As trainers, it’s critical that we know how to structure an upper body workout for beginners. Many clients come to us wanting to tone their arms, chest, and back through strength training. As with any new personal training client, the initial focus should be on mastering the movement with correct exercise technique. Teach basic push and pull movements such as a row, biceps curl, chest press, and triceps extension. The goal is for the client to correctly activate the muscle group surrounding a joint to produce ideal movement. It’s part of motor learning and important before progressing to advanced goals such as increased muscle mass (hypertrophy), maximum strength gains, and power. And, for clients who are looking for fat loss or functional fitness, they too will need to learn these exercise basics to achieve their fitness goals.

As you begin to plan your upper body workout, use our tips here to help new clients get the most from their resistance training program.

Keep Reading: The 30-Minute Ab Workout Clients Will Love

Start With Assessments

Assessments are critical at the start of a fitness program, whether you’re focusing on the upper body, lower body, cardio, or strength. They give you an idea of where the client currently is so you can train them safely and have data to compare for progress.

For an upper body program, you can choose from the following types of assessments:

  • Movement Assessment: These test how well the client moves and if they have any muscle imbalances. You can choose a standard pushing and pulling assessment like a cable chest press or cable row. You can also do an overhead squat assessment, watching to see if the client’s arm changes position, indicating overactive lats.
  • Muscular Endurance Assessment: Most new clients won’t have the strength to do bodyweight exercises on their own. However, you can have them do variations of pushups and pullups to determine starting levels. Simply count how many reps of the exercise they can perform in one set or for a timed duration.
  • Maximum Strength Assessment: This will assess the maximum force output a client can do in one single voluntary effort, or rep. You may need to do a variation of this, especially with new clients who don’t have good technique or form. However, not only is it a good benchmark for their fitness levels, it will also help you determine starting intensity for weight training. 


Begin Each Workout with a Dynamic Stretch

Stretching is a tried-and-true way to temporarily increase range of motion, raise body temperature, activate muscles, and heighten the nervous system's state prior to the workout. 

Static stretching will help to increase the range of motion around a joint or muscle group. This will increase the likelihood that the client will be able to have correct technique. These types of stretches should be held for 20 - 30 seconds and can include:

  • Standing doorway pec stretch
  • Stability ball lat stretch
  • Neck stretches including the scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and levator scapula

Follow static stretching with dynamic movements to increase blood flow and body temperature. Use these dynamic, upper body stretches to ensure your beginner clients are warmed up and ready to get started:

  • Airplane
  • World’s Greatest Stretch 2.0
  • Walk-Out to Yoga Pushup
  • Around the World to Roll Chest Opener

Watch videos for each stretch in A Dynamic Upper Body Warm-Up for All Clients.


Keep Progression Low and Slow

Heavy compound sets and supersets may appease the former athlete, but high-intensity exercise may produce negative feelings for beginners. This is an American College of Sports Medicine best practice and something you should consider when developing an upper body workout.

As you develop your program, put yourself in the client’s position: if you begin with a challenging workout that induces elevated breathing, muscle soreness, and lethargy, would you fearfully wonder how much harder this program will be or how much more you can take? This type of programming can negatively impact motivation and feelings of mastery, resulting in giving up.

Work with your clients to build strength and confidence, so they can feel good doing compound lifts and supersets, not fearful.

Keep Reading: Metabolic Stress in Resistance Training


Choose Exercises with Mechanical Advantage  

Mechanically advantaged exercises put clients in a position to train safely. While this can be a confusing term to understand, mechanical advantage comes down to the mechanics of the body. Muscles don’t push—they pull. Thus, when you choose exercises that allow muscles to pull on a lever at an angle of 90 degrees or perpendicular, a mechanical advantage occurs, making the exercise safer and more effective. 

