This upper body circuit workout has been designed to improve strength and endurance across all the muscles of the upper body.
As well as promoting physical performance, this upper body circuit workout will enhance muscle definition. If you can find room in your routine for this circuit, here are some of the fitness benefits you can expect.
Upper body circuit workout benefits
Develops strength in all the upper body muscle groups
Increased muscle endurance
Visibly sharper upper body muscle definition
Improves functional fitness
Muscles targeted by this upper body circuit workout
In no logical order whatsoever, here is a list of muscles that the following workout engages:
Abdominals (and other muscles of the core)
Erector spinae (lower back)
Shoulders – anterior, middles, and posterior heads
Teres major and minor
How to do this upper body circuit workout
This circuit is comprised of eight upper body exercises, The exercises are a mix of resistance and calisthenics.
To facilitate fluidity through the circuit, the exercises interchange between anterior and posterior muscle groups. Structuring circuits like this reduces the onset of fatigue. This enables you to maximise training volume and get the most out of the circuit.
The objective of the upper body circuit workout is simple. Performing 10 repetitions on each exercise, complete as many laps of the circuit as possible in 30-minutes.
Though the objective is to train nonstop, you can of course rest if you need to. Either take a short rest after each exercise or try to complete one full circuit first. After concluding each lap, set a short countdown timer for your rest. The minute the buzzer sounds get straight back into the circuit.
Upper body circuit workout
Muscles targeted: pectorals, triceps, core, hip flexors, and quadriceps.
Press-ups engage a much wider range of muscle groups than most people realise. This narrowed understanding stems from the mistake of only counting isotonic muscle contractions (isotonic: contractions occur when the muscle changes length, producing limb motion). When we factor in isometric engagement, the muscles stimulated by an exercise can double, even triple in number (isometric: contractions are contractions in which there is no change in the length of the muscle).
Press-ups key technique points
Knees down on a soft training mat and place the hands on the mat slightly over shoulder width.
The hands should be in line with the shoulders.
Raise the knees off the floor in preparation to perform the exercise.
Under control, bend the arms to 90-degrees. To increase the intensity, go lower if you can.
Complete the rep by returning to the start position. Remember, don’t lock out the elbow joint. At full extension, there should be a slight bend.
2) Bent-over row
Muscles targeted: Latissimus dorsi (aka ‘the lats’), trapezius, rear deltoids, biceps, erector spinae.
The bent-over row is an indomitable strength-building compound exercise. In his magnum opus, The New Ecyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding, Arnold Schwarzenegger tells us that ‘[The bent-over row] exercise also helps widen the upper back and, to a lesser degree, adds density to the lower back.’ He goes on to recommend it as an indispensable whole-body strength and size developer.
But, whenever bent-over rowing, Delavier’s wise words must always be born in mind. ‘To avoid any risk of injury,’ he warns, ‘make sure your back is never rounded throughout the movement,’ (Strength Training Anatomy).
Bent row key techniques
With an Olympic barbell resting against the quads, hinge forward until the bar is level with the upper knee.
Feet and hands are spaced about shoulder width.
The back is perfectly flat, eyes are fixed forward.
In one smooth movement row the bar to the lower stomach.
Throughout the movement keep the elbows tucked in.
Complete the exercise by straightening the arms.
3) Bench press
Muscles targeted: pectoralis major and minor, anterior deltoids, triceps.
A classic compound movement and the go-to exercise for all those men wishing to cure themselves of a pigeon chest, the bench press is a superlative upper body builder. As well as being a strength developer par excellence, bench pressing is also believed to increase the size and thickness of the chest. However, suppositions aside, it is a must-have exercise in any upper body workout.
Bench press key techniques
Hands must be spaced about one and a half shoulder-widths apart. Also, ensure they are positioned evenly along the bar.
If you are using an Olympic barbell, ensure that, when you lift it out of the rack, the bar is clear of the hooks. You don’t want it catching.
With the bar suspended above the chest, arms are very slightly bent, lower to the nips under control.
When the bar touches your chest, explosively power it up.
4) Kettlebell swing
Muscles targeted: erector spinae, lats, traps, and, yes, glutes.
I confess the kettlebell swing isn’t an upper body exercise per se. And it could well be argued that it doesn’t just engage the posterior muscles. When swinging the glutes, core, chest, and anterior deltoids are all activated.
Related: Need a Competition Kettlebell?
But, before you critique my choice of exercise, allow me to defend my decision by citing a celebrated exercise authority and weightlifting champion. David Willoughby maintained that the kettlebell swing ‘brings into action and develops practically every group of muscles on the back of the body.’ He went on to advise that ‘If you have time on your schedule for only one back exercise, make it this one,’ (Russian Kettlebell Challenge).
