As a fitness coach, I can't even count how many times people have asked me whether building a great upper-body physique with bodyweight exercises alone is possible.
I always tell them that with the right workout and technique, success is only a matter of time. I also advise my clients to supplement their training and diet with protein powder.
I decided to compile my research and what I know from my experience to answer this question. Additionally, I’ve also consulted a physical therapist to shed light on the most effective upper-body bodyweight exercises.
Let's dive in.
- Bodyweight workouts such as planks, standard push-ups, incline push-ups, pull-ups, and dips are convenient and can help you build your upper-body strength.
- Using your own body weight instead of weights can help prevent injuries common in weightlifting and also help increase your mobility and stability.
- According to research from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, building muscle requires mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress; upper-body bodyweight exercises tick all these criteria.
- While most bodyweight exercises can be done without equipment, you’ll need pullups and dip bars to perform pushups and dips, respectively.
Best Bodyweight Exercises for Upper Body Strength
I found that when performed perfectly, upper-body bodyweight exercises are as effective as dumbbell or machine exercises.
Drawing from my extensive training experience, I've identified seven highly effective upper-body exercises.
Also Read: Best Bodyweight Core Exercises
1. Standard Plank
The plank is a simple and effective upper-body bodyweight workout that we all love to hate.
While it can be draining, especially when done for an extended period, the cool part about this workout is that you don't need equipment to perform it—just your body weight.
That said, you can also use the medicine ball for a more challenging plank workout to burn fat.
Here's how you do a plan with good form:
- Start with your forearms and feet shoulder-width apart and your toes facing downward on the floor. Your elbows should be directly below your shoulders.
This is what we call a plank position.
- Keep your core engaged, your shoulder blades relaxed, and your back in a straight line from your ears to the toe.
- Now, hold the position for as long as you can
There are many variations of the plank, including the incline plank, side plank, plank with leg lift, and plank with arm lift.
2. Up-Down Planks
Here's how you can do it with good form:
- Start with the regular plank position, with your forearms and toes on the floor and the shoulder above your forearms.
- Now, place your left palm on the floor and push down to straighten up your left arm, then follow it with the right side to move to a high plank position.
- Now, return to your starting position by bending your left elbow to lower down towards the floor. Do the same with your right side.
Also called the press-up, the push-up is a powerhouse upper body bodyweight workout.
According to a study on PubMed, push-ups are terrific for building strength in the upper body while reducing the risk of cardiovascular conditions such as heart attack and stroke .
It targets the triceps, shoulders, and pectoral muscles and also has some effect on the lower back and abdominal muscles.
Here’s how to do push-ups with good form:
- Start by getting into a high plank push-up position with your palms on the floor and at shoulder width, and your legs extended straight across the floor with weight on your toes.
- Now bend your elbows to bring your body downward while engaging your core with your back straight.
- After touching the floor with your chest, press the ground and strengthen your elbows to go back to your original high-plank push-up position.
- Repeat for reps.
Pull-ups belong to pretty advanced upper body bodyweight exercises. So, if you’re a newbie, I suggest modifying it to make it a bit easier for your fitness level.
Attaching a resistance band to your pull-up bar will help relieve some weight from your arms.
Regardless of the modification, the workout focuses on your arms (biceps), chest, and back.
“Pull-ups activate muscle groups including back, chest, shoulders, arms, and core – providing an all-over upper body workout.
- Faisal Abdalla, Celebrity Trainer, Fitness Author
You need a pull-up bar to perform this workout. Here’s how to do pull-ups:
- With your palms facing away from you, extend your arms overhead, then step up or jump up to the pull-up bar, grab it, and hang with your legs off the floor and arms extended.
- Now, bend your elbows to the side to pull yourself up toward the top of the bar until your chin is slightly above the pull-up bar.
- Once you’ve reached the top, slowly lower yourself back down to your original starting position.
- Repeat for reps.
Variations of the pull-up include wide grip, narrow grip, chin-ups, typewriter pull-ups, and muscle-ups (pull-up and dip).
The burpee is an excellent bodyweight exercise that involves full-body movement. It not only helps you build upper body strength by working your arms, chest, back, and core muscles, but it is also a good cardio exercise.
Given the high intensity involved with this workout, it can help you burn fat and get shredded. In fact, studies show that 10 fast-paced burpees are as effective as a 30-second sprint .
