THE BLOG
10/24/2013 09:09 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

3 Upper Body Exercises Every Woman Should Train

In "5 Strength Training Truths Every Woman Should Know," I discussed just how important it is for women to train their upper body on a consistent basis every week. In today's blog, I'll show you how to do just that with these three often under-utilized upper body movements for women. The exercises below will make you a stronger, fitter, more athletic woman, and not to mention, really sculpt and pop the parts of the upper body that you want to stand out.

You can start implementing each exercise into your workouts, no matter where you are in your strength development. Each exercise is highly customizable and you can include a lot of variety to keep things interesting. Which means no boredom in the weight room! Boredom in the weight room is not allowed!

Want to Improve Your Yoga? Try the Bench Press

Ladies, the bench press ain't just for the boys -- you too can greatly benefit from this classic exercise. This movement is an all-around great upper body developer, both in strength and muscle development. By improving your bench press, both in the reps you can perform and in the max weight you can lift, you will improve your everyday life functionality and your ability to participate in various sports and physical activities.

And yes, believe it or not, your yoga will greatly improve by getting good at the bench press. So I don't wanna hear any more excuses for not doing the bench press!

The bench press primarily develops the triceps, the front deltoids, the pectorals, and even the upper back.

Technique: Lying on a bench (or even the floor), have someone help you unrack the barbell (a spotter). Push your feet hard into the ground, "spreading the floor with your feet," and arch your back before you begin the movement. Once unracked, lower the barbell to your chest, squeezing your lats all the way down. Touch the barbell to your sternum (just beneath the girls) and then extend the bar upward along the same path it just took until your elbows lock out. Be sure to turn the elbows slightly inward throughout the movement. Ta-da! You just did a bench press.

Variety: Tired of performing the same old bench press every single upper body day? I don't blame ya. In fact, I highly recommend you switch it up every week and do something different. Using different bars, benches, grips, and even band resistance, you can completely change the dynamic of the bench press to keep your body -- and your mind -- on its toes. Here are the multitude of variations you can utilize in the bench press:

Different Bars: barbell, football bar, axle bar, dumbbells
Benches: flat bench, decline bench, incline bench, the floor
Grips: standard grip, close grip, wide grip
Band Resistance: bands from the top, bands from the bottom

Feel free to mix and match any of the variations above. Ideally, perform a different variation every week, and retest your standard bench press once a month and see what happens.

Want to Improve Your Swim Stroke? Do the Overhead Press

This simple yet phenomenal exercise is a great go-to for upper body strength development, yet provides a very different benefit from the bench press. Not only will the overhead press carry over to fundamental tasks in life (being able to lift something overhead), and not only will it pay off big in any sport or fitness application, but it is one of the single most important exercises that develops amazing shoulders. As the subtitle states, your swim stroke will improve from performing the overhead press on a regular basis, for those swimmers out there. Your front deltoids, triceps, traps and upper back will all become more developed from this movement. Hmm, functional, sport, and aesthetic benefits? Sign me up!

Variety: This exercise can also be highly varied.

Different Bars: barbell, Strongman log (this is a fun one!), dumbbells
Stance: standing, seated
Type of Movement: strict press, push press, push jerk (see descriptions below)

Technique: The strict press is all upper body. While standing with a barbell on a squat rack, place your hands on the barbell pretty narrow, at shoulder width apart (around the inside rings of the bar). Then, get your elbows underneath and out in front of the bar, with the bar placed very close to your chest. Unrack the barbell from the squat rack and move a few steps backward. Squeezing your glutes hard, press the barbell straight overhead, keeping your elbows tucked in. Lock the elbows out at the top while pushing your head through your shoulders. Lower the bar to your chest and repeat. The strict press requires that the hips stay locked -- no lower body involvement. The push press and push jerk are variations which allow your hips to assist the movement of the press -- these too are valuable movements.

Alternate these exercises and perform some kind of overhead pressing once per week at a minimum.

Want to Excel in Your Next Obstacle Course Mud Run? Gotta Do Those Lat Rows!

The classic lat row provides great benefit to your functionality, sport performance, and also how you look. This exercise targets, well, the lats, short for Latissimus dorsi if I want to get all fancy on ya. Most women are highly deficient in upper back development -- but it doesn't have to be that way. Most "women's" strength training routines seem to avoid the back altogether or train it very meagerly. Well, we're gonna fix that. Starting today.

Performing some kind of lat exercise twice per week will not only develop a nice-looking back that will get noticed, but will also increase your bench press, overhead press, your ability to do pull ups, climb a rope with no legs, or any other upper body skill you may have always wanted to achieve. Lat rows carry over to many sport or event applications, for those of you who are super active. Are you too getting into the Mud Run craze? Then you'll need lat row work in your training to help pull yourself over those obstacles (or to just enjoy it more while you're doing it!).

Variety: The beautiful thing about this movement is that the sky's the limit with variety. There are usually a ton of machines in any given gym that are some variation of a lat row. If you don't have access to machines, you still have plenty of options.

Here are the main lat row machine options:

-Seated Lat Row Machine
-Seated Lat Row Cable Machine
-Standing Lat Row (Cable)
-Lat Pull-down
-Seated Lat Arch Machine
-T-Bar Row

Here are the lat row options without machines:

-Barbell Row (cambered bar preferred)
-Pull-ups
-Gymnastics Ring Rows
-TRX Rows
-Sled Drag Rows
-Rope Climbing
-Dumbbell Rows

It's beyond the scope of this article to get into the individual exercises listed above. If interested, my blog Ice Runner Strength links out to videos that show you how to perform these exercises and you can also find them through a simple Google or Youtube search. The main thing I want you to take away is this: There's a TON of variety in this movement and if you simply get creative, you can find a row out of just about any piece of equipment.

Technique: even though there's lots of variety in rowing exercises, there is a fundamental technique that you should follow with all of them. Stand up straight and tall. Keep your shoulder blades pulled back and pinched together throughout the entire movement. Begin each repetition with your elbows locked out. Continue to pull until your elbows are as far behind your body as possible. Here's why this tip is critical: When you start the pulling motion, you're actually only engaging your biceps. If you shortchange each rep and stop when your elbows are at your side, you're not really engaging your back very much. To fully engage the back, you must pull your elbows behind the body as much as possible while pinching the shoulder blades together.

The Key to Success: Challenge Yourself

The rule of thumb for all movements listed here is this: Challenge yourself. You should be getting somewhat close to failure at the end of each set. Don't be afraid to stack on more weight in between sets, especially if it feels light. Remember, doing 30 reps at 5 pounds while practically falling asleep because you're so bored is not the way to get things done. Heavier weight for fewer repetitions is key for the barbell and machine movements, with the addition of high repetition band work (that deserves another post all its own). On some sets, especially for lat work, I'll do more reps (12-15), yet I'm certainly not pulling light weight for that. I am extremely challenged by the end of each set. And girls, that's what you gotta do for the best strength, fitness & aesthetic results.

For more strength training tips & how-tos, visit Ice Runner Strength.

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