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4 Best Upper Body Calisthenics Exercises (With Variations)

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson | Co-Founder & Chief Editor
Last updated: May 18, 2023

When it comes to upper body strength, most athletes and bodybuilders spend a lot of time on isolation exercises using free weights.

Don’t get me wrong; they can be highly effective.

But carefully chosen calisthenics training using your own body weight may help you build muscles more effectively.

These upper body exercises target multiple muscle groups and joints. And you should feel a serious burn after just a few reps.

Let’s dig deeper into the best calisthenics exercises that help build muscle mass.

Quick Summary

  • The best and most effective upper-body calisthenics workout routines are pull-ups, dips, push-ups, and plank.
  • Always adjust your workouts to measure your strength when using weights, and support.
  • The number of sets and reps largely depends on your goals from upper-body calisthenics.

We’ve divided this section into four exercises to help you structure your bodyweight training.

I’d recommend doing these in a circuit training fashion, meaning completing one set of each chosen exercise and then repeating the calisthenics circuits multiple times.

1. Pull-Ups

man using a bar to do pull ups at a gym and outdoors

There’s no shortage of pulling exercises, but these three are our favorites.

Wide-Grip Pull-Ups

Your starting position is with your hands further than shoulder-width apart.

Pull yourself up for a count of 2 seconds, hold for 1 second, and then lower back down for 3 seconds.

This upper body workout is great for the shoulders, chest, arms, and upper back muscle group.


These are the best calisthenics for your biceps.

1.Grip the bar with your hands close together and facing you.

2.Slowly pull up for the count of 2 seconds, hold for 1 second, and then slowly count to 3 while lowering yourself down.

Military Pull-Ups

This one is our favorite pulling body workout.

You grip the bar with staggered hands facing each other. This puts you in a position where you hang and look down the length of the straight bar.

Pull yourself up and make sure you move your head to the side.

“Originally, calisthenics was a method of promoting health, “and thus securing beauty and strength,” in school children, but it’s evolved into a training method that shares a lot in common with gymnastics. Unlike gymnastics, though, it can be practiced outdoors and is known as a ‘street workout.’”

- Danial Davies, Writer at

2. Dips

men doing chest dips at a park

Dips are another excellent calisthenics upper body bodyweight workout, and we suggest trying the following variations:

Regular Dips

Set yourself up with one hand on each side of the parallel bars.

Slowly lower your body down for a count of 3 seconds, and then push up again for 2 seconds.

If the bars aren't high enough to keep your legs straight, pull up your heels to avoid contact.

Straight Bar Dips

For this calisthenics upper body workout, you could head to your chin-up bar.

1.Get your upper body above the bar with your arms straight.

2.Then lower your body down slowly until your chest is about chest high and head back to the starting point.

Korean Dips

These are similar to the above dips, but you might want to head to dip bars to gain more stability.

This time, the bar will be behind you, and you slowly lower your upper body down until the bar is about halfway up your back.

Just make sure you don’t lean forward too far as you’ll lose balance.

Related: Upper Body Compound Workout

3. Push-Ups

shirtless man doing different pushups outdoors

Push-ups are a very effective type of workout for the shoulders, upper chest, biceps, triceps, and back [1].

If you don’t want to lift weights, the following four variations will work wonders for muscle building.

Regular Push-Ups

It’s all about the form over trying to set some glory records.

The down move should take 3 seconds, with a 1-second hold at the bottom, and then push your body back up for 2 seconds.

Decline Push-Ups

These have a similar setup as the regular ones, but you need to elevate your feet and lower body.

You can use an exercise bench or a chair, and the higher up you go, the better it’ll be for muscle building.

Pike Push-Ups

For this exercise, you want to get into a downward dog position with your butt high up in the air. You’ll notice a big difference as you lower yourself down, with a lot more strain on your shoulder muscles.

Handstand Push-Ups

The handstand push-up is the ultimate pushing exercise, and you might benefit from some yoga experience to help with the balance side of things.

If you’re still struggling with balance, get into the handstand position with your feet against a wall.

4. Plank

women using a yoga mat to do planks outdoors

Let’s round out the workout routine with an exercise that will strengthen your core.

Regular Plank

Regular plank is a very effective upper body calisthenics workout that helps strengthen the core muscles, and I generally favor the elbow plank.

You’ll feel your abs working and some strain on your back muscles as well.

Single-Arm Plank

A single-arm plank is an excellent option if you want to step things up a bit before increasing the amount of time you spend in a plank position.

Make sure to alternate between each arm for even muscle building.

Side Plank

To better target your oblique abs on each side of your stomach, you’ll want to get into a side plank position.

The form is very important for these calisthenics workouts, meaning you want to avoid your hips dipping down.

Adjusting Bodyweight Exercises To Your Strength

shirtless man and a woman wearing gym clothes while holding dumbbells

Clients we’ve worked with fall into two categories. Some clients already have the muscles to do more than 12 repetitions of each exercise.

And some have a less toned upper body and will struggle to complete one.

Here’s how to adjust the exercises we mentioned above to fit your strength.

1. Using Weights

man with his arms crossed while wearing a weighted vest

Pull-ups are a great example of an exercise where you can quickly gain enough strength to complete more than 12 repetitions.

And if you’re still in an upper-body bulking phase, more than 12 reps is not ideal.

Instead, invest in a weighted vest and wear it in your home gym while doing pull-ups.

Some weighted vests come with easily interchangeable weights, so you can adjust the vest’s weight depending on the workouts you are doing.

2. Using Supports

man assisting a woman in a gym

For many people, bodyweight training may sound daunting and even impossible.

And let’s face it, not everyone has the upper body strength for calisthenics workouts.

To make each exercise easier, you can use supports to reduce the strain.

For pull-ups, that could be a chair to rest your feet on and provide support.

For push-ups, you can go to your knees first to still get the full range of motion. You’ll gain a lot more from completing a full push-up on your knees than only going down halfway for a standard push-up.

As you gain strength and lose weight, you should get closer and closer to not requiring any special equipment or techniques.

Planning The Right Number Of Sets And Reps

shirtless men in an intense workout

The number of sets and repetitions will largely depend on your goals for an upper-body calisthenics workout.

If you’re trying to shed a few pounds, you can get away with two sets of each exercise while doing 15 to 25 reps and taking a short rest between.

To do this, you may need to use some supports to keep the full range of motion going.

And if you’re in a bulking phase, you should design your own program around calisthenics circuits with a maximum of 12 repetitions.

Repeat each workout from 8 to 12 times, and move onto the next one.

Once you complete a full circuit, start over and complete as many circuits as you can.

It’ll make a huge difference and help you build your upper body muscles.

Related: Should You Do Calisthenics Every Day?

Are You Ready For This Upper Body Calisthenics Workout?

Now you know which upper body calisthenics exercises will push you to the limit.

We recommend doing the above-mentioned compound exercises as they can speed up muscle growth, require very little equipment, and help you stay active at the same time.

You can also integrate the above calisthenics workouts into a full-body training routine that will transform your physique.

Feel free to reach out and share what you think are the best bodyweight exercises for building muscles.


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