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Some women think that the only muscles they need to work in their upper body are their abs and arms. This has to do with a couple factors: 1) Because the arms are the most visible part of the upper body, some women think it makes sense to emphasize them over other muscle groups of the upper body. 2) Many women believe that working their back, chest and shoulders will make them look bulky and unattractive. We turned to Jan Love, a certified fitness trainer with more than 35 years of experience, to debunk these fallacies and give us the truth.
“Women don’t add mass the way men do, especially if they work in higher rep ranges with intensity,” Love says. Women should not ignore their bigger upper-body muscles because training them with weights will offer the results they’re seeking, she says. In other words, working the chest, back and shoulders with weights will create a tighter, more toned upper body, more detail in your arms and a slimmer waist. “More important, training these muscle groups will give you so much more functional strength,” Love says. “This not only will help you look better but also will make you feel better about yourself.”
Over the years, Love has been certified by virtually every group that certifies trainers. Her hands-on approach to her clients backs up her experience and her training. Here are three points that she makes to the women she trains, who vary in age from the very young to the, ahem, younger-looking-than-they-are.
• Exercise for empowerment. “The most attractive quality in a woman is confidence,” Love says. “I teach exercise and weight-training methods that help women feel good about themselves because they are gaining strength and athletic skills in addition to looking better.” Keep in mind that your goals are not just physical — as you start to attain your physical goals, you’ll also feel better about yourself. And that positive approach not only will drive your physical goals but also will boost your psychological mindset.
• Listen to your body. “Don’t do anything that doesn’t feel right, even if you’ve been told to do it,” Love says. “When I start with a client, I tell them that they have to give me feedback because I don’t know their body yet. Later, when I’ve learned their strengths and weaknesses, I have a better sense of what will work for each woman I’m training.” When you’re on your own, never push past sharp pain. It’s OK to go past your current fitness threshold to improve it, but you have to learn how to evaluate the difference. One tip: Don’t do moves that hurt from rep one.
• Learn how to “feel” your goal. “I teach my clients how to ‘feel’ success as they’re training,” Love says. She explains that this means you have to learn to get in touch with each muscle that you’re trying to tone. Whether you’re training with light or heavy weights, focus on the muscle you’re working. At first, you may not feel it working in isolation. “But eventually you’ll learn to target each muscle, which is not only empowering, but it’s also the way you achieve your goals,” she says.
Upper-Body Training Program
Love has worked with us to develop a workout that will help women of various ages and fitness levels — whether they work out at home or at the gym alone or with a trainer — tone their upper bodies. The key is to train the upper body twice a week, in addition to the rest of your training. One weekly session involves heavier weights but fewer reps, while the second focuses more on lighter weights but higher reps for detail. The workouts are similar, but different moves are included to help you achieve your goals.
Both workouts are included in this chart. When performing a move on the heavier-weight day, choose a weight and a strategy from our exercise description that’s appropriate for your fitness level, allowing you to complete the move for the desired reps with good form. On high-reps day, adjust your weights and strategy so that you’re able to complete the targeted number of reps.
Inchworm (For whole-body warm-up to prevent injury)
Purpose: “I like to have my clients perform this move as their first warm-up because it’s a gentle way to involve so many muscle groups,” Love says.
Perform the Move: Squat down and place your hands on the floor. “Walk your hands out until you reach a plank position,” Love says. Then walk your legs forward toward your hands with straight legs, making sure to place your heels on the ground so that you feel a gentle stretch in your calves. Take two to three steps with each foot, then when you reach your hands, squat back down and perform the next rep.
Make It Easier: “You can hold your butt up in more of a pike position as you reach full extension,” Love says. This will reduce the amount of weight your upper body must bear.
Make It Harder: Hold each fully extended plank position for five to 10 seconds before you begin to walk your feet up toward your hands. You can also include one push-up to add to the challenge.
Push-Up (For detail in your triceps and a bit more cleavage)
Purpose: “Push-ups are a great move for defining the chest and triceps,” Love says. She explains that many women find regular push-ups to be difficult to perform, but there are many ways to make them easier but still effective.
Perform the Move: To emphasize triceps, place your hands on the ground under your shoulders. To emphasize your chest, place your hands a little wider than your shoulders. “Hold your body in the plank position and lower down until your chest and chin near the ground,” Love says. “Make sure that you keep your body tight in one line throughout the move.” Don’t allow your butt to sag or pike. Then press back up to the start position.
