10 of the Best Upper Body Bodyweight Exercises (Beginners and Advanced)
Keen to work out your upper body without needing any additional weights or equipment? Then these upper body bodyweight exercises could be just what you need! We have upper body ideas for beginners and more advanced exercisers, so either jump to the section you need below, or read on for more:
What are Bodyweight Exercises?
Bodyweight exercises are movements that help build strength and fitness, without the need for additional weights. In many cases, they don’t need any other equipment at all. These exercises focus on simply using the weight of your own body to challenge your muscles, so are easy to do wherever you are, whether that’s at home, on your lunch break or at the gym.
Can I use bodyweight exercises to build upper body strength?
Yes, absolutely. Many of the best bodyweight workouts include exercises that target the whole body, so you’ll be able to see results in your arms, back and chest with these movements. If you’re aiming to bulk up these upper body areas, we’d generally recommend incorporating some additional weight as you progress, using dumbbells, kettlebells or weighted plates. However, this isn’t always possible, so if you need to keep your upper body bodyweight exercises completely equipment-free, then it’s worth building in more reps, extending the duration of each movement (particularly the moment of higher tension) or trying more challenging variations of each exercise.
5 Beginners Upper Body Bodyweight Exercises
An excellent all-round exercise, planks will boost your arm, back, chest, shoulder and upper body strength whilst also targeting your core and glutes. Check out more variations of planks here.
- Lie on a mat with your forearms on the floor just under each shoulder and feet hip-width apart
- With your toes on the floor, lift up so your bodyweight is balanced on your forearms and toes
- Focus on keeping your core engaged and your shoulder blades relaxed
- Hold for as long as you can, working on increasing the time as you get stronger
2. Up Down Planks
Once you’re comfortable with a regular plank, you can start to introduce Up Down Planks. They’ll add an extra boost to your plank by including some dynamic movement, while also helping to strengthen your back, improve your posture and work your core.
- Start in a regular plank position with forearms on the floor
- Place your left hand on the mat below your shoulder and straighten, before following with your right arm
- You’ll now be in a raised plank position - keep your core engaged and your back straight
- Hold for a few moments before bending your left elbow onto the mat and repeating with the right arm
- Switch sides as you repeat on alternate sides
3. Incline push ups
If a classic push up is a little too much of a challenge then incline push ups are an easier starting point, still providing an effective upper body and core workout. By raising the upper body off the ground, some of the pressure is taken off your arms and shoulders, with plenty of emphasis on the chest area. You can perform these on an exercise bench or box, but the arm of a sofa will also work perfectly. One of our favourite options is using stairs, as you can drop a step over time as you become stronger, slowly working your way to a regular floor-based push up. This guide will teach you more about how to master your first push up.
- Start in a classic plank position, but with your feet on the floor and your hands on the edge of your chosen platform. Keep feet shoulder-width apart and arms straight, below your shoulders
- Your body should still be in a straight line, but raised at the front
- Once ready, bend your elbows, keeping them tucked as close into your body as you can
- Lower your chest as far towards your hands as you can, before pushing back up through your arms to starting position
4. Bird dog holds
Excellent for relieving lower back pain and strengthening your back muscles, bird dog holds are great for improving posture and flexibility. These will also help to boost your core and glutes.
- Start on all fours, with your knees below your hips and your hands below your shoulders
- Engage your core and keep your back straight
- At the same time, lift up your left arm until it’s in front of you, level with your shoulders, and push out your right leg until it’s raised straight out behind you
- Hold for 5 seconds before lowering and then swap to the the right arm and left leg
5. Prone I, Y, T
Another fantastic exercise for improving posture - by targeting the lower and mid back and the muscles around your spine - Prone I, Y and T can help tackle back pain by engaging and strengthening a range of critical muscles.
- Lie face down on your mat, with arms straight out ahead of you and feet around hip-width apart
- Engaging your core, lift your arms up off the ground in front of you, hold for a moment, then lower back to the ground (this is your ‘I’)
- Move your arms into a ‘Y’ position, engage your core and lift your arms off the ground. Hold for a moment before lowering
- Move your arms out to a ‘T’ position, engage your core and lift your arms off the ground. Hold for a moment before lowering
- This is one complete rep. Return to ‘I’ position to repeat.
