For trans and nonbinary athletes of all genders, the gym can be both a potentially unsafe and incredibly liberating place. If you’re a transmasculine person wanting to get started on — or reinvigorate — your upper body strength and muscle gains, you’re not alone in your journey.
These qualities are not in and of themselves the definition of masculine. And not every person who wants to cultivate those aesthetics is masculine — plenty of transfemme folks and women are incredible weightlifters and powerlifters who revel in being at the top of their game.
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Still, if you’re transmasculine and you’re shy about asking how the heck to get started building your upper body as a trans man or nonbinary person, read on. You’ll learn different upper body workouts for transmasculine folks. The article will also teach you how to properly program these workouts and warm up.
Best Upper Body Workouts for Transmasculine People
- Upper Body Workout for Beginners
- Upper Body Workout for Back
- Upper Body Workout for Chest
- Upper Body Workout for Shoulders
- Upper Body Workout for Arms
Maybe you’ve never worked out before, or perhaps you haven’t lifted in a long time. Whatever your circumstance, even the most advanced lifters need to go back to basics and cycle through “beginners’” workouts now and then.
You’ll notice that while this workout has an upper-body focus, it also incorporates your lower body. This is because you want to form good movement patterns right from the start, which means integrating your whole body — even when you’re focusing on your upper body.
Perform this workout one to four times a week, depending on your experience level. If you’re working up to performing a full push-up, that’s alright. Always modify movements before attempting to do them “right” but with bad form. For push-ups, you can perform them with your hands on a wall with your feet backed away — squeeze your glutes to keep your lower back neutral. Whatever version of push-ups you’re doing, rest between 60 and 90 seconds between sets.
- Scapular Push-Up: 3 x 10-15
- Superman: 3 x 15
- (Modified) Push-Up: 3 x as many as you can with good form
- Chair/Couch Dip: 3 x as many as you can with good form
- Reverse Snow Angel: 3 x 15
- Bodyweight Overhead Squat: 3 x 10
Your chest, shoulders, and arms may be the more glorious muscle groups to train. But having a strong back is essential to sustainable upper body strength, aesthetics, and power. As much as you might want to emphasize the muscles you can easily see in the mirror, try to focus on your program to strengthen your back as much as you can. Building a stronger back can help you forge the steadiest foundation possible for ultimate upper body strength.
Are you not able to do a pull-up or don’t have access to a pull-up bar? That’s okay. There are plenty of modifications to perform (with bands, for example). You can also perform inverted rows to strengthen your back similarly. Just make sure you’re keeping your spine in a neutral position throughout the move.
Depending on your program goals, you can perform this workout two or three times a week. Rest between 60 and 90 seconds between sets. Make sure always to maintain a neutral spine and pull by pulling your shoulder blades back and down rather than yanking anything with your arms. Where double slashes are indicated, you can choose between the equipment listed.
- Resistance Band // Dumbbell // Barbell Deadlift: 3 x 8
- (Assisted) Pull-Up OR Inverted Row: 3 x as many as you can with good form
- Resistance Band // Dumbbell Bent Over Row: 3 x 10
- Wide-Grip Cable Row: 3 x 12-15
- Suitcase Carry: 3 x 30 seconds per side
Building your chest isn’t just about the front of your body — it’s also making sure you have a strong back to support you. That’s why this chest-focused workout for transmasculine folks includes some back-focused work, too. Yes, this list contains a back-focused day of its own. But with so many folks spending so much time hunched over computers and phones, adding an extra emphasis to your back will keep your workouts balanced. In that way, a strong back can help strengthen your chest.
Like all of the workouts on this list, this workout has bodyweight options so you can perform it in the safety of your bedroom if getting to a gym doesn’t feel safe or comfortable. If you have equipment at home or can make it to a fitness center, there are some places where you can substitute some equipment-based movements for equipment-free ones if desired.
Perform this workout two to three times a week, depending on your experience level and overall training program. Rest between 60 and 120 seconds between sets.
- Inverted TRX/Bedsheet Row: 3 x 10-15
- (Modified) Push-Up*: 3 x 8
- Scapular Slides: 3 x 10
- (Modified) Archer Push-Up**: 3 x 4 per side
- Incline Push-Up: 3 x 8
- (Modified) Close Grip Push-Up: 3 x 8
- Feet-Elevated Push-Up: 3 x 8
*You can switch these out with three sets of eight reps of dumbbell bench press if you have access to that equipment.
