When we think of arm exercises, we think curls and triceps extensions, but there are so many more moves to build muscle. In fact, there’s a whole host of arm moves that require no equipment, (maybe just a sturdy overhead bar). By virtue of their supportive nature, bodyweight moves tend to activate the abdominal and lower back muscles. This is a win-win when primarily targeting your arms.
Bodyweight training is when a person uses the weight of his or her body to provide resistance. Bodyweight exercises range from basic moves like a push-up to more advanced “flows” that incorporate several movements into one. For people that think bodyweight training doesn’t get you strong, look no further than gymnasts and calisthenics athletes. The benefits of bodyweight training include the fact that it’s specific to your body’s size, it strengthens several muscles at once, develops muscular endurance, improves body control, and there’s less injury risk compared to free weights. To increase the intensity of bodyweight exercises, you can increase the number of repetitions or change the movement to make it offer more resistance, such as elevating the feet during a push-up.
Try these ten bodyweight upper body exercises to sculpt your arms, shoulders, and core—mostly those guns, though.
Close Grip Push-up
How to do it: Get into a narrow plank position with your palms flat on the floor about six inches apart, toes pointed to the ground, and body in a straight line. this is the starting position. Keeping your elbows tight to your body, lower yourself towards the ground until your chest touches or nearly touches the ground. Extend your arms against the ground to push yourself back into the starting position; that’s one rep.
Trainer Tip: The narrow grip targets the triceps more than a wider grip, which hits the chest muscles first. Beginners should do these while kneeling on a mat.
How to do it: Get into a downward dog position where your palms are flat on the ground, legs straight and toes on the ground. Your back should form a “V” shape and your head hangs down between your shoulders looking between your legs; this is the starting position. Bend both elbows towards the ground and touch the floor with your forearms. Now, push yourself back into the downward dog position so that your forearms are off the ground; that’s one rep. Do two to three sets for eight to ten reps.
Trainer Tip: This move targets the triceps. If it’s too hard, do a downward dog into a cobra pose, aka vinyasa flow.
How to do it: From the top of the standard push-up position, step the right foot forward inside of your right palm. The right foot should not be outside of the right arm. Next, move the left hand forward in front of you. Now, switch sides by stepping forward with the left leg inside of the left palm and gain ground with your right hand. Keep your hips as low as possible through this exercise. Continue this for 50 yards.
Trainer Tip: This isn’t a gallop where your hips are high and you’re just trying to cover ground. Pretend like you’re crawling underneath a wall or barbed wire to keep yourself low to the ground. The crawl works the entire body, especially the shoulders.
How to do it: Lie on your back with legs straight, bottoms of heels on the ground and arms extended towards the ceiling; this is the starting position. Row both arms towards the ground with elbows tight to the body and push your triceps into the ground, causing your upper back to come off the ground; relax your head here. Keeping pushing off your elbows and triceps until your shoulder blades are almost touching and there are a few inches between the back and the ground. Straighten your arms again above your torso; that’s one rep.
Trainer Tip: This is one of the few purely bodyweight back exercises. You should feel your rear deltoids and upper back muscles start to fatigue after three sets of ten reps. When bringing the arms towards the ground, grab the air and create tension in the biceps.
How to do it: Sit on the floor with arms extended, palms on the floor behind you and at your sides, and knees bent at 90 degrees. The direction of your palms depends on how you’re comfortable, but most prefer the wrist slightly rotated out. Raise your hips off the ground and tighten your core; this is the starting position. Bend your elbows and lower your body towards the ground until you feel the tension in your triceps. Straighten your arms and return to the starting position.
Trainer Tip: To increase difficulty, straighten legs so only the bottoms of the heels are on the ground. You can also place your hands on a raised platform like a sturdy chair or box. The goal is to increase the muscular endurance of the triceps and shoulders. Do three sets of 15-20 reps.
How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder width apart, arms straight down at sides with palms facing down and spine straight; this is the starting position. Do an upright row by pulling your arms straight up towards your chin while keeping the elbows tucked to the sides. Don’t shrug the shoulders, curl your arms, or swing your body. At the highest position, your elbows should be level with your shoulders. Now, flip the wrists up and back so that it looks like you’re ready to press something overhead; this is position two. Now, do a bodyweight overhead press by extending the arms straight towards the ceiling, bringing your hands together, separating them, and returning to position two. Lastly, lower the arms back down to the starting position.
Trainer Tip: This move really builds shoulder strength and endurance. After three sets of eight reps, you’ll feel the burn. If you do want to try it with dumbbells, all you’ll need is five to 15 pounds maximum. Don’t fly through the exercise. Take five seconds to get to position two, then another five seconds to complete the press, and another five seconds to return to start.
How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder with apart, back straight, shoulders back, arms at your sides and palms facing forward. Engage your abdominal muscles. Make a fist and bring your wrists toward your upper chest, keeping the arms at the sides, stopping when you feel maximum tension on the biceps. Squeeze the biceps at the top for three seconds then slowly (take ten seconds) bring both arms back down to the sides simultaneously; that’s one.
Trainer Tip: The slow nature of the negative (lowering) portion creates a better muscle growth stimulus compared to lowering the arms quickly. Try three to four sets of ten to 12 reps. Use resistance bands or a suspension trainer to increase intensity.
How to do it: Grab a sturdy overhead structure, like a pull-up bar, with hands at shoulder width and palms facing you (supinated grip). Hang from the bar with arms extended, shoulder blades pushed back, chest up, and core tight. Use your back and biceps to pull your body up until your chin is over the bar. Take five seconds to lower yourself down to the hang position; that’s one rep.
Trainer Tip: Again, the slow negative or eccentric portion stimulates the growth of the biceps here. If you can’t do chin-ups or pull-ups, do an inverted row from a bar set up about four feet from the ground. Position yourself underneath a sturdy bar like a Smith machine or barbell in a squat rack, grab bar, and pull your chest towards it. Aim for three sets of five reps for the chin-ups or rows.
How to do it: Get into a straight arm plank position with core engaged and body in a straight line. Place a five-pound plate, sliding disc, or a paper plate on the floor under your toes; this is the starting position. Walk your body forward by moving one arm forward at a time and letting your feet drag along the sliding object.
Trainer Tip: Although you may feel this move most in your shoulders and triceps, it also greatly activates the abdominal muscles. Contract your glutes, hamstrings, and thighs to work your legs, too. Aim to travel 30 yards then turn around and come back; do six total trips.
How to do it: Hold a thick towel with both hands a few inches away from the ends. Twist the towel repeatedly until it gets so tight it can no longer be twisted. Twist the towel in the other direction until it can’t be twisted anymore. Do this for three sets of ten reps in each direction.
Trainer Tip: Make this harder by wetting the towel and wringing out the water, then, wetting the towel and wringing it out in the other direction. The forearms and fingers get a workout with this move.
Work these equipment-free exercises into your routine when you can’t get to the gym, are traveling, or need a quick upper body workout.
Mark Barroso is an NSCA-CPT and Spartan SGX Coach.