A New Look at Bill Phillips’ Upper Body Workout

At my fitness center in Golden, Colorado we have numerous exercise machines, and even though we have been open for years, they’re all virtually brand new. That’s because they’re hardly ever used. We have dozens of dumbbells and they’ve each been lifted over 10,000 times. Free weight dumbbells are a very smart choice, especially for those of us over 40 who need to be careful not to put unnecessary stress on tendons and ligaments during the workout. Dumbbells give us the leeway to find the right groove, where the muscles work hard and the connective tissue isn’t damaged in the process of getting stronger. Dumbbells also work more stabilizer muscles than machines, and you can find them at virtually any fitness center – even while traveling. My home gym is a workout bench and dumbbells.

Once you learn the basic free-weight exercises for the major muscles of the upper and lower body, you can use these for life. The whole idea that muscles need a novel stimulus to adapt has been misinterpreted over the years to think that muscles need completely different exercise. It doesn’t need variety as much as they need intensity. The adaptations are caused by overload. If you have a habit of working out in a comfort zone, you can go from one workout to the next; one set of exercises to the next and still not create any novel stimulus. The important thing is to learn how to workout hard and push yourself out of your comfort zone. In Body-for-LIFE I called this the High Point Training Technique — in a nutshell it means pushing yourself during the workout — giving it your very best effort and then reaching down deep inside and giving it even more.

Following my recommended workout will make your muscles get stronger, help you burn fat faster because your metabolism goes up (for as much as 30 to 40 hours after your workout), improve your cardio-pulmonary health, help your heart get stronger, and even give your brain more energy!

The keys to tapping into all these benefits and more is to do weight lifting in intense intervals where we work hard for a couple minutes then rest two minutes, then work, rest, work, rest, and work, rest again. We want to get our heart rate up to 90% to 95% of our estimated cardiac maximum (220 minus our age: for me that means I am aiming for about 160 heart beats per minutes at the end of my work sets–then I rest for a couple minutes until my pulse comes down to about 120).

On my 5-25 Upper Body Workout I do the 5 exercises shown in this blog. I do 10 reps of each set. I do one set right after the other, with no rest. After I complete 10 repetitions of all 5 exercises, I wait a couple minutes (this is just enough time for a training partner to go through their 5 sets if you’re working out with somebody) and then I repeat all 5 exercises for a total of 5 times.

With this ‘5-25 Intense Interval Strength Training’ workout I can stick with the same weight for all 5 sets (as opposed to ‘pyramiding’ or increasing weight for each set as we did with Body-for-LIFE). The way 5-25 is designed we reach ‘progressive resistance overload’ (needed for positive muscle adaptations) through fatiguing the muscles more with each set. By your 5th set of 10 reps for each muscle group your muscles will be thoroughly cooked, and that is good!

Upper Body Workout

1. Incline Dumbbell Bench Press — 10 Reps
2. Iron-Cross Raise — 10 Reps
3. Dumbbell Rowing — 10 Reps
4. Standing Dumbbell Curls — 10 Reps
5. Dumbbell Triceps Extension — 10 Reps

+ This upper body workout can be done with alternate exercises for each muscle group. For example: barbell bench press, followed by dumbbell shoulder press, then wide grip lat pull downs, preacher bicep curls, triceps push downs. At my Transformation Center I like to teach people how to do the whole routine with just dumbbells and a bench as many of them workout at home after leaving my Transformation Camp. For those who workout at a commercial gym, they can choose different exercises as shown above. Some people like to change the exercises up every 4 to 6 weeks and that can help them stay mentally stimulated by the workouts and perhaps offer some physiological benefit as well. I stick with the same exercises shown in this blog month after month, and I continue to get excellent results. I keep my workouts very simple — the key for me is hitting a high level of intensity during the lifts.