**You can switch these out with three sets of 12 reps of cable or dumbbell flye if you have access to that equipment.
Although there are bodyweight options you can sub-in, you’ll likely want to invest in a pair of dumbbells or a resistance band to maximize your shoulder gains from home. Or take advantage of what your gym has to offer.
Perform this workout once or twice a week. Chest exercises also recruit your shoulders pretty heavily, so make sure you’re giving yourself enough time to recover between sessions. Always move slowly and with intention. If you don’t have weights, you can go through the motions with soup cans, a loaded backpack, water bottles, or even bottles of laundry detergent. During this session itself, rest between 60 and 90 seconds between sets.
- Banded Pull-Apart: 4 x 15-20
- Bent-Over Lateral Raise: 3 x 10-15
- Scapular Push-Up: 3 x 10
- Dumbbell // Resistance Band Overhead Press: 3 x 8
- Bodyweight // Kettlebell Windmill: 3 x 8 per side
Any workout designed to target your back, chest, or shoulders is going to also help the rest of your “arms” — basically, your forearms, biceps, and triceps. But if you’re looking to build muscle, you’ll also want to target those areas specifically with their own session or two each week. Building up your arm muscles isn’t purely for aesthetics, either. Developing more muscular arms will help you lift heavier weights on your bigger lifts.
Working out your arms is generally supplemental to your bigger lifts. But when hypertrophy — muscle growth — is your goal, you might want to up the ante of your arm-specific training. You can include these arm sessions twice a week, either on their own or to finish off another workout. Rest between 45 and 60 seconds between all exercises except the chin-ups or inverted rows — for those; you can rest between 90 and 120 seconds.
- (Assisted) Chin-Up OR Reverse-Grip Inverted Row: 4 x as many as you can with good form
- Resistance Band // Dumbbell Overhead Triceps Extension: 3 x 15 – 20
- Resistance Band // Dumbbell Zottman Curl: 3 x 12 – 15
- (Modified) Close-Grip Push-Up: 3 x as many as you can with good form
- Resistance Band // Dumbbell Reverse Curl: 3 x 12 – 15
- Suitcase Carry: 3 x 30 seconds per side
Benefits of Upper Body Workouts for Transmasculine People
Upper body workouts are an excellent way for most people to increase overall body strength and fitness. But for transmasculine people who might experience gender dysphoria regarding the size or shape of their upper bodies, these workouts can be incredibly affirming.
Increase Upper Body Strength
If you’re working out your upper body effectively, you’re pretty much going to get stronger. When you focus specifically on your upper body, all of your lifts can improve — yes, even lower body lifts like the squat. You’ll be developing a sturdier base from which to pull (deadlift) and push (squat).
And when those lifts start to improve, your full body strength and fitness levels can take off. Strengthening your upper body is one important way to get there.
While it’s not a goal of all transmasculine people, building muscle mass is essential to many. That’s because developing the muscles in your upper body may be able to help you reduce gender dysphoria — that agonizing sensation that your body is painfully disconnected from who you are. For many folks, developing your upper body muscles can be an essential part of emotionally and physically transitioning and just generally feeling more settled in your body.
Improve Mental Health
For people of all genders who might have grown up being told that there are such things as “girl” push-ups, strengthening your upper body can be emotionally empowering. No matter your experiences with gender, working out can work wonders for your confidence and mental health. Specifically, working on your upper body can be a way for people of all genders to redefine their bodies, experiences, and capabilities for themselves.
There is nothing inherently superior or masculine about having a muscular upper body. But, the sense of gender euphoria and pride it can help create can be well-worth striving for. If you’re transmasculine, having a robust, muscled upper body might help you feel validated in your gender. Because of this, it can have a positive impact on your mental health and general life outlook.
How to Program Upper Body Workouts for Transmasculine People
As with any genre of upper body workouts, make sure your program is sustainable, features adequate recovery — including sleep and food — and is well-balanced. In this case, make sure you’re including plenty of lower body and core workouts, too.
Transmasculine Folks Without HRT
Of course, not all transmasculine people want or need Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT: in this case, testosterone). If your body isn’t undergoing any new changes, you can probably proceed with training with a similar intensity and frequency as you’ve done in the past. For folks who are still new to working out in general, you can perform upper body workouts once or twice a week. Make sure you’re also performing lower body workouts twice or three times a week to keep your program balanced.
Transmasculine Folks Newly on HRT
If you’ve just started HRT, you might feel like it’s time to slap all the weights possible on the bar. It’s great to feel pumped up, but remember that HRT isn’t magic. Although there are some changes you might feel pretty quickly, your muscles will need time to adapt to any heavier loads that you subject them to.
