It’s great to use the resistance machines at your gym to strength train and build muscle mass. However, if you’re looking to add a new challenge to your workout routine, then it’s time to add free-weight exercises. Free weights – meaning dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells — allow you to move your body through all three planes of motion. You’ll also activate small stabilizer muscles with each rep, which can help you become more efficient in your movements and burn more calories.
One of the major benefits of free-weight exercises, especially when arm day shows up on the schedule, is that they can help you identify and improve muscle imbalances. When using free weights, most exercisers will quickly notice that one arm is a little stronger and more stable than the other (usually the dominant arm). Using free weights is a great opportunity to even out these imbalances and lower your chances of future injury.
So, how exactly do you perform an upper-body free-weight workout? Below, this article includes a list of free-weight exercises for your arms, chest, and upper back along with variations suitable for all fitness levels. (Before you start using free weights, make sure you don’t fall for any weightlifting myths.)
How to Begin a Free-Weight Arm Workout
If you’ve never worked with free weights before, start light. Free weights, like dumbbells, are less stable than a resistance machine, so you may be surprised that relatively light weights can feel heavier than expected.
Focus on keeping good form rather than increasing the weight. Now is the time to build your lifting foundation in order to avoid injury. If you fail to complete a rep or your form breaks down, lower the weight. You can also always ask a staff member at the gym to watch you to make sure you are safe.
Finally, any time you push free weights overhead, make sure to have a spotter standing by. Now, let’s get to the list of upper-body free-weight exercises.
1. Bicep Curls
Perform: Three sets of eight on each arm
You’ve probably seen plenty of people at the gym doing this free-weight arm exercise. While you can do this movement sitting down, try standing up so that you can activate your core during the movement.
Start with a medium-weight dumbbell in one hand hanging at your waist with your palms facing forward. Tighten your core, and using only your biceps, curl the weight up toward the front of your shoulder. Hold for one second at the top, then lower in a slow, controlled fashion. Switch arms and repeat after each set.
Alternatives: You can switch out the dumbbells for small kettlebells or even perform this movement with an EZ curl bar, which is a short, curvy barbell.
2. Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Perform: Three sets of eight
Bring two medium-weight dumbbells into the front-rack position, meaning you hold them at the level of your clavicle. Your knuckles should face toward your body. Keep your elbows down and your gaze forward. Tighten your core and without moving your lower body, use your shoulders to press the dumbbells straight overhead until your arms are fully extended. Bring them down slowly in a controlled manner. After a few reps, you should begin to feel if one shoulder is weaker than the other.
Alternatives: To make this movement easier, focus on working one arm at a time or use a barbell instead of dumbbells. To make the movement harder, use kettlebells.
3. Kettlebell Farmer’s Walk
Works: Shoulders, traps, forearms, and core
Perform: Three sets of 20-30 second walks with 30-second rest between sets
Find an open lane of space in your gym or home. Pick up a medium-weight kettlebell by the handle in each hand and begin walking. Keep your shoulders back and down (not hunched) and your gaze forward. Try not to swing the kettlebells. Set them down gently between each set. As much as you may be tempted to drop them, you could damage the floor or injure your toe!
Alternatives: To make this movement easier, choose dumbbells instead of kettlebells.
4. Dumbbell Triceps Kickback
Works: Triceps, shoulders
Perform: Three sets of eight on each arm
It helps to use a bench or chair for this free-weight triceps exercise. Choose a lightweight dumbbell. Place your left hand and left knee on the bench or chair. Your left arm should be straight. Pick up the dumbbell in your right hand. Pull your right elbow back so that the dumbbell hovers around your ribcage. Keeping your body tight and still, extend your right arm behind you, using your triceps muscle to move the weight. Pause for one second with your arm extended, then slowly bend your elbow to return to the starting position. Switch sides between sets.
Alternatives: To make this movement more difficult, use a small kettlebell.
5. Dumbbell Bent-Over Rows
Works: Upper back, triceps, back shoulder
Perform: Three sets of six to eight reps
This is an excellent free-weight back exercise to strengthen your upper back. Choose a pair of medium-to-heavy dumbbells. Start with your feet hip-width distance apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Hinge forward at the hips while keeping your back flat. Keep your knees slightly bent. Tighten your core and pull the dumbbells toward your ribcage. Focus on activating your lats. It may help to imagine you have a set of wings on your back, and you’re squeezing them together at the top of the movement. Hold for one second, then slowly lower the dumbbells.
Alternative: You can also use kettlebells or a barbell for this movement.
6. Kettlebell Bent-Over Flies
Works: Back, triceps, back of shoulder
Perform: Three sets of six
This exercise attacks and strengthens your lats from a different angle than the bent-over rows, putting emphasis on different parts of the muscle. It’s also an excellent free-weight back exercise.
