February 14, 2022
You can't skip leg days, right? True...but, you can't skip upper body workouts either! Whether you can't make it to the gym or you simply prefer bodyweight-only workouts, we have the ultimate upper body bodyweight workout (try to say that 5 times fast) for you to follow.
No equipment is required for this workout. However, ideally you would have access to a pull up bar as we do have pull ups in the workout (no upper body workout would be truly complete without them)...That said, we have some good alternatives for you if you don't have a pull up bar, so don't worry about it. We also provide alternatives for all the other exercises too, that way you can pick and choose what is best for your fitness level, as well as switch things up workout-to-workout.
And, don't let "bodyweight-only" fool you. This bodyweight workout is enough to build upper body strength, muscle, and endurance, all while burning a lot of calories.
Now, let's look at the contents of this post:
While you might think training the upper body is strictly for aesthetic purposes, there are a bunch of other reasons why you should train your upper body for strength and endurance:
Improved posture: The chest and back play major roles in proper posture; and seeing how many people have desk jobs, hunching forward is a big problem. This is because muscles in the back get weak and are subsequently underused, while the chest muscles get tight and are overactive. Training the upper body appropriately can help balance out the asymmetries that can be present from a sedentary lifestyle (as well as corresponding poor posture that can occur from sitting in a chair all day), and can help stretch out the chest muscles while building the strength needed in the back and core to help improve posture – which in turn, can help you breathe easier, give you more energy, and increase your overall confidence!
Decrease in injuries: While posture plays a huge role in decreasing injuries, adding in upper body training into your workout routine can also help strengthen areas that might otherwise be prone to injury. A strong back, as well as strong shoulders and core musculature, can aid in getting you stronger for activities of daily living; from lifting up a child and placing something heavy in a cabinet to picking up heavy groceries, having a strong upper body can help prevent injuries that might otherwise occur if incorrect muscles compensate for the work that your upper body should be doing!
Increased strength and endurance: It should go without saying that including upper body training in your workout programming can get you stronger – and toned muscles go right along with that! Endurance and stabilization can improve with strengthening the upper body, which is crucial for joints like the shoulder, which are highly unstable to begin with. Strengthening and stabilizing the muscles of the upper body not only help your overall range of motion, but also helps you push and pull, which are necessary movements in everyday activities as well. Strength and endurance within the upper body also helps with grip strength, and actually helps with your overall coordination and balance as well.
Improved performance: Training the upper body correlates to so many other activities, and in a positive way! If you play sports, this is especially true. Think about basketball, tennis, football, swimming, these sports require strength, mobility, and endurance within the upper body. Performance within the sporting arena (and really, just life in general) is improved greatly with strengthening the upper body. If you aren’t into sports, think about gardening, lifting hay bales, throwing your kids in the air, and forgive us for saying, sex – they all require strength, endurance, and stabilization within the upper body!
Increased metabolism: Strength training is perfect for torching calories and increasing metabolic rate – both of which are necessary if you want to tone up and show off those muscles you’re working so hard for! Strength training actually boosts metabolism for over 24 hours as your body repairs and rebuilds from your training session, so rest assured your quick lifting bout in the gym isn’t going unnoticed within the body.
While these are only just some of the benefits of working the upper body, you get the picture…upper body strength, endurance and mobility is just as important as it is for the lower body.
To be clear, when we are discussing the upper body, we are including your core. Your core will be used in both upper body and lower body training, which means it's kind of a middle ground. We recommend doing core on both lower and upper body days, as long as your muscles have recovered enough to be trained again.
Ok, so besides your core, your upper body includes your back, chest, shoulders and arms. Of course, each of these areas are comprised of different muscles, so let's have a closer look...
These are the muscles of focus in the upper body bodyweight workout:
There are several muscles within the forearm and hand (over 40) and these muscle groups work together to perform movements like flexion, extension, supination and pronation, and even abduction and adduction. The forearm and hand muscles aid in grip strength, and provide stability and strength throughout multiple upper body exercises.
As for your core, you have:
The workout will include exercises that strength both the front and back side of your core (yes, your low back should be considered as your core too). However, you won't be doing any core isolation exercises, rather you'll be doing compound movements that target the core and other upper body muscles.