In general, choose movements that allow muscles to pull perpendicular to the axis of rotation instead of parallel and shorten the resistance arm. Here are some chest and back exercises that provide a mechanical advantage. Work these into your programming where possible:

  • Bench Press
  • Lat Pulldown
  • Bench Throw
  • Medicine Ball Power Chest

Don’t Always Jump Into Barbells and Dumbbells

Machines are fan favorites, especially for beginners and those suffering from joint pain. Despite what some in the fitness field say, you can get successful results using these devices. In some cases, the outcomes are even better than with barbells and dumbbells. 

A recent study compared free weight training to machines over a period of eight weeks. No statistical differences were found in muscle thickness, though machines were slightly more effective for biceps and quads. While you don’t need to program your upper body workout for beginners to focus solely on machines, consider client preference. If they’re more comfortable with machines, this is a wise place to start. If they want dumbbells and barbells, then bring those into the programming.

Allow Clients to Master Movements

There’s a myth in the fitness industry that the same exercises executed day-in and day-out for long periods will not improve health and vitality. However, it’s not about the exercises, it’s about the execution quality. When maximizing mechanical tension by controlling the movement's eccentric phase, going through a full range of motion, and maintaining a mind-muscle connection throughout the movement, goals will be met and performance will improve. 

It’s essential to emphasize to the client that it takes time and practice to see results. Switching exercises every week does not allow the client to achieve competence—and that competence will improve self-efficacy and motivation. 

Use the same exercises for a minimum of 4 weeks allowing enough time for the client to improve without risking their loss of interest. Some variety can be valuable, but progress is what keeps clients committed.

Keep Reading: Nutrition 101: Healthy Eating Rules for Beginner Clients


Don’t Ignore the Scapula

The key to shoulder health is a normal resting scapula position. A normal resting scapula position indicates that the musculature surrounding this floating bone is active and functioning correctly. To keep the shoulder healthy throughout your client’s journey, you need to prioritize regular stretching and strengthening this area. 

A few exercises that allow you to do that include:

  • Band Pull-a-Parts
  • Face Pulls
  • WTY with a TRX
  • Blackburns
  • Cable Back Flies
  • Overhead Squats
  • Waiters Walks
  • Turkish Getups

Not only will these exercises improve shoulder health and posture, but the progress will keep your client coming back. When focusing on strengthening this area, remember that higher volumes (10 to 20 repetitions) and a higher training frequency (2 to 3 times a week) will get the client better results.

Upper Body Exercises to Try With Clients

There are many exercises available to you, so choosing ones that keep the client happy and drive results can be challenging. Consider these 10 upper body resistance training movement that most beginning exercisers enjoy:

  • FacePulls
  • TRX Y’s
  • Horizontal Cable Rows
  • Lateral Cable Abduction
  • Spider Bicep Curls
  • Rolling Triceps Extension with EZ Curl Bar
  • Decline Bench Press
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Compound sets of the biceps/triceps
  • Farmer Carries

Upper Body Stretches to Try With Clients

As with strength training movements, choosing the best stretches when designing an upper body workout for new clients can be challenging. Test these 10 upper body stretches:

  • Airplane
  • Around the World 
  • Mike Boyle Lat Stretch
  • World’s Greatest Stretch
  • Reach Under and Roll
  • Chest Opener
  • Stick mobility movements
  • Kneeling Thoracic Extension
  • Downward Dog to Pike
  • Traction with a band with thumb up/down oscillation

Create Effective Upper Body Workouts for Beginners

Clients want to see results, but they also need to be guided to avoid injury and stay committed. When designing your upper body workout for beginners, remember mechanical advantage, dynamic stretching, low and slow progression, and the power of starting with assessments. Clients will leave feeling stronger and more confident in their training.

When you get a degree in exercise science from Lionel University, you learn how to design any type of fitness program. Further, the doors to fitness job opportunities are wide open. Regardless of whether you’re pursuing an associates degree, bachelor’s degree, or master’s degree, specialists in exercise science are in demand.

As you go through your degree program at Lionel, you’ll also earn your personal training certification and Master Trainer certificate in the first few months. This means you can start working as a personal trainer while you finish your program! And, with the help of financial aid, earning your exercise science degree is even more of a possibility. 

Check out our programs and contact Lionel today!