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Opinion

A Transmasculine Person’s Guide to Building a Strong Upper Body

If you long for broad shoulders and a powerful upper body, these workouts could help.

Trans guys, bois, nonbinary and transmasculine folks, and we could never forget our trans women sisters who want to stay or get super jacked in their upper bodies: welcome, welcome all.

Whether you have no desire for medical transition but want to broaden out your shoulders, are new to working out but are chasing that pull-up, or you know your way around a barbell but want to get extra prepped before top surgery (or are getting back to the gym after starting T or getting surgery), this article can get you where you need to be.

I know that I’ve always wanted broader shoulders than hips, boulder shoulders, for the muscled parts of my chest to be more noticeable than the other parts. Those of you lovely folks reading this who don’t want those things? That’s completely valid, and so are you! We all have different body goals, and our body goals never invalidate our genders.

But if you’re like me and you want that strong upper body that society never trained you to have (remember “girls” push-ups and “girl” pull-ups?), I wrote this workout for you.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

Combating the Feels Are Part of the Process

Because when I’m in the gym, I find myself (often) having to crank up my music and focus extra hard in order not to cry. Sometimes I can’t breathe, and I need to send text after text, suppress tear after tear, because gender just isn’t… fair.

It never seems fair, to me, that many cis men with consistently terrible form, who never squat to depth, seem to effortlessly warm up with my max weights. And their muscles bulge and round and vein-out in ways that make mine feel flat and small and flabby. Even with their horrific form that makes the trans kid inside me cry and the personal trainer inside me want to offer to train them, because they clearly need it.

I’m on a journey to change that — to develop for myself an intrinsic sense of confidence and body strength and appreciation — and I’d love to journey together.

And, before we begin, I’m not on T, but my friends who are and have been would be furious if I didn’t remind you all: if your gender journey includes testosterone, fabulous! Just be extra careful as you proceed: your muscles may be growing quickly, but your tendons need time to catch up. So go conservative to let your entire body catch up to what you’re lifting!

[More from the author: 3 Tips to Help Coaches Be More Body Positive With Their Clients.]

Upper Body Workouts: Two Phases

I’ve split this workout into two phases, because gyms are not often friendly to trans people. Our own panic spirals, fast, because we are always on alert for who might call us out, who might hurt us. We don’t have locker rooms that make us feel safe, and we have to constantly choose between validating our gender (for example, using the men’s locker room) and staying relatively safe (surrendering to using the women’s locker room).

While it’s on gyms to make themselves more accessible places for all fitness nerds and beginners, the reality is that even when we really, really want to work out and follow a program, #gymlife can make it seem impossible.

So, the first phase of this transmasculine-focused upper body workout can be done at home with minimal equipment. I’ve designed this bit to get beginners comfortable enough with their own bodies and workout movements to venture into a gym if they want to, and also for folks who just prefer to work out at home.

The second phase builds on what we’ve learned and done in phase one, and welcomes us — hopefully with more confidence and know-how — into the gym space, if that’s where we want to go.

The Workout: Phase One (At Home)

EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute), 6 minutes. Use your phone as a timer. When minute one starts, do the prescribed number of push-ups. Rest as long as you’ve got until minute two starts. Then, do the prescribed number of chair/couch dips. On and on until you’ve completed the circuit.

Repeat circuit once or twice every other day for week one: increase the number of times you can complete the circuit each week until you’re repeating the circuit about 8 times (48 minutes total, stopping the clock to break as needed). (Context: that’s 80 push-ups, you badass transmasculine human, you!) Keep hydrated the whole time!

  • Push-ups: 10. Ten? What? Can’t do a single one? That’s okay! Start on an inclined surface like a stable, braced chair, or a couch. Keep your core tight (imagine pulling your bellybutton down toward your groin and make sure your low back doesn’t sag toward the ground). Keep your elbows close to your body the whole way through. Inhale at the top of each rep. As you get stronger, find lower and lower surfaces until you’re pushing up off the ground!
  • Chair/Couch Dips: 10. The eventual goal will be for you to do this with straight legs, perhaps resting your feet on a raised surface. For now, feel free to keep a generous bend in your legs so they are helping your upper body support your weight as you lower your butt toward the ground. Again, make sure you’re elbows stay near your rib cage!
  • Overhead Lunges: 10 per leg. Grab a book (it can weight next to nothing, or it can be a flipping dictionary), brace your core, and hold the book with straight arms above your head. Step out and bend your front knee until your back knee almost taps the ground. Because your arms will already be tired from the push-ups and dips, this will keep your entire body engaged.
  • Overhead Squats: 10. Same cues as before, except this time with your feet about shoulder width apart, push your butt back like you were about to sit in a chair. In fact, feel free to use an actual chair to help with your balance! The ultimate goal will be to get low enough to the where your femur (thighs) break below parallel with the floor, but we’ll work up (down?) to that. As always, inhale at the top of each rep!
  • Side Plank: 15 seconds per side. Stacking your feet, balance your body weight between your resting elbow (positioned under your shoulder) and your feet. Keep your core tight and breathe through it. If you need to break, that’s okay! Just make up the 15 seconds (30 total, accounting for both sides) throughout your minute!
  • Forearm Plank: 30 seconds. Your already tired arms will be mad about this, but set up your elbows and forearms just underneath your shoulders, don’t let your lower back sag, and tighten everything from your core to your quads. Hold and breathe and again, break when you need to!

