Pushing a shopping cart, lugging some laundry or even dragging your swolemate to the gym, require you to put some back and chest into it. The best way to make these everyday activities a little less of a struggle? Build strength in both the front and back of your upper body. Besides getting you to boast some bigger muscles, specifically targeting your chest and back will help you push and pull heavy items like they’re light as a feather.
So to train you to toss and tug anything, we pulled six of the best upper-body exercises — all from the Daily Burn workout program, Live to Fail — to create the ultimate back and chest workout. To start, reach for those heavier weights… It’s the key to gaining major muscles and some show-it-off strength.
Build Upper Body Strength with These Exercises
Working through supersets — alternating one chest exercise and one back exercise — is a seriously efficient way to train your upper body. “The model of working back and chest together works well, because they are agonist and antagonist muscle groups,” says Ben Booker, owner of Second Change Fitness in Arthur, IL and lead trainer on Live to Fail. That means, as you work one muscle group, the opposite one gets to rest, which is a good way keep the intensity up. “You maximize your time under tension,” Booker explains. “You can exhaust the chest and give it a bit of a break while you attack the back. This keeps the calorie burn high, and your time efficient as possible.”
To nail this workout and fatigue each muscle group, Booker suggests performing 10-12 reps of each exercise back-to-back. Do four total sets of each two-move circuit, resting for 45 seconds in between sets. Then move on to the next superset. As for weights, Booker recommends two sets of dumbbells — one heavy and one lighter — for both men and women. “Once you can no longer maintain proper form with the weight you choose, then drop down,” he says. “It is called threshold training when you work up to your rep range, while maintaining the best form possible.” After all, that’s how you earn the big guns.
1. Dumbbell Row
How to: Start with your left knee on a bench or chair, and your right leg extended behind you. Lean your body forward to about a 90-degree angle and hold a dumbbell in your right hand (a). Pull the weight up toward your chest, palm facing you and elbow staying in close to your side (b). Slowly lower it back down and repeat (c). Then switch sides.
2. Box Push-Ups
How to: Place your hands on a plyo box or chair and get into a high plank position with your shoulders directly over your wrists and feet on the floor (a). Perform one push-up with good form (keeping your body in a straight line from shoulders to heels) (b). Repeat.
Trainer tip: If you can bang out these push-ups without breaking a sweat, switch your stance so your feet are on top of the box and hands on the floor. Trust us: You will definitely feel the burn in your pecs.
1. Sitting Shoulder Fly
How to: Sitting on a bench, box or chair, plant your feet on the floor with knees bent. Lean forward to about a 45-degree angle. Hold a weight in each hand, arms extended down by your sides and palms facing away from you (a). Using the muscles of your upper back to drive the movement, pull your arms up and out to the sides, keeping a slight bend in your elbows. For best results: Palms should rotate so they face behind you, thumbs toward the floor (b). Lower your arms back to the starting position and repeat.
2. Pec Fly Bridge
How to: Lying on your back, feet planted and knees bent, hold a dumbbell in each hand overhead, palms facing each other (a). Lift your hips up toward the ceiling to perform a bridge (b). Keeping your hips lifted, slowly lower your hands down and out to the sides, with just a slight bend in your elbows to protect your joints and really target those pecs (c). Return to the starting position and repeat. Your hips should stay lifted the entire time.
1. Wide Row
How to: Sitting on a box, bench or chair, plant your feet on the floor with knees bent. Lean forward to about a 45-degree angle. Hold a dumbbell in each hand down by your sides, palms facing behind you (a). Pull your elbows up toward the ceiling, so your hands reach about chest height, elbows bent 90 degrees (b). Slowly lower your hands back down to the starting position and repeat.
2. Dumbbell Chest Press Bridge
How to: Lying on your back, feet planted on the floor and knees bent, hold a dumbbell with each hand overhead, palms facing away from you (a). Lift your hips up toward the ceiling to perform a bridge (b). Slowly lower one weight down to the ground, bending your elbow 90 degrees (c). Push it back up to the starting position (d). Slowly lower your other weight down to the ground, bending your elbow 90 degrees (e). Push it back up to the starting position and continue alternating. Your hips should stay lifted the entire time.
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Originally published October 2017. Updated January 2018 and October 2021.
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