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5 Key Exercises That Will Help Women Build Upper-Body Strength

Solid upper-body strength makes everything from carrying heavy groceries to nailing perfect pullups much easier—but for many women, building a strong upper body can be challenging (and even a little intimidating).

While men carry more of their muscle in their upper bodies, women naturally carry more in their lower bodies—hence why many ladies are naturally better at squatting than churning out pushups, says Rebecca Kordecki, C.P.T., L.M.T., master instructor at Burn 60. As frustrating as it is to feel weak in certain muscle groups or exercises, feeling lame at pushups and pullups is exactly why women need to give their chest, back, and arms some extra attention.

Not only will building upper-body strength make daily errands easier, but it will also rev your metabolism, help ward off osteoporosis, and work wonders on both your confidence and your posture. So, ladies, are you ready to get to it? The following five moves are trainers’ go-to’s for helping women build strong, capable, sculpted upper bodies. To make that grocery bag feel light as a feather in no time, incorporate three sets of 8 to 12 reps of these moves into your routine.

1. Pushups

This bodyweight move is a classic for a reason: It lights up everything from your chest to your shoulders to your triceps to your core, helping you build a stronger upper body without any equipment.

Start in a plank position with your core braced. Bend at the elbows to lower your chest down as close to the floor as possible, allowing your elbows to flare out diagonally. Pause, and then push through your hands to rise back up into the starting plank position.

If you can’t do full pushups yet, drop your knees to the floor to make them easier until you’ve built up enough strength to perform the full move. When you’ve built up to 10 to 15 full pushups per set, you’re golden.

2. Renegade Rows

Renegade rows are a great way to work multiple muscle groups at once to both build strength and burn tons of calories, says Kordecki. They’ll challenge your back, core, biceps, and shoulders.

Related: 5 Moves For Sculpted Shoulders

With a dumbbell in each hand (start with five or eight-pounders), get into a plank position. Keeping your left hand wrapped around the dumbbell and pressed into the floor, brace your core and bend your right elbow to row the right dumbbell up to the side of your torso. Maintain proper plank form as you lower the weight with control and repeat on the other side. Continue alternating until all reps are complete.

3. Assisted Pullups

Pullups light up your back, biceps, and core in a big way—and even if you can’t do full pullups (yet), performing assisted pullups can transform your upper-body strength. By using an assisted pullup machine (most gyms have one) you can select the amount of assistance you need to do the move properly.

Select just enough resistance to get through your three sets with proper form. Stand or kneel on the assistance pad or platform and grab the pullup bar with a wide overhand grip. Engage your core and bend at the elbows to pull your body up until your head is between your hands. Slowly lower back down to the starting position and repeat.

If your gym doesn’t have an assisted pullup machine, sub in lat pulldowns. Attach a long, slightly bent bar to a cable lat pulldown station. Grab the bar with a wide overhand grip and sit with your legs secured beneath the pads. Keeping your torso upright, pull your shoulder blades down and back and bend at the elbows to pull the bar down close to your chest. Pause, and then slowly return to the starting position.

4. Bench Dips

This bodyweight move targets your chest, shoulders, triceps, and rhomboids (upper back).

Sit on the side of a bench with your hands planted on the edge beneath your shoulders. Slide your butt off the edge of the bench and walk your feet out until your legs are straight out in front of you and your heels are planted on the floor. Bend at the elbows to lower your body down until you feel a slight stretch in your chest and shoulders. Press through your hands to push your body back up to the starting position, keeping your back and butt close to the bench throughout the movement.

 5. Tricep Dumbbell Chest Press

Tricep chest presses work your chest and shoulders, and place even more emphasis on your triceps than your standard press. Kordecki likes pressing with dumbbells to prevent muscle imbalances and really engage your core and stabilizer muscles.

Grab two dumbbells with a neutral grip and lie back on a flat bench. Plant your feet on the floor and keep your back flat on the bench. Press through your chest and arms to extend the dumbbells straight up overhead, keeping your elbows tight into your sides instead of letting them flare out. Pause, and then lower the dumbbells back down until your upper arms are next to your sides.

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