‘I’m a Trainer, and This Is Why Your Upper Body Isn’t Getting Stronger’

Photo: SWEAT app
Ask any trainer or strength specialist, and they'll tell you just how important it is to have total-body strength and a balance between your muscle groups. Not just to be proud of how much you can lift, but to get through your day-to-day life. We all have a favorite muscle group to work and let's just say a lot of people do not like training their upper body. Trust us, we get it, but to help you get stronger from head to toe, we tapped Kelsey Wells, a NASM-certified trainer and creator of the PWR programs on the Sweat app to find out the most common upper-body strength mistakes people and how to prevent them.

Experts In This Article
  • Kelsey Wells, NASM-certified trainer and the creator of the PWR programs on the SWEAT app

Mistakes people make when trying to build upper-body strength

"One of the most common mistakes I see people make when it comes to building upper-body strength through weight training is using incorrect technique," says Wells. "It is so important to ensure you are confident with your weight training technique and that you understand how to complete movements with correct form before trying to lift too heavy," she adds.

Making sure you're lifting, and exercising in general, with proper form is important because it will help you prevent injury and will allow you to get the most out of your strength workout. "It's all about quality movements over quantity. Small, consistent progression with weight training provides more opportunity for long-term sustainable success," says Wells.

How to train to build upper-body strength

You probably guessed it, but one of the most effective ways to build upper-body strength is by weight training, "specifically hypertrophy-based weight training." Hypertrophy training is your best bet because it's designed to increase your strength and the size of your muscles simultaneously.

This happens because as you lift and experience time under tension (how long you're holding and moving weight—for example, lowering into a squat and hold for three seconds before standing up—creates micro-tears in the muscle, which repair and grow stronger as you recover and sleep. "Gradually, over time, as you become stronger and increase the weight and duration of each exercise, the muscles adapt and increase in strength, size, and endurance," says Wells.

When it comes to specific movements, Wells recommends doing a combination of compound exercises, multi-joint movements that recruit groups of large muscle at once, like bent-over rows, in addition to isolated exercises such as triceps dips.

How to build upper-body strength with bodyweight workouts

Although lifting weights is one of the best ways to build upper-body strength, it may not be for everyone, initially. If you're new to strength training and exercise, you can start building upper-body strength with bodyweight movements and workouts. But there are a few caveats. The first is that it will take you longer to build strength, and the second is that as you get stronger, you'll eventually need more of a stimulus to your muscles to continue building strength.

Additionally, it can be harder to target certain muscles groups with just your bodyweight, says Wells. "Using weights to train your upper body, in particular, allows you to isolate the muscles that make up your back and shoulders in a way that can be difficult to target through bodyweight exercises."

How often you should train your upper body to build strength

So now that you know what to do, you may be wondering how often you should train to start seeing results. According to Wells, this will depend on the type of workout and strength training you're doing. If you're doing hypertrophy, she says most workouts will be split up to target various muscle groups in your upper body such as your back, shoulders, chest, and triceps. Wells adds that hypertrophy programs usually contain two to five upper-body-specific workouts a week. It's important to note that this will vary, especially if you're doing full-body workouts.

If you're a newbie or just cautious about overdoing it, Wells likes to do muscle group splits, where you focus on a few body parts each session, to ensure you're training evenly and safely. This also allows for more intense workouts because you're focusing on one to two muscle groups per session, and are able to lift at a greater volume and intensity. Just don't forget to allow ample recovery in between your sessions—a day or two should suffice.

How long it takes to see upper-body strength results

Finally, when it comes to how long it will take to start seeing upper-body strength results, Wells says to remember that fitness is individual and results are based on variables like your workouts, lifestyle, and nutrition. In addition to seeing results like getting stronger, "It's also important to point out that the non-physical benefits can be just as important as the physical benefits you can expect to gain."

Put Wells' tips to the test with this 25-minute upper-body and core workout:

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