No need to hoist barbells at the gym to sculpt your upper back and chest. Though these areas rely on some of our most powerful muscle groups, you can give them a great workout at home—by using free weights or your own body weight. These forms of resistance are just as efficient for toning as a plate-loaded machine.
For example, when you use free weights to perform a chest press, you must recruit other muscles to stabilize and guide the movement of the weights. On a chest press machine, the weight is stabilized for you. So, although you can move significantly more weight on a machine than you can press with free weights, you're not getting a better chest workout on the machine than you would with free weights. And when it comes to shaping your body, exercise variety is key. By using different forms of resistance, you'll keep your muscles challenged and your results on track. Plus, you can bypass the boredom.
We found three exercises to get you started. Do one (if you're a beginner) to three (if you're experienced) sets of 8 to 15 repetitions for each exercise.
Dumbbell chest press
This exercise can be performed with the bench set at different angles to emphasize different portions of your pectorals. With the bench set at a slight incline, for example, you'll put more of an emphasis on your upper chest and shoulders. With the bench flat, you're working the center portion of your chest. And, with the bench at a decline (head lower than feet), you're working the lower, smaller section of your chest.
Note: Of the three, the flat bench position is the most important, followed by the incline. Holding a weight in each hand, lie on the bench with your feet either on the floor or at the end of the bench. Pull in your abdominals, but don't flatten out your back (there should be a slight, natural curve). With your palms facing forward, push the weights up and toward each other so that your arms are directly over your shoulders. Do not lock your elbows straight, and keep your shoulder blades in contact with the bench. Now, slowly bend your elbows, bringing them down and to the sides, a little below your shoulders. Repeat the movement, pushing the weights up and toward each other.
Stability ball push-ups
The ball can be used to make this basic chest exercise easier or harder, depending on where you place it along your body.
Beginner push-up: Place the ball under your belly and your hands on the floor. Using your hands, "walk" yourself forward, moving the ball down your body. Stop when the ball is under your thighs but your hips are clear of the ball. Place your hands a little wider apart than your shoulders and a few inches in front of them. Your fingers should be facing forward. Tuck your chin slightly so that your head is in line with the rest of your spine. Tighten your abdominals so your back doesn't arch. Now, bend your elbows and lower your shoulders toward the floor, going just far enough that your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Push back up but don't lock your elbows. Repeat.
Intermediate push-up: As above, but when positioning yourself, walk out until the ball is resting under your shins.
Advanced push-up: As above, but when positioning yourself, walk out until the ball is under your toes.
Like the chest press, this exercise can be done with the bench set at an inclined or declined angle to emphasize different muscle fibers. Because this exercise does put significant emphasis on your shoulders, you might wish to avoid it if you've had rotator cuff or other injuries. Strict attention to form is a must for everyone.
Holding a dumbbell in each hand, lie on the bench with your feet on the floor or up on the end of the bench; maintain your back's slight natural curve. With your palms facing each other, position your hands directly over your chest. Keeping a slight bend in your elbows, open your arms, letting your elbows drop down and toward your sides. Lower your elbows until they fall just below the level of your shoulders. As you lift the weights back up, keep your elbows bent. It helps to think of a thick column resting on your chest that you are reaching around as you bring the weights back up over your chest.