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Bodyweight Upper Body Workout

Two exercise enthusiasts completing a bodyweight upper body workout.

This bodyweight upper body workout will enable you to build a stronger leaner upper body outside the gym. For this workout, no weight training equipment is needed.


So, wherever you are – at the office, home, or on your holidays – if you’ve got time and a bit of space, you’ll have a workout that targets all the muscles of the upper body.


Why do this bodyweight upper body workout?

If you want to improve muscle definition this workout will certainly help. The combination of calisthenics and high-volume training can sculpt sharp muscular tonality.


In addition to developing definition and improving aesthetics, this workout also promotes muscle endurance.


Such exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and the plank are excellent for ‘working on muscular strength, and more importantly muscular endurance,’ (Royal Marines Fitness Manual).


No gym equipment required

As well as promoting upper body muscle endurance, another benefit of this workout is that it can be completed independently of a gym. For a range of reasons, it’s useful to have a selection of workouts that require little to no equipment.


Take the Covid lockdowns as an example. When the gyms closed many trainers went into a state of exercise hibernation. This led to scores of people losing their fitness and gaining weight.


These undesirable outcomes could have been avoided if those trainers knew how to create workouts without exercise equipment.


Related: Try these Outdoor Workouts

Bodyweight workouts are free training

And while it’s unlikely that we’ll suffer a lockdown any time soon, it is wise to have a range of workouts that you can do at home. In addition to enabling you to exercise almost anywhere, bodyweight training is comparatively inexpensive. In fact, it’s free.


With the ridiculous rise in living costs, people are starting to feel the financial pinch. This will likely result in cutbacks as people look to reduce their outgoings. And inessentials – such as a gym membership – are typically the first expenses to get axed.


Bodyweight workouts such as this one will help you keep on top of your fitness if you can’t go to the gym, no matter what the reason.


Bodyweight upper body workout

Before starting the workout ensure to warm up thoroughly first. A good warm-up exercise for the following workout will include rowing or the airdyne bike. Both of these cardio exercises activate the major muscle groups while also increasing core temperature.


However, if you are completing this workout at home, and you really don't have access to a gym, a good 10-minute jog followed by a few sets of bodyweight exercises will more than suffice.


Once warmed and ready, prepare to progress through the six upper body exercises. The workout is split into three levels – low, medium, and high. Each level is assigned a specific time, which increases as you progress up the levels.


The objective is to complete as many reps as possible (AMRAP) of the six exercises in the time allotted. On completion of an AMRAP, you are to take a one-minute recovery rest before transitioning to the next exercise.


Bodyweight upper body workout key points

  • Warm up well before starting the workout (a suggested warm-up has been provided below).

  • Select the level of workout appropriate for your current ability.

  • Use a countdown timer for the AMRAPs – this way you’ll be able to focus on the exercise and not the clock.

  • Aim to complete as many reps as possible before the time elapses.

  • Consider making a note of your performance as this will provide you with a benchmark to compete against next time.

  • Each AMRAP is followed by a short cardio distance – the distances, as with the AMRAPs, are split into three levels. You can approach the cardio exercise in one of two ways. First, use them as active recovery between the repetition challenges. Second, use them as an additional challenge and try to complete the distance in the shortest time possible.


Cardio and bodyweight warm up

  • 5-minutes rowing/running (maintain a light- to moderate-intensity pace)

  • 1 up to 5 press-ups

  • 3-minutes rowing/running (maintain a moderate-intensity pace)

  • 1 up to 5 plank (reps as seconds)

  • 2-minutes rowing/running (maintain a moderate- to high-intensity pace)

  • 1 up to 5 pull-ups

  • 1-minute rowing (maximum intensity)


Bodyweight upper body workout

The bodyweight upper body workout plan. At the bottom of the workout plan it reads: First, complete a 5- to 10-minute progressive warm-up. Once warm and ready to go, select the level commensurate with your current physical ability. The objective is simple: aim to amass as many reps as possible (AMRAP) on each bodyweight exercise in the time allotted. After each AMRAP complete the cardio section. Either use it as active recovery or, better by far, challenge yourself to cover the distance in the shortest time possible.

