It's a common perception that the only way to build upper-body muscle is by using free weights or specific weight machines. When most people think of an upper-body workout, lots of bicep curl reps with heavy dumbells or sessions on pull-up bars pop into mind.
It's unsurprising, then, that popular opinion is that you need either a gym or a good set of at-home weights to get any muscle development in the arms, shoulders, chest, and back.
But we're here to show you how that isn't always the case; and how it is entirely possible to do an upper body workout at home, in the office, or in a hotel room while traveling with just a small set of resistance bands or bands for pull ups.
How to build upper-body strength
If you want to keep your arms, chest, back, and shoulders strong, it's evident that you need to work them out regularly. Doing resistance exercises for these muscles is vital to keep and maintain strength, and for definition.
Resistance is all that you need for upper body strength, and you can get this in various ways. For example, when working out your tricep and bicep muscles, holding heavy weights in either hand adds extra resistance and works with gravity to pull your arm down to the floor. By keeping your arms stable and pushing them in the desired movement, you will act against the resistance and build arm muscles.
It's the same concept with chest presses, pull-ups, and overhead lifts. Gravity wants to pull your muscles down, and by working against gravity in the opposite direction, you are strengthening the muscles. It's quite easy to go against gravity with no weights, but when you add weights to the mix, you'll feel the burn as you fight it.
Traditionally, people thought that the only way to improve upper-body strength was via weight workouts. But this isn't necessarily the case; resistance bands are a relatively new creation that have been proven to work just as well for muscle building.
The benefits of resistance bands
But why bother using resistance bands instead of tried and tested weights? There are a few solid reasons, one being that some exercises don't work as well with weights. For example, a push up cannot really be done with a barbell or weight plate, but can be performed with a resistance band - we'll look into exactly how to do this later.
However, the main benefit of using resistance bands - especially for exercises like bicep curls, which can also be performed with weights - is their transportability. These bands weigh nearly nothing and you can slide them into any type of bag, or even a pocket.
Their lightness and compact size mean that they are great for traveling, quick in-office workouts, or exercising anywhere where weights are impractical. Even if you are a dedicated gym-goer, we bet that there has been a time when you weren't able to do the exercise that you wanted due to a lack of weights.
The versatility of resistance bands makes them an essential item for any workout enthusiast!
Will resistance bands build muscle?
Many people who are yet to add resistance bands to their repertoire of muscle-building tools are skeptical of them. Resistance bands are so lightweight and small that it's easy to be confused about exactly how they can build big muscles.
Let's look at exactly how muscle builds. All you need to increase your muscles' size is to overload that specific muscle with resistance. When a muscle is overloaded, small tears in the muscle fiber give a space for new muscle tissue. Once the muscle tissue has grown, you'll notice that they are more defined and feel stronger.
Like weights, resistance bands can help with this. This is because of the tension that the bands naturally have. When stretched out, the resistance bands automatically want to push back to their normal, unstretched size.
You'll need to work with the bands' tension to keep that body part in position, which will automatically engage and work out the muscles throughout the entire exercise - and essentially strengthen and build them.
If you are used to lifting big weights, there's a resistance band solution for that too - resistance bands generally come in a variety of strengths, from light to extra strong. If you generally use heavier weights, opt for a stronger band; or if you're a beginner to weights and bands, try a lighter one first.
Upper-body band workout ideas
When starting an upper-body strength workout routine, putting a circuit together is a great idea. Doing this will allow you to focus on the specific areas you want to work out and make you feel more inspired for those days when you're really not feeling it.
These are our best ideas for upper body band exercises that will make you feel the burn!
#1 Bicep curls
- Take a long band or a pull up resistance band and put the center under your feet, with your feet at hip-width. Ensure that you can stand up straight while holding onto either end with your arms at a 90-degree angle.
- Then slowly move your lower arm upwards, until your hand is next to your shoulder.
- Move downwards, and try to keep the tension as you do your reps.
- Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
If you have a shorter band, you can also loop the band around one of your legs and perform this exercise with the arm on that side. Perform your desired amount of reps before switching sides.
#2 Tricep extension
This is one of the best resistance bands exercises for shorter bands.
- Put your hands through both ends of the band, place one hand by your shoulder, and the other at a 90-degree angle.
- Straighten your arm and then slowly bring it back to 90 degrees.
- Repeat for your desired amount of reps.
- Then mimic the movement on the other side.
#3 Bent over rows
Rows are a great back muscle exercise, and this move can easily be added to your resistance bands workout.
- Again, put your feet on the center of your band and stand up straight.
- Then tilt your torso forward, so your body is at about 120-degrees.
- Grasp the resistance band at each end and keep your upper arms close and parallel to your torso, with your elbows bent 90-degrees.
- Then, pull your arm up until your fists are in line with your torso, before oppositely moving your arms in a controlled fashion.
- Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
#4 Shoulder press
- Stand in the middle of your band with your feet at hip-width.
- Hold both ends of the band with your palms facing forward and the band behind your arms.
- Pull the band up over your head in a slow and controlled way, until your arms are straight.
If you can't keep your arms straight, you might need to use a lighter resistance band.
#5 Chest pull-apart
- Stand straight and hold the band at shoulder height.
- You should be holding the band so that it has tension, but is not completely taught.
- Keeping your palms on the floor and your arms straight, pull the band until you can feel that it is taut.
- In a controlled way, pull it back towards your original position.
- Repeat for the desired amount of reps.
#6 Assisted pull-ups
You'll need a pull-up bar for this one, but a resistance band also works as a great pull-up aid while you are still building your chest and back muscles.
- Simply loop the band over your pull-up bar.
- Pull the other end of the band through to attach.
- Put your leg through the other end of the band.
- Then perform the pull up as normal - you'll find it much easier to do the pull-up.
This movement is great for people who don't have the upper body strength for full pull-ups yet but want to do the exercise for its amazing muscle-gaining benefits.
#7 Resistance band push-ups
Push-ups are by far one of the most popular upper-body exercises, and they are normally just done with body weight. But a resistance band can easily be added to give the exercise some more intensity. This is a great way to challenge yourself while doing push-ups!
- Hold the resistance band at either end, with the band across your back.
- Ensure that the band does not twist.
- Then assume push up position - either on your toes or knees - and do a normal push up.
You should feel the extra intensity as you do it!
The final say on upper-body resistance band workouts
There are lots of exercises that can be performed with resistance bands that work both your upper and lower body. This workout focuses on all of the classic arm, back, shoulder and chest exercises but shows you how you can achieve the same amount of tension with just a band, rather than working with weights and gravity.
All you need is a set of bands with different resistances and lengths to enjoy this fully transportable upper-body resistance band workout!