The best upper body exercises without weights

If you do not have access to weight equipment or a gym, do not worry! You can build an impressive upper body with a few simple exercises that use your body weight as resistance. These excellent exercises also strengthen your core.

The best upper body exercises without weights are pull-ups, chin ups, and push-ups. Performing just these exercises properly will result in a very impressive upper body. These can also be a valuable addition to any bodybuilding program.

Pull Ups

women doing pull ups

In my opinion, the number one exercise is pull ups. This is not only the best exercise without weights, but the best upper body exercise, period!

This is a very hard exercise to perform and that is exactly why it is one of the best muscle builders. There are a lot of bodybuilders and strength athletes that do not perform this excellent exercise because it is too hard and can’t do many reps, and who wants to be seen in the gym doing an exercise that is a struggle?

This is a shame because for time spent, this exercise will strengthen more muscles than almost any other exercise in the gym. You can build an impressive back, biceps and forearms with just this one movement. You will notice that bodybuilders that do use pull ups as a regular part of their routine will always have the most impressive upper backs and biceps.

The pull up will develop your biceps, lats, grip, forearms and abs. One of the reasons I like this more than lat pull downs on a lat machine is that it engages the core. This exercise is also what I call a “real world” exercise. This means it is a movement that develops strength that can be used in the real world. If you are strong on pulling your body weight upwards, you will be able to climb over obstacles, use rope swings, etc.

How to Perform the Pull Up

To perform this exercise, you obviously need a bar that is at least 6 feet off the ground. If you do not have such a bar, there are very inexpensive chin up bars that fit without tools on any door way to enable you to do pull ups pretty much anywhere a doorway is available.

After warming up, grasp the bar with an overhanded grip (chin ups are done with an underhanded grip) and hang from the bar with arms perfectly straight. Now slowly pull yourself up by contracting your back (lats) and bending your arms until your chin is at or above the bar.

Perform at least three sets of as many reps as you can do. If you can’t do more than a couple of reps or none at all, here are some ways to increase your strength so that you can do them.

  • Use an elastic exercise band to assist you. Loop the band under your feet and over the bar so that is will assist you until you develop the strength do pull ups without the band.
  • Place a stool next to you and use your leg to assist you up, then hang from the bar with bent arms and fight gravity on the way down. This is called a “negative” rep. Do this 5 or 6 times a few times per week and you will soon develop enough strength to pull yourself up.

Push UpsMan doing push ups

These are an awesome exercise as well. Push ups are actually better than bench presses as far as the number of muscles recruited and worked during the exercise. Push ups will work chest, shoulders, triceps, upper back and abdominals (core). This is basically the entire front of your upper body. Your upper back (lats) are worked because they help to stabilize the entire shoulder girdle and are flexed throughout the entire movement, and abs are worked as they fight to keep the body straight.

There are several ways to modify the basic push up. This not only makes your workouts more fun, but also hits different muscles and can help build a more complete physique.

You can elevate your feet on a stool or chair to increase resistance, or you can drop to your knees to decrease resistance.

Another variation I love is the suspended push up, using homemade TRX straps.

How to Perform the Push Up

Most people know how to do this basic exercise, but here are a few pointers do get the most from them:

  • Use perfect form. Keep your body as straight as possible and if possible, allow your chest to touch the ground at the bottom of each rep. Half reps do not work the entire pectoral muscle nearly as well as a full, perfect rep.
  • Use push up handles or dumbbells to elevate your hands a couple inches from the floor. This will give you greater range of motion which will blast your chest much more than if your hands were flat on the floor.
  • Perform the reps slowly. The more time the muscles are actually under tension, the more work they do, which translates to more muscle.

Dips

bodybuilder performing dips

Dips are a real power building exercise. This movement will put thick slabs of muscle on your triceps, which makes up two-thirds of you upper arm! These are easy to do as well, but you will need two strong chairs or bars that are about 24″ apart, or roughly shoulder width.

Basically you support your body weight with your arms on the two bars or chairs and slowly “dip” or lower yourself by bending your arms until your upper arms are roughly parallel to the floor. Then straighten your arms to push yourself back up.

The muscles worked by dipping exercises are chest, shoulders, triceps and to a lesser degree, your core and other stabilizing muscles.

This exercise is versatile as well. You can use your legs to assist if you can’t yet do these, or to help get another rep when you are at muscular failure. When performing dips, if you lean forward, you will cause the pectorals (chest) to work harder, and if you stay more upright, your triceps will be targeted.

These 3 power movements are the best upper body exercises you can do without weights or gym equipment, and will provide you with a great muscle building workout. I have maintained my upper body muscle for long periods doing little more than these three exercises when work kept me too busy for a full-length workout in my home gym!