Here’s how to perform burpees:
- Begin by standing straight with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Now, drop to a press-up position with your hands on the floor and at shoulder width and your legs extended straight behind you.
- With your back straight and core engaged, lower your chest to the floor and back up again as if doing a push-up.
- Now, stand back in your starting position and jump. That's one rep.
- Repeat for more reps.
Dips, or chest dips, are among the most effective bodyweight drills for developing upper-body muscles, making them my favorite upper-body calisthenic tricep workout. They particularly work the triceps muscle, which makes up more than half of your upper arm.
They also target the chest muscles, especially when you lean slightly forward. Other muscles also get involved for support and stabilization.
To perform these exercises, you will need a dip bar. Follow through:
- Start by grabbing the dip bar with the palms of your hands facing inward. Extend your arms straight and leave your legs hanging from the floor.
- Now, slowly lower your elbows until they are at right angles while ensuring they are tucked against your body.
- Once you’ve reached a low position, straighten your elbows to raise yourself back up.
- Repeat for reps.
7. Tricep Dips
To perform this exercise, you need an elevation; a bench or chair will do. Here's how to do tricep dips:
- Start by sitting on the bench so your hands are resting on your hips and your palms are on the bench. Engage your core while doing this workout, and ensure your shoulder blades are down and back as you engage your abs.
- Now, extend your feet so that your glutes come off the bench and your toes are pointed towards the ceiling.
- Slowly bend your elbows until they are at right angles behind you and your hips are lowered towards the floor.
- Once you’ve reached the bottom, pause and then press through your palms to return to the top.
- Repeat for reps.
Can You Build Upper Body Without Weights?
Yes, you can build your upper body without using weights, as weightlifting is not a prerequisite for building strong arms, chests, and shoulders. I've tried it for a few months, and it actually works.
According to research from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, there are three requisites for building muscles .
- Mechanical tension
- Muscle damage
- Metabolic stress
Bodyweight training is not only an effective form of resistance and strength training, but it also induces all three mechanisms for muscle building.
Of course, you have to combine it with proper nutrition to be effective. But the point is, by utilizing some of the bodyweight drills that we’ve outlined here, such as planks, push-ups, and dips, you’ll start seeing results more quickly.
Benefits of Bodyweight Workouts
Upper body bodyweight workouts have lots of benefits. Let's examine a few of them.
It's a no-brainer that bodyweight exercises can be done almost anywhere and anytime.
You don't need a complete gym or lots of gym equipment to complete these exercises. You just need to start, and you’re good to go.
2. Increases Stability and Mobility
Moving is an essential part of our existence. And while weightlifting has many positive aspects, it can also limit your mobility.
“The movements involved in bodyweight exercises can help to increase mobility and challenge the body's 'stabilizers' by using complete movements. This can, in turn, lead to strength gains in the gym.”
- Bobby Windebank, Personal Trainer
3. Prevents Injuries
I always advise my hard-core weightlifting clients to include some bodyweight drills in their sessions as a trick to prevent injuries.
You see, sometimes weight training can take a toll on your joints. But with bodyweight drills, the stress on the joints is not as much, so you’re not as likely to get an injury.
Getting the Most Out of Your Workouts
Years of experience have taught me a thing or two about getting the most out of your workout.
So, here are four tips to get maximum gains from your upper-body exercises:
- Mind-muscle connection: Actively focus on the muscle you're working on to increase engagement and effectiveness and maximize your strength gains .
- Sleep for recovery: Make sure you get adequate sleep for muscle repair and growth, aiming for 7–9 hours per night .
- Hydrate: Exercising dehydrated was one of my worst workout experiences. Maintain proper hydration throughout the day to enhance muscle function and recovery .
- Focus on the eccentric: Emphasize the lowering phase of exercises to build strength and muscle control .
How Long Does It Take To See Results From Bodyweight Exercises?
It might take about 8–12 weeks of doing bodyweight exercises before you start seeing results. That said, the amount of time varies from person to person depending on the level of activity, age, genetics, fitness level, and gender (males gain muscle quicker).
How Many Times a Week Should I Train Upper Body?
You should train your upper body at least two days a week. Your shoulders, arms, and chest need some resistance training action at least twice a week for you to see results quicker.
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