Now that you know the muscles that make up the upper body, we can jump on into some of the best bodyweight exercises that will target these areas – not only to strengthen and build muscle, but to improve stability and endurance as well.
Note that the exercises listed below generally go in order from larger muscle groups down to smaller muscle groups – so if you are working these individually into your own workout programming, remember to engage those larger muscles (and thus bigger compound movements) first before focusing on easier exercises. You'll have more energy at the beginning of your workout, so the hierarchy of exercises should go from hardest to easiest.
Here are the exercises that are best for developing strength and endurance in the upper body:
A movement requiring no equipment, a pushup is a powerhouse upper body exercise. Terrific for increasing strength in the upper body (particularly the pecs, shoulders and triceps) and core (it's basically a dynamic plank!), pushups are also a very versatile movement – from decline and incline options to hands in close and out wide, there are a plethora of ways you can tweak this movement to fit your workout routine and fitness goals.
Main muscles targeted: Pecs, Delts, Triceps, Core
How to do pushups:
Alternative options (easiest to hardest):
You can also add resistance to push ups by using resistance bands or putting a weight plate on your back.
Related: Best Bodyweight Chest Exercises
Although pull ups can seem pretty advanced, there are some ways that you can modify them to make it a bit easier for your current fitness level. Regardless of any modification, the strengthening benefits of the back and biceps are still achieved. If you don’t have a pull up bar or rig available to do a pull up, don’t worry as we will provide alternative options.
Main muscles targeted: Lats, Traps, Biceps, Rhomboids, Core, Deltoids
How to do a pullup:
If you have a set of bands, there's so much you can do for back exercises with bands.
This video shows you how to use the towels for back exercises.
The Superman exercise not only strengthens your lower back, but it also packs a punch to the upper back, shoulders, and anterior core muscles.
Main muscles targeted: Erector Spinae, Traps, Deltoids, Abs
How to do supermans:
This exercise should be good for all fitness levels, but we have an alternative option to make it even easier, and some to make it harder.
Related: Best Back Extension Exercises
Don’t let this exercise deceive you – even though it may look easy, doing it slowly and controlled with correct form and technique can be a challenge, especially if you really want to target the serratus anterior and shoulders properly! The arms being overhead in a wall slide can immensely benefit shoulder and scapular mobility and stability as well.
Main muscles targeted: Serratus Anterior, Traps, Deltoids
How to do a wall slide:
Related: Best Bodyweight Shoulder Exercises
While this exercise is generally considered a core movement, it also effectively targets the deltoids - as well as your triceps, pecs and upper back - in an isometric manner, which is great for strength. The biggest thing to remember during plank shoulder taps is to keep your torso as still as possible; don't let your hips shift or lean to the side.
Main muscles targeted: Core, Deltoids, Triceps, Pecs, Traps, Rhomboids
How to do plank shoulder taps:
A wonderful exercise for strengthening the muscles that surround the spine in the upper body, I/Y/T’s can certainly be challenging and engage muscles that you might not have felt before! As you are moving through this movement, your arms will be imitating the shapes of the name of the exercise – I, Y, and T!
Main muscles targeted: Deltoids, Traps, Infraspinatus, and Teres major
How to do I/Y/T’s:
Check out these other great scapula stabilization exercises.
While this exercise primarily targets the triceps, it also recruits other upper body musculature as well! Tricep dips are an excellent functional movement to incorporate into your workout routine. Do be aware that a tricep dip places pressure on the joints of the shoulder as it puts it in full extension, so if you are currently dealing with decreased mobility or injury in your shoulder, it’s best to defer to another movement to target the triceps.
Main muscles targeted: Triceps, Deltoids, Chest
How to do a tricep dip:
Related: Best Bodyweight Triceps Exercises
Now that you know of some of the best upper body exercises that you can do utilizing just your bodyweight, you can work them into a fitness routine! But how do you know how often to do them and how to progress? Let’s check out a few training variables that can make your programming smarter and more effective.
