The Results in 1-2-3: Upper-Body Workout

Shape your shoulders, back, chest and arms more effectively with this simple training trick.

Photo: GettyImages

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“When it comes to strength training, the truth is that less is more,” says Annie Culotta, fitness manager and personal trainer at 24 Hour Fitness in Hermosa Beach, California.

In Culotta’s view, instead of bolting on an ever-more-complex array of new exercises and fancy fitness trends onto your training program in the quest for better results, you can instead make a huge difference by simply going back to basics: That is, smart exercise selection performed in the most effective, efficient order possible.

“The following is an upper-body workout consisting of six of the most effective movements you’ll find in a gym, in order from the hardest to the easiest exercises targeting the chest, back, delts, triceps and biceps,” she explains. “You start with barbells, then go to dumbbells, and finish with machine exercises.”

By doing compound barbell exercises first — which involve several muscle groups versus isolation moves — you can hit the weights while you’re fresh and your muscles aren’t already fatigued. “That means you can perform these harder exercises more effectively and without a higher risk of injury,” Culotta adds.

Less complications, less risk, less time in the gym, all with the potential to add up to more results? That’s a “less is more” approach we can all appreciate.

The Results in 1-2-3 Upper-Body Workout

Use a light weight for the first set of the incline press as a warm-up, then add enough weight to the bar to reach muscle fatigue within eight to 10 reps for subsequent sets. Rest one to two minutes between your sets of incline bench presses and bent-over rows, 60 to 90 seconds between sets for each of the dumbbell exercises, and 30 to 60 seconds between sets of the machine moves.

Equipment Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Incline Bench Press 4 8-10
Barbell Bent-Over Row 4 8-10
Dumbbell Triceps Kickback 4 10-12 (per arm)
Dumbbell Standing Curl 4 10-12 (per arm)
Machine Pec-Deck Flye 4 10-12
Machine Reverse Pec-Deck Flye 4 10-12

Incline Bench Press 

With a spotter on hand to help you, lie on an incline bench and place your feet flat on the floor for support. Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip just outside shoulder width and, with assistance of the spotter to help guide it into place, unrack it, holding it directly over your upper pecs. Slowly lower the bar to your upper chest as you inhale deeply, touching down for a brief count before powerfully pressing it back to full elbow extension as you exhale.

“Avoid the following common mistakes when benching: moving your feet, flaring your elbows, loose or rolling wrists, bouncing the bar off your chest, and letting your hips come off the bench during the lift,” Culotta says.

Annie’s Advice: “Focus on the five key points of contact: (1) your feet planted on the floor, (2) squeezing your glutes as if to grip the bench, (3) shoulders retracted — pulled down and back — and also tight to the bench, (4) head flat with eyes directly under the barbell, and (5) hands placed just slightly wider than shoulder width on the bar. For optimal performance and results, maintain these points of contact throughout the exercises. When you’re set up correctly, note that there should be a natural arch in your lower back as a result of engaging and activating all the proper muscles.”

Bent-Over Row

Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, grasp a barbell with a wide, overhand grip. Lean forward at your hips until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor. The barbell should hang straight down in front of your shins. Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up toward your abdomen, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. Hold the bar in the peak-contracted position for a brief count, then slowly lower along the same path.

Annie’s Advice: “This is an exercise where form and technique are especially key to ensure the back is working as intended and you’re protecting yourself against injury. Try to maintain proper body position by engaging the core and keeping a flat back. This will help avoid rounding your shoulders and back, which would put your spine in a vulnerable state.”

Triceps Kickback

Stand alongside a flat bench, and put your left knee on the bench with your right foot planted firmly on the floor a couple of inches to the rear of that hip, holding a dumbbell in your right hand. Bend your right arm to 90 degrees with that elbow solidly at your flank, palm facing inward. Making sure to only move at your elbow joint, extend your arm to lift the dumbbell to the rear in an arc until that arm is straight. Hold that peak contraction for a one-count, then slowly lower the weight to the start. Complete 10 to 12 reps with your right arm, then switch positions to work your left side.

Annie’s Advice: “The kickback is one of the most effective ways to tighten and tone the backside of your arms, targeting the ‘arm wiggle’ or ‘bat wings’ we’d all rather be without. Common mistakes you want to avoid are shrugging your shoulder toward your ear, swinging the dumbbell — breaking the 90-degree angle and using momentum to kick the weight higher — and going too heavy so as you can’t reasonably control the dumbbell. If you want to bump up the burn, increase your ‘time under tension’ (TUT for short) by adding a three-second hold at the top of each rep.”

Standing Curl

Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides, arms extended. Keep your abs tight, chest up and head straight. Contract your biceps to curl the dumbbells toward your shoulders, keeping your elbows at your sides. Hold and squeeze at the top, then slowly return the dumbbells along the same path.

Annie’s Advice: “This exercise can be performed sitting down or standing — standing tends to be easier because of the base foundation the lower body provides, while sitting helps reduce your ability to generate excess momentum. If you do find yourself swinging the dumbbells to try to get them up, it’s typically a sign of either rushing through the movement or using a weight that’s too heavy.”

Pec-Deck Flye

Sit on a pec-deck flye machine with your upper back in solid contact with the pad and your feet flat on the floor. Holding the handles with your elbows elevated so they align with your hands, powerfully flex your pecs to bring your hands forward in an arc until the handles meet in front of your body. Squeeze for a one-count at that point, then slowly return to the start, stopping when your upper arms are even with your torso and reversing into the next rep without letting the weight stack touch down.

Annie’s Advice: “The setup on the pec deck is similar to the bench press. Begin by planting your feet firmly on the floor and sitting with your shoulder blades pulled down and back tight to the seat with your chest lifted. The goal is to keep the chest up and shoulders back through the entire movement, avoiding rounding the shoulders forward as you bring the handles together in front of the body.”

Reverse Pec-Deck Flye

Sit tall with your chest against the pad at a pec-deck station. Grasp the handles in front of you with a neutral grip. Your arms should be extended and parallel with the floor, level with your delts. Tighten your core, elevate your chest, and lift your elbows so that they are slightly bent and in direct alignment with the level of your hands. Now flex your rear delts to pull the handles back until your upper arms are perpendicular to your torso, hold that position for a one-count, then return to the start, not letting the weight stack touch down between reps.

Annie’s Advice: “The reverse flye is a great exercise for building muscle and definition in the middle and upper back, as well as the rear delts on the backside of the shoulders. Since the pec-deck flye and reverse flye are on the same machine, you can perform them superset style, if you prefer, doing 10 to 12 pec-deck flye reps and then immediately turning around, adjusting the handle positioning and doing 10 to 12 reverse flyes.”