How to Build the Upper Body Without Weights

Pushups offer one way to build the arms and chest.

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You don't always need to lift or swing heavy weights to get stronger and to build bigger muscles in your upper body. While traditional weight training at the gym tends to target muscle groups rather than movement, body-weight exercises typically rely on your own weight as its own resistance, using multiple joints to coordinate movement, says exercise physiologist Jason Karp. With some space, a few simple tools and a dose of creativity, you can get a full, upper-body workout with old-school calisthenics in about 30 minutes.

Beginning Pushup and Pullup Superset


Perform three to five minutes of skipping rope to get your heart pumping. Warm up your torso, hips, shoulders and arms by doing dynamic stretches for five to 10 minutes, such as standing torso twists, hip swings, shoulder rolls and arm swings.


Prepare the bar on a squat rack or a Smith machine for your pushup and pullup superset. Set the bar between 2 to 3 feet off the floor.


Grab the bar with both hands about shoulder-distance apart with the knuckles facing up, and position your chest over the bar with your legs together. Your toes and the balls of your feet should be touching the floor. Keep your head and spine in alignment with your hips and legs so your body is almost in a straight line.


Inhale as you lower your chest toward the bar until your chest almost touches it with your arms close to your ribs. Do not stick your head forward or sag your hips to the floor. Exhale as you push yourself up until your arms are fully extended, lifting your torso and hips at the same time. Perform eight to 12 reps.


Keep holding onto the bar after you complete a set of pushups. Crawl under the bar so the bar is above your chest. Put your feet on the floor about hip-distance apart, and push your buttocks up to prevent your hips from sagging. Your knuckles should be facing you.


Exhale as you pull yourself toward the bar until your chest barely touches the bar, while squeezing your shoulder blades together. Inhale as you lower your body until your arms are fully extended. Do not shrug your shoulders or sag your hips. Perform eight to 12 reps. Rest for one minute and repeat the superset two more times.


Increase the pushup intensity by doing the standard pushup with your hands and feet on the floor, or a decline pushup in which you elevate your feet on a workout bench or a similar surface. Always keep your head in alignment with your spine, hips and legs.

Dips and Chin-Ups Superset


Place your hands on either side of a pair of parallel dip bars, with your hands and wrists below your shoulders, so your arms form a straight, vertical line from your shoulders to your wrists. Extend your legs straight down, or bend your knees and cross your ankles.


Inhale as you bend your elbows and lower your body until your upper arms are roughly parallel to the bars. Do not stick your head forward or shrug your shoulders excessively, although a bit of shrugging can help you push your arms down. Exhale as you push your hands against the bars, lifting your body straight up until your arms are extended. Perform five to 10 reps.


Grab a pullup bar with both hands about as wide as your shoulder girdle's width. Your palms should be facing you. Position your legs in the same way as you did for the dips. Exhale as you pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Do not stick your head forward or round your spine. Inhale as you lower your body until your arms are fully extended. Do not shrug your shoulders. Perform five to 10 reps. Rest for one minute and repeat the superset two more times.


  • Supersets can boost your workout intensity because you do two exercises that work different muscle groups without rest between exercises. You can mix in other strength activities to create your own superset, such as pullups and pushups. This breaks the monotony that can set in if you do the same old workout weekly. Don't forget to train your lower body, too. Add squats, lunges and step-ups to your superset workout.
  • No muscle-building routine is complete without proper nutrition timing. Exercise physiologist Len Kravitz suggests that you consume a meal of protein and carbohydrates within 45 minutes after your workout. This is the "window of opportunity" to maximize muscle repair and replenish your body with nutrients. Consult with a sports dietitian for a customized meal plan if you have special conditions, such as diabetes, gluten intolerance or metabolic syndrome.


  • See a physician or another qualified medical professional if you experience pain in your shoulders, back or hips while working out. Work with a qualified exercise trainer for a few weeks if you're new to exercise before attempting to train on your own.

Resources (9)

  • The Essence of Body Weight Training; Juan Carlos Santana
  • New York Times: No Weights? No Bench? No Problem.
  • Push-Up
  • Pull-Up
  • Inverted Row
  • Incline Push-Up
  • Triceps Dip
  • Bench Dip
  • Decline Push-Up