With proper form and a comprehensive routine, effective upper body exercises can be accomplished even with free weights. The key is in finding a challenging weight and relying on muscles, not joints, to do the work. Completing the exercises in a consecutive circuit will also bring their benefits to the next level.
1. Bicep Curls
Mirror the workout you would get in doing bicep curls with a bar by using heavier weights. Stand with feet hip width apart and slightly bent, arms lowered to your side. With a free weight in each hand and palms facing upward, raise arms to chest level and lower. Add interest and a challenge to this exercise by performing it for 20 seconds, then immediately moving to the next two exercises on this list. Repeat that circuit three times.
2. Chest Presses
Typically considered a benching exercise, chest presses can be modified to be performed with free weights. Pick a slightly heavier set of barbells than you would use for other exercises, though. Start with upper arms aligned straight with your shoulders, lower arms bent upward at a 90-degree angle to them. Hold a weight in each hand, palms facing inward and propel arms in a smooth motion until they are fully extended above you. Be sure not to overextend your elbows, and return arms back to their original position.
3. Tricep Lifts
Tight formation will bring you the biggest benefit from this exercise. Raise arms to be fully extended above you, keeping upper arms flush against the sides of your head, with both hands gripping one weight. Lower your forearms in a tight motion to where they are lying flat on top of your head and raise them back up to their original position. The real workout in this exercise will come from keeping your arms close to your head and not allowing them to spread out to shoulder width.
4. Rowing Arms
Simulating a rowing motion will continue to tone triceps while also giving your shoulders and back a workout. To do this, stand with feet about hip width apart, knees slightly bent. With a weight in each hand and palms inward, lean forward slightly and pump elbows alternately behind your back. Keep forearms roughly perpendicular to your upper arms and be carefully not to put too much force into your elbow or hunch your shoulders. Your core should remain tightened and your upper back should keep a clean diagonal line with your lower back.
5. Rotating Arms
This exercise works the range of your arm muscles and even requires a strong core to keep proper form. Lay on your back or a bench, arms fully extended at your sides. Hold a barbell in each hand, with palms facing inward. Inhale and lift, keeping arms fully extended, and move your arms until they're behind your head, maintaining the extension. Raise them so that they come back in front of you and end up at your sides again, exhaling on the way down. Repeat this for a minute. Be sure not to let arms go slack. Flimsy arms will strain elbows and shoulders and take the effectiveness out of this exercise.