Of the many fitness benefits kettlebell swinging confers, posterior chain development is chief among them. Also, if you extend the movement by including a snatch pull, it also engages all the muscles of the upper back.
Kettlebell swing key techniques
Hold the kettlebell between your legs, palms facing inwards, feet a little over shoulder-width apart.
Keeping the back straight pull the kettlebell between your legs and, using your glutes, propel the kettlebell forward until it’s level with your shoulders.
Ensuring to keep your core engaged throughout the movement, allow the kettlebell to return to the start position and repeat.
5) Toes to bar
Muscles targeted: all areas of the abdominals: rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis, external and internal obliques.
In addition to the myriad abdominal muscles worked, toes to bar also require considerable forearm and grip strength. In fact, for many people, grip gives way before the abdominals do. This makes the positional placement of toes to bar in this circuit a bit cruel. After popping off the bar, forearms aflame, you’re straight into deadlifts!
Toes to bar key techniques
Hang from a pull-up bar. If possible, use a bar that is high enough so that your feet clear the floor. Clipping the floor with your feet kills momentum.
To initiate the movement, throw the legs back to generate a bit of swing.
Combining the generated kinetic energy with muscle contraction, kick the feet to the bar.
When the feet touch the bar allow them to fall. While you want to use as little muscle contraction as possible during the downward phase, you must still maintain control of the legs. They shouldn’t be swinging about like the legs of a puppet.
Harness the momentum to propel yourself into the next rep.
Note, if you can’t toes to bar, do hanging leg raises instead.
Muscles targeted: erector spina, lower lats, trapezius, posterior deltoid.
By far one of the best upper body strength developers in existence, deadlifts, so Schwarzenegger says, ‘are an overall power exercise that involves more muscles than any other,’ (Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding). Though laughably primitive, the deadlift stimulates every link in the posterior chain. This is why Anita Bean, in The Complete Guide to Strength Training, classifies the deadlift as a ‘fundamental exercise for increasing overall mass, strength and power’ in the upper body.
Deadlifts key teaching points
With an Olympic barbell on the floor at your front, shuffle your feet forward so that they are under the bar.
Now adopt a shoulder-width stance, ensuring that you form a rock-solid base.
Hinging at the hips and a little at the knees, bend down and grasp the bar.
Hands are spaced on the outside of your knees – this prevents your arms and legs from clashing.
Back straight, core tight, eyes fixed front, lift the bar off the floor.
Ensure to focus on forcing your hips forward. By doing so you will engage the lower back more than the glutes and quads.
When standing erect, pause momentarily before retracing your previous steps in reverse.
7) Dumbbell vertical lifts
Muscles targeted: biceps, forearms, upper pectoralis, anterior and middle deltoid.
The dumbbell vertical lift is an amalgamation of two upper body movements – bicep curls and shoulder press. Thus, when executing this excellent exercise, many muscles are recruited. In addition to activating a veritable smorgasbord of muscles, the vertical lift is a super sculptor – it’s like your personal Bernini. You want a pair of biceps and shoulders that look like they’ve been hewn from Venetian marble? Well, start vertical lifting.
Vertical lift key techniques
Stand with a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
Perform the first phase of a bicep curl. Note: you can either curl one arm at a time or in tandem. The choice is yours.
When the dumbbells are positioned level with the shoulders, press them above your head.
As you do remember to rotate the hands so that the palms face out.
Complete the exercise by retracing your steps.
8) Lat pulldown
Muscles targeted: latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus.
Lat pulldowns are great for carving out that coveted V-shaped back. As explained in the brilliant book, The Art of Expressing the Human Body, Bruce Lee used this exercise extensively because he believed, rightly so as it happens, that lat pulldowns improve strength and size as well as shape.
Lat pulldown key techniques
Take a wide grip on the curved bar. Ensure that your hands are spaced equally. Though a seemingly obvious teaching point, many make this mistake.
When your legs are firmly wedged under the leg supports, prepare to execute the exercise. Do so:
First, fix your eyes on the bar.
Second, pull evenly with both arms.
Third, when the bar dips under your chin, return to the start position.
How to modify this upper body circuit workout
First, all the exercises can be interchanged. For example, if you wanted to include more resistance exercises, say to increase strength gains, jettison the two body weight exercises and replace with comparable substitutes.
The ordering of the circuit is not set in stone. As stated above, the exercises have been organised into anterior/posterior pairings. This enables antagonists to rest while agonists are working.
Reps, sets, and timings are all completely modifiable. The circuit is essentially a 30-minute AMRAP (as many reps as possible). But you can decrease or increase the time to suit your training needs. In addition, the reps can be adjusted to your current level of physicality.
Enjoyed this upper body circuit workout?
Get your hands on 70 more with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 2.