This upper body workout will help women build shoulder and back development and strength. It requires only a set of dumbbells.
Workout Summary
  • Main Goal
    Build Muscle
  • Workout Type
    Single Muscle Group
  • Training Level
  • Program Duration6 weeks
  • Days Per Week
  • Time Per Workout45-60 minutes
  • Equipment Required
    Bodyweight, Dumbbells
  • Target Gender Female
  • Workout PDF Download Workout

Workout Description

Pull upsMany times when a woman seems out of proportion, with a heavier bottom half, it is because she lacks upper body development.

I have found, in my weight training business, a shocking lack of upper body development in women.  In general it is, across the board, and not dependent on age.

Many women cannot perform one push up and most cannot perform even one pull up!

Women need upper body strength to function effectively in everyday life.  You need to carry things, pick up your kids, perform you job and be self reliant.

If you develop your upper body, not only will you have a more pleasing appearance but most important of all, you will be more capable of meeting the demands of work and family.

All you need to get started is a set of dumbbells.  Start with a size that feels heavy but that you are able to push up from you shoulders to overhead, usually 8-10 lb. to start.

If you are working out at a gym they will have various sizes.  If you are working out at home you can buy heavier sets as you make progress.

Workout Routine for Women
Back and Shoulders
Exercise Sets Reps
Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 12
Dumbbell Upright Row 3 12
Bent Over Dumbbell Row 3 12
Side Lateral Raise 3 6-10
Push Ups 3 Failure
Pull Ups 3 Failure

Workout Routine Notes

Shoulder Press. Start with dumbbells at shoulder level and push to overhead, return to starting position in a controlled manner.  If 3 sets are easy, you need more weight!

Upright Row. Begin with arms down, holding dumbbells in front of thighs and pull up to under chin, leading with the elbows.

Rows. Slightly bend over at waist, keeping back arch neutral, don’t round your back.  Let arms hang at sides toward floor.  Slowly draw elbows up toward ceiling and squeeze shoulder blades together.  Lower in a controlled manner to starting position.

Side Lateral Raise. Begin with arms at sides.  Slowly raise arms to the side until they reach shoulder height.  Then slowly lower to starting position.

Push Ups. If you can do push ups, do 3 sets to failure. If you are not able to perform push ups yet start developing a push by starting in the “knees on floor position” or try the “hands up” style by lying flat on floor and pushing yourself up and control your descent back to starting position on floor.

Pull Ups. Pull ups are  a key exercise for a shapely back and shoulders.  If you have access to a Graviton device you can start with that.  Or if you have a pull up bar you can do jumping pull ups by jumping to the bar and letting yourself down slowly.  You could also buy a strong rubber band (made for this use) to attach to bar.  The band assists you in doing pull ups when you place your foot in it and pull up with your arms.

If you have none of these options you can buy an exercise band and do pull downs by placing band over a door or other secure object.  Grasp the ends of the band while seated or kneeling beneath it with arms extended.  Pull with both arms until hands are lowered to shoulders.  Slowly extend arms back up to starting position.

If your children have a swing set you can use the cross brace to do seated pull ups.

Do not be afraid to increase weight as needed to continue to build strength.   Keep working on push ups and pull ups.  Sometimes it can take a year or more to develop a full push up or pull up in de-conditioned women but both exercises are crucial to achieving the shapely silhouette you desire.

Posted on: Sun, 01/01/2017 - 13:28

I have a question about reps to failure on the push up. On chest days I try to do at least 50 pushups, inverted. But, I am only able to do 12 to 10 at a time. Should I keep on as I am doing, or really push to do 13-15 or so at a time. Thanks for the help. I started weight training in my 30s --stopped in my 40s, picked it up in my 50s and have remained constant. I am now 62. I do a split routine; but am not very organized with my combo of exercises. Your plan looks good. Maybe I will finally have the nerve to accomplish a pull up. ")

Posted on: Mon, 03/17/2014 - 10:35

Going to do this today...I cannot do a pull up. Is a lat pulldown an acceptable substitute?

Posted on: Wed, 01/22/2014 - 14:23

I havent worked out in twoyrs i just barely started working out again i used to do a little kickboxing my goal is to get lean and toned muscle what workouts would you suggest and what foods are good for that

Posted on: Mon, 12/16/2013 - 03:35

The reps for push up says 'failure'.. how many reps should I be aiming for?

Posted on: Wed, 08/31/2016 - 12:24

The failure literally means "until" you cannot do anymore, usually I know I reached failure when the last one I try I only an attempt and I cannot finish the movement. ()

Posted on: Thu, 08/15/2013 - 20:52

You said that sometimes it takes a year to be able to do one pushup. Last year I did bicep curls, side and front lateral raises, and shoulder presses with a 2 pound filled water bottle plus 1 pound wrist weight while I walked my dog daily for about 1/2 - 1 hour each day. I noticed my biceps getting larger so I wondered if they were "real" muscles. I tried doing pushups and did 10 of them. What a surprise! I was 70 years old at the time.

Posted on: Sat, 02/20/2016 - 18:19

Wow - you give me hope! I'm 78 & have never been able to do a proper pushup. I've been afraid to try much weight work because of an old & neglected torn rotator cuff. injury. Lately, I've been trying, though - using 2 & 3 lb weights. Inspired by your experience, I'm going to put some real time & effort into improving my upper body strength. At present, it's pretty pathetic.

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Posted on: Mon, 02/22/2016 - 10:20

Start implementing some bands with your pushups as seen here (Tip #20 here: Also, work on just the eccentric (lowering) component of the pushup - start in a normal pushup position and slowly lower yourself to the floor in 4-5 seconds and then get back tot your starting position any way you desire (putting you knees down, rolling to your side to get up, etc.)