+ People who have been successful with my 12-week programs over the years are those who take the time to think through and plan their workouts ahead of time. Below is an example exercise worksheet that I give people at my fitness center — it allows them to plan and record information about their workouts. They make notes before and after each workout. When their records show that they can consistently complete 10 reps of a certain weight with good form, I recommend they increase the weight approximately 5 lbs. for their next workout. Make a note of anything you can think of which you can do better for your next workout, and you’ll be constantly improving.


Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

Bench Press

Starting Position: Sit on the edge of an incline bench. Pick up a dumbbell with each hand, place them on your thighs, and then one at a time position them at the base of your shoulders. Lean back, get firmly situated on the bench and you’re ready to go.

The Exercise: Press the weights up to a point over your upper chest and hold them there for a count of one. Then, inhale deeply as you lower the weights to the starting position. Hold the weights in the bottom position for a quick count of one, and then exhale as you drive them back up. Lock your elbows in the top position.

Tip 1: Don’t set your bench at too steep of an incline, or you’ll work your shoulders more than your chest. The incline should be about a 35 to 45 degree angle.

 Iron Cross Side Raise


Starting Position: Stand upright, with your feet about shoulder width apart and your arms at your sides. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, your palms facing your hips.

The Exercise: Keeping your arms straight, lift the weights out and up to the sides until they are about level with your chin, and hold them there for a count of one. From this position, lower them slowly back to your sides. It’s important to keep your palms turned downward as you lift the dumbbells so your shoulders, rather than your biceps, do the work.

Tip 1: Don’t lean back and “swing” the weights up. Lift them straight out to your sides until they are almost directly out from your shoulders. In the top position it looks almost like a gymnast doing an iron cross on the rings.

Tip 2: Don’t lean your torso forward and bring the dumbbells down in front of your body. Instead let the weights down at your sides.

Dumbbell Rowing

Bent over row

Starting Position: With a dumbbell in each hand and your feet shoulder width apart, bend forward at the waist so your upper body is parallel with the floor. Let your arms hang straight down, palms facing each other. This is a great exercise for the latissimus dorsi muscles of the back as well as the rhomboid, trapezius, and rear deltoid. All the muscles in the legs have to work on this one as well.

The Exercise: Pull the dumbbells up, concentrating on getting the elbows as high as they can go. After you’ve rowed the dumbbells up as far as you can, slowly lower them to the starting position.

Tip 1: Resist the temptation to lift your torso up as you raise the dumbbells — try to keep your back flat and your torso parallel to the ground.

Standing Dumbbell Curls


Starting Position: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, and your arms extended down at your sides. Hold the dumbbells with your palms facing forward, keep your chin up, chest out, and shoulders back.

The Exercise: Take a deep breath, then curl the weights up towards the shoulders in an  arc. Exhale as you lift the weights (on exertion). During the curl, keep your upper arms and torso still — there will be some movement but avoid swinging the weights up (a very common mistake). Let your biceps do the work. Then, lower the dumbbells slowly to the starting point.

Tip 1: Don’t lean back or forward as you lower the weights. This reduces the amount of work the biceps are getting.

Dumbbell Triceps Extensions


Starting Point: Stand with your feet shoulder with apart and your knees slightly bent. Grasp one end of a dumbbell with both hands (palms up), and raise it above your head.

The Exercise: Bend your arms and slowly lower the dumbbell behind your head. Keep your elbows relatively close to your head and pointed straight up throughout the exercise to keep the focus on your triceps. Lower the weight until you feel a stretch in your triceps, hold for a count of one, then press the weight back up, following an arc so you don’t bonk the back of your head. Keep lifting until your arms are locked out and the dumbbell is again directly over your head.

Tip 1: Don’t hold the dumbbell like a sandwich. Place your palms so they face the inside end plate of the dumbbell, with your index fingers and thumbs touching.


Notice: I’ll give detailed instruction on how to do the lower body workout this week here on my blog at http://www.BillPhillipsNews.com


  1. Bill & I were on the same page. Ha ha

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Laurie Mortenson says:

    Thanks Bill. I’m looking for new exercises to incorporative into my 5/25. Laurie Mortenson

  3. Eli Kince says:

    Thank you

    Perfect timing.

