For many transgender men and transmasculine folks, upper body workouts are a great way to alter the appearance of the chest without surgery or before surgery.
Adding upper body exercises to your routine can help boost arm, back, and shoulder endurance and strength, reduce your risk of injury, and more.
Certain workouts can also change the shape of your upper body and how big (or small) parts of your upper body look compared with others.
“The wider your back and lats are, for example, the smaller your hips are going to appear,” explains certified personal trainer Morgan Olson, founder of Body Type Programs, which are designed to help cisgender women and nonbinary people assigned female at birth to get fit and build confidence.
Similarly, the broader your shoulders become, the smaller your hips and chest tissue will look in comparison, notes Ali Figz, a fitness professional who primarily works with LGBTQIA+ folks.
“It’s absolutely possible to sculpt your body to make you feel more gender-affirmed,” says Olson. “With consistency and patience, you will get striations and vascularity in your chest from doing upper body exercises, even while having breast tissue.”
Assess your diet
No matter your specific health and fitness goals, you need to eat to meet them. As far as exercise is concerned, that generally means consuming adequate protein and calories.
“You need to fuel your body with enough protein to build the muscle with an emphasis on upper body training,” says Olson.
Typically, that means
This will help you hone the movement patterns and build the foundational strength you’ll need for more complex exercises down the line.
Do chest exercises
Some people who are trying to minimize the size of their chests avoid chest exercises out of fear that the exercises will make their chests look larger. There’s no reason to do that, according to Bristow.
“Even if you’re trying to avoid an increase in chest or breast tissue, you should do chest exercises,” she says. “Increasing strength in the pectoral girdle won’t affect the volume of breast tissue or fat tissue in your chest.”
When you’re ready, go heavy
“To make your pear square, you need to lift heavy,” says Bristow.
In other words, to put on the maximum amount of lean muscle tissue to your frame while simultaneously reducing the amount of body fat around your hips, you want to lift heavy.
Lifting heavy, she explains, offers the greatest amount of muscle mass. Muscle is a metabolically active tissue, so the more muscle you put on, the more fat you’re able to drop.
How much weight should you use and how many reps should you do?
When you’re first learning an exercise, “pick a weight and see if you can do 15 reps easily,” suggests Figz. “If you can, move up in weight. If you can’t, that weight is ideal to start with.”
Once you’re comfortable with a movement, you want to keep your reps in the 5 to 8 range, they say. Here, the last 2 reps of each set should be pretty darn difficult.
“Doing 3 to 5 sets is important,” says Olson.
For nonweighted exercises, Olson suggests going to failure (or close to failure).
Ultimately, how you incorporate the exercises below into your routine will depend on how often you exercise, your other fitness goals, and more.
If you’re doing workout splits, you could separate them into two different days based on which muscle group they primarily target.
Day 1: Chest, shoulders, and triceps
Day 2: Back and biceps
How long will it take to see results?
As a general rule, beginners will notice changes more quickly than experienced lifters.
Similarly — assuming you’re adequately recovering between sessions — exercising more days per week than not will create faster results.
“A person who started hormone replacement therapy and already has a low[er] body fat percentage can see muscle gains very quickly,” says Bristow. Like, within 2 to 4 weeks.
“Meanwhile, a person who is just starting their journey and is not on HRT might take twice as long,” she says.
“If a gym pass isn’t in your future, there are a ton of equipment-free exercises you can do,” says Bristow.
- Get in a high plank position with your hands on the floor and your wrists stacked under your shoulders.
- Squeeze your abdomen to the ceiling to contract your core, and squeeze your glutes and quads to create tension throughout your entire body.
- Inhale as you bend your elbows back behind you to lower yourself to the floor. Continue lowering until your chest touches the ground.
- Exhale and press through your palms to raise back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
“One of the most underrated and overlooked upper body exercises are triceps exercises,” says Figz. And diamond push-ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises for hitting that back-of-the-arm muscle.
- Get into a high plank position.
- Shift your hands closer together so that your thumbs and index fingers touch, forming a diamond shape.
- Bend your elbows back to lower yourself toward the ground.
- Press into the ground to return to the start position. That’s one rep.
- Crawl under a (kitchen) chair and lay on your back.
- Extend your legs and “screw” your heels into the ground. Place your hands on either side of the chair.
- Brace your midline so that your body makes a straight line head-to-toe.
- Pull your body up as if you were doing a ring row and touch your chest to the underbelly of the seat.
- Straighten your arms to return to the start position. That’s one rep.