Bodyweight upper body workout hints and tips

Boost exercise performance by completing this workout with a training partner. Go head-to-head on the exercises and see who can rack up the most reps. You can further turn up the intensity by competing for time on the cardio exercises. Alternatively, if you’re a training lone ranger, make a note of your rep scores for each AMRAP and have a go at beating them a week later.


Of course, with the plank, you will not be counting reps as it is an isometric exercise. (An isometric exercise, in case you’re wondering, involves the static contraction of a muscle without any visible signs of movement.) Instead of counting reps, you’ll be counting seconds under contraction. It helps if you can see the countdown timer as this enables you to make a note of the number of seconds held. Don’t keep track of the passage of time in your head as you will almost certainly exaggerate your performance.


Performing pull-ups continuously for even a short time exceeds the physical capacity of most trainers. Unless you’re a seasoned CrossFit trainer or an accomplished gymnast, you will need to take frequent breaks. The best way to approach a pull-up AMRAP is to decide on the set size before starting. When I completed this workout, I applied the following formula: 5 pull-ups / 10-seconds rest. After each completed set, I drew a line on a piece of paper. When the time elapsed, I calculated the tally sheet for my end score.


All a bit too easy for you? One uber-simple method that will make this workout considerably harder is to strap yourself into a weighted vest. You’ll be amazed at just how much more challenging it is to perform press-ups and pull-ups after suddenly putting on 10-plus-lbs.


Related: Try this Upper Body Circuit

Bodyweight upper body exercise tutorials

If you happened upon an exercise in the above plan that you are unfamiliar with, consult the exercise tutorials below. Each tutorial features a written description and the more challenging exercises have been linked to a short video demonstration.


Plank

Purpose of exercise: Primarily to improve core and abdominal strength. But there’s a bit more to planking than this. In the Royal Marines Fitness Manual, the author states that as well as being an ‘underused’ and ‘underrated’ core conditioner, the plank is a tough exercise that boasts a broad range of variations.


Key teaching points

  • Keel down on a soft training mat.

  • Place your forearms on the mat for support: your arm, at the elbow joint, forms a 90-degree angle and the elbow is directly under the shoulder.

  • When your arms are in position, come up off your knees and extend your legs.

  • The toes are digging into the floor and your body is perfectly straight – just like a plank!

  • The two most common mistakes made during the plank include: 1) Holding the breath. Focus on maintaining methodical breathing throughout the exercise. 2) Allowing the lower back to sag or sump down. Stay disciplined and keep that back table-top flat. If you cannot hold the position, pop your knees down and take a short rest.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Press-ups

Purpose of exercise: ‘The press-up is an excellent exercise for working on muscular strength’ and ‘endurance’ (Royal Marines Fitness Manual). When performing press-ups, the primary muscles engaged include the pectorals (chest), triceps, anterior deltoids and, to a lesser extent, the core.


Key teaching points

  • Kneeling on a soft training mat, place the palms flat on the floor. The hands are space a little over shoulder width and the primary contact point should be in line with the shoulder joint.

  • When your hands are in position, lift your knees and extend your feet.

  • As with the plank, your toes are gripping the floor to help stabilise the position.

  • To execute the exercise lower down until a 90-degree angle forms at the elbow joint. This is the minimum range of movement that should be applied when performing press-ups.

  • To increase the range of movement, lower your chest to the floor.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Pull-ups

Purpose of exercise: to promote strength in the upper back muscles – specifically the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, infraspinatus, and trapezius. Pull-ups also enhance strength in the arms.


Key teaching points

  • There are a few hand positions you can adopt when performing pull-ups. Each hand position shifts emphasis to different muscle groups. The position that best engages the back muscles is the classic palms facing out, hands spaced one and a half shoulder widths.

