No matter your opinion on second amendment rights, when warm weather hits, you better look good for the gun show. You know, with your personal arsenal of tank top-worthy, locked and loaded arm muscles that look smooth and svelte in a dangerously sexy way.
But if your upper body is looking just about as dangerous as a couple of spineless sea slugs, don’t despair — your chest, back, shoulders, biceps, and triceps actually respond pretty quickly to training, so it’s possible to, at a minimum, take those wimpy sea slugs and mold them into, well… if not a set of AK-47s, then possibly some realistic-looking water guns.
The point is, if you want to develop strength and shape in a short period of time, it’s possible, but not if you lift wimpy weights or fail to pay attention to your form or exercise selection. As an exercise physiologist with a master’s degree in exercise science, I have three straightforward tips to help you see changes, fast. First, make sure you focus on compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups at the same time to help you make the most of every workout. Second, round out your routine with a few isolation exercises to further target your shoulders, biceps, and triceps. And third, lift weights that are challenging — it’s time to retire those pink dumbbells once and for all.
To target your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core, all without any equipment, you can’t go wrong with the basic push-up. Aim to perform three to four sets doing as many push-ups as you physically can with each set, taking each repetition slowly. Try lowering your body to the ground in two to three counts, then press back to the starting position in one to two counts. Following this protocol, a single set of 10 push-ups should take roughly 30 seconds to complete. This extended time under tension helps recruit more muscle fibers to help you shape up fast.
Remember to watch your form — place your hands directly under your shoulders, but slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart, and keep your torso ramrod straight throughout the exercise, your core tight, and the movement controlled.
Dumbbell incline press
There are great debates over which is “better” — the incline chest press or the flat bench chest press — and the answer is “probably both,” as their purposes are slightly different, and both do a good job of targeting the chest, shoulders, and triceps. But if you’re looking to shape up in a hurry, the incline dumbbell bench press targets more of your anterior deltoid (the front of your shoulder) and the upper portions of your pecs, while placing less stress on your rotator cuff, a common area prone to overuse injuries. And by opting for a dumbbell press, rather than a barbell press, you unilaterally hit each side of your body, helping correct any potential muscle imbalances.
Set your bench to an incline between 15 and 30 degrees, select a weight you can comfortably control for at least six to eight repetitions, then perform three to four sets moving at the same slow, steady pace described for push-ups. It doesn’t hurt to have a spotter on hand to help you for the last couple reps. Slow repetitions will tired you out faster than you may anticipate.
What push-ups do for the anterior chain of your upper body, pull-ups do for your posterior chain. They hit everything — all the major muscles of your back, your shoulders, biceps, and core. Even if you can’t do a single full pull-up, you can start with modified pull-ups on a low bar, TRX modified pull-ups, jumping pull-ups, or negative pull-ups, all of which target the same muscles as a standard pull-up, helping you develop the strength necessary to try the real deal.
Aim to do two to three sets of the version of your choice to failure, and unless you’re doing jumping pull-ups, you’ll want to perform each repetition as slowly as you can. Even if this means you can only do three or four reps per set, you’ll experience maximum muscle damage (which is a good thing when you’re trying to build muscle and get stronger) by taking your time with each repetition.
If your upper body isn’t already toast from all those pull-ups, a properly performed single-arm dumbbell row will really burn out your lats, rhomboids, traps, and erector spinae, making it an awesome way to target your back unilaterally. The trick here is to get the form right, as most people perform dumbbell rows incorrectly.
Start by selecting a dumbbell you think you can lift for at least six repetitions with good form. Place your left hand and left knee on a bench, your right leg extended, your foot on the ground, and the dumbbell in your right hand, extended toward the ground from your shoulder. Engage your core and check to make sure your spine is in a neutral (more or less flat) position. Retract your right scapula (that’s your shoulder blade) to prevent your shoulder from rolling forward. From this position, squeeze your shoulder blade toward your spine as you pull the weight upward, drawing your right elbow up to your side, keeping your torso flat and straight as you perform the row. Pause at the top, then control the movement as you slowly lower your arm back to the starting position. Perform six to 10 repetitions per side and complete two to three total sets.
Seated dumbbell shoulder press
The seated dumbbell shoulder press does an excellent job of targeting all three heads of the deltoid muscle. Sit tall on a bench or chair, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Lift the dumbbells and position them just to the outside of either shoulder, your palms facing forward, your elbows bent at a comfortable angle. Take a breath in, and as you exhale, press both arms straight up over your head, extending your elbows — the dumbbells should almost touch each other over your head. Pause at the top before slowly lowering the dumbbells for a count of three back to the starting position. Perfom three sets of eight to 10 repetitions, making sure the last one to two reps of each set are difficult (but not impossible) to complete with good form.
To hit your triceps, shoulders, and core, the bench dip is a great bodyweight option, although it’s not appropriate for some individuals with shoulder or wrist pain. If this applies to you, try a dumbbell skull crusher instead. Just start with a light weight so you don’t actually crush your skull.
For the bench dip, form is key. Grip the bench on either side of your hips, extend your legs fully with your heels on the ground, then press through your palms, lifting your hips from the bench. To really target your triceps, bend your elbows as you lower your hips toward the ground, allowing your hips to hinge as you lower yourself, so your torso remains perpendicular to the floor. When your elbows form 90-degree angles, press through your palms, lifting your body away from the floor as you extend your elbows and return to the starting position. Aim to lower yourself for a three-count, and raise yourself for a one-count. Complete three sets doing as many repetitions as you can with good form.