Every woman should incorporate these 3 basic upper body exercises into their fitness routine to get a toned and feminine physique.
What is “toned”
Many women ask me how to get “toned.” Which always feels like a vague question with a vague answer. It is so subjective! But 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 beyond being just “skinny.”
And let me tell you a secret. Are you ready? Get in closer I don’t want anyone to hear… Lift weights, resistance train, GET STRONG. As a woman, if you resistance train and maintain a healthy body fat percentage, you will look “toned.” Unless you lift very intentionally (meaning with specific programming) and pretty heavy weights, you won’t get bulky. Again, that can be subjective. Because even when I was my “biggest” and I was doing a lot of strength training using close to a hundred pounds or more, I still would not consider myself bulky. More defined and muscular than your average woman, for sure. But I definitely couldn’t pass for a body builder or even a competitive strength athlete.
How to tone with these upper body exercises
Back to the how. If I want to be technical and go all “coach” on you, I am going to tell you to train for muscular endurance. That looks like using light to moderate weight (relative to you of course) with a medium to large volume. Volume is reps and sets. typically that would be something like 15 to 30 reps of 2 to 3 sets/rounds or more. But you don’t have to use an exact formula. Just use a weight (or resistance band or even bodyweight depending on ability) that allows you to do a lot of reps at a time before you fatigue to failure (where you absolutely could not complete another rep).
This type of resistance training tends to feel like cardio (hence endurance) because you are doing a movement many times before taking a rest. So your heart rate kicks up by the time you are done. When you train this way, you usually won’t be sore in one specific group of muscles. That way you can train them more frequently throughout the week.
The 3 best upper body exercises
Now that we have covered how to get toned, let’s talk about what exercises will give you the most bang for your buck. Because as a busy mom, you may not have time to sit down and program out what days you are doing which exercises. You need efficiency. The most effective upper body exercises are the overhead press, push up, and bent over row.
You only need these three because as compund exercises, they hit major and minor muscle groups. And between the three of them, all of the muscles in the upper body will get attention. 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, core-supporting muscles will be the prime movers for each of these exercises. That would be the large back, chest, and shoulder muscles. This means they will carry a majority of the intesity (weight) and grow stronger. We want a strong core for posture stability and integrity. And when we put large muscle groups under higher stress, we get more cardiovascular response, and burn more calories.
Whereas the smaller muscle groups, such as the biceps, triceps, and stabilizers carry less intensity (weight) but are worked in all three movements and therefore, at a higher volume. Giving them the muscular endurance training approach we talked about earlier.
How to exercise efficiently
To compare, we can burn more calories, strengthen our core, improve posture, and build lean muscle mass in those more superficial muscle groups by using these just these three simple exercises. Versus doing a resistance training session of a bunch of isolation exercises (think bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises, etc.) to build that lean muscle and follow it up with a cardio session to burn the calories.
As a busy mom, I want to train as efficiently as possible. I don’t want to have to spend hours on one training session, in fact I don’t have time to.
The 3 best upper body exercises
How to perform the push up
The push up has been and always will be one of my favorite exercises. 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. That and it exposes your areas of weakness, especially in the core and abdominals.
How to perform the overhead press
The overhead press will be a very frequently used exercise and is a movement that aids in range of motion. Working overhead is so important because it is not typically something we do in our day to day, outside of reaching for a high shelf. And in my experience with senior clients, lack of shoulder mobility is the most common as well as hindering in their daily lives. I know most of you probably don’t think about how your workouts will affect your golden years, but shoulder injury is also very prevalent among many clients that are young and active too.
I enjoy overhead work because of the core challenge it provides without having to get on the floor. So if you are prenatal, postpartum, or have some kind of back injury, you can use overhead work to strengthen your core, and even correct posture.
How to perform the bent over row
The bent over row may be one of least favored upper body exercises because it is posterior chain focused and many women, especially mamas, have a fairly weak back. It is an area of the body that is easily and the most often neglected. This all comes from daily poor posture as well as a lot of sitting and focuse on forward exercise. So this makes the list of the top three, and honestly probably the MOST important of upper body exercises. This movement will help with back pain and longevity in posture health. It is often performed incorrectly or with poor mechanics so make sure you take the time to watch the video!
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. Don’t stress about getting too bulky. Just stay consistent, eat healthy and I’m sure 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!