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Best home upper body exercises

Christina Howells
Article written by Christina Howells

Date published 25 June 2020

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For this routine, you're going to work through each exercise in order. Some moves have a few segments to them, while others require you to repeat two sets. All will make sense as you move through the workout.

Upper back and shoulder burner

Prop: Tea towel, hand towel or a strong scarf.

At first, this may sound like it's not going to do anything, but done correctly this routine is going to work your shoulders and upper back. It's a great exercise that incorporates both isometric (without movement) with concentric and eccentric contraction and a lot of mind-body awareness.

Position: Standing holding your towel a little wider than shoulder-width at shoulder level. Using your back muscles, pull your shoulders back and down. Now tighten your entire body to create full-body tension.

Movement: Focus on pulling the towel apart throughout the whole routine. While maintaining this pulling-apart tension I want you to push the towel down to your thighs and pull it back up to shoulder level. You are creating this force using your mind-to-muscle connection: when we engage our mind we can create so much more work for our muscles.

Repeat 15-20 times, and then hold the towel at shoulder level and still pulling it apart, pulse 15-20 times.

Now keeping the arms at shoulder level and still pulling the towel apart, pull the towel towards your chest and really push it back out. Repeat 15-20 times and then pulse it to your chest 15 - 20 times.

Finally, raise the arms above shoulder height, and still pulling that towel apart, pull it into your upper chest as if you were pulling something heavy towards you, and push it back out and up high. Aim for 15-20 reps and then pulse for 15-20 reps.

Under the chair pull-ups

Prop: A chair that is wider than your hips and waist.

Chair pull-ups are an excellent way to get a pulling movement into your home workout. They strengthen your back, arms, and grip strength.

Position: position yourself under the chair seat, either holding the seat or the arms of the chair (dependent on your style of chair). Your arms are straight, shoulders are pulled down. Legs are bent.

Movement: Engage your abdominals and squeeze your glutes hard. Bend at your elbows to pull your chest up to underneath the chair. Pause at the top and then slowly lower back down to straight arms. You can make the movement harder by straightening your legs.

Aim for 10-15 repetitions, rest and repeat.


The press-up not only develops pushing strength, but if you're doing them correctly you are engaging your entire body, which will carry over into all aspects of life.

Position: Lie on your front with your hands in line with your shoulders, fingers pointing forwards, elbows close to your sides. Your feet are together.

Note: This position of the elbows is more stable for the shoulder joint than the more standard flared-out position you may be used to.

Movement: Draw up the front of your thigh muscles, so the legs straighten, squeeze your glutes and pull your abdominals inwards, creating a strong body. From here, root down through your hands and push yourself up into full plank position, moving your body as one unit. Pause at the top and slowly lower to the ground.

Modification: If you're not quite there, rather than sacrifice form, change the movement by keeping the knees on the ground. Focus on lowering slowly with control back to the ground.

Aim for 10-15 reps, rest and repeat a second set.

Arm press and extensions in bridge

Prop: Water bottles, cans or light weights if you have them.

This exercise not only works your chest and the back of your arms, but also really works on core stability and your glutes.

Position: Lying on your back with knees bent and feet on the floor. Your arms are close by your sides and bent at the elbows, holding your weights. Lift up into a bridge position and squeeze your glutes. You have the option to raise one leg out straight to challenge stability further, as shown in the video.

Movement one: keeping your glutes squeezed tight on an exhale, extend your arms up to full extension and on an inhale return the weights close to your sides. If one leg is in the air then swap the legs over halfway.

Repeat for 15-20 reps.

Movement two: Staying in the bridge potion, either with both feet on the ground or with one leg in the air, raise your arm up straight to the sky. On an inhale, bend at the elbows to lower the weights to either side of your head, and on an exhale extend the arms back fully to straight. Remember that if one leg is in the air to swap the leg over halfway.

Movement three: Finally, still in the bridge with both feet on the ground, combine the two moves, so one extending your arms and bringing the weights back down to your sides, followed by one bending the elbows to bring the weights to the side of your head.

Aim for another 15-20 reps.

Plank get-ups

As with the press-up, this is pretty much a full-body exercise that challenges your ability to move your body as a unit, incorporating core stability as well as upper-body strength and mental focus.

Position: Come into full plank position on your hands and feet, shoulders in line with your wrists and feet together. Firm your thighs, squeeze your glutes tight and draw your abdominals in, creating a strong solid body.

Movement: Keeping your thighs, buttocks and abdominals engaged, lower your right forearm to the ground, followed by your left. Lift back up to plank position, placing your hand directly under your shoulder to do so. Repeat alternate sides. Be mindful to keep your hips as still as you can throughout.

Aim for 10-12 repetitions, rest and repeat a second set.

Beast to plank walkouts

Prop: A pillow.

This movement is a fantastic shoulder stability exercise that also incorporates core stability.

Position: Place the pillow on your back and come onto all fours, with your knees in line with your hips and wrists in line with your shoulders. Hover your knees 2 inches off the floor.

Movement: From a position on all fours, step your hands out into a plank, keeping your hips stable, and return. Work opposite sides. You want to really focus on keeping your hips stable throughout, so the pillow stays in place.

Aim for 10-12 reps, rest and repeat a second set.

For more at-home workouts, see the Monday to Friday exercise plan for inspiration.

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Christina Howells

About Christina Howells

A London-based personal trainer and lifestyle management coach, Christina Howells has a proven track record, with over 25 years of personal fitness industry knowledge. She has a BSC in Exercise and Sport Science and an MSc in Sport and Exercise Psychology.