As you get older, your number-one concern might not be building muscle bulk. For people over 50, function is the name of the fitness game — although, scoring an athletic build can be a fun bonus.
Over the years, your shoulders and spine have taken a beating, so it's important to make sure the muscles that surround them remain strong and function well. By fortifying your arms, shoulders, upper back and chest, you can improve your posture and prevent muscle imbalances that can lead to injury.
These muscles also help you shore up the strength to do everyday tasks (and your favorite activities!). Think: playing with your grandchildren and working in the yard.
To help you counter some of the effects of aging on your posture, try this 20-minute upper body workout. It will not only help you build and maintain muscle but also help you move more efficiently so you can continue to stay strong and enjoy your life for years to come. Plus, it will build muscle size and definition, too.
Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here – we've got something for everyone.
A 20-Minute Upper Body Workout for Over 50
Do the following exercises in a circuit, so one exercise immediately follows the other with minimal rest in between moves. The body-weight exercises should be done for as many reps as possible until you reach the point of fatigue. Aim for 12 to 15 reps for each of the dumbbell exercises.
After you've completed 1 circuit, rest for 45 to 60 seconds. Start with 2 circuits and progress to doing 3 to 4 circuits in 20 minutes.
Move 1: Scapular Push-Up
- Get into a quadruped position by stacking your hands under your shoulders and your hips above your knees.
- Keeping your core braced and your arms straight, retract your shoulder blades by squeezing them together and allowing your torso to lower toward the floor.
- Then, protract them by drawing them apart and pushing your upper back toward the ceiling.
- Hold here for 4 to 6 seconds, then release and lower your torso toward the floor while drawing your shoulder blades together.
- Do 8 to 10 reps and work your way up to 12 to 15 reps.
“The muscles that stabilize the shoulder girdle are often overlooked by many other exercises,” says Karyn Silenzi, CPT, master trainer for Life Fitness. “This is not an exercise for so-called ‘mirror muscles,’ but it helps to create both mobility and stability in your shoulders which is important, at any age, but especially when you’re over 50."
When your upper body is feeling stronger you can progress to starting in the movement in the push-up position with your legs extended behind you.
Move 2: Plank Shoulder Tap
- Start in a high plank with your hands directly under your shoulders and legs extended behind you. Press your hands firmly into the ground while squeezing your glutes.
- Keeping your core braced and your glutes tight, lift your right hand off the ground and tap your left shoulder.
- Then, bring your right hand back down to the ground and lift your left hand off the ground to tap your right shoulder.
- Continue alternating shoulder taps for 45 to 60 seconds.
“Planks are often thought of as a core exercise, but because a lot of the stability comes from your arms and shoulders, they’re very effective for upper-body strength training,” says Douglas Brooks, CPT, former IDEA personal trainer of the year.
As you get stronger, you can try other plank exercises, like lifting one foot off the ground for 3 to 5 seconds at a time and doing rotations by reaching one arm toward the ceiling as you turn your feet and hips to one side for 2 to 3 seconds. For more advanced exercisers, try raising your opposite arm and leg off the ground while stabilizing your body.
Move 3: Alternating Chest Fly
- Lie on the ground and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Lift your legs off the ground with your shins parallel to the ground.
- Hold both of your arms straight in front of your chest so that your wrists, elbows and shoulders are in a straight line.
- Slowly lower your right arm to the right side while keeping your left arm stable.
- Bring your right arm back up to the starting position.
- Repeat on the left arm and continue to alternate arms for a total of 12 to 15 reps.
“Alternating your arms creates a unique challenge because the deep core muscles have to contract to stabilize the spine, increasing the benefit of the exercise," says Tricia Murphy-Madden, CPT, director of education for Barre Above.
"Lying on the floor can help you control the range of motion and emphasizes the chest and shoulder muscles with a lower risk of injuring the joints.” Plus, raising your legs off the floor activates your core even more, allowing you to do more work in less time.
Move 4: Single-Arm Row
- Stand with your feet approximately shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Keep your spine long as you hinge your hips back and lean your torso forward.
- Press your feet into the ground to activate your core while squeezing your glutes.
- Keeping your left hand by your side, pull the weight up to your rib cage, squeezing your right shoulder blade. Your right elbow should brush past your rib cage.
- Do 12 to 15 reps then switch arms.
If you want to strengthen your core, use a lighter weight while standing with your feet in a staggered position. But if you want to focus on your upper back and arm, use a heavier weight and support yourself with a bench or box, Abbie Appel, master trainer for StairMaster, suggests.
“Using one arm in a standing position requires the brain to activate more core muscles to create stability, so not only is this great for the back but it also works your abs,” Appel says. And if you hinge your hips back far enough, you'll feel this in your glutes, too.
Move 5: Opposite Arm Curl and Press
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Start with your left arm down by your side and your right arm in the front-rack position so the weight is right by your right shoulder.
- Press your feet firmly into the ground to activate your core. Keeping your left elbow close to your body, bring the weight toward your left shoulder. Squeeze your biceps at the top.
- At the same time, press your right arm straight overhead, finishing with your biceps by your ears.
- Lower both weights back down to the starting position.
- Do 12 to 15 reps, then switch arm positions.
“The right arm does a shoulder press while the left arm performs a biceps curl, creating a great blaster for the arms and shoulders,” says Pete Twist, founder of Twist Conditioning.
“I love this exercise because it gets my brain in the game coordinating my right and left arms doing different things. Plus, the fact that my arms are doing two different things makes the core muscles have to work harder to create stability."
Move 6: Assisted Chin-Up
- Tie a long, heavy-duty resistance band to a chin-up bar and place your right knee in the loop of the band. Then, grip the bar firmly with both hands, palms facing you. You can use a box to help you grip the bar.
- Bracing your core and keeping your elbows pointed away from you, pull your chest up toward the bar.
- Lower your body back down with control to the starting position.
- Do as many reps as you can until your muscles fatigue.
“Because they are compound movements that involve the muscles of the arms and shoulders, pulling movements are great for developing upper-body strength,” says Keli Roberts, master trainer for Schwinn Indoor Cycling. “Being able to lift my own body weight helps me feel strong and confident.”