Effective Upper Body Exercises Using Only Your Body Weight

Updated on June 1, 2018
Mike Esco profile image

Dr. Mike Esco has a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and has over 20 years of experience in the health and fitness industry.

Introduction

Body weight exercises are great! You don't need a gym or expensive exercise equipment. They can be done virtually anywhere, allowing you to have an effective workout at home, on vacation, at the office, etc.

In this article, I have provided a list of upper body exercises that only require your body weight as resistance. Below each exercise, you will find a description on proper technique. As an addition, I've added some YouTube videos for most of the exercises showing you a demonstration of the correct technique. Please note, I had no input on the creation of the videos as they were made by someone else.

Body weight exercises can be performed anywhere
Body weight exercises can be performed anywhere | Source

Push Up

The basic push up is one of the simplest yet one of the best exercises for strengthening your upper body. It requires no equipment and can be performed anywhere.

  1. Place your hands flat on the floor with your fingers pointing straight ahead, with your arms slightly wider than shoulder width. Your legs should be straight and feet should be together or slightly apart with the toes on the floor. Keep your abs isometrically contracted (tight) during the entire movement, you do not want you butt to pop up or sink down. This will help stabilize your torso and make sure your back stays in a straight, neutral position.

  2. Lower your body toward the floor. Keep your torso rigid and straight. Bring your chest an inch or two from the floor. Your elbows should be tucked in toward your body. This position will increase the activation of the chest muscles more than if you had your elbows wide.

  3. Following a brief pause, extend your elbows and push your body away from the floor to return to the starting position.

Push Ups Demonstration

Push Ups on Your Knees

The push up on your knees is very close to the technique of the basic push up. The only difference is that your knees remain in contact with the floor during the entire exercise, making it easier to perform. It is very important to make sure that you are still squeezing your abs and keeping your hips in a neutral position. If you have a difficult time performing the basic push up, then you should start with doing push ups on your knees and progress to the more advance version once your strength improves. One of the good things about this exercise is you can easily switch to it from the basic version at any time. For example, let’s say you are strong enough to perform 3 basic push ups repetitions but you are trying to achieve 10 repetitions for a given set. In this case, perform as many basic push ups as you can do, then bring your knees in contact with the floor for the remainder of repetitions.

Wall Push Ups

The wall push up is a modification that will remove the difficulty of the push up, but still target the same muscle groups. The technique is almost identical to the regular push up, but you place your hands on a wall, or raised counter surface edge. Continue to keep your arms a little over shoulder width apart and keeping a tight and engaged core. If you are pressing against a wall you should try to move you feet as far back as comfortable but not more than would cause your body to be a 45 degree angle from the wall. Lower yourself until your nose is about an inch away from the wall, but do not turn your head to get lower!!! Once at the bottom, hold for a few seconds and extend your elbows. All while keeping the core engaged.

Wall Push Ups Demonstration

Narrow Push Ups

This version can be done in any of the previously mentioned positions. The narrow-based push up is a more advanced version of the basic push up that focuses more on the tricep (the muscles in the back of your arms). The technique is similar to the other push up styles. With the narrow-base push up, bring your hand in closer towards each other. In this position, the base of support (your hands) should be narrower than your shoulder-width. Everything else should remain the same as with the basic push ups. One of the most important things with the narrow-base push up is to make sure your arms and elbows remain close to the body during the exercise. Flaring them outward may place too much pressure on the elbow joint and could eventually injure it.

Narrow Push Ups Demonstration

Push ups Feet Elevated

This is more of an advanced version of the push-up. The technique is similar. Place the front portion of your toes are on an elevated surface, such as a chair or bench. Your upper body should be elevated over the floor with your hands flat and directly underneath your shoulders. Your arms should be extended. Your upper and lower back, hips, and legs should form a straight line. Everything else remains the same as with the basic push-up. The important thing with this version is to not allow your lower back to sag. Keep your abdominals isometrically contracted during the entire exercise.

Push Ups Feet Elevated Demonstration

Source

Pull Ups

Pull ups are arguably the best exercise for your upper body. All that is required is a pull-up bar. There are a number of great pull-up bars and devices you can purchase to hang from a doorway. However, most people have a difficult time doing even one pull up. Therefore, below examples provide several variations of the pull up exercise. Choose the variation that accommodates your level of fitness.

