Build your chest, back, shoulders, and arms with the best bodyweight upper-body exercises for all levels. When any of my clients or acquaintances tell me that they don’t have time to train, I say two words to them, “bodyweight exercises.” Bodyweight exercises are the ultimate excuse-free workout. It doesn’t matter where you are or what time of day it is; you can always crank out some push-ups, air squats, pull-ups, or leg lifts. Bodyweight exercises were the first type of strength training I ever did. And now, almost 40 years later, I’m still a massive fan. I build most of my workouts around bodyweight training and often prescribe it to my personal training clients. Some people are concerned that bodyweight exercises aren’t as effective as lifting weights, but such worries are unfounded. In a study published on PubMed, researchers found that bodyweight push-ups and bench presses produced similar strength and hypertrophy gains (1). This result mirrors the findings of several other studies, also on PubMed (2, 3). Does this mean that bodyweight exercises are better than conventional strength training? Probably not. Lifting weights offers many benefits that you can’t get from bodyweight exercises. However, remember that perfection is the enemy of good. Any workout done consistently will always produce better results than the best workout performed infrequently. Compared to not training at all, bodyweight exercises will always be a winner!
In this article, I reveal the best upper body bodyweight exercises for beginner, intermediate, and advanced-level exercisers. Use these exercises for an excuse-free upper body workout you can do anywhere and anytime.
Bodyweight Exercise Basics
Before I reveal the best upper body bodyweight exercises, let’s take a brief look at the ins and outs of this type of training.
What is Body Weight Training?
Firstly, bodyweight training is also known as calisthenics. We get calisthenics from the Greek words for beauty and strength. I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of building beautiful strength very appealing! Anyway, bodyweight exercises use your body for resistance. With this type of training, you are the barbell, bench, and machine. As such, the overload on your muscles depends on what you weigh. However, the position of your limbs, hand placement, angle of your body, etc., determine how much of your body weight you have to lift. As such, most bodyweight exercises are adaptable to different strength levels. It’s also possible to modify exercise difficulty by using resistance bands and weighted vests. Although, that starts to make what should be a simple and natural form of training more complicated. Therefore, I’ll be steering away from the use of extraneous equipment. That said, you will need access to pull-up/chin-up bars, dipping bars, and a few other items for some of the exercises. Otherwise, it’s just you and the floor, which will be very limiting.
Bodyweight Exercise Advantages and Benefits
Not sold on the idea of bodyweight-only training? I hear you! Consider these benefits before writing off calisthenics for good.
Low-Cost: Bodyweight exercises can be cheap or even free to perform. Many cities have public calisthenic parks. You can buy things like pull-up bars and parallettes very cheaply or make them yourself. Compared to equipment-based strength training, bodyweight exercises are very low-cost.
Convenience: As I wrote in the intro, bodyweight exercises are the ultimate excuse-free workout. All you need is your body (check!), some floor space (check!), and some get-up-and-go (check!). Because you don’t need to go to a gym and can train almost anywhere and anytime. Consequently, working out has never been so convenient. It’ll be helpful if you have somewhere to hang for pull-ups, chin-ups, etc. But, in a pinch, you can make do with a tree branch or roof joist. With so few barriers to overcome, you have no valid excuse for missing workouts.
Safety: Bodyweight exercises are incredibly safe. With no weights to drop, you can train to failure without fear of getting pinned under a heavy barbell. Similarly, the movements themselves tend to be very natural and joint-friendly. Strength training is already a relatively safe activity, but bodyweight exercises take the risk down to almost zero.
Highly Functional: A functional exercise mirrors the demands of everyday or sporting activities. I’d argue that nothing is more functional than being able to lift and control your body. Forget balancing on a stability ball doing curls. That’s not functional. However, exercises like push-ups, dips, and pull-ups are.
Versatility: You can use bodyweight exercises to train for most fitness goals, including strength, hypertrophy, endurance, athleticism, fat loss, improved sports performance, cardiovascular fitness, and general health. It all depends on how you do your chosen exercises and how you program them.
Easy to Progress and Regress: Making a bodyweight exercise harder or easier is as simple as moving your hands or feet. In most cases, you can make these adjustments instantly. There are also endless ways to perform many bodyweight exercises, so you’ll never outgrow this type of training. For example, for push-ups, you could progress like this: Incline push-ups (hands on a wall) Incline push-ups (hands on a bench) Kneeling push-ups Regular push-ups Wide grip push-ups Diamond push-ups Deficit push-ups Decline push-ups (feet on a bench) Weighted push-ups Gymnastic ring push-ups Plyometric push-ups Archer push-ups Pseudo planche push-ups One-arm push-ups Handstand push-ups Planche push-ups These are enough variations to keep you progressing for years, if not decades.
In summary, the advantages and benefits of bodyweight exercises include: Low cost Convenience Safety Functionality Versatility Easy progression/regression
The Best Upper Body Bodyweight Exercises
Bench presses, lat pulldowns, and shoulder presses are popular strength training exercises. However, they aren’t the only way to develop the upper body of your dreams. Here are what, after 30+ years of training experience, are my pick of the best upper body bodyweight exercises. For ease, I’ve listed them in approximate order of difficulty, from beginner to advanced.
Target muscles: Pectoralis major, deltoids, triceps, core. If squats are the king…