Make It Easier: “If you can’t perform regular push-ups, then perform the move by placing your hands on the bar of a Smith machine at an angle that allows you to complete the required number of reps. At home, you can use a stationary piece of furniture such as a table, coffee table or sink. “I think using the full length of your body is more empowering then performing push-ups on the ground from your knees,” Love says.
Make It Harder: Slow down the pace of your push-ups. Then, at the bottom of each move, hold the stretch for five seconds. Press up slowly and hold the plank position for five seconds, then begin your next rep.
Bent-Over Lateral Raise (For sexy detail between shoulders and back)
Purpose: This move works one of the key muscles of your shoulders, the rear delts, located between your shoulder and back, just above the backside of your armpit. “Rear delts rarely get direct attention from many female exercisers,” Love says. “But they’re a crucial muscle for appearance and functionality.”
Perform the Move: Bend over, keeping your back flat but maintaining the natural curve in your lower spine. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, raise your arms out to the side until they reach the T position. Hold the weights in this position (arms parallel to the floor) for a beat as you feel a contraction between your shoulders and back. “Then lower the weight using control, feeling your rear delts working,” Love says. She points out that it’s easy to let gravity take over, but working against it will really help you develop tone.
Make It Easier: You can use a lighter weight and place one hand on a chair or bench to help support your lower back. Perform the move one arm at a time.
Make It Harder: Use a slightly heavier weight and hold the peak contraction for an extra second or two. Stand with your feet staggered, one foot about two feet in front of the other. Perform an equal number of sets (two each) with each foot in front.
Shoulder Press (For a waist-slimming effect)
Purpose: This move targets the middle head of your delts. “When you perform shoulder presses while standing, you also work your core,” Love says. And having better-developed delts helps create the appearance of a leaner, more toned midsection.
Perform the Move: Stand and hold two dumbbells at your shoulders with your palms facing outward. Tighten your midsection and begin to press the weights overhead, emphasizing your shoulder muscles. Avoid locking out your elbows in the extended position, feeling a contraction in your shoulders. Then lower the weights using the power of your shoulders, feeling a stretch in them.
Make It Easier: Use a lighter weight and/or perform them while seated. The seat will provide support for your back, making it easier to press the weights. It also reduces the demand on your core, so remember to hold your abs tight as you perform the move.
Make It Harder: Use heavier weights and perform the reps more slowly, using a three count to press the weight up followed by a three count to lower the weights.
Inverted Row (For a lean, toned upper back)
Purpose: Rows are one of the best moves for bringing out detail in the back. “They also give you just a bit of width, which helps the waist look slimmer,” Love says. But inverted rows involve more lat fibers than regular rows and put less stress on the back.
Perform the Move: This move is a bit like an inverted push-up. Lie under the bar of a Smith machine or a barbell placed on a power rack, gripping it with your arms fully extended and with the backs of your heels in contact with ground. Hold your body in a plank position, making a 15- to 30-degree angle with the ground. Using your arms and back, pull your body up until your chest touches the bar. Feel the contraction in your upper back and hold that for a second. Then slowly lower yourself, feeling a stretch in your back. At home, you can perform this move by placing a stick between two sturdy chairs.
Make It Easier: Raise the bar so that your body creates a greater angle with the ground.
Make It Harder: Place your feet on a chair so that your shoulders are even or slightly lower than your feet in the inverted plank position. Pulling from this angle will create more work and better results.
Hyperextension (For a tighter core and more detail in your lower back)
Purpose: Performed correctly, hyperextensions help you create a more toned, longer and leaner look. “You can also incorporate your glutes and hamstrings, but hyperextensions are ideal for strengthening your lower back and bringing out a more toned look in that overlooked part of the body,” Love says.
Perform the Move: Place your heels under the pads of a hyperextension machine. While maintaining the curve of your lower spine throughout the move, bend at the waist and lower your upper body. Stop before you feel your lower spine start to round. Contract the muscles of your lower back and pull back up to the starting position.
Make It Easier: Place your hands on the handles (if the bench has them), and lower yourself with support. Emphasize the contraction in your lower back.
Make It Harder: Place your hands behind your head with your elbows flared or hold a light weight against your upper chest while you perform your set.
Here’s one way you can do your upper-body program twice a week to gain upper-body strength and a more toned overall appearance.
- Monday: Upper-Body Program
- Tuesday: Lower-Body Workout
- Wednesday: Cardio and Abs
- Thursday: Upper-Body Program
- Friday: Cardio and Abs
- Saturday: Arms and Cardio
- Sunday: Rest