4 At Home Upper Body Workouts For Maintaining Muscle And Strength

Home workouts to maintain a strong upper body!

Maintaining upper body strength and muscle mass without your gym doesn’t have to feel hopeless, even if you don’t have weights at home.

If you’re looking around for ways to maintain and even build upper body strength with no equipment, you’ll have to get creative, and you’ll have to go to failure — but it’ll be well worth it. So blast your favorite tunes just like you would in the gym and dive in.

Building Your Weightless Workout

You can combine the workouts in whatever way works for you. Especially while we don’t have access to our preferred ways of working out (oh, barbells, how I yearn for you), it’s important to keep your workouts as enjoyable as possible so you can stay motivated. So if you want to keep your training split the same as it usually is, great — arrange the below workouts in whatever way works with your typical program. 

Bodyweight Training Harder

But if you’re looking to mix and match to shake things up, that’s okay, too. Normally don’t combine push and pull days? Try combining your upper back and chest workouts onto the same day. Normally tack arms onto the end of bench day? Try giving them their own workout to really maximize your focus.

However you arrange your workouts, remember that your goal is to keep yourself moving, to maintain muscle, and (perhaps most importantly), to fight off whatever emotional pain might be associated with the sudden lack of gym. So try to revel in the novelty of the moves and have a good time.

Upper Body Warm-Up

If you’re like me, you might be tempted to dive into bodyweight workouts without warming up — after all, it’s only bodyweight work, right? Nope. If you want to really get the most out of your at-home training, you want to make sure you’re warming up properly.

You’ll reduce the risk of injury (yes, you can get injured doing bodyweight work), especially because you’re either going to be working in giant sets (multiple moves per muscle group) or bringing each move to failure. You need to prime your body for this, because if you’re doing it right, it’ll be intense.

Down Dog Into Plank

If you’re a lifter who’s never really met a yoga pose, start this in pushup position. Hike your hips up and back, imagining drawing your tailbone toward the ceiling. Adjust your hands, walking them closer to your feet, so that you can get as much lift as you can. Think about folding your body upwards. Don’t let your shoulders hug up toward your ears — keep your shoulders packed.

Try to bring your heels down to touch the ground (it’s more than okay if you can’t, but prompt your body to try. This will engage your calves and hamstrings much more into the movement). Hover in down dog for as long as you want (it’s a great strength builder and stretch, all at the same time). When your body feels ready, drop your hips and shift your torso forward until you reach a full plank position. However there for a moment, then send your hips back up into down dog. Repeat through a cycle of 15 transitions.

Inchworms

Starting in a neutral standing position, hinge forward (keep your back neutral) and drape your hands down along your shins. Bring your hands as forward as you need to in order to get to the ground (try to come down as close to your body as you can). Once your hands reach the ground, keep your core activated as you walk your hands forward until your body settles into plank position. Hover there for a moment and reverse the walk, until you come to standing again. Repeat, enjoying life as an inchworm for 15-20 full reps.

Arm Screws

By this time, your shoulders will be fairly awake — and now you’re going to wake them even more. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and lift your arms straight out to the sides so your body is forming a T. Imagine you’re grabbing a rope with both hands, making fists around an imaginary rope with your palms facing the ceiling. Keeping this tension, open up through your ankle and hips by turning your right foot and right knee in toward the center of your body (like you would if you were throwing a punch).

Along with that motion, “screw” your right arm into your shoulder socket. Maintain a strong fist facing the ceiling. Raise your right shoulder toward your right ear, and with your shoulder raised and elbow still locked straight, rotate your right fist and arm so that your fist sweeps forward, then down, then settle with your palm facing behind you.

As your right arm goes through that screwing motion, keep your left arm locked and steady, with your entire body shifting toward your left side. Unscrew your right arm and bring your foot and knee back to center. Repeat the motions with your left arm. Go through 10 reps on each side — if you’re doing it right, it’ll probably burn to keep your arms locked and out throughout the whole move. Rest and shake it out as needed.

The Workouts

If you feel like rocking out giant sets (one move after another), go for it. But also feel free to stick with one movement, go to failure, rest as needed, and hit the same move again until the prescribed number of sets is done. With some extra rest, you’ll likely be able to push out more reps per set, more reps per move, and therefore get the most out of your upper body bodyweight sessions. Working to failure is really going to help you get stronger, so really challenge yourself here.

Workout 1: Shoulder Emphasis

Training your shoulders doesn’t always have to be about pushing (though there certainly will be some of that). Make sure to really dial in your form on all of these moves, and really invest in maximizing your time under tension here.

Pike Pushups

Remember that down dog position from the warmup? You’re going to get into roughly the same position again, pressing your hips back up toward the ceiling. Adjust your hands underneath you until you find a position that you’re comfortable pressing down into. Making sure you don’t “chicken wing” and flare your elbows out all willy nilly past 45 degrees, perform a pike pushup by keeping your hips elevated throughout your press and bringing the top of your head down toward the floor. For an extra challenge, elevate your feet on a low chair or other stable surface.