Pull-up variation 1: The Basic Pull-up

  1. Grasp the pull up bar with an overhand grip that is slightly wider than shoulder width. Once your hands are secure, bend your knees to lift your feet off of the floor so your body is hanging in the air.

  2. Pull body up until chin is above bar. While doing this, retract your shoulder blades by bringing them toward each other. Exhale during this portion of the movement.

  3. Lower your body until arms and shoulders are fully extended. Inhale as you descend.

  4. Repeat.

VARIATION NOTES:

To add variety to this exercise, perform the pull up with a narrow grip by bringing your hands closer together, less than shoulder width. You can also rotate your arms and have your palms facing toward you. This version is often referred to as the chin up.

Pull Ups Demonstration

Assisted Pull Ups

Pull-up variation 2: Assisted Pull-up

  1. Grasp bar with an overhand grip. Position your feet on a chair or bench that is placed on the floor directly under the bar. Stand up and bring your chest as close to the bar as possible with support from your lower body.

  2. Inhale and lower your body under bar until arms and shoulders are fully extended. Control the descent with minimal assistance from your lower body. Allow your knees and hips to bend and keep your feet flat on the bench or chair.

  3. Exhale and pull your body up until chin is just above bar. Allow your lower body to assist by extending your hips and knees. Remember, the focus of the exercise is your upper body so make sure there is not an excessive amount of assistance from your legs. Lessen the assistance from your lower body as you become stronger.

  4. Repeat.

Note: The basic forms of these exercises can be performed in combination with the assisted version. In other words, if you can do only a few repetitions with basic form, having a bench or chair underneath will allow you to add more repetitions with assistance.

Assisted Pull Ups Demonstration

Isometric Pull Ups/Flexed Arm Hang

Pull-up variation 3: Isometric Pull-up/Flexed Arm Hang

  1. Grasp bar with an overhand grip. Position your feet on a chair or bench that is placed on the floor directly under the bar. Stand up and bring your chest as close to the bar as possible with support from your lower body. Before moving to step #2 you should begin to squeeze your shoulder blades.

  2. Remove your feet from the chair and hold your chest near the bar as your body hangs in mid-air. Try to pull your shoulder blades together as you hang.

  3. Hold this position for a period of time, such as 30 seconds to 1 minute.

  4. When complete, place your feet back on the chair to support your body and let go of the bar.

Isometric Pull Ups/Flexed Arm Hang Demonstration

Negative Pull Ups

Pull-up Variation 4: Negative Pull-up

  1. Grasp bar with an overhand grip. Position your feet on a chair or bench that is placed on the floor directly under the bar. Stand up and bring your chest as close to the bar as possible with support from your lower body. Before moving to step #2 you should begin to squeeze your shoulder blades.

  2. Remove your feet from the chair and hold your chest near the bar as your body hangs in mid-air.

  3. Slowly lower your body down without support from the chair. The descent should take about 10 seconds.

  4. Place your feet back on the chair and stand up to the starting position.

  5. Repeat until the desired number of repetitions have been achieved.

Negative Pull Ups Demonstration

Superman/Superwoman Exercise

  1. Lie face down on your stomach. Extend your arms over your head. Your legs should be extended also. Keep your neck in a neutral position. (Like superman/woman flying)

  2. Keeping your arms and legs straight, lift your arms and legs at the same time up toward the ceiling by extending your back. The arms and legs should be several inches off of the floor. The shape of your body should be in a wide “u-like” position. Make sure that you are not tipping to one side or the other, try to stay evenly elevated.

  3. Hold for about two seconds then lower back to the starting position.

  4. Repeat.

Superman/superwoman Demonstration

Contralateral Quadruped/Bird Dog Exercise

  1. Placing your hands and knees on the floor. Your hands should be directly underneath your shoulders and your knees should be directly under your hips. Brace your abdominal muscles as if someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Your back should remain flat and parallel to the floor (think about balancing a bucket of water on your back). Your neck should be in a natural position with your eyes focused on the floor.