  4. That worksheet design is perfect. I love this update and the photos. =) So grateful for your beautiful giving work. This is wonderful. Thank you dear Bill.♥

  5. Dean Neuls says:

    Hi Bill, excellent article! And how often should this workout be repeated? Many Thanks! Looking forward to the lower body workout next time you post.


  6. Andrew Brown says:

    Thanks so much for a great new way to keep workout short, brief and effective.

  7. Daniel Sanchez says:

    Such great information and step by step instructions!!! Thank you for sharing this with us Bill!!!

  8. Thanks I needed this!

  9. Where is the lower-body wo?
    Can`t find it .
    How does your supplements/wo affect a Type 2 diabetic?

  10. Jerome Jostes says:

    Hi Bill,
    Is there a way to do dumbbell rows without having to bendover like that? All I have is a huge ball and 15-30lb dumbbells. Can these be enough for me, especially with my low back issues?

  11. Thank you for sharing the exercises ~ the pics/instruction are very helpful! I noticed when I was doing chest presses that, as I increased the dumbbell weight, my arms were getting bigger. I just want to tone ~ not to bulk up ~ so I’m wondering if there are any tips on doing this properly so I don’t end up looking like Arnold. 🙂 Many thank yous!!!

    • Don’t worry Nancy, you wont end up looking like Arnold. You may experience a temporary swelling of muscle right after the workout but that will subside. Women do not have the levels of testosterone to support bulking up in the way you describe.

  12. Colleen Ingram says:

    Yay! I love BFL and am excited to give this a go. Thank you!!!

  13. Ronnie Breinich says:

    Great information and I’d appreciate any continued billphillipsnews. Thank you so much.

  14. Nancy Rutherford says:

    I see people doubling up their work-outs and changing their routine/exercises. Thank you for your reminder to stick with what you taught us and to keep it simple.
    Nancy / Team 43

  15. Kelly Carr says:

    Thanks for keeping it simple and something I can always stick to at home 😃

  16. This is great workout! Just tried the “Upper Body Workout”….AWESOME! Will be doing the “Lower Body Workout’ today….CAN’T WAIT!!, is the workout schedule like the “Body for Life”?, alternating upper and lower body workouts weekly?

  17. rob carpenito says:

    how many times per week are you doing upper and lower workouts?

  18. This is great, is there some place I can get the blank template to print out???

  19. Bill,
    Your the best!
    Can I use heavy tension resistance cables for your program and still reap the benefits?
    Thanks for your response.

  20. Joshua Petersen says:

    Hi Bill I love the program, just to be clear you said you stick with the same workouts each week. So Monday you are doing the 5 25 Incline chest press and so on, then Thursday, do you do the same exact circuit starting with Incline dumbbell press, then so on the next week? I understand the intensity idea, I just want to be sure to do this right…in other words there is one upper body circut you do, not several different routines, but rather are you literally saying stick with the routine you have and only keep increasing intensity? Please help clarify as I like the idea of simple but effective.

  21. Thank you so much for the great workout and article, Bill! I love how quickly I can go from tired to inspired by your work.

  22. Bill,
    Outstanding workout!
    Can’t believe that you can get quality training in under 30 minutes.
    Just finished my first week.
    Question, can I sub a 25 minute Martial Art workout for the cardio portions?
    It’s just kicks and punches done toyour recommended time intervals.
    Thanks for answering.

  23. Keith Bertram says:

    Hi Bill,
    Where do I find blank 5-25 Intense-Interval Strength Training Sheets?

  24. Bill (or anyone else), Where can I get the template you show in the photo above?

  25. Mark Coughlan says:

    Is it still ok to do the older routine in Bodyforlife or perhaps rotate the old and new routine?

