If you’re looking for a quick, personal-trainer-approved way to burn out your shoulders, back, chest, and arms, an upper-body circuit workout can be a fantastic choice for your next routine.
Circuit training—where you go through a bunch of exercises without resting between them—is one of the most efficient ways to work all the upper-body muscle groups you’re targeting. Plus, when you don’t take any rest, you get a cardio boost along with the strength-building benefits of weight training, like getting stronger, maintaining bone density, and offsetting an age-related decline in muscle mass.
This workout, created by NASM-certified personal trainer Alicia Jamison, a trainer at Bodyspace Fitness in New York City, predominantly uses pulling and pushing exercises to fire up your entire upper body. “By hitting all of those muscle groups, you’re avoiding muscle imbalances, which can lead to injury,” Jamison tells SELF.
Pulling exercises get your muscles to contract as you pull your arms toward your body—whether you’re using a weight or not. For this workout, Jamison chose the bodyweight pulldown and single-arm row to light up the muscles in the back of your body, like your rhomboids (the upper-back muscles that help you retract your shoulder blades) and your latissimus dorsi (the wide muscles that stretch from your armpit to your spine). Strengthening those back muscles helps with posture, especially if you spend most of the day sitting down, she explains.
When you do pushing exercises, your muscles contract as your arms push away from your body. The two pushing exercises in this workout—the elevated push-up and the overhead shoulder press—activate the muscles in the front of your body, including your pectorals (chest muscles) and your deltoids (shoulder muscles).
With many upper-body circuit workouts, it’s easy to neglect some muscles and overuse others, Jamison says. Some often-forgotten ones include your rear deltoids (the small muscles in the back of your shoulder) and your rotator cuff, a combination of four muscles that stabilize your shoulder joint. Without strong rotator cuff muscles, your shoulder won’t move the way it’s designed to, which is why you can feel pain or tension there, SELF previously reported. Jamison’s workout includes exercises that hit these areas and can help you build strength and reduce your risk of injury.
When it comes to keeping your form in check for upper-body workouts, Jamison says to “keep your shoulders in your back pocket” during those pulling exercises to ensure that you’re activating your upper back and retracting your shoulder blades instead of relying solely on your biceps. Jamison also notes that overworking your trapezius—the muscles at the back of your neck, shoulders, and upper back—is common, because as soon as you begin to fatigue, your shoulders tend to creep up, which activates the trapezius and can lead to tension and soreness.
Before you get started with this sweaty upper-body circuit, take a few minutes to warm up with a few cardio moves like jumping jacks or high knees, plus dynamic stretches like plank walks to take your upper body through a range of motion. You could also try a warm-up routine like this.
Ready to burn out your upper body? Here’s what you’ll need to crush this workout.
What you’ll need: Two sets of dumbbells—a lighter set (2–8 pounds) and a medium set (5–15 pounds)—a box or step, and an optional exercise mat for extra cushioning. If you can’t complete 10 reps with good form, that’s a sign to go a little lighter with your weights.
- Elevated push-up
- Bent-over fly
- Bodyweight pulldown
- Overhead shoulder press
- Single-arm row
- Do 10 reps of each exercise. For the row, do 10 reps on each side. Rest 2–4 minutes after all five exercises are done. Complete 2≠3 rounds total.
Demoing the moves below are Amanda Wheeler (GIF 1), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and cofounder of Formation Strength, an online women’s training group that serves the LGBTQ community and allies; Cookie Janee (GIFs 2–3), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; and Rachel Denis (GIFs 4–5), a powerlifter who competes with USA Powerlifting and holds multiple New York State powerlifting records.