So be extra careful as you proceed: your muscles may grow more quickly and differently than you’ve been used to, but your tendons need time to catch up. Go conservatively to let your entire body catch up to what you’re lifting. That said, remember when programming to only increase one variable at a time. If you’re going to start lifting a bit heavier, keep the volume the same for now. Or if you’re going to increase your volume, keep the weights the same.
Transmasculine Folks With a Year+ with HRT
If you’ve been HRT for more than a year, your muscles and tendons have likely gotten the chance to adapt to the rigors of your training. But if you’re just starting to train, you’ll still want to take it slowly at first. It’s always a safer bet to stay just a little bit conservative on the weights until you know that your form is impeccable under pressure.
Some trans folks on HRT might notice that their bodies recover a little slower than they used to between sessions. If this sounds like you, you may want to consider decreasing your training frequency to allot enough time and space to body care, mobility, and recovery. But don’t worry — that doesn’t mean sacrificing gains. Volume and intensity are the most important indicators of gains-making, so you can do very well for yourself even if you have less sessions per week.
Upper Body Workouts Without Top Surgery
Many transmasculine people don’t feel the need to get top surgery. Or, it might be put on hold indefinitely because of financial and insurance constraints. If you want to build a strong chest, shoulders, back, and arms, you can absolutely do that without ever having top surgery. You can even compete in bodybuilding without top surgery — so if you want to train your upper body hard, train it hard. Not having surgery on the horizon can be nice for your training schedule, anyway — this way, you can plan out longer macrocycles.
Upper Body Workouts Before Top Surgery
Whether you’re receiving HRT or not, you might get top surgery as a transmasculine person to give your chest a more traditionally masculine contour. Remember that there is no way to “spot reduce” body fat (like breast tissue) — so making your upper body stronger isn’t something that will specifically reduce or eliminate that tissue. However, working out before your surgery is an excellent idea because being generally physically fit can help speed recovery from any procedure.
That said, upper body workouts are not medically required for your surgery to be a success. Still, some surgeons may advise you to work out your upper body before surgery because it can help you see your desired results faster. You’ll be developing a good amount of chest muscle that’s hidden before surgery. Then, after surgery, more developed pec muscles will be much more pronounced, and you may look closer to the way you want to look in a shorter period of time.
Just make sure you’re never working out while wearing a binder. A binder is a chest compression garment many (but not all) transmasculine people wear to help combat gender dysphoria. Binding in the gym can severely restrict your breathing, which is unpleasant at best and can be very dangerous while working out.
That’s exactly why many of the workouts included here are bodyweight only — you can perform them in your own home, where you may experience intense dysphoria, but at least you’ll be in private. So, binding may feel less urgent.
Upper Body Workouts After Top Surgery
Most surgeons will recommend avoiding heavy lifting for at least three months after top surgery. Depending on your surgeon and the type of surgery you had, your doctor will be able to guide you. They may advise you not to pick up more than five pounds for at least three weeks after your procedure. There may be another limit of 25 pounds that lasts six to eight weeks. Always check in with your surgeon before upping your level of working out, including going jogging — which you are often supposed to avoid for at least three weeks after surgery.
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After you’re cleared by your surgeon’s instructions, get back into it slowly. The first time you touch a barbell down on your actual chest during your first post-surgery bench press may be one of the most amazing experiences of your life. Savor that moment instead of putting it all in jeopardy by loading on too many plates, too quickly. Start with lifting about 40 to 50 percent of how heavy you can usually lift — even lower if the recovery process has been tough on you — and only add more weight gradually.
How to Warm Up for Upper Body Workouts
No matter which part of your upper body you’re focusing on, you need to give yourself a pretty thorough warm-up. In order to build and maintain mobility and really maximize your gains, warm-ups will help you activate your muscles before you put them to work.
You’ll also get your heart rate up and your blood pumping harder. This will help get you the most effective workout possible. Warming up properly will also help you make your body more resilient against injury — so make sure you’re not neglecting this part.
Sample Upper Body Warm Up
- Cat-Cow: 3 x 30 seconds
- Arm Circles: 2 x 20 each direction
- Scapular Wall Slides: 3 x 30 seconds
- Inchworm with Thoracic Opener: 3 x 6 per side
- Burpee with (Modified) Push-Up: 3 x 5
Regardless of where you are in your gender journey, upper body workouts are an amazing way to exercise. These upper body workouts for transmasculine folks can help you build upper body strength and muscles. Just make sure to warm up before each session.
Featured Image: Chad Zuber/Shutterstock