When it comes to working out, it’s easy to think that more is better. But in order to actually get stronger, we need active recovery. This easy upper body workout is a great way to fit a few minutes of feel-good movement into your busy schedule.
Sure, the endorphins we get from an intense workout are empowering—and often therapeutic—but our muscles need time to repair if we want to keep exercising for the long haul. And actually, even when we take time to rest, our bodies aren’t really resting. During a training session, your muscle tissues break down, your muscles’ energy stores deplete, and you lose fluids, SELF previously reported. So when you take a day or two to recover, that signals to your body to start the regeneration process, which allows you to come back even stronger
An easy upper body workout allows you to work your muscles without triggering major muscle tissue breakdown or too much fatigue. This simple routine below, created by Alicia Jamison, C.P.T., trainer at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City, also focuses more on moves that use your brain to activate and engage specific muscles rather than overloading them with lots of external resistance.
That’s important, because when you’re just starting to work out, Jamison explains that much of your initial strength gains are heavily determined by your neural adaptations. Having an upper body workout that focuses more on using your brain to activate your muscles will help build a stronger foundation for future strength training.
This easy upper body workout uses mostly compound moves, like the overhead press and row, which engage multiple muscle groups, rather than smaller, individual muscles. When it comes to these movements, your body recruits your agonist muscle (the primary mover, like your shoulders, or deltoids, in an overhead press), the antagonist muscle (the one that has to relax for the primary muscle to work), your assistant muscles, and also your synergist muscles (the small stabilizing muscles). So in a shoulder press, you’re working your triceps, pectorals, and trapezius, as well as your deltoids.
Isolation-based exercises like triceps push-downs or biceps curls focus on strengthening one primary muscle. “I think about it like this: If the compound movements are an entire pizza pie, the isolation movements are the slices,” says Jamison. If you’re looking for a simple and effective upper body workout without getting too complicated or involving a whole bunch of exercises, the best bang for your buck is going to be compound moves.
The workout below hits the big muscles in your upper body, like your shoulders, chest, and back, as well as their smaller supporting muscles, like your biceps and triceps. You’ll be using resistance bands for the moves, which are good tools for a not-too-strenuous-but-still-effective upper body workout, since they keep tension on your muscles throughout the exercise. (And you won’t be tempted to go heavier, like you may be with dumbbells.)
Remember: This is a slow and steady workout meant to activate—not strain—your upper body. Before you get started, warm up with a few mobility exercises and stretches to loosen up. Jamison suggests shoulder stretches, an overhead triceps stretch, and some resistance band pull-aparts to engage your lats.
Ready for a little bit of strength-building, restorative movement? Here’s everything you’ll need.
What you’ll need: A resistance band—either looped bands or bands with handles will work, a step or box, and an exercise mat for extra cushioning.
- Bodyweight pulldown
- Resistance band overhead press
- Triceps box dip
- Resistance band seated row
- In each superset, complete 8-12 reps of each exercise, going from one to the next without rest. Rest 60 seconds after both exercises are completed. Do 2-4 rounds total.
Demoing the moves below are Cookie Janee (GIF 1), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; Lauren Leavell (GIF 2), a NASM-certified personal trainer and barre instructor based in Philadelphia; Amanda Wheeler (GIF 3), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and cofounder of Formation Strength; and Hejira Nitoto (GIF 4), a mom of six and a certified personal trainer and fitness apparel line owner based in Los Angeles.