The Ultimate 20-Minute Upper-Body Workout (With Built-In Progressions)

The Ultimate 20-Minute Upper-Body Workout (With Built-In Progressions)

Let's face it, we're busier than ever, and finding the time to work out is becoming increasingly more difficult. So, what's the fix? Well, we're glad you asked, which is why we've created a suite of efficient workouts for you to try.

Now, don't get us wrong, if you love the gym as much as we do, cramming a workout into half hour doesn't have to be your go-to approach. We've got plenty of other workouts for you. But, for the days when time just isn't on your side, workouts like this 20-minute upper body blast, designed to tactically target your chest, back, shoulders and arms as effectively (and efficiently) as possible, is your ticket to time savvy gains.

A word from our Fitness Director, Andrew Tracey: 'If this is a workout you plan to use regularly and not just a "break glass in case of emergency" time saver, stick around to read how you can use progressive overload to make sure you're working harder each session, ensuring the gains keep coming, week after week.'

How to Perform the Ultimate 20-Minute Upper-Body Workout

The workout is broken up into two ten-minute parts. Part one is designed to hit your chest and the muscles of your mid back, while part two targets your lats and shoulders. Both parts will stimulate your biceps and triceps, but if you have an extra five minutes to spare, we've also included a bonus part three, specifically designed to bulk up your arms and fill out your sleeves.

Both parts utilise the 'escalating density training' or 'EDT' technique, a time tested, fool proof method for adding size and increasing work capacity.

After a warm-up, start a countdown timer for 10 minutes, grab a set of weights that you could perform 12-15 perfect reps with (for both exercises) and begin performing back-to-back sets of your first pairing, resting only as necessary to maintain perfect form and a controlled tempo. Initially, aim to work in sets of 8-12, but as time wears on and fatigue grows, lower the reps to keep the quality high. Make a note of the weights you use, and how many reps you achieve in each set, this will be important later.

Once the 10 minute buzzer sounds, immediately grab your weights for part two, set another timer and get stuck in, repeating the same EDT protocol as part one.

The Exercises

Part one

A1. Dumbbell Bench Press x 5-12

dumbbell chest press
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Lay flat on a bench, your knees bent, pushing your feet into the floor. Press a pair of dumbbells into the air, locking out your elbows (A). Lower the bells slowly until they touch your chest (B), keeping your elbows at 45-degree angle, pause here before explosively pressing back up. Repeat.

A2. DB Bent-Over Row x 5-12

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Hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides and hinge at the hips until your chest is parallel to the floor, dumbbells hanging at your shins (A). Maintaining a flat back, row both dumbbells towards your hips (B), squeeze here and lower under control to the start before repeating.

Part two

B1. Barbell Hang Clean and Push Press x 5-12

a group of men lifting weights
Phil Haynes - Hearst Owned

Feet shoulder-width apart, stand tall holding a barbell at waist height (A). Hinge forward then stand back upwards explosively, shrug your shoulders, and use the momentum to pull the barbell upwards while quickly dropping beneath the bar. Catch the barbell on your shoulders with a slight bend in the knees. Stand upright (B) from this position, dip at the knees and explosively extend your legs using the momentum to help you press the barbell overhead (C). Lower under control to your shoulders and then your waist, and repeat.

B2. Chin-Up x 5-12

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Phil Haynes - Hearst Owned

Grab a pull-up bar with your palms facing your body. Lift your feet from the ground and hang freely (A). Pull yourself up by flexing your elbows and pulling your shoulder blades down and back. Think of bringing driving your elbows into your pockets. When your chin passes the bar, pause (B) before lowering slowly to the starting position. Try to avoid excessive swinging.

Part Three (5 Minute Arms Bonus Round)

C1. Dumbbell Curls x 5-12

bicep curls
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Stand tall holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides (A). With minimal momentum and keeping your upper arms tight to your body, curl both dumbbells upwards, turning your palms inwards, until your pinky fingers are near your shoulders (B). Squeeze here and reverse the movement under control.

C2. Lying tricep extension x 5-12

a person lifting another man
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Lay flat on a bench or the floor with a pair of dumbbells locked out overhead (A). Bend at the elbows, slowly lowering the bells towards your head while keeping your upper arms locked in place. Stop just short of the bells touching the floor (B) before extending back up explosively. Repeat.

How To Progress The Workout For Muscle Growth and Strength Increases

If you're using this workout regularly, (we recommend no more than 2 x per week, with at least 48 hours recovery between sessions), you're going to want to ensure that you're endeavouring to work progressively harder. 'Progressive overload' as it's known, is the linchpin of seeing both gains in strength as well as gains in the mirror. Luckily, EDT has a built in mechanism for guaranteed progress.

Each time you repeat the workout, consult your notes from the previous session, checking the weights you used and the total number of reps you achieved for each exercise. Your goal is simple: perform more reps across the ten minute 'block', at the same weight. Once you beat your original 'score' from your first session, by 20%, you know it's time to go heavier.

For example, if you performed 60 reps of the dumbbell bench press using 24kg dumbbells in your first session, your aim is to work towards performing 72+ reps at same weight, with the same impeccable form. Once this achievement is unlocked, increase the weight of the dumbbells you use in your next session by around 10%, possibly jumping up to the 26s in this scenario, and re-establishing a new baseline 'score' to improve upon.

Keep progressing this fashion, 'beating the notebook' as often as possible, while supporting your recovery with adequate recovery and nutrition, and visible gains won't be far behind.

Not bad for 20 minutes, eh?

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