Building muscle definition takes time and dedication. Yet, grabbing a barbell or working with a personal trainer isn’t always feasible. Some athletes lack access to the gym and don’t have the space or resources for expensive gym equipment.
Fortunately, there are plenty of bodyweight exercises for a full-body workout or to isolate the upper and lower body muscle groups. Here are some of the best upper body bodyweight exercises to build strength and definition.
Benefits of Bodyweight Exercises
Many people who get into the world of fitness are bombarded with information about what workouts they should or shouldn’t do. There’s constant chatter about one style being better than another. While lifting heavy and engaging in intense full-body workouts is beneficial, it doesn’t negate the fact that bodyweight training also has merit.
In addition to helping you build muscle strength and definition, bodyweight exercise can also help with cardiovascular health. Bodyweight movements are accessible for beginners and those looking to do some quick home workouts. Bodyweight workouts also teach the proper movement patterns before adding weight and can be easily progressed with dumbbells and resistance bands.
Bodyweight workouts are especially beneficial to the upper body. Your shoulder is a complex joint that’s highly susceptible to injury. If you’ve had shoulder issues previously, bodyweight workouts are a safe, effective way to engage in strength training. Throw in some mountain climbers or burpees for cardio, and you won’t need expensive equipment to change your body composition and show your hard-earned muscle definition.
With all that said, here are the best bodyweight exercises for your upper body.
If there was an award for effective upper body exercises that make you feel ridiculous, floor pulls would win. Sometimes called the “sliding floor pull-up,” this bodyweight exercise is a great pull-up alternative for people who don’t have access to a pull-up bar. As the name implies, you’re building muscle by pulling your own bodyweight along the floor. This silly-yet-effective compound exercise hits your lats, deltoids, biceps, and rhomboids.
- Lay on the floor, facing down, with your arms extended in front of you. You may want to lay on a towel for reduced friction.
- Plant your palms, then slide yourself forward, squeezing your shoulder blades together and allowing your elbows to bend. The motion should look like a pull-up, minus the bar.
- When your hands are level with your chin, push yourself back “down” to full extension to complete the rep.
One of the benefits of this upper body bodyweight exercise that sets it apart from traditional pull-ups is the push-pull combination. With a true pull-up, you’re resisting gravity as you lower your body back down. With this variation, you’re forcefully pushing, giving those muscles another chance to work. And hey— no judgment if you use a mop instead of a towel. Work smarter, not harder.
Diamond push-ups (or triangle push-ups— shapes are hard) take a foundational bodyweight exercise and add a muscle-burning twist. The hand positioning during this push-up better targets the tricep muscles.
- Start in a high plank position. Shift your hands inward so the thumbs are slightly apart, making a diamond/triangle shape with your hands.
- Brace your core, squeeze your glutes, and lower your body toward your hands. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked for the entire movement.
- Pause at the bottom of your range of motion, then push explosively back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
You may not be able to do as many diamond push-ups as regular push-ups— that’s to be expected. Take your time and stop the movement to adjust your push-up position if you feel elbow pain. Don’t let your lower back dip as you move through this exercise.
Handstand push-ups are the holy grail of CrossFit and calisthenics athletes, second only to muscle-ups. This advanced bodyweight workout engages the entire body but primarily targets the shoulders and upper arms for incredible upper body strength gains.
- Face the wall and plant your hands in front of you, leaving about a foot of distance to move. Adjust as needed.
- Kick yourself up and over into a handstand, resting your feet against the wall with legs fully extended. Give yourself a moment to settle before moving.
- Engage your core and maintain tension in your entire body. Slowly lower yourself, bending your elbows until the top of your head reaches the floor.
- Push back up, maintaining tension in your body until you reach full extension with elbows locked out.
Practice holding a wall-assisted handstand for a minimum of 60 seconds before attempting handstand push-ups. Working with a partner to assist by holding your feet during the first few attempts at negatives and full push-ups is also beneficial.
Inverted rows are a simple upper body workout that engages your back and shoulder muscles. This compound movement will help you build definition in your rear delts, lateral delts, and upper back. Depending on your positioning, you should feel it in your front delts and chest a bit as well. If you don’t have dip bars or a rack setup, you can do this move with a well-secured table at home.
- Position yourself on the floor under your bar or between your dip bars. Grab the bars in an overhand position, so your hands are neutral or pronated, depending on your setup.
- Extend your legs, so your body is in a fully-extended position, planting your feet shoulder-width apart or resting on your heels.
- Pull yourself up toward the bar, maintaining a neutral spine and braced core. Pause at the top.
- Lower yourself down until you reach full extension. That’s one rep.
Beginners can modify this movement by walking their feet in closer to their hands— i.e., in a glute bridge position.
Dips are another powerful bodyweight workout that hits the entire upper body, with special emphasis on the chest or triceps (depending on your position). If you don’t have access to dip bars for this movement, you can head to a local playground or use the edge of your couch (which will target only your triceps).
- Stand between the dip bars and firmly grasp each side.
- Extend to full extension, bending your knees for clearance. This is your starting position.
- Bend your elbows as you lower yourself toward the floor. Your elbows should stay tucked close to your body throughout the movement.
- When you reach the end of your range of motion, push yourself up until your arms reach full extension. That’s one rep.
On dip bars, you’ll lean forward slightly to target the chest while maintaining an upright position to target the triceps. If you’re using a couch or bench for tricep dips, your palms will rest on the edge behind you with your legs extended in front of you, your heels acting as a lever. As with inverted rows, you can bend your knees and walk your feet closer to your body to modify the movement for beginners.
The ITWY is primarily a mobility movement. However, it targets some of the smaller muscles in your back and shoulders to help add definition while improving your mobility. Use this as an effective warm-up or finisher movement.
- Lay face down on a bench or the floor with your arms at your sides.
- In a slow, controlled motion, extend your arms overhead to create a straight line with your body— this is the “I” position. Hold and squeeze your muscles for 3 seconds, then reverse back to the starting position.
- In a slow, controlled motion, extend your arms up to the sides and outward, creating a “T” with your body. Pause and squeeze for 3 seconds, then reverse to the starting position.
- In a slow, controlled motion, extend your arms diagonally overhead to create the Y position— just like in the YMCA. Pause, then reverse to the starting position.
- In a slow, controlled motion, extend your arms outward in the T position while squeezing your shoulder blades together and bending your elbows. Your upper arms should be diagonally positioned with your forearms parallel to your body. This is the W position. Hold, and reverse to the starting position to finish one rep.
This is one of those exercises that seems simple and ineffective, but you’ll feel the burn by the end of the first rep. Start with sets of 3-5 while focusing on form.
Did you know?
Did you know that diamond push-ups and bodyweight dips are better at engaging the tricep muscles than both the close-grip bench press and cable pushdowns?
Incorporating upper body bodyweight workouts into your training routine is an effective way to build muscle mass and definition without equipment. Remember that progressive overload and nutrition also play a role in muscular definition, and that training alone isn’t enough to get upper body strength and mass.