Posted on: Mon, 02/22/2016 - 15:20

Thank you!

Posted on: Wed, 03/02/2016 - 12:41

Thanks so much! I borrowed Dr. Vad's book from the library & am very impressed!

Posted on: Tue, 02/23/2016 - 15:21

Nice to hear from you!! Just go slow so that you don't get an overuse injury. When I was recovering from a broken vertebra (after I wrote the original comment) I started back on my stationary bike and increased the "hardness" too fast and ended up with plantar fasciitis in my feet. Then as I was recovering from that I went to an exercise class for 60 and over - and ended up with bursitis in my hips from some of the marching exercises being to fast.
I have read that overuse injuries occur when you try to increase more than 10% each week but I think us older folks have to go even slower. I have a friend who is 87 and her doctor tells her to walk as much as she wants but just go slow. Right now I have a list of exercises and stretches that I try to do and I do 10 - 15 reps of them (maybe 3 or so days a week). Some are puny exercises - like holding leg out to side - but I still see myself getting stronger. I just try do things that require effort - like holding something longer and feeling a little burn. I just don't do lots of reps and when I walk it is more like a stroll. Main thing is - don't injure yourself. It is hard to recover. I'm 73 now.

Posted on: Tue, 02/23/2016 - 19:19

Thanks so much! I'm sorry you broke a vertebra. I have a strong tendency to go gung ho into exercising because I'm trying to make up for lost time & who knows how much longer I have etc. It's taking such a long time to heal from hip bursitis (one hip - I don't even want to imagine two of them hurting that much) & I've started having low back spasms which I know were caused by my overdoing exercises. (Getting stronger made me think I was an indestructible Amazon for a short time). Your advice seems perfectly tailored to my situation & I plan to follow it. Currently I'm doing more stretching & the back pain seems to have disappeared. Thanks so much for replying!

Posted on: Wed, 02/24/2016 - 11:50

There is a really good book for ending low back pain: Back Rx by Vijay Vad, M.D. It is a 15-minute-a-day Yoga and Pilates-Based Program. Really helped me. Has 3 levels of exercises.

Posted on: Wed, 02/24/2016 - 18:59

Oh thanks - I'll check out the library etc. for his book.

Posted on: Tue, 02/23/2016 - 15:23

another comment - I do pushups on my bathroom counter now. You might have to start on wall, then kitchen counter, then bathroom counter .


Posted on: Tue, 02/23/2016 - 19:28

I've found by trial & error that kitchen counter pushups are my thing at present. When I finish up with the many exercises my physiotherapist has me doing for the hip bursitis (very soon) I'll make upper body work a priority - slowly & carefully, as you advised.
I'm very glad to be able to talk with you.

Posted on: Wed, 02/27/2013 - 22:57

Is this largely for upper back/shoulders or will those help w/ lower back too?

Posted on: Wed, 02/13/2013 - 08:34

Do these back exercises help me get rid of round shoulders? I sit behind my office desk and work with computer at least 8 hours a day and feel that my shoulders are falling more and more everyday. I have added some exercises to my routine workout program to fix it but need some more interesting ones.

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Posted on: Fri, 02/15/2013 - 12:12

Strengthening your back should certainly help with your posture.

Holly Blumenberg
Posted on: Fri, 02/15/2013 - 12:40

Yes, very important to everyone especially to those who have sedentary desk jobs requiring hours of looking down or at a computer screen.

Holly Blumenberg
Posted on: Fri, 02/15/2013 - 12:44

the upright rows are great for strengthening your shoulders and neck. Holding your head up while working on a computer is like holding a bowling ball up with a Popsicle stick. That is a lot of pressure on your neck and shoulders!

Posted on: Wed, 02/24/2016 - 11:54

Good exercise for rounded shoulders - stand against a wall and do "wall angels". move arms along the wall from near hips to straight up against the wall. Try to keep your hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders in contact with the wall as you move your arms. can be difficult at first. The more you do them, the easier it gets. I do 20 a day.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 02/24/2016 - 14:05

I would suggest doing these supine (on your back) on the floor as this will help to prevent excessive spinal extension which can occur in a standing position.

Posted on: Wed, 02/24/2016 - 18:55

I also do these standing. That's a good point re spinal extension, though. Tnx.

Posted on: Sun, 01/06/2013 - 21:48

Looks like a great workout, but I have a question. I lift 3 days a week, but would like to add this to my routine. You have it listed for 2 days a week. Would you recommend doing this on my off days and not doing back work then? Or would I have to reconfigure my entire routine? Currently I use my off days for cardio and ab work.

Holly Blumenberg
Posted on: Mon, 01/28/2013 - 22:50

It would depend on what your three lifting days consist of. You don't have to stick with a strict formula. You need variety. I would do this on your "back, shoulder" days. If you are doing full body or a three day split you could do it on a cardio day if you wanted to. Occasionally you can change it up and do this one day and later in the week just do a pull up-push up routine and when you advance to regular push ups you can start working on weighted push ups. Just don't be afraid to increase weight as you get stronger.

Patricia Brown
Posted on: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 17:50

Thanks for the weight lifting exercises you have listed here. Since I can't do push-ups yet, I fall into that category although I feel I have a long ways to go both above the waist and below. I am counting on your program to get me where I need to be. I think you will be great for maintenance, too.

Holly Blumenberg
Posted on: Tue, 12/11/2012 - 20:47

Patricia, You are making great progress! Keep up the god work!

Tracy Juhl
Posted on: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 16:38

You go girl! Love your classes and i am very thankful for all you do! :)

Holly Blumenberg
Posted on: Mon, 12/10/2012 - 22:06

Thanks Tracy, you're my rock star!

Holly Blumenberg
Posted on: Tue, 12/11/2012 - 07:56

Thanks Tracy!