Upper Body Workout for Strength with Descending Reps

 I hear that question a lot, particularly from women. Unfortunately it’s often followed by “I don’t want to build muscle, I just want to make them smaller/get toned.” If you’re looking for a toned, compact, lean, capable body, strength training and lifting heavily are where it’s at! I know it can feel counterintuitive but it’s backed by both science and countless anecdotal before and after transformations. Aside from that - think about all of the many health benefits you might miss out on if you avoid building strength & muscle - both of which are things that can improve what you can actually DO with your body, and your quality of life.

In this workout, we use 3 sets of descending repetitions to very thoroughly target the upper body. We will start off with 10 reps, then 8, and finish off with 6 reps - all the while, we’re increasing the amount of weight being lifted. I love this format because it challenges the body in various ways - the lower weight, higher rep sets are great for building endurance, while the third set of high weight and low reps is excellent for building muscle and strength.

The important thing about this routine is that you are constantly checking in with yourself to be sure you’re properly challenging your strength; as the repetitions go down, the amount of weight you’re lifting should be going up.

After I shared our descending repetition lower body workout, I was happy to see that the requests for an upper body equivalent quickly came pouring in. I hope you guys enjoy this one too! 

Workout Structure

Upper body strength using 3 sets of descending repetitions to very thoroughly target the arms, shoulders, upper back and chest. We will start off with 10 reps, then 8, and finish off with 6 reps. As the number of reps decline, the amount of weight you’re lifting should ideally go up. Warm up and cool down are both included. All you need is dumbbells - but theoretically, you could even do this workout using only your bodyweight, if you enlist the help of your own strength against yourself, as shown in antagonistic upper body workouts like this one. 

Our warm up mimics all of the exercises and ranges of motion that we’ll be doing with weights later in the routine. Make sure you don’t skip the warm up; it’s an essential part of being able to safely push yourself and get the most out of your workout.

I have included the amount of weight I’m lifting in both the video and in the printable workout below (shown in pounds, per hand). Please keep in mind that this is not a suggestion of what you should lift; what you lift should be specific to your own strengths & weaknesses; watch this video on figuring out how much to lift, for more help on this.

Warm Up - 25 Seconds each

  1. Jog in Place
  2. Chest Opener
  3. High Knee Curl
  4. Tricep Extension Steps
  5. Deadlift Fly
  6. Lateral Step + Stretch
  7. Arm Swing Butt Kick
  8. Overhead press & Squat
  9. Up & Over Steps
  10. Switchfoot Pulls
  11. Arm Circles
  12. Up & Out Jacks

Strength Workout - Three rounds: 10, 8, and 6 reps

Bicep Curl (8 lbs for 10 rep set, 12 lbs for 8 rep set, 16 lbs for 6 rep set, per hand)

Bentover Tricep Extension (4, 8, 12)

Reverse Fly (bw, 4, 8)

Chest Press (12, 16, 20)

Overhead Press (8, 12, 16)

Pullover (12, 16, 20)

Lateral Raise (2.5, 4, 8)

Ventral Raise (2.5, 4, 8)

Cool Down & Stretch


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