5 Advanced Upper Body Bodyweight Exercises
1. Pike push ups
Perfect for increasing shoulder strength and improving core stability, you should feel these working your shoulders, arms, chest back and core.
- Lying on your front with your hands on the floor at shoulder height, push up through your arms, upwards and back with your hips and back through your heels until you’re in the ‘downward dog’ position (like an upside down ‘v’ shape) - this is your starting position
- Engaging your core, bend your elbows out to the sides so the crown of your head lowers to the floor
- Hold for a moment before pushing back up to starting position
2. Chin ups
It makes sense to look at chin-ups essentially as reverse push-ups. Not only do they work just about every muscle in the body, they specifically target the opposing set of muscles to those most worked by push ups. Chin ups will work the biceps and lats amazingly well, while secondarily stressing the core and deltoids, and creating the kind of full-body tension that packs on muscle all over your frame. You’ll need a basic level of equipment, such as a climbing frame or sturdy doorframe.
- Standing beneath the frame, take hold of the horizontal bar with both hands in an underhand grip around shoulder-width apart. Your fingers should be facing in towards your face
- Engaging your core, raise your body until your chin is above the bar - sometimes crossing your feet can help with balance and weight distribution
- Hold for a moment before lowering yourself back down in a controlled way, until your arms are straight again
This full body movement is excellent for building strength and boosting cardio, working your arms, back, chest, core, legs and glutes. It’s a high energy movement (great for adding in as a HIIT movement) that will also help to burn fat and tone up. Learn more variations to mix up your burpees here.
- Stand straight with feet shoulder-width apart
- Engaging your core, drop into a high plank position by placing your hands on the floor, shoulder distance apart, with your feet and legs straight out behind you
- Keeping your back straight and abs engaged, drop your chest lightly to the floor in a controlled movement, keeping elbows tucked to either side of the body
- Push yourself back up to standing by extending your arms and jump your feet back so that they land just below your hands
- Swing your arms up and jump as high as you can so your feet leave the ground
- This is one rep - repeat for the required number
4. Clapping push ups
Another advanced variation of a push up, with an extra challenge to burn more energy, clapping push ups include rapid, explosive movements that are perfect for targeting your chest, triceps and shoulders.
- Start in a regular push up position, with your feet slightly closer than shoulder-width and your hands either shoulder-width or wider
- Lower yourself to the ground in a slow, controlled movement with elbows tucked in and your core engaged
- Continuing to keep your body straight, push explosively upwards through your hands to propel your upper body into the air
- Clap your hands together while off the ground
- Aim to land in your starting position, as softly as possible, with extended but not locked arms
5. Mountain Climbers
This compound movement is another great full body movement that’s particularly effective for strengthening your upper body, with plenty of work for your core and legs too. Expect to feel this around your arms, back and shoulders in particular. Including this movement in your upper body bodyweight workouts will also help to boost your balance, agility and coordination. Learn more with our How to do Mountain Climbers guide.
- Start in a press-up position with your hands positioned beneath your shoulders
- Engage your core and, as fast as you can, pull your right knee inwards towards your chest and then return to the start position
- Repeat with your left leg
- This should be a high paced movement - start practising slowly and once you’re used to the movement, aim to move more quickly
If you want to make bodyweight exercises more challenging, check out our guide to calisthenics where Personal Trainer Phil looks at ways to progress bodyweight movement.
Upper Body Bodyweight HIIT Exercises
If you’re looking for a HIIT workout focusing on bodyweight exercises for the upper body, consider including a range of movements we’ve discussed in this article with a high intensity option at the end.
- 1 minute up down planks
- 1 minute bird dog holds
- 1 minute incline push ups
- 30 seconds burpees
- 30 seconds rest
Learn more about the best HIIT workout for you here.
Whether you’re working out at home or in the gym, you can also download the free PureGym app and create a customised training plan for your fitness goals. Alternatively, get involved with our on-demand classes and workouts.
Still not sure where to begin? Our Starting at the Gym hub has plenty of ideas for workouts to try. Or you could consider booking a session with a dedicated Personal Trainer at PureGym - they’re able to offer a wealth of advice and fitness plans.