How to Structure an Upper Body Workout for Beginners

By Jason Williams on April, 13 2021
Workouts
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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, but you can’t just jump right in. 

Not to mention, our livelihoods are dependent on those precious early hours we share with new clients. It’s here where we build relationships by communicating effectively, listening intently, and displaying emotional intelligence through empathetic and intuitive reasoning to determine the appropriate next steps. 

Knowing what to say and how to help clients see results without injury is critical. Use these fundamental training methods and principles to structure an upper body workout for beginners, allowing clients to feel great and gain strength without overdoing it.

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.

Which assessments you choose will depend on your competency to evaluate specific movement and comfort levels. For most trainers, however, two valuable upper body assessments are pull-ups and push-ups. Use these to evaluate relative strength, a shoulder impingement test, and the client’s scapula movement during upward rotation movements. 

The key here is to make time for assessments, regardless of the ones you choose or feel most confident with. This baseline information is necessary for you to properly structure an effective upper body workout for beginners.

 

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. 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 wisdom I have learned the hard way. 

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 leads to quitting. 

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, you want to choose movements that allow muscles to pull perpendicular to the axis of rotation instead of parallel and shorten the resistance arm. In a recent article, I shared a few specific 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. 

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 to jump into 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, all of which are favorites based on my clients’ feedback:

  • 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, also favorites of my clients:

  • 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.

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Jason Williams

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