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Increasing Strength—Five Upper Body Exercises to Add to Your Routine

Increasing Strength—Five Upper Body Exercises to Add to Your Routine

A strong upper body can help you to perform activities of daily living. Pulmonary rehabilitation specialist Christina Hunt offers instruction.

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It has been over a year since I posted my blog “6 Upper Body Strengthening Exercises to Start Today.” You all have really loved having a resource of strengthening exercises that we use in our pulmonary rehab each day. Having a strong upper body assists you with daily tasks like carrying a laundry basket, putting away dishes, washing your hair, and carrying in groceries. When a person with a chronic lung condition maintains their strength and conditioning, they find in many cases that they can perform these tasks with less breathlessness and energy expenditure. 

I have received a ton of emails asking for more ideas of other upper body exercises that you can do standing or sitting. I try to keep my pulmonary patients in mind when I research exercise ideas for you all. Some of the things that I think about is that many of my patients get short of breath standing, some of them have difficulty with balance, many cannot lie on the floor to perform exercises, and almost all of them get short of breath bending over. Sure, there are a TON of strengthening exercises out there, but not all are right for someone managing a lung diagnosis.

Points to remember

Before I get into the “nitty-gritty” of the exercises, I must reiterate my recommendations for performing any strength training exercises.

***As with all exercise programs, please make sure it is fine with your doctor to start any new exercise routines. Also, if you have experienced any shoulder injury in the past, please check with your doctor whether there are limitations to your range of motion, as well as any weight restrictions before trying any of these exercises. I also recommend trying each movement without any weight to make sure the range of motion is comfortable for you. If you have any pain, stop the exercise immediately and see your doctor for recommendations.***

Before you begin, I want to give you 3 BASIC RULES I tell each of my patients when doing any strengthening exercises:

  1. “If it hurts, don’t do it.” If you have a range of motion issue in your joints, doing a weight lifting exercise that causes you pain is not going to help resolve this; in fact, you may cause more problems in your joint if the range of motion issue isn’t resolved first. Prior to putting any weight in your hands, check to make sure you can perform the movement without any pain. If you experience any pain while lifting weights, STOP IMMEDIATELY and notify your doctor for recommendations. DO NOT keep going. “No pain, no gain” IS NOT our focus!!!
  2. “Go slow.” Going slow is a great way to make sure you are performing the exercise with proper technique and will ultimately prevent any injury or sprain. If you haven’t been doing any weightlifting in your exercise routine, start with very light weights and slowly work up in the number of repetitions.
  3. “Breathe.” We all have a tendency to hold our breath while lifting weights. Make sure you use your breath to help fuel your muscles; breathe in and blow out through each repetition. This is a great opportunity to practice a breathing technique (see my Breathing Techniques Blog).

Lastly, if you are ordered to wear supplemental oxygen with exertion, please wear it while doing any of these exercises. You need to make sure that you are providing your muscles with enough oxygen so that they are “well-fed” for exercise.

Five (5) ways to strengthen your upper body

Now that we have that all covered… let’s get into the exercises! 

Remember: most of the exercises that I have recommended can be done standing OR sitting. If you get the slightest bit wobbly on your feet, or standing for a prolonged period makes you breathless, find a sturdy chair to sit on to perform these exercises. Safety is key!

1.  Wall Push-up (strengthens chest, arms, and shoulders)

This is the only exercise out of the group that requires standing. I love this exercise because it works a combination of muscle groups and, therefore, is a good exercise to do first. Wall push-ups put less stress on the back than traditional push-ups and don’t require you to get down on the ground. 

Stand in front of a wall, about 2 feet away, and lift your arms up to shoulder level. Place your palms on the wall slightly wider than your shoulder width. Inhale and bend your elbows leaning slightly into the wall. Blow out through pursed lips as you push yourself back up. Do not arch your back, as this will put too much pressure on your spine. Perform 5-10 repetitions. As you build your strength, try to add another wall push-up to your session.

