Run a busy schedule? Try focusing on two muscle groups during your workouts — like your chest and back muscles. Below, I explain why chest and back workouts can build upper body strength, while giving you time back in your day.
Athletes, personal trainers, and other fitness professionals will never stop their quest for finding the "perfect" way to work out.
I admit, I'm one of them. I love performing my own human experiments on finding new ways to train — which is why I write about taking cold showers (at-home cryotherapy), dry needling, mobility work, and different ways to stretch tight muscles.
But while I love researching new training techniques, I always return to the following statement: The best workout routine includes workouts you will actually do. Meaning, the best workout fits within your lifestyle, motivates you, and brings you joy (even if that joy is only felt when it's over).
Why a Chest and Back Workout Is an Efficient Upper Body Workout
I have a hectic schedule, so I perform workouts that offer the maximum results in the least amount of time. This means striking a balance between resistance training and cardio, and being diligent about nutrition and recovery when not in the gym (i.e., following all four pillars of 4 Legs Fitness).
For strength training sessions, I often choose to superset (i.e., alternate between) two muscle groups (at least). By alternating between opposing muscles — like your back and chest muscles — you allow your fatigued muscle 2-4 minutes of rest while you train the other. In this way, superset workouts allow for zero down time at the gym, giving you time back in your day.
When supersetting a chest and back workout, you will alternate between a "push" exercise and a "pull" exercise. Here's what that means.
Push Exercises Work the Front Side of Your Body
For the most part, push exercises work the front side of your body — including your chest. In push exercises, you push resistance (a barbell, sled, or dumbbell) away from your body. For instance, you could perform a sled push (working your quads) or perform a pushup (working your chest).
Chest exercises like chest press, bench press, and pushups are all push exercises (we'll dive further into these movements below). You will alternate one set of a push (chest) exercise with a pull (back) exercise.
Pull Exercises Work the Back Side of Your Body
Typically, pull exercises work your posterior chain — including your back muscles.
You work your back muscles through a number of "pulling" movements. For example, you can pull a dumbell up into a dumbbell row, pull a bar down in a lat pulldown, or pull yourself over a bar into a pullup. I'll explain how to alternate between these back exercises with chest exercises below.
How To Build a Chest and Back Workout for Maximum Effort
Now that you know the basics of a chest and back workout, it's time to put that knowledge into building a workout program. Below, I explain how to superset between chest and back exercises, and which movements will help build strength and mass in your upper body.
For each superset below, you will do one set, move directly to the second exercise (also performing one set), before returning for your second set of your first exercise. Continue to alternate between your two exercises for three sets each, then move on to the next superset.
Superset 1: Dumbbell Row and Dumbbell Bench Press
For this set, you'll need a pair of moderately heavy weights (roughly half of what you would use for a dumbbell deadlift) and a flat bench. Chances are, you will use the same pair of dumbbells for both exercises (although it's common to row slightly more than what you chest press).
Perform 3 sets of 12 reps of each exercise. For the dumbbell rows, you will perform all 12 reps on your right before switching to your left.
Dumbbell Row (Bent-Over Row)
To perform a row, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Give a slight bend in your knees, roll your shoulders back and down, and brace your core. Allow one hand to rest on a bench in front of you (do not hunch over), and hold a dumbbell in your opposite hand.
On an inhale, bring the hand holding the dumbbell in toward your chest. Keep your elbow tucked in, as though you are trying to connect your elbow toward the center of your spine. When you reach your end range of motion, return to your starting position.
To perform a chest press, lay on the bench, with your feet resting on the floor. Tilt your pelvis in so your lower back comes into contact with the bench. Hold a set of dumbbells in each hand, resting them on your chest if necessary.
On an inhale, push both dumbbells straight into the air, so your arms are perpendicular to the ground. The dumbbells should be straight above your chest, not your face. Return to your starting position, being careful to keep your elbows tucked in (not flailing out from your shoulders).
Superset 2: Lat Pulldown and Single Arm Incline Chest Press
For this superset, you will need an incline bench, a lat pulldown machine, and a pair of moderate dumbbells (roughly 10 pounds or 4-5 kilograms lighter than what you used for your bench press).
Perform 3 sets of 8 reps (for the incline bench, do 8 reps on each arm, or 16 total reps).
You can perform a lat pulldown using a machine or (if you're working out at home) a set of resistance bands. Wrap the set of resistance bands around something secure, such as a fence or a railing (you may sit on your knees — rather than stand — so the resistance band is taught).
Take a seat in the lat pulldown machine. Grab the lat pulldown bar with an overhand, wide grip (your arms should form the letter "Y"). Roll your shoulders back and down, and brace your core. Now, pull the bar toward your chest, squeezing your lats (the muscles underneath your armpits) as you do so. At the bottom of the movement, squeeze your shoulder blades together (almost exaggerating the movement) to target your upper back muscles. Return to your starting position.
Single Arm Incline Chest Press
To perform an incline chest press, lay on the incline bench, which should be set at a 45-degree angle from the ground. Tilt your pelvis in and brace your core, so your lower back connects with the bench. Hold one dumbbell in your right hand. Extend your arm straight overhead, so it is perpendicular with the ground and above your chest. Now, bring the dumbbell down to your right pec muscle, squeezing your abdominal muscles so you don't tilt to one side. Return to your starting position.
Perform all eight reps on your right before switching to your left.
Superset 3: Chinup and Pushup
For this superset, you just need your own bodyweight. If you can't do a full chinup with good form, wrap a thick resistance band around the pullup bar, and step one foot into it (this takes away some resistance).
Aim for a rep range between 5-8 chinups, and 10-15 pushups (or just before you hit muscle failure). Perform three sets of each exercise.
Grab the pullup bar with an overhand grip, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart (but not quite as wide as the lat pulldown grip). Squeeze your shoulders back and down, and brace your abs. On an inhale, pull yourself up and over the bar, squeezing your lats and shoulder blades together as you do so. Do not use momentum to pull yourself over the bar.
Many people do pushups wrong — beginning with an incorrect setup.
Start your pushup in a high plank position. Your hands should be directly underneath your shoulders. Squeeze your abs and your lats (again, the muscles directly underneath your armpits) to prevent your lower back from sagging toward the ground.
Tip: If you have trouble targeting your lats, think about twisting your palms open, as though you were opening a jar with each hand. You should feel your lats engage.
Now, bring your chest toward the floor, keeping your entire body in one even line as you do so. Keep your elbows tucked in near your sides, not flailing outward in a "T" shape. Once you are 1-2 inches from the floor, squeeze your abs again, and push yourself back to a starting position.
Perform a Chest and Back Workout To Build Muscle in Your Upper Body
Superset workouts — like chest and back workouts — eliminate "down time" at the gym. For this reason, they're ideal for anyone running a busy schedule.
When building a chest and back workout, alternate between pushing and pulling exercises, such as pushups and pullups. This helps strike a balance between your chest and back muscles, leading to proper posture and preventing muscle imbalances. After your strength workout, be sure to stretch your upper body muscles and consume a high-quality protein source.
For precise, efficient workout plans encompassing strength, cardio, nutrition, and recovery, join the Build Bullet-Proof Health Program. With detailed goal assessments, integrated training plans, a calorie and macro guide, and a mobile app, it's the most efficient path toward improving your fitness level.
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