woman stretching before a workout
Fitness Anatomy

The Complete Guide to Upper Body Muscles for Beginners

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Are you ready to get a great upper body workout but not quite sure where to start? You’ve come to the right place.

Understanding how the body works together during exercise can help you get a better workout and prevent injuries. 

By the end of this beginner-friendly article, you’ll be able to craft a killer upper body workout and finally, stop mindlessly going through the motions (or copying other people with bad form!)

Let’s go!

Disclaimer: Always seek proper instruction before initiating an exercise program. Not everything is great for everyone! Consult with your qualified health care practitioners for an exercise program tailored to your needs. Stay healthy and injury-free! Read the full disclaimer.

illustration of human muscle anatomy; upper body muscles
image source: depositphotos.com

DELTOID

The deltoid is the outermost layer of the shoulder muscles, wrapping around the shoulder joint. 

And who doesn’t want a nice set of shoulders??

  • Anterior deltoid – shoulder flexion (raising the arm in front of you)
  • Lateral deltoid (aka middle deltoid) – shoulder abduction (raising the arm out to the side)
  • Posterior deltoid – shoulder extension (moving the arm toward the back)

DELTOID STRENGTHENING EXERCISES

  • Anterior deltoid: front raises, overhead press, push-ups, battle-ropes, dips
  • Lateral deltoid: lateral raises, upright rows, side planks, Arnold press
  • Posterior deltoid: rows, single-arm rows, bent over lateral raises, rear deltoid machine

Of course, there are many exercises for each muscle group. This list is meant to give you an idea of which exercises target which muscle group.

DELTOID STRETCHING EXERCISES

Stretches that target the deltoid include: Clasping hands at the lower back and puffing out the chest (anterior deltoid), pulling the arm across the body (posterior deltoid).

Due to its location, it’s difficult to stretch the lateral deltoid. 

In order to stretch a muscle, you have to be able to move in the opposite direction of the action the muscle performs. You can get a stretch by pulling the arm crossbody while lowering the elbow down toward the abdomen.

PECTORALIS MAJOR/MINOR

Pectoralis major is the larger of the chest muscles and covers a lot of surface area with attachments to the sternum, upper ribs, clavicle, and deep fascia of the external oblique. 

The opposite side of this muscle attaches to the front (anterior) side of the humerus.

The pec major functions to push the arm away, adduct (bring the arm across the body), and rotate it inward. 

The pec minor sits beneath the pec major and helps stabilize and fine-tune motions between the upper ribs and the scapula. 

cartoon illustration of the pec muscles; upper body muscle anatomy
image source: depositphotos.com

PEC STRENGTHENING EXERCISES

  • Push-ups 
  • Chest flies
  • Seated chest press machine
  • Cable crossovers
  • Bench press
shoulder mobility on a foam roller; pec muscle stretching
Copyright Maura Blackstone

PEC STRETCHING EXERCISES

  • Doorway stretch (Y and goal post position)
  • Supine on a foam roller
  • Puppy pose

THE ROTATOR CUFF

The rotator cuff is four separate muscles; supraspinatus, infraspinatus, subscapularis, and teres minor. 

This group forms the innermost layer of muscular stability for the shoulder. 

cartoon illustration of the rotator cuff
image source: depositphotos.com

The rotator cuff helps with rotational movements and fine-tuning the three-dimensional movements of the shoulder.

Supraspinatus assists with the initial lifting of the humerus into abduction to prevent the top of the bone from colliding into the acromion. Supraspinatus is most frequently injured. 

The other three rotator cuff muscles perform internal and external rotation motions.

Read Keys to Maintain Healthy Shoulders to learn more about the rotator cuff muscles and how to prevent shoulder injuries. 

