Toned & Tight: The Best Upper Body Workout for Women

best upper body workout for womenHow to Tighten and Tone Your Upper Body

So you want to tone those arms, that chest, and that back WITHOUT adding bulk? You want to define and tighten it up without looking like a bodybuilder? Ladies, I got you…if you’re tired of wasting time on triceps presses and biceps curls without seeing visible, noticeable results, I have the workout for you right here. We will be building lean, toned muscle…we will be burning that stubborn body fat to reveal said lean, toned muscle…we will be getting impressively strong and building our self confidence rep by rep.

The best upper body workout will ensure development of the back muscles, our upper body powerhouses in terms of calorie burning (read: fat loss) and brute strength. The best upper body workout will also emphasize chest muscles, toning and bringing balance to our glorious female torsos. We can’t neglect to mention that along the way, we will be blasting the biceps and triceps, and forearms, strengthening, toning, and shredding the whole arm musculature. If you want to get on board with these lean, toned gains, by all means keep reading, because I have the workout for you. It’s the BEST UPPER BODY WORKOUT FOR WOMEN!

upper body workout for women disclaimerBut first, we need a disclaimer: NO UPPER BODY WORKOUT IS GOING TO SPOT REDUCE/BURN FAT directly off of your upper body or upper arms. Fat loss is a net result of everything you are doing to support your fitness. I wish I could tell you different, I really do, because that would make life easier on all of us. Wouldn’t it be amazing if a specific machine or specific exercise burned body fat off a specific part of your body? I would love that! The fitness industry would certainly like you to believe that so you would buy all manner of expensive products. But as a grown-up lady, you need to know that fat loss is about the whole picture of EVERYTHING you are doing, not a specific exercise you are doing or machine you are using.

You really need to know that fat loss comes mainly from nutrition achieving a calorie deficit, and from the right balance of cardio training and strength training maintaining and building the muscle you have while holding up the calorie deficit you have created by eating the right foods at the right times. Spot reduction is a myth, and nothing more.

Got it? Awesome! Let’s continue on and go over what you need to know right now to get an amazing upper body workout that will support your fat loss and toning goals. We will talk about the best exercises, the correct order to do them in, how many times per week to work out, cardio plan and nutritional considerations, and more. Let’s do it!

The Toned & Tight Upper Body Workout for Women

womens upper body workout guidlinesSo here are the best upper body exercises for women, the specific order you should be doing them, as well as essential tips for maximizing each and every rep. Check it out!


  • Complete the exercises as a circuit at a minimum two times in a row and up to four times depending on your fitness level
  • Don’t rest more than 30 seconds to one minute between each exercise; we are working circuit-style to maximize calorie burn to support leaning out
  • When considering how much weight to use, pick a resistance that will FATIGUE your muscles within the desired rep range without forcing you to sacrifice form and control
  • Choose more resistance next time if the set was too easy to complete; on the other hand, if you couldn’t complete the set with excellent form, choose less weight next time around
  • For the best results, be sure to annihilate this workout about 3 times weekly with 48 hours off in between sessions (for example, do Mon/Wed/Fri but not Mon/Tues/Wed)

Let’s Get it Done: The Best Upper Body Workout

#1. Pull Up Assist or Pull Down Machine – 15 reps

Here’s a major calorie torcher and strength-builder if there ever was one. Pull ups/Pull downs are one of the most important exercises you could ever do to burn fat while building impressive upper body strength and muscle tone.

To perform a set of pull ups or pull downs:

If you can do pull ups using the pull up assist machine at the gym, use that. If that machine is too difficult for your body weight right now, use the pull down machine instead. Take a wide grip to ensure engagement of the lats, your key back muscles, rather than just your arms. Pull your elbows down toward your sides and sweep your shoulders down toward your spine. Whether you’re doing pull ups or pull down, ensure that you keep a TIGHT core, stacking your ribcage right over your pelvis without tipping backward or forward. To accomplish this, draw your bellybutton toward your spine. With each outbreath, draw in your bellybutton anew as you pull your elbows to your sides.

#2. Dumbbell Chest Press – 15 reps

The dumbbell chest press is an essential exercise for toning and tightening the chest and shoulder musculature while building shoulder stability and functional strength in your ability to PUSH…it even gives your boobs a perky boost! What’s not to love about Chest Press?

To perform a set of dumbbell chest presses:

Get your dumbbells close to your chest and roll back on the bench. Plant your feet firmly and press them into the floor. Starting with the dumbbells held overhead at eye level, maintain a tight core without an excessive back arch as you lower the weights to your midchest, keeping your wrists straight, your elbows inward, and your forearms vertical. Press into your feet as you press upward, straightening your arms and squeezing your chest muscles together at the top.