  2. From this position, inhale and extend your right arm out above your head and parallel to the floor, with your palms rotated toward the floor. Simultaneously extend your left hip and knee to lift the leg parallel to the floor. Keep your back flat and torso and pelvis stable and avoid sagging or excessive rotation. (Try not to rotate your neck during this time)

  3. Following a brief pause (around 2 seconds), exhale and bring your arms and legs to the original starting position. Keep your abdominals braced.

  4. Repeat on the opposite side.

  5. Continue alternating sides until the desired number of repetitions have been achieved.

Contralateral Quadruped Demonstration

Ipsilateral Quadruped/Bird Dog Exercise

  1. Placing your hands and knees on the floor. Your hands should be directly underneath your shoulders and your knees should be directly under your hips. Brace your abdominal muscles as if someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Your back should remain flat and parallel to the floor (think about balancing a bucket of water on your back). Your neck should be in a natural position with your eyes focused on the floor.

  2. From this position, inhale and extend your right arm out above your head and parallel to the floor, with your palms rotated toward the floor. Simultaneously extend your right hip and knee to lift the leg parallel to the floor. Keep your back flat and torso and pelvis stable and avoid sagging or excessive rotation.

  3. Following a brief pause (around 2 seconds), exhale and bring your arms and legs to the original starting position. Keep your abdominals braced.

  4. Repeat on the opposite side.

  5. Continue alternating sides until the desired number of repetitions have been achieved.

Ipsilateral Quadruped Demonstration

Structuring an effective workout plan

It is very important to focus on symmetry when performing any strength training routine. Therefore, you should perform as many exercises for your back as you do your front. An effective approach is to pick two exercises that mainly target the front of your upper body and two exercises that mainly target the back of your upper body. Alternate each, such as doing a front focused exercise followed by a back focused exercise. Then perform a different front followed by back focused exercise.

You can perform the workout 2 to 3 non-consecutive days per week, such as Monday and Thursday, or Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Below are three example routines.

Example Upper Body Routine #1

Exercise
Sets
Repetitions
Rest Interval
Knee Push-Ups
2-3
5-15
1-minnute
Superman/SuperWoman
2-3
10-15
1-minute
Wall Push-Ups
2-3
5-15
1-minute
Contralateral Quadrupeds
2-3
10-20
1-minute
This workout is intended for a beginner

Example Upper Body Routine #2

Exercise
Set
Repetitions
Rest Interval
Push-Ups
3
10-15
1-minute
Negative Pull-Ups
3
5-10
1-minute
Knee Push-Ups
3
10-15
1-minute
Superman/Superwoman
3
15-20
1-minute
This workout is intended for an intermediate lifter with a good base level of strength

Example Upper Body Routine #3

Exercise
Sets
Repetitions
Rest Interval
Push-ups Feet Elevated
3
15
1-minute
Pull-ups
3
2-10
1-minute
Narrow Push-ups
3
10
1-minute
Ipsilateral Quadruped
3
20
1-minute
This workout is intended for a more advanced lifter

Questions & Answers

    Comments

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      • Mike Esco profile imageAUTHOR

        Mike Esco 

        5 weeks ago from Alabama

        Hi Ruth,

        Thank you very much for the comment. You are absolutely correct! It is very important to exercise as we age. The natural loss of muscle mass (AKA "sarcopenia") is linked to many lifestyle disorders that can be prevented, or at least blunted, with strength training. Keep it up and I'll do the same! And please let me know if I can be of assistance.

      • RuthCoffee profile image

        Ruth Coffee 

        5 weeks ago from Zionsville, Indiana

        This is great info. I'm an older woman (60) and used to go to the gym for weight lifting etc. About a year and a half ago I stopped. Decided to do body weight exercises and some ballet moves at home instead. I'm actually liking the results MUCH better. Older people really need this type of thing due to the natural loss of muscle as we age.

      • Mike Esco profile imageAUTHOR

        Mike Esco 

        6 weeks ago from Alabama

        Thank you for the comment, Derrick!

      • soconfident profile image

        Derrick Bennett 

        6 weeks ago

        Calisthenics are my favorite form of exercise

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