  • Hanging from a pull-up bar, preferably one high enough so that your feet clear the floor, ensure your arms are fully straight. This position is called the ‘dead hang’.

  • When you’re ready, heave your chin over the bar. The pull-up should be performed in one smooth movement. Avoid swinging or kipping to generate momentum. Use only muscle strength.

  • If you cannot yet do a full pull-up, try focusing on the eccentric – the lowering – phase of the exercise. Alternatively, perform the inverted variation: feet remained planted on the floor, you are hanging underneath a waist-height bar, pull the chest to the bar.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Handstand wall walks

Purpose of exercise: In the words of combat conditioning specialist, Matt Furey, the handstand wall walk ‘builds tremendous upper body strength, especially in the shoulders.’ As well as building shoulders like boulders, handstands are also ‘great for increasing blood flow to the brain,’ (Combat Conditioning).


Key teaching points

  • Wall walks might be too physically challenging for beginner trainers. But the exercise can be modified by either performing shoulder press-ups or bear crawls.

  • For safety purposes, it’s prudent to place a cushioned mat underneath the section of the wall that you plan to walk up.

  • Staring in a bear crawl position, walk backward into the wall.

  • As you do so raise one foot to connect with the wall. Use this as your initial anchor point.

  • Proceed to walk the hands back while simultaneously stepping the feet further up the wall.

  • The objective is to manoeuvre your body into a vertical handstand. This is the full range of movement. However, you don’t have to go so far. Instead, you can walk into a partial handstand.

  • Once you are in a handstand, walk the hands back out to the start position.


Triceps dips

Purpose of exercise: To build muscle endurance in the triceps, chest, and shoulders.


Key teaching points

  • Triceps dips come in a few different variations. The full-body version requires raised parallel bars. But, because this workout has been sold as ‘no gym equipment required’, the following teaching points are for the basic dip.

  • To perform basic dips, you need a raised platform about two feet high – a wall, chair, or park swing will do just fine.

  • Seated on the raised platform, place your hands on either side of your glutes.

  • Now walk the feet out so that your bum is suspended above the floor. Ensure that there is plenty of clearance between your back and the platform.

  • The further the feet are out the more weight is shifted to the triceps.

  • Execute the exercise by bending at the elbow joint. The minimum range of movement that should be applied is to 90-degrees. Dipping lower increases the intensity of the exercise.

  • Complete the movement by pushing against the platform until you are in the start position.

  • Remember, do not lock out the elbows.


Hindu press ups

Purpose of exercise: Enhance functional strength in the deltoids, pectorals, and triceps.

Key teaching points

  • The start position for the Hindu press-up is slightly different from the standard press-up outlined above. To modify the latter into the former, walk the feet forward until your body forms an inverted V (Λ).

  • In this position, your body weight is shifted from the chest to the shoulders.

  • To perform Hindu press-ups, lower your face down to the floor. Just before contact is made, pull up a touch and glide your face and body forward until pushing up at the end of the movement.

  • Now shift your body back into the start position.

 

Enjoyed this bodyweight upper body workout?

Get your hands on 70 more with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Circuits & Workouts Volume 2.

Bodyweight upper body workout article concludes with an overview of the Hungry4Fitness book of circuits and wokrouts volume 2. This image shows the Hungry4Fitness book of circuits and workouts volume two. Inside the image it identifies the key features of the book which include: Over 70 fully customisable circuits and workouts suitable for all levels of fitness and ability; 4-Week Functional Fitness Training Programme; How to create your own circuits and workouts including essential training principles; Key exercise explanations and tutorials; A complete guide to fitness testing; The 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge; CrossFit-style training sessions including EMOM, AMRAP, and HIIT workouts; An illustrated, step-by-step guide to stretching.

 

In this text box it says: As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance! Blog Author: Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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