Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image Image
Scroll to top


Fitness Basics: Beginner Upper Body Exercises

Fitness Basics: Beginner Upper Body Exercises

| On 30, Jan 2014


Deciding to switch to a more active lifestyle and to incorporate more exercises into your daily schedule is surely a smart choice and can be the first step toward a slimmer and more defined body.

If you’re a beginner, you might feel unsure about what exercises you should or shouldn’t be doing for toning and strengthening your muscles. But you have to start somewhere, and creating personalized routines for the upper body, core area and lower body can be very helpful, as it will help you shape all the major muscles and build a lean and nicely proportionate body.

Also, having a list of exercises to perform on a daily basis can keep you motivated, and it’s easier to track your progress if you have a long-term plan of action.

We’ll therefore start with an upper body routine for beginners, the main purpose for now being to learn the movements and to be able to do these exercises with proper form. Once you’re able to do the exercises the right way, you can increase the resistance or add variations, for a more thorough workout.

What muscles will I be working?

exercises upper body beginner

The basic upper body workout will include one exercise for each of the major muscle groups in arms, chest, upper back and shoulders.

  • Biceps – the muscles found at the front of your upper arm
  • Triceps – situated at the back of your upper arm
  • Forearm muscles – run from the wrist to elbow
  • Deltoids – muscles that wrap around the top of your shoulders
  • Rotators (rotator cuff) – beneath your shoulders
  • Pectorals – muscles that run across your chest
  • Trapezius – muscle that runs from the center of your back to the neck, across the shoulder blades
  • Rhomboids – muscles situated in the center of the back, below the base of the neck

For better results, you will need a set of dumbbells or a resistance band. This first workout won’t take you more than 30-40 minutes, and you can repeat it 2 times a week if your muscles aren’t too sore after the first training session.

Basic exercises for the upper body

1. Biceps

Biceps curls – hold the dumbbells in front of the thighs, bend your elbows and bring the weights toward the shoulders. Slowly lower back, without relaxing the muscle.



  • Keep the elbow slightly in front of your ribs, anchored at your sides.
  • You can replace dumbbells with a resistance band or barbell.

Alternatives: Preacher curls, overhead cable curls

2. Triceps

Triceps kickbacks – hold the dumbbell in your hand and bend over, until your trunk is at 45° or parallel to the floor. You can use an abdominal bench for this, or start in the lunge position and just bend forward. Keeping the back flat, bring the bent elbows to the torso level and extend the arm behind, squeezing the triceps.

triceps kickbacks


  • Do the movements slowly, to feel the muscles contracting, and don’t relax them between reps.

Alternatives: triceps dips (ground or bench), overhead triceps extensions, lying triceps extensions

3. Forearm muscles

Wrist curls – sitting on a flat bench or on a chair, grab the dumbbell while keeping your feet flat, shoulder width apart or slightly wider. Lean forward and bring your forearms on top of your thighs, keeping palms up. Lower the dumbbell and curl back, keeping a tight grip and maintaining the contraction during the entire movement.

Alternatives for gym: wrist rollers, wrist circles


4. Pectorals

Bench press or floor press – lying on the floor or on a flat bench, grab the dumbbells and bring them next to your shoulders. Extend both arms so that the weights are being held above the chest, and then lower them. Palms should be facing forward.

Alternatives: pushups, butterfly (pec deck)chest exercises5. Trapezius

Upright rows – start in the standing position, with the dumbbells in your hands, palms facing your thighs. Lift the weights toward your shoulders, keeping the arms next to your body while lifting, and the elbows always higher than the forearms. Lower the dumbbells and repeat.

Alternatives: dumbbell shrugs

Upright Rows Dumbbells

6. Rhomboids

Shoulder blade squeeze – for this exercise you won’t need dumbbells. Start by standing or sitting, with your back straight and shoulders slightly pulled back. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, hold for a couple of seconds, then release and repeat. Keep the chin tucked in while doing this exercise.

Alternatives: resistance band pull backs


7. Delts

Delts raises – start in the standing position, with elbows slightly bent, in front of your ribs and anchored to your body. Raise the dumbbells in front of your body, to shoulder height, then lower the arms and raise again, this time bringing the weights laterally.

Alternatives: standing dumbbell press, bent over reverse flylateral raises

8. Rotators

Lying shoulder external rotations – to perform this movement, start by lying on a side, with legs separated. Grab the dumbbell and position your elbow against your side, keeping the forearm close to the abdomen. Lift the weight by rotating the shoulder, return and repeat. If you can’t perform this movement correctly with a dumbbell, use a resistance band at the beginning.


  • Maintain the elbow bent at 90°, in a fixed position, while performing the movement.

Alternatives: cable external and internal rotations

shoulder rotations

Most of these exercises are isolation movements, so you should be able to perform them correctly, but if you find it difficult to maintain proper form with dumbbells, start with resistance bands or without any weight, until you get used to the routine. To personalize your workout, try the alternative exercises suggested here as well, as you may like them better. If you opt for variations, make sure to incorporate at least one exercise for each of the mentioned muscles.

As your muscles get stronger, you can simply increase the weight, although a more efficient approach would be to add compound exercises, as these work more muscle groups at once, burning more calories. We’ll talk about these in a future article, when we’ll focus on intermediate upper body movements. Until then, go lift some weights and burn some calories!