Choose a pair of light-to-medium weight kettlebells and hold them by the handles in each hand. Start in the same position as the bent-over rows. However, instead of pulling your kettlebells to your ribcage, you’ll extend your arms out to the sides. Keep your core tight and pull with the muscles of your upper back. It’s easy to pull with your shoulders, which will tire you out almost immediately. Hold at the top for a second before bringing your arms down in a controlled manner. The kettlebells will make this movement feel a little unwieldy, forcing you to work on balance and body control. (Check out five great full-body kettlebell workouts.)
Alternatives: To make this movement easier, use dumbbells instead of kettlebells.
7. Barbell Bench Press
Works: Chest, front shoulders
Perform: Three sets of six
The ultimate free-weight chest exercise is the bench press. This movement requires balance and technique, so it’s a good idea to practice with an empty barbell before adding weight. Place a flat bench under a barbell rack. The bench should be low enough that you can keep both heels on the ground during the movement. (Add weight plants under your heels if you can’t reach the floor.) Set the bench so that the barbell is at your eye line. Grip the bar roughly shoulder-width apart.
Press the bar up and forward out of the rack. Slowly, bring the bar down so that it is in line with the bottom of your pecs, just above your ribcage. Keep your elbows back and slightly out. Now, use your chest muscles to press the bar back up. Try not to let your hips come off the bench.
Always use a spotter on your bench press.
Alternatives: You can also use dumbbells or kettlebells to perform the bench press.
8. Dumbbell Chest Fly
Perform: Three sets of six
If you’re looking for another free-weight chest exercise, the dumbbell chest fly is a great option. While the bench press is a compound movement that recruits help from the shoulders and back, dumbbell chest flies depend almost entirely on your chest muscles.
Choose a pair of light-to-medium-weight dumbbells. You can either lie on a flat bench or use an inclined bench. Begin the movement with the dumbbells held out in front of you, just like you would a barbell for a bench press. Slowly bring your arms out and down to each side. Keep a slight bend in each elbow. Control the dumbbells. If they are wobbling in the early reps, you’re using too much weight. Do not let your arms extend fully. At the bottom of the movement, use your chest muscles to press the weight back up. It is also a good idea to use a spotter on this movement.
Alternatives: To make this movement more difficult, switch out your dumbbells for kettlebells.
9. Barbell Push Press
Works: Shoulders, chest, triceps
Perform: Three sets of six to eight
Push presses are a great way to add a little explosivity to your free-weight arm workout and to recruit muscles in your lower body to help with this movement. Add a medium amount of weight to the barbell. If you are proficient with cleans, you can power clean the bar into the front rack position. If not, set a barbell rack so that you can lift the barbell from the rack for each set. Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Your elbows should be down and slightly forward.
Push your hips back and bend your knees, just as if you were going to start a squat. Push your knees out. Explode up, using your arms to push the barbell up and overhead. Make sure to pull your head back to avoid the bar as it comes up, and then push your head “through the window” when the weight is overhead. Bring the barbell back down in a controlled manner to the front rack and repeat. When you become comfortable with this movement, try to cycle the push presses with no pauses between reps.
Alternatives: You can perform the push press with dumbbells or kettlebells to make the movement more difficult. You’ll quickly feel if one arm is weaker than the other.
10. Overhead Kettlebell Lunges
Works: Shoulders, forearms, traps, quads, glutes, core
Perform: Three sets of 20 (ten on each leg)
Sometimes you don’t have enough time to focus on a single part of the body. In these instances, compound movements can help you save time by working multiple muscles all within one movement. One example of a compound movement that combines a free-weight arm exercise with a free-weight leg exercise is the overhead kettlebell lunge.
Choose two light or medium-weight kettlebells and hold them at the top of each handle with the bell resting across the back of each forearm. Bring them to the front rack and use a push press or shoulder press to lift them overhead. Keep your arms locked out overhead and as close to your ears as possible. Tighten your core and lunge forward. You can either perform a walking lunge or lunge in place. If you begin to lose control of the dumbbells, choose a lighter weight for your next set.
Alternatives: To make this movement easier, you can switch the kettlebells for dumbbells. You can also hold a single kettlebell by the bell, a single dumbbell, or a weight plate overhead.
Start Your Upper-Body Free-Weight Workout
This is only a partial list of free-weight exercises for the arms and upper body, but it can offer you a great start to incorporating free weights into your fitness routine. Make sure to check out EōS lower body free weight blog for lots of great lower body exercises that use free weights. If you feel unsure about using free weights on your own, consider joining a strength-training group fitness class at your gym. These strength-based classes often incorporate dumbbells, weight bars, and other free weights. You can also invest in a personal trainer. Your trainer can help you learn the right form for free weight exercises and show you lots of different free weight options.
Now, go get lifting!