#3. Cable Row or Row Machine

Rows are the one of the best ways to work the lats and biceps while improving your posture and total upper body strength. They also feel amazing if you work a desk job during the day or any job that forces you to hunch forward; they reverse a lot of the effects of improper ergonomics at work.

To perform a set of cable rows or machine rows:

Your gym may have a cable row set up or just a row machine. Either option is great and totally compatible with the best upper body workout for women. Take a seat and sit tall with a tight, drawn-in core. Grasp the handles, always keeping your shoulders actively pressing down and back. Stack your ribcage right over top of your pelvis, neither leaning back nor forward. Pulling from your back muscles, draw your elbows and forearms back until your fists reach about to your hips or wherever a comfortable stopping range of motion exists. Under slow control, return the handle to the starting position and repeat.

#4. Overhead Press – 15 reps

Overhead presses will cap your shoulders with gorgeous toned deltoid muscles that go a LONG way toward enhancing the look of your entire upper body while, of course, building a ton of overhead pushing strength.

To perform a set of overhead presses:

Grab a barbell or a set of dumbbells and hold them level with your chest. With a tight core and ribcage stacked right over top of your pelvis, press the weights upward, straightening your arms overhead. Slowly and under control, return the weights to chest-level. Be especially careful NOT to lose the core engagement and start to tip backward as you press overhead. If you find that you cannot maintain form while pressing up, swallow your pride and choose a lighter resistance. This exercise may be difficult at first but you will improve with time and practice!

#5. Push Ups – 15 reps

You may associate push ups with boring old gym class in grade school, when you were forced to perform an exercise that just exhausted you and you didn’t really understand. If this describes your attitude toward being told you need to do push ups, I want to reinvent everything you have ever thought you knew about this exercise! Because they are actually incredible! Push ups are an absolutely fundamental exercise for toning and tightening the upper body while learning how to push and control your own body weight. They also burn a great deal of calories by working a major upper body muscle group as well as your core and even your glutes if you squeeze them right.

To perform a set of push ups:

The first thing you need to know is that I DON’T want you to do what they call “girlie” push ups where you drop your knees to the floor. That approach knocks out the core training aspects of push ups and defeats a major part of the purpose. Instead, maintain a straight, plank-like alignment of your body while you RAISE THE ANGLE you are pushing from. This means put your hands on something much higher than floor to begin with, such as the wall, a countertop, a weight bench, or a step. The higher the angle of your upper body, the easier a push up becomes. This allows you to be progressive and complete your set of 15 with good form instead of collapsing your shoulders or your core. As you get stronger, choose a lower and lower starting point for your upper body until you can eventually push up from the floor for 15 reps. Know that MOST women will NOT start out being able to do 15 good-form push ups from the floor. It is totally OK to be progressive!

All that being said, choose an appropriate starting point for upper body/hand placement and get into a tight, plank-like position. Lower your chest toward where your hands are placed, keeping your elbows close to your sides and your elbow “pits” facing forward. Imagine pushing the wall/counter/bench/floor AWAY from you as your squeeze your chest muscles together and straighten your arms back to the starting position.

#6. Supine Row – 15 reps

Supine rows are one of the most effective core and upper body exercise body exercises in existence. They’re a little hard to visualize if you haven’t seen it demonstrated, but bear with me and don’t skip out on these! You will be using your lats (major muscles that contribute in a big way to calorie burn and fat loss) as well as biceps which tone up your upper arms, mid back muscles which do wonders for your posture, and core muscles which tie everything together.

To perform a set of supine rows:

I like to do these on the smith press or in the squat rack if it’s unoccupied. It’s like the reverse of a push up. Grasp the bar slightly wider than shoulder length and allow your arms to fully extend while keeping your shoulders plugged in and engaged. Your weight will rest on your heels. Achieve a tight, plank-like alignment for your body before you begin. Similar to a cable or machine row, pull your elbows to your sides, squeezing your shoulder blades together and toward your spine. Your chest should come all the way up to the bar. Be careful not to “turtle” your neck forward. You need to keep your chin tucked and your neck and gaze neutral throughout the exercise. As you lower back down, exercise control, as you will build a lot of strength and stability during the lowering part of the exercise. Even at the very bottom, keep your shoulders engaged and plugged into their sockets. Never, ever lose the plank-like alignment through your core and trunk.

Cardio Tips for the Toned & Tight Upper Body: An Essential Piece of the Picture

Cardio Tips for the Toned & Tight Upper Body workoutSo now you know the 6 essential strength training exercises for toning and tightening the upper body while building respectable upper body strength. Next, let’s talk about the total picture for getting the upper body you want.

