Strapped for time, but still want to seriously work your back, shoulders, and arms? We have a 20-minute upper-body workout that will deliver the best bang for your exercise buck.
The key to an efficient, effective upper-body workout is simple: Focus on compound exercises, which are movements that work multiple muscle groups across more than one joint. Compared to isolation exercises, which hone in one muscle group, compound moves hit more muscles per rep and per exercise, NASM-certified personal trainer Alicia Jamison, C.P.T., trainer at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City, tells SELF. That means you can gain bigger strength benefits in a shorter amount of time. “It’s just simple numbers,” says Jamison, who created the below routine that’s heavy on compound moves.
Another component of Jamison’s routine that makes it a quick-yet-effective upper-body workout? It alternates between pushing and pulling exercises, which consolidates recovery time and ensures you get well-rounded strength work. That’s because pushing moves, like push-ups and presses, engage the frontside of your upper-half (think chest and shoulders). And pulling moves, like curls and rows, hit the backside (like your lats and rhomboids). By including both types of movements, you can make sure you fire up all the muscles in your upper half. And, by switching back and forth between them, you’re giving your opposing muscle groups time to rest without actually having to pause your workout. That means more strength benefits in a shorter amount of time.
But efficient strength work isn’t the only benefit to this routine—it can also double as light cardio thanks to the time-based format. “Whenever you’re going for time, you kind of instinctively try to do as many reps as possible,” explains Jamison. Pushing the pace like this can make the workout feel more taxing cardiovascularly. Just make sure your form stays good as you increase your speed, and if you feel that start to falter, take that as your cue to slow down and pump out fewer (but cleaner!) reps instead.
You can do this routine two to four times a week, suggests Jamison, so long as you take at least a day off in between sessions so your muscles have enough time to recover. It’s also important to do a warm-up before you dive in. “It doesn’t have to take a long time,” says Jamison. About five minutes of dynamic stretching and upper-body muscle activation, which you can achieve with moves like the pull-apart, can do the trick. You can also give this awesome upper-body warm-up a try, too!
Feeling ready to smoke your upper half? Keep scrolling for a 20-minute upper-body workout that will deliver serious strength benefits (and maybe even get you a little sweaty, too!)
What you need: A set of light and medium dumbbells. While the exact weights will differ for each person, you can consider 5-pound and 10-pound weights a potential jumping-off point.
- Overhead press
- 3-way bicep curl
- Bent-over row
- Reverse fly
- Do each move for 40 seconds, then rest 20 seconds before moving onto the next move in the circuit. Complete four total rounds. Don’t take additional rest in between rounds (though of course take a break if your form starts to falter or if you feel like you can’t catch your breath).
Demoing the moves below are April Nicole Henry (GIF 1), a strength athlete based in New York City; Nathalie Huerta (GIF 2), coach at The Queer Gym in Oakland; Erica Gibbons (GIFs 3 and 5), a California-based personal trainer and graduate student becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist; and Cookie Janee (GIF 5), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve.