I've gone from having pain in my neck and shoulders every day while carrying around my babies to no pain and feeling strong just by doing some simple upper body exercises for my arms and back for minutes a day. Here is my favorite arm and back exercise routine using just dumbbells at home.
Upper Body Weakness is Common Among Women
Weak upper body strength is very common among women and once I started having kids, I really noticed just how weak my upper body was, even coming off of years of ballet dancing. My neck and shoulders have basically been tight and painful for the past nine years since my first kid was born! I'm so thankful I finally started doing upper body exercises.
Upper body strength is important to have because the upper body controls your ability to perform everyday activities such as reaching, pulling, pushing and lifting. Having a strong upper body improves your flexibility, mobility and range of motion. If your upper body strength deteriorates as you age, you are more prone to injuries, disease and a diminished quality of life. – from getfit.jillianmichaels.com
Massage and Chiropractic Care
The pain got so bad that I was getting 2-4 really bad headaches a month, thinking it was something I was eating or a lack of minerals, or maybe stress. I couldn't figure it out and started going to the chiropractor several times a month. The adjustments helped a LOT, but would only last a few weeks before I needed to go back. I knew they weren't getting to the root of the problem but at least I was getting relief. However, it was a hassle to go 2-4 times a month and was expensive at $50 a visit, especially with four little kids I was toting around!
I was also regularly getting massages, which of course I loved, but again, the pain and tightness was not getting better. I love using massage as a way to de-stress and detoxify my body and love the benefits it gives. But massage and chiropractic care alone were not fixing the problem – they were both providing temporary relief but did not get to the root, which was a lack of strength.
Benefits of Strength Building Exercise
There was such a big emphasis on cardio for losing weight for such a long time, and I never agreed with it. As a dancer, I knew how all of those hours of upper body exercises and full-body training at the barre were the secret to my health and skill as a dancer. The cardio was also important for stamina during classes and performances, but was only half of the equation.
We actually start to lose muscle mass as early as in our twenties, and lose up to 40% by our sixties! So weight training is very important to compensate for that part of aging.
Cardio training alone isn't enough to lose weight and be in great shape. It strengthens your cardiovascular system and does burn calories, but strength training and stretching are very important, too. But why?
- Builds bone density
- Burns calories more efficiently (your body works smarter this way instead of harder with cardio)
- Revvs up your metabolism
- Enhances the quality of life – able to lift heavy objects and kids, do yard work, get around more easily
- Helps to manage chronic conditions
- Gentle on joints – not high impact
- is efficient. A little goes a long way – 20-30 minutes 3 times a week is enough to see a big improvement in your strength and health
The Magical Set
Do these upper body exercises three times with 30 secs to two minutes of rest in between each set. I do this about three times a week with yoga in between (yoga is really good for strengthening the shoulders!). I started off using 3 lb weights and have worked up to 5 lb weights with up to 20 reps. The point is – do whatever you can do best. No one is watching, don't compare yourself to anyone else. Be gentle and kind to yourself and be proud of each step along the way!
You should be able to comfortably do the set without pain, so if you need to go lighter, do that. If they set is too easy, add weight or increase reps. Pain is your body's signal that something is wrong and you are close to causing injury. There is no right or wrong amount of weight to lift!
- Keep your back straight and knees bent when bending over.
- Engage your abs while doing all of the exercises. This not only protects your back, but also supports your upper body as you do the exercises AND it creates an ab workout! Yay!!
- Keep your neck in line with your spine by pulling your chin back to create a long line from the back of your head down your spine.
- Do them slowly and deliberately – this isn't about speed. If you go too fast, you can injury yourself.
- Try not to swing the dumbbells up, but slowly control up and down.
- Keep your shoulders down by engaging your lateral muscles. Roll the shoulders up, down and back to engage them.
- It's OKAY to stop and take a breath. In fact, I've found it to be more helpful to do so because I can get back into it and do more reps and go for longer without injury! This is the great part of working out at home – you can go at your own pace and no one's watching!
- If you are straining or in pain, check your form, posture or reduce your weight. You should not be feeling pain, but you do want it to be slightly challenging!
Bulk versus Definition
For upper body exercises that create more bulk or muscle mass, I would suggest you use heavier weights with fewer reps. To create lean, long muscles that have definition, use lighter weights and more reps. I'm going for the latter as a lady – I want nice tone and definition but not bulk. But it's a personal choice!
My Upper Body Exercises
- 12-15 bicep curls
- 12-15 bicep curls to shoulder presses
- 12-15 tricep kickbacks
- 12-15 bent over rows
- 12-15 bent over or seated shoulder lifts
- 12-15 shoulder lifts (side lateral raises)
- Optional (I haven't been strong enough yet to add this) 12 push ups (and I can only do girl-style push-ups for now)
These are your standard curls that you're probably familiar with!
Start with your hands down at your sides and lift the weights by bending your elbows. Repeat 12-15 times with any amount of weight that is comfortable to you.
Bicep Curls to Shoulder Presses
Using the same form for the bicep curls, curl the arms up towards the chest, palms facing the body, and then extend up the hands up towards the ceiling, ending in the position you see here in the picture. Repeat 12-15 times with any amount of weight that is comfortable to you.
I love doing these as my triceps are much stronger than my shoulders and I can do more reps. Plus, this exercise really gives that arm definition we want so we don't have “wings” and jiggly arm flab! I can do 20-25 each time so I might increase my weight soon and do fewer reps. Though that will create more bulk, so it depends on the look you're going for.
Bent Over Rows
This exercise targets the lateral muscles, which were some of my weakest muscles. So this one has been really helpful for me! It's helped me to be able to hold baby Ella more without pain, reduced my neck and shoulder pain, and has made it way easier to practice yoga. It's also helping with ballroom dance, which I'm currently training in for competitions and shows!
Using the same form (chin back, shoulders rolled down and back, abs engaged), hang your arms down straight in front of your chest. Using your lats, (upper back muscles), pull your arms up as shown in the picture. Repeat 12-15 times and use whatever weight is comfortable to you.
Shoulder Lifts (Side Lateral Raises)
This targets the shoulder muscles and gives you some nice shoulder definition! Start with your arms down by your sides and raise your arms out to the sides.
Bent Over or Seated Reverse Flys
You can do these seated or bent over standing. This also works the shoulders and up into the neck. This is the hardest one for me to do and I still have to take 1-2 breaks before I get to 12. So, I might reduce the weight until I can get a clean 12 reps in.
You start with your arms down in front of you, extended straight towards the ground. Knees are bent. Lift the arms straight out to the sides, engaging those shoulder muscles, being careful not to swing up. Reduce the weight if you're not able to lift up without swinging.
EXTRA – add in 12-15 pushups!
To be perfectly honest, I have not been strong enough to be able to do this yet! But I can do one set of pushups with the knees on the ground. I'm sure it won't be too long before I can do this each set! Gives me something to work towards and I love to be able to keep up with my progress. I have gotten a LOT stronger since doing these upper body exercises 2-3 times a week.
Rest for 30 seconds to a few minutes and repeat 2 more times!
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