4 Best Upper Body Calisthenics Exercises (With Variations)

Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Published by Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer
Last updated: January 26, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Christiana Mikesch, CPT
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As a personal trainer, I've seen most athletes and bodybuilders use isolation exercises with free weights for upper body strength.

Don’t get me wrong. They can be as effective as a well-oiled machine.

Still, calisthenics training, using your body weight, can effectively build muscles. These exercises target multiple muscle groups, providing a burn after a few reps.

So, I spent three weeks researching the best calisthenic exercises that help build muscle mass.

Here's what I found.

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 repetitions for an upper-body calisthenics workout largely depends on individual goals, with some aiming for 15 to 25 reps for weight loss and others focusing on a maximum of 12 reps for muscle building.
  • I believe calisthenics offers a versatile approach to fitness, allowing individuals to utilize their body weight for strength training.

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

Pull Ups

There’s no shortage of pulling exercises, like a candy store of strength training, but these three are our favorites and the cream of the crop.

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 MensHealth.com

2. Dips

Man doing a wide angle dip

In my fitness journey, dips became a game-changer for my upper body strength. They're a powerhouse move, and I've explored various dip variations to keep things interesting.

Here are a few movements you could try:

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 regular push up position 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

protracted push up

During my early days of training, push-ups became my go-to. They not only worked my shoulders and chest but also engaged my 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


Let’s round out the workout routine with an exercise that will strengthen your core, like the cherry on top of a well-baked cake.

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.

Muscle Activation in Calisthenics

According to the National Library of Medicine, understanding the specific muscles targeted during calisthenics optimizes your training and ensures balanced muscle development [2].

So, this is what you can expect when doing calisthenics:

  1. Primary vs. secondary muscles: While push-ups primarily target the chest (pectoralis major), they also engage secondary muscles like the triceps and anterior deltoids.
  2. Core engagement: Almost all calisthenics exercises require core stabilization. For instance, pull-ups not only work the lats but also engage the obliques to stabilize the body.
  3. Leg muscles in upper body workouts: Surprisingly, exercises like dips can engage lower body muscles. Tightening the glutes and quads during dips can provide stability and better form.

Adjusting Bodyweight Exercises To Your Strength

People in the gym doing bodyweight exercises

Clients I’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

Bodyweight training can seem tough, especially for those lacking upper body strength. But, there are ways to make calisthenics more accessible.

For pull-ups, try using a chair to rest your feet, reducing the strain.

Start push-ups on your knees to maintain full range of motion. It's more beneficial than doing half-range standard push-ups.

As you build strength and lose weight, you'll gradually need less support and special techniques.

Planning The Right Number Of Sets And Reps

shirtless men in an intense workout

For weight loss, aim for two sets of each exercise with 15 to 25 reps, taking brief rests between. Use supports if needed for full motion.

In a bulking phase, focus on calisthenics circuits with up to 12 reps per exercise.

Do each workout 8 to 12 times before moving to the next. Complete as many full circuits as possible. This approach will significantly enhance upper body muscle building.

Related: Should You Do Calisthenics Every Day?


Can You Build Upper Body With Calisthenics?

Yes, you can build the upper body with calisthenics because it targets the chest, shoulders, back, and arms. Progressive exercises can achieve muscle hypertrophy and strength.

Can I Combine Weights With My Calisthenics Routine?

Yes, you can combine weights with your calisthenics routine because resistance training enhances muscle growth and provides a comprehensive workout.


  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4792988/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4732392/
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About The Author

Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer
Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Holistic Nutrition from Clayton College of Natural Health and is the owner of Taylor Made Fitness. Her philosophy centers on cutting through the hype and misinformation surrounding dietary supplements, focusing instead on practical, science-backed strategies for health and weight loss.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Senior Coach
Christiana Mikesch, CPT is a personal trainer and author with contributions to publications like the Chicago Tribune and Yahoo. She emphasizes a holistic approach to weight loss, combining an energy-fueling diet, goal-oriented workouts, and daily habits. Her approach avoids short-term goals and fosters a lifelong commitment to health and well-being.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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