Adding Negatives

You’ve given it your all and are ready to take it to the next level. Here’s where eccentric movement comes into play: basically, the more time your muscles spend under tension, the stronger you’re going to get.

So: descend into each push-up slowly. Count to a slow two in your head. Then pop up at regular speed and repeat.

Descend into each dip slowly. Count to a slow two in your head. Then pop up at regular speed and repeat.

Lunges and squats? You guessed it. Count to a slow two as you slowly descend.

Your body will be grateful that the planks stay the same.

You got this. You definitely, definitely do.

Because now you’re ready for phase two. (Don’t abandon phase one! Always work in phase one movements! But let’s add some dumbbells to prepare for barbells, later.)

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#sweatforacause @outwod @theoutfdn

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Phase Two (Gym Time)

The keys here are going to be wide-grip, wide-grip, wide-grip. You want to expand your muscular anatomy to give yourself that broad back and shoulders? You’ve gotta go for all grips, but the wide grip is going to be your best (and worst) friend.

Here’s a magical mystery tour of your new best friends in the gym, now that you know your body can handle it.

And, folks: always, always, always start with an unloaded barbell. Every exercise. No matter what your max is. The cis guys who think they look really cool slapping on a 45-pound plate on each side to warm up? They’re going to tear something. They really are. There is no shame in loving your unloaded barbell. None at all.

So! The exercises.

Standing Arnold Dumbbell Press (4 sets of 8 reps, 90 seconds rest)

How to do it (and why, and how to look casual about it): Your push-ups and dips will have given you a solid foundation for this. But please, for the love of trans Peter Parker, start light. Keep your core tight, and — it’s gonna sound silly, but it’ll protect your lower back — squeeze your glutes. Start the weights near your ears, palms facing in toward your body. After you take a solid breath in and start to press up, rotate your hands so your palms are facing out (away from your body) by the time they reach the top.

Toss the weights back slightly behind your head so you feel your traps (upper back) engaging, then, carefully and controlled, bring the weights back down, rotating your hands again so your palms are facing you again when the weights are in front of your face. Breathe and repeat. (You’ll be able to replicate this motion (except for the palm twisting part ) with a barbell soon, but starting with dumbbells is important to ensure good form and even muscular development.)

Wide-Grip Bar Hang (4 sets, as long as you’ve got)

How to do it (and why, and how to look casual about it): Step up to the bar on a box or jump up to grab the thing (don’t worry, cis dudes use boxes all the time. You won’t look silly, I promise). Adjust your hands so they don’t sting (much) and tighten your core. As you’re hanging, breathe and imagine squeezing your shoulder blades together. Stay as long as you can, and then hop off like you never meant to be up there for very long anyway. Like you just felt like being up there. Nothing wrong with that, I promise! (All the better if you can rip out a pull-up, but these hangs will help get you there: so if you can’t, be patient with yourself!)

Cable Face Pulls (4 sets of 12 reps)

How to do it (and why, and how to look casual about it): Find a tricep press rope (black, rope like, with two plastic ends) and attach it to a cable connected just above nose level. Grasp one end of the rope with each hand, palms down, and stand a few feet back. With your core braced (we’re developing a theme here), lean very slightly back (then keep that position the whole way through) and pull through your upper back to bring the rope toward your face. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you complete the movement. Building out your traps and delts is a great way to build out that broad-shouldered aesthetic.

[Learn more in our guide to the banded face pull and alternatives

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Renegade Rows (3 sets of 7 each side)

How to do it (and why, and how to look casual about it): Again with the broad-shouldered aesthetic. Find light dumbbells (not the circular ones, because you won’t like it when they roll; look for hexagonal ones) and place them roughly underneath your armpits from a plank position. Keeping your elbows tucked like you do for a push-up and using the dumbbell for support with straight wrists, go down into a controlled push-up. When you come up, raise one of the dumbbells by pulling your elbow back until your wrist reaches your ribs. Keep your back and hips as still as possible through this movement, and, yes… breathe. You’re creating both stability and endurance here, along with massive strength. You got this.

Wide-Grip Seated Rows (4 sets of 12)

How to do it (and why, and how to look casual about it): Find and hook up a metal contraption that’s long enough to have a, well, wide grip. Grip along the edges of the bar, palms facing down. Sit with your knees soft, not locked out and not overly bent. Keep your chest out and your core right. Start pulling with your back, not yanking with your biceps (after a while, your biceps will feel it, trust me). Bring the bar toward the top of your rib cage, and slowly, slowly, controlled, let it head back toward the machine. The slow steadiness really makes a difference here: you’re building out your back in a badass, intense way!

Bent Over Lateral Rows (4 sets of 12)

How to do it (and why, and how to look casual about it): Finish off your gym day by pretending you got punched in the lower stomach. With a light dumbbell in each hand (it’s always better to go up because it’s too easy than to go down because you’ve hurt yourself or your form is crappy), hinge at your hips like you’re taking a gut punch: send your butt back while keeping your back neutral. Keep hinging until you’re almost parallel to the ground. Activate the movement by, again, squeezing your shoulder blades together. Keep your elbows soft (not locked, not bent) as you raise your arms like you’re flapping wings, preparing for flight.

Because that, my friends, is exactly what you’re doing with this workout.

Featured image via @king_dillon on Instagram.

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