I have little to no space and probably less time, and I have got to get my body back before it’s too late. This post spells it out simply so that a beginner, like me, can know how to get started with minimal equipment and time! Exactly my kind of post.

    1. I am not apart of the RV lifestyle but I can sympathize with very little space to workout. So glad I can help!

  2. Yep! I love it! I knew I would. Thanks Zoe! I know exactly what I need to do if I don’t have time for my regular workout.

    1. Not a problem, I’m glad I could help!

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