2.  Dumbbell Bent-over Row (strengthens back, shoulders, and arms)

Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand or sit with your feet about shoulder-length apart. Bend slightly at your hips, keeping your head and neck in perfect alignment with your spine. Take a breath in and blow out while pulling the weight in toward the body, as if you are starting a lawnmower. Inhale as you are lowering the weight back down. Perform 10-12 repetitions.

***Rule of thumb: if you cannot perform 8 repetitions without struggling, the weight is too heavy for you.***

3.  Hammer Curl (strengthens biceps and forearms)

Stand with your feet shoulder-length apart, or sit holding a pair of dumbbells in your hands with your palms facing toward your body (this is the main difference from a standard biceps curl). Keeping your elbows close to your body, inhale and then exhale as you bend at the elbows bringing the weights up close to your shoulders. Inhale as you lower the weight back down. Perform 10-12 repetitions.

4.  Bent-over Fly (strengthens shoulders and back)

Hold dumbbells in your hands and stand or sit with your feet shoulder-length apart. Keeping your back flat, bend over slightly at your hips, keeping your head and neck in perfect alignment with your spine. Exhale and lift both arms out to the side, maintaining a slight bend in the elbows and squeezing your shoulder blades together. Inhale as you lower your arms back down. Perform 10-12 repetitions.

5.  Overhead Triceps Extension (strengthens triceps and shoulders)

Stand or sit with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a dumbbell with both hands. Lift the dumbbell until your arms are fully extended with your palms facing the ceiling. Inhale, bend at the elbows, and slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head. Exhale as you raise the weight back up. (***One thing I noticed after taking these photos for you all is that my elbows “got away” from me a bit. When doing this particular exercise, try to keep the elbows as close to the head as possible.***)

Some extra tips:

  • Allow for recovery. Mild muscle soreness may occur, especially if you are new to weight training. This soreness should not prevent you from doing your daily activities. Give yourself plenty of time to recover from your workout. If the soreness is more severe, cut back on your workout the next time you exercise.
  • Rest between each exercise. Lung patients need to make sure they rest between each exercise. You may be surprised how just lifting these weights can increase your heart rate and cause breathlessness. Make sure you allow time for your breathing to stabilize between each exercise that you do.
  • Wear proper footwear. This will give you good balance and prevent slipping or skidding.
  • Hydrate. Drink plenty of water both during and after your workout. Water will help to flush the muscles of any lactic acid that may cause muscle soreness.
  • No weights, no problem. Grab soup cans or bottles of ketchup to use as your weights. They are approximately 1 pound and can easily be a good way to begin your strength training workout.

SIDE NOTE: If you liked the weights I was using in the pictures, they are the Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells. We purchased them about 6 or 7 years ago because the workout space on our home is small and my husband and I liked the fact that they were everything we needed in one set. No need to go out and buy multiple pairs of weights as we increased our strength. It has the option to adjust the weight from 5-52 pounds just by turning a knob. They are on the “pricey side” and, unfortunately, because many of the gyms are closed right now, they are in demand. I did find another brand on Amazon called Activafit (pictured below) and these rated well. They have a range of 5.5-27.5 pounds, which I think would be more than adequate for most people.

(Responsum note: These exercises make a great addition to Christina’s cardiovascular fitness home routine.)

Thanks for Reading and Stay Well! Remember: We are in this TOGETHER!


Christina Hunt’s work can be found at You can also visit her on Facebook and Instagram for other practical advice and inspirational posts.

About the author: Christina Hunt is a registered respiratory therapist and blogger who has been working in the field of respiratory care for the last 19 years. She obtained her bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech in Human Foods, Nutrition, and Exercise in 2001. For the last 10 years, Christina has worked in pulmonary rehab and in 2018 developed a blog called Christina is passionate about helping people with chronic lung conditions live happier, healthier lives. She volunteers her time as the Virginia state captain of the COPD Foundation and serves as a board member for Breath Matters Support Group of Virginia.

(This article has not been reviewed by the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation.)

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