“Bicep curls are a classic exercise that will increase the size of your arms over time,” so long as you continue to lift heavier and heavier, they say.
- Hold one in each hand, arms straight, palms facing up. Plant your feet under your hips, squeeze your glutes, and contract your core.
- Keep your elbows tight to your side and back, and engage your bicep muscles to pull both bottles toward their corresponding shoulders until the bottles nearly touch your deltoids.
- Lower the bottles back down to your side with control. That’s one rep.
If you have a gym membership — or access to a home gym — give these weighted upper body exercises a try.
Barbell bench press
“The main chest exercise to increase pectoral strength and size is the bench press,” says Figz.
Start with the standard, flat-bench barbell bench press. Once you’re comfortable with the exercise, they recommend bench pressing at different angles.
- Position a bench under a barbell so that your head and neck are supported when you press the bar.
- Lay on the bench and position your hands just outside shoulder-with.
- Plant your feet on either side of the bench and brace your midsection for stability. (If you can’t reach the floor with your feet, position weighted plates under your feet so you can press into those).
- Unrack the bar and position it at nipple height.
- Keep your elbows tucked toward your rib cage and pull the bar down toward your chest.
- Exhale at the bottom and push your feet into the ground to push the bar back to start. That’s one rep.
Barbell overhead press
“The overhead press works the shoulders but also requires trunk stabilization,” says Bristow. That means that if you overhead press enough weight often enough, “you’ll get as strong as an oak tree,” she says.
- Position J-pegs so that the barbell can comfortably get into the front rack position.
- Unrack the bar with your elbows facing out and shoulders down.
- Step back so that your feet are under your hips. Brace your midline.
- Press up on the bar until your arms are locked out overhead, tilting your chin back and out of the way as you do.
- Bend your arms to lower the bar back down the same path. That’s one rep.
“Pull-ups help build a bigger back and lats,” says Bristow. This makes your upper body look broader from the front, which visually shrinks the appearance of chest tissue, she says.
- Position a stepping stool under the pull-up bar. The goal is for you to be able to get a firm overhand grip on the bar from the stool without having to jump.
- Grab onto the bar with your hands just outside shoulder height. Then, keeping your feet on the platform, bend your knees just a smidge.
- Slowly bend your knees more and more to let your weight pull you down.
- Hold for 20 to 30 seconds, breathing as you do. That’s one rep.
Barbell bent over row
If you don’t have access to a barbell, this move can also be executed with dumbbells. In fact, Bristow recommends incorporating unilateral dumbbell rows into your routine from time to time to solve any upper body muscle imbalances.
- Grab a barbell with your hands shoulder-width apart with an overhand grip. Plant your feet hip-width apart.
- Brace your midline and screw your pinkies into the bar to activate your lats.
- Bend your knees slightly and push your butt back (like you’re closing a door with your butt) until your upper body is almost parallel to the ground.
- Press your mid-back muscles together, shoot your elbows up toward the ceiling, and pull the bar up to your chest.
- Pause at the top before straightening your arms. That’s one rep.
Tricep rope extensions
“Tricep rope extensions on the cable machine are ideal for isolating the triceps,” says Figz.
“Use a light[er] weight while doing them so you can control the eccentric and concentric movement and really feel the squeeze of your triceps at the peak of the exercise,” they say.
- Switch out the handle in the machine so that it’s a two-pronged rope. Raise the rope so it’s on the highest setting.
- Face the machine, then grab one end of the rope with each hand so that your palms are facing one another.
- Take a step back to raise the weight, then adjust your feet to hip-width. Engage your back and lats by thinking about squeezing lemons under your armpits. Brace your midline.
- Squeeze your triceps and unbend your elbow to pull the rope until your arms are straight.
- Slowly return the weight to start by re-bending your elbows. That’s one rep.
“If someone is planning on having top surgery, I always recommend they start doing resistance training, especially chest strengthening exercises,” says Bristow. ”There are many benefits to starting to lift before surgery, but the biggest is recovery.”
If you’re reading this after recent top surgery, make sure you get the green light from your surgeon before you get started.
Healthcare professionals generally recommend waiting at least 3 to 4 weeks before getting your heart rate up in any way, shape, or form, and at least 5 to 6 weeks before resuming weight-bearing exercises.
It all depends on your individual recovery process.
Upper body exercises are a great way to increase muscle mass, reduce the amount of body fat, and gradually alter the shape of your physique.
That said, talk with a trans-inclusive healthcare professional before altering your exercise routine. They can offer more personalized advice and safety considerations.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.