  26. Bill, where can we get the nice one-page template for recording the workouts?

  27. Mark DiBlasi says:

    Bill, where can we get the one page template for recording the workout? Love the template, but can’t seem to find it anywhere.

  28. Michael McGwier says:

    Bill, been a follower for years after competing in the Body-for-Life contest (15 years ago?) and it in fact did change my life. Have continued with some version of the program ever since. So thanks. Now, I am not finding a clean version of your work sheet. Is it on your website somewhere that I’m not seeing? Thanks and look forward to another Transformation at the ripe old age of 60!

  29. Hi Bill! I am so ENJOYING my new shakes! I can’t thank you enough for the life-long changes you have made in my health over the last 18 years!

  30. KentBernard says:

    First met you in Body for Life. The Back to Fit program is more basic which is fundamental with mostly compound movements, They are simple with 5 exercises 10 reps and high intensity. No supersets, etc as with BFL. Why have the workout programs changed from BFL to Back to Fit? Is the new program better for older trainees?

  31. Dear Mr. Phillips:
    First, thank you for inspiring and motivating me.
    I like the simplicity of your training system.
    That being said as an alternate option for those of us working out at home do heavy tension resistance cables offer equal muscle building benefits as weights and can they be used for your program?
    Also, can I do 25 minutes of Martial Arts training or 25 minutes of yoga as cardio on those days in place of running, treadmill, etc?
    I hope to attend one of your camps in the near future as I would like to shake your hand and thank you in person for being a mentor and someone I have looked up to.

  32. Armenthia Massey says:

    These are super great workouts and tips! Thanks a bunch Bill! ☺

  33. HI Bill! So your saying you stick with the same exercises for upperbody all the time through your whole 12 weeks? Meaning Incline DB press, Iron Cross, DB Row, DB Curl, and DB Tricep extension?

  34. billinkentville@gmail.com says:

    Hello, Bill, from what I read in the literature, 90-95% of your max heart rate can lead to cardiac issues, especially in people over 40. I read that 85% is maximum. Do you have studies that your recommended elevated heart rate is advisable?

    • We recommend you follow the advice given by your personal physician.

      Our protocols are not medical advise.

      That given, the difference between 85% and 90% of estimated cardiac maximum (ECM) is negligible. If your doctor believes 85% of ECM is safe for you and 90% is not, then certainly, go with 85%.

      The protocols we teach at Transformation Center are based on 20 years of empirical data and over 100 published, peer-reviewed clinical studies which have proven HIIT safe for people without pre-existing arterial disease or cardiometabolic disorders.

  35. Bill, I have been through PT for a torn meniscus, with substantial arthritis and a ganglion cyst. This was in May, and I haven’t lifted for six months. I’m aiming to lose 30-40 lbs. the bain of my existence is my bottom half so I’m a little nervous given the eventual need for knee replacement. I need to get the weight off but last time I worked out with weights I didn’t see much.
    I have no health issues, but high cholesterol, type II,

    I’m concerned about how squats or lunges would be. How did you mend from your serious injury? Thank you!!

  36. Awesome. I’ll do this for tomorrow’s workout!

  37. Hi Bill, I’m new to actually deciding to give this a full and dedicated try. Being 50 I have figured out that I’m past due to get my poo poo together. I do have a couple questions. I do not have a workout bench and am in a quite limited space. What exercise can I substitute for first one which requires a workout bench? And the second question is…sometimes when I am doing the leg exercise (where you bend down to toes and then raise back up…I’m experiencing terrible back pain afterward. I try to squeeze my thighs and butt but the back pain is still terrible. Any suggestion? Last one, am I understanding this correctly that I am to keep the same weight throughout? Or do I use more for a curl and then less for the cross because I can’t left that heavy while doing the cross. Thank you Bill!!!

  38. jay smith says:

    can I do this on an empty stomach for better fat burning?


  1. […] explaining my complete, and favorite, upper and lower body workouts. Click on these links: Upper Body Workout • Lower Body […]

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