ROTATOR CUFF STRENGTHENING EXERCISES

  • Isolated motions with resistance bands in various planes
  • Stability exercises such as ball circles on the wall
  • Resistance band or cable machine exercises in diagonal patterns
  • Shoulder flexion in the scapular plane below the height of the shoulder in a V-like motion

ROTATOR CUFF STRETCHING

  • Mobility exercises using a stick to move the arm at various angles
  • Cross-body stretch
  • Doorway stretch

BICEPS

The biceps primary function is flexing the elbow and rotating the palm upwards (elbow flexion and forearm supination.) But it also has a small role in shoulder flexion due to where the long head attaches.

The tendon of the long head fuses in with the labrum and capsule at the front of the shoulder, therefore it can affect shoulder motion. 

BICEPS STRENGTHENING EXERCISES

  • Biceps curls
  • Rotating biceps curls
  • Compound movements such as rows and lat pulldowns

BICEPS STRETCHES

  • Shoulder and elbow extension
  • Clasping hands behind the back with the palms facing down
woman on a yoga mat demonstrating a biceps stretch
Copyright Maura Blackstone

TRICEPS

This large muscle spans the entire posterior side of the upper arm.

The primary job of the triceps is to extend the elbow. However, the triceps’ long head has an attachment to the scapula and has a role in shoulder extension and adduction. 

TRICEPS STRENGTHENING EXERCISES

  • Triceps kickbacks
  • Overhead triceps extension
  • Push-ups
  • Triceps push-ups
  • Dips

TRICEPS STRETCHES

Stretches that target the triceps: flexion of the elbow and the shoulder will target all three heads of the triceps.

woman on a yoga mat demonstrating a triceps stretch
Copyright Maura Blackstone

SCAPULAR STABILIZERS

A whopping 17 different muscles have an attachment of some kind to the scapula.

Talk about being pulled in too many directions!

The “shoulder blade” portion of the scapula is stabilized by muscles, making strength a necessity for proper mechanics and pain-free shoulder ROM.

Some of the major scapular stabilizing muscles include:

  • trapezius (upper/middle/lower)
  • the rhomboids
  • serratus anterior
  • levator scapulae
illustration of scapular stabilizing muscles ; upper body muscle anatomy
image source: depositphotos.com

EXERCISES FOR SCAPULAR MUSCLE STRENGTHENING

  • Rows
  • Planks
  • Push-ups (with a plus)
  • Scapular protraction/retraction exercises
  • IYTWs in prone or over a physioball

Rowing machines are making a comeback and offer great cardio and strengthening for the upper back.

Rowing machines also offer a low impact workout and can be a great swap to keep moving when there’s a lower-body injury. 

SCAPULAR MUSCLE STRETCHES

Stretches that target the scapular stabilizers include cat stretch, eagle pose arms, and thread the needle.

woman on a yoga mat demonstrating thread the needle pose
Copyright Maura Blackstone

LATISSIMUS DORSI

The lats are an upper body powerhouse; a must-have in your upper body workout. 

Latissimus dorsi originates in the lower back, with attachments to the pelvis, lumbar spine, and lower ribs. There is also a small attachment on the bottom angle of the shoulder blade on the way to the humerus.

The lats have a few functions, one of the major ones being pulling up your body weight. Having strong lats is vital to be able to do things like pull-ups or swimming. 

The lats are a direct connection between the core, and the shoulder, and tightness may make it difficult to raise your arm over your head.

LAT STRENGTHENING EXERCISES

  • Lat pulldowns
  • Single-arm row
  • pull-ups/assisted pull-ups
  • Bent over row

LAT STRETCHING EXERCISES

  • Downward Dog
  • Puppy pose
  • Standing pull away stretch
woman outside demonstrating downward dog yoga pose
Copyright Maura Blackstone

PUTTING YOUR UPPER BODY WORKOUT TOGETHER

Understanding anatomy and how to body works together is a crucial part of successful fitness. This helps you to avoid going through the motions and take an active role in your fitness. 

Working all muscle groups evenly helps prevent imbalances that can lead to pain and injuries. 

There are many different ways to get a great upper body workout. Some exercises may work better than others, it depends on your body and your goals. It’s possible to modify anything to your needs. 

Check out the Exercise Library for more ideas!

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