Progression: Progression (aka increasing difficulty) can be a challenging factor in regards to bodyweight training for beginners. Before you think about progressions, make sure that you are doing the exercise correctly and through a full range of motion. The first part of progression is reaching a full range. From there, time under tension is the next step. This can be done by slowing down the tempo and/or increasing reps. Really focus on getting the most out of each set. Other ways to continue progressing are adding volume (i.e. more sets) and doing a more difficult variation. Some bodyweight exercises can even be loaded with weight (i.e. weighted pull ups or banded push ups). Conversely, if you can't do an exercise, there are regression exercises. One example of this is doing kneeling push ups instead of standard push ups. With that, you'd start progressing from kneeling push ups, then move to standard push ups, then play around with different variations of push ups like close grip, decline, etc.
Reps and sets: Since there are technically no added weights to these upper body exercises (although you can most certainly add some if you so desire), a rep range anywhere from 12-20 and sets ranging from 2-4 can be applicable to an upper body routine. However, this will vary depending upon goals and your fitness level. If you want to work on explosiveness, you'd have a different rep range than if you want to work on strength. This is because the tempo would be different (strength & hypertrophy = slow tempo; explosiveness equals fast tempo and more reps). What's more, you can only do as much as your strength allows for. So, if the workout calls for 12 reps, and you can only do 8, then do 8 and the next workout try to go for 9 or 10 reps. The same goes for sets. If you can only do 2 sets, then do 2, and progress from there. This takes us back to progression (progressive overload), which is a key factor in building strength, muscle and endurance.
Frequency: As with any other muscle group, the upper body doesn’t need to be worked every day. Muscles need rest in order to recovery and rebuild/repair appropriately, so if you’re doing a bunch of upper body movements, working these exercises into a program 2-3 days a week is perfect – and gives you some rest time in there as well. Again, think about your overall programming and goals and see how it applies to you and what you’d like to accomplish! Since you are planning to do this upper body workout, we assume you are doing an upper/lower split. In that case, you'd aim for at least 2 upper body sessions per week (and thus target each upper body muscle twice a week). Ideally, you want to hit each muscle group with a total of 10 sets per week (remember, compound movements work several muscle groups, so those counts as sets for any of the primary movers).
There are several options for how to create a workout using the exercises above. You could do a standard sets x reps workout, finishing each exercise for the total sets then moving onto the next, OR, you could do a circuit. You can also incorporate supersets and tri-sets. It really depends on your goal and how much time you have to workout.
Generally speaking, these are the best options based on different goals:
We are going with the well-rounded option, which is best for most people. This means you will be doing sets x reps with some of the exercises done as supersets.
Remember before you get started with any workout that a warmup is key; not only will this help prevent injury, but it will help prep the muscles for the upcoming movements!
A warmup can include exercises such as:
|Pull Ups||2-4 sets||6-12 reps||~60 seconds|
|Push Ups||2-4 sets||12-20 reps||45-60 seconds|
|Supermans x Plank Shoulder Taps||2-3 sets||8-12 reps x 20-30 seconds||45-60 seconds|
|IYT x Triceps Dips||2-3 sets||6-10 reps (one rep is all three positions) x 10-20 reps||45-60 seconds|
|Wall Slides||2-3 sets||10-15 reps (slow reps)||30-60 seconds|
If you wanted to do a circuit style, you could make one large circuit or two mini circuits, as follows:
Large Upper Body Circuit Workout:
Rest as needed between exercises (try to keep it minimal). Rest 1-3 minutes between rounds. Complete 2-4 rounds.
Two Mini Upper Body Circuit Workout:
Complete 3 rounds for each circuit. Complete Circuit 1 for the 3 rounds before moving onto circuit 2. Rest as needed between rounds (try to not rest between exercises - the rest you will get is transitioning between exercises).
Now that you know the benefits of training the upper body, the anatomy involved, and some of the best upper body bodyweight exercises to get your started, let's go get it! Have a great workout and be sure to pay attention to your range of motion, form, and technique as you work through these movements. We are confident if you follow this routine for a while a month or two, doing it twice a week, you will see some great improvements in your upper body musculature, strength, endurance and mobility.
Be sure to do leg workouts too! Here are the best bodyweight leg exercises you can do.
Have dumbbells? Try this upper body dumbbell workout sometime!
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