If you haven’t gotten it quite yet, I’m going to lay it out for you right here, right now: you NEED the right balance of cardio and strength training to really get that toned and tight upper body. No specific upper body is going to reduce body fat and reveal those strong muscles underneath. Cardio is where most of your fat-burning will come from. That being said, let’s talk cardio plans that support the toned and tight upper body plan.

Cardio machines can give you amazing results, or they can be a total waste of your time and energy. For fat loss and toning, avoid the bike and avoid just walking on the treadmill or out in the world. You need to hit it harder than that. I highly recommend an ARC trainer (or elliptical if that’s what your gym carries). ARC trainers and ellipticals allow you to work your upper body and core in a major way along with your lower body. To be more precise, you want a cardio machine that works the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) while you’re pumping through your cardio. This type of exercise burns the most calories and therefore burns the most body fat.

So how much of this cardio should you do? Well, essential, non-negotiable cardio guidelines for adults are to do a minimum of 90 minutes of moderate-high cardio per week. But that’s for health and maintenance. For fat loss, you need to work harder than that. Shoot for 120 to 150 minutes of moderate-high cardio per week broken up into several sessions. Better yet, incorporate interval training in which you work super hard for a period of about 20 seconds followed by a short recovery period of 10 to 20 seconds, after which you will hit it hard again for 20 seconds. Continue alternating in this way for a minimum of 5 minutes. Interval training is one of the best ways to shock your body into shedding fat.

If you are in doubt as to the best starting place for you in terms of your fat-loss cardio plan, the best course of action is to consult a personal trainer who can give you an assessment to determine your cardio baseline and give you an individualized, healthy, and productive fat-loss cardio plan.

Women’s Nutrition Tips for Shredding and Toning the Upper Body Muscles

Women’s Nutrition Tips for Shredding and Toning the Upper Body Muscles

Let’s be honest; most women are looking to lean out and shed excess body fat from the upper body while toning and building the muscles they already have without adding excess bulk. You don’t want the look of a female bodybuilder. You want to look toned up but not BUILT. You’re not necessarily looking to bench press your body weight, but you want to be able to hold your own in the weight room. If all that describes your goals, these simple nutritional considerations will go a long way toward progressing you to your goals.

Now some women will do everything right in terms of building muscle and strengthening their upper body, yet will fail on the fat loss component, so they will not really SEE the results of all their hard work. Other women will achieve the calorie deficit necessary in order to lose body fat but they will not hit it right in terms of muscle building so they will become “skinny fat” instead of strong. I want to cut through all of that and make sure you know what you need to know to maintain and build muscle tone while losing the body fat necessary to reveal all your progress.

To lose body fat while toning and building your upper body, you need to be working with a calorie deficit. To simplify, this means you need to be burning more calories than you take in via eating. No supplements can do this work for you. Remember that you need to exercise discipline and portion control. Once you reach your goals, it’s about maintenance, but there will be sacrifices along the way.

Additionally, you need to ensure you are eating adequate protein and carbs. Protein intake ensures that your body does not dip into your muscle to support your energy production. And a reasonable amount of carbohydrate intake helps shuttle protein to your muscles. You also need to eat a sufficient amount to support your energy levels. Otherwise (and I have been there) you will run yourself out of energy to be able to complete your workouts. Eating too much or too little are both sure ways to sabotage your goals. If you are unsure about how to achieve the right balance in terms of nutrition, I recommend that you consult with a nutritionist, dietician, or even a personal trainer who is certified as a fitness nutrition specialist. The bottom line is that if you want results, the right nutrition is an essential part of the picture and you can’t afford to neglect it.

Another important point is that even if you are already where you are at in terms of body fat percentage and you just want to build muscle and strength, nutrition is still essential. If you’re not after fat loss, but muscle building, your nutrition plan needs to include ample protein and a balanced amount of carbohydrate and fats. Supplements such as creatine can also be very helpful to a woman looking to build muscle who is not concerned about a little bulk. Again, consulting a personal trainer certified in fitness nutrition or a nutritionist or dietician will be very helpful in cutting through any marketing hype and finding out what your unique body really needs in order to do your best.

The Toned & Tight Upper Body Workout for Women: The Bottom Line

Try out this killer upper body fat loss and strength building workout and let us know what you think. Did we miss any of your favorite exercises or top tips for building up the upper body? Re there any exercises you would love to add or anything we should axe? We absolutely love to hear from our readers. Let us know in the comments below!

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About Mae Barraclough

Mae Barraclough, B.S., NASM-CPT, NASM-CES is a certified personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and licensed Zumba Instructor. With her passion for health, fitness, and dance, Mae loves learning all she can and sharing her knowledge with others.

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