Training Recommendation: 3 sets to failure

Tricep Pushups

With your hands directly underneath your shoulders, get into a pushup position with your feet together. (If you need more balance, of course, step your feet farther apart from each other.) Keeping your elbows tucked strictly into your sides, squeeze your glutes and quads as you lower slowly into a pushup. Feel free to pause at the bottom before rising back up. Make sure to take these slowly (and sling a loaded backpack onto your back if you want to up the ante even more.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to failure

Close-Grip Push-Up
Close-Grip Push-Up

Crab Walk

Sit on the ground with your chest upright, your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor in front of you. Bring your hands back behind you with your palms down and your fingers facing the wall behind you. Make sure your wrists feel alright and adjust as needed. (Pro-tip: sharp pain means stop.) When you’re ready, raise your hips slightly off the ground so that your hands and feet are holding your bodyweight.

Once you’re stable, gently lift your left foot and right hand off the ground at the same time and walk them forward in unison. Raise your right foot and left hand and do the same. Walk like a crab (back, forth, and even sideways — have a good time) until you decide to become human again.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to near failure (with a few seconds of walking in the tank)

Unilateral Lateral Raises

Load a backpack, fill a milk jug, or grab an old college textbook you’ve been yearning to get revenge on. Whatever impliment or weight works for you will work for this exercise. Brace your core so that you’re keeping your body upright and stable as you keep your elbow soft but steady and raise your glass (erm… improvised weight) up to the side. When you reach shoulder height in your lateral lift, lower as slowly as you can back down to your side. Repeat on the opposite side.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to near failure (with two or three raises left in the tank)

Unilateral Front Raises

Set up the same way that you set up for your lateral raises, except this time, you’re lifting that homemade weight up in front of your body instead of out to the side. Try your best not to kip the weight, and it’s especially important to squeeze both your glutes and your quads to protect your low back here. Slow is key here — it’ll be relatively simple to blast out reps based on momentum, but really try to keep it steady here for maximum benefit.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to near failure (with two or three raises left in the tank)

Workout 2: Upper Back Emphasis

Because these lifts are unweighted, feel free to really go ham here — get into your most pumped up mental space and don’t call it failure too early. Really work for every single rep, and emphasize slow, slow, slow movement to reap the most benefit from these bodyweight back exercises.

Supermans

Lay on your back and extend your arms straight out above your head. Tilt them out just slightly to the sides, a little less than 45 degrees out — in other words, you don’t have to hug your ears with your shoulders here. With slow control and a solid exhale, drive your hips down into the ground as you lift your shoulders and thighs off the ground as high as they’ll go.

Think about forming a soft U with your body, but keep your glutes squeezed so you’re not tempted to try to use your low back to get extra range of motion. Wherever your range is right now is more than fine. As long as you’re going slowly — superman up and then down and then back to flying position, etc. — you’ll build solid upper back strength with this Clark Kent move. 

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to failure

Bent Arm Reverse Snow Angels

These are similar to your supermans, so you’re going to start in the same position. Instead of straight arms, though, bend your elbows and “snow angel” your way up and down your range of motion. Start by traveling your arms above your head, then bring them as far down your sides as they’ll go. Come back up to complete your face-planted snow angel, and repeat. Make sure you’re breathing.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to failure

TRX/Bed Sheet TIYs

If you’ve got a TRX band that you can secure into a doorway, set that up. If you don’t, grab a couple of extra bed sheets and tie a big knot on the ends. Secure the knots in the doorway just like a TRX and grasp makeshift handles just like you would a TRX. Squeeze your glutes and your quads to keep your lower back out of the equation and adjust your feet so you’re leaning backwards and down at an angle that works for you. (The closer your feet are to the doorway/the more horizontal your body is, the harder you’ll have to work.) 

Keep your elbows soft but not bent. On an exhale, squeeze your shoulder blades together, imagining that someone is touching your upper back and you’re trying to squeeze their hand. Use that force to extend your arms out so your body forms a T. Slowly move back to starting position, keeping your hips steady (not hiking up or sinking). Repeat the movement, activating through your back rather than yanking through your arms, but this time, change the angle so that you’re pulling yourself into a Y. Lastly, bring your arms above your held and activate your pull forward so that you’re forming — you guessed it — an I.

Training Recommendation: 3 full sets (all three formations) to failure

TRX/Bed Sheet Inverted Rows

Set up your body and your TRX band/bed sheets the same way, but this time you’re going to complete inverted rows. Start the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades back (don’t yank with your biceps or rely on momentum) and pull yourself in your inverted row until your chest is roughly even with your hands. Lower back slowly. And I mean slowly — to get the most out of this move, go at an achingly slow pace to maximize time under tension. If you need to progress the movement, prop your feet up on a stable chair (to get as horizontal as possible).

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to failure

Wall Walkouts

Find a blank wall, make sure your feet are clean (clean feet are better than socks because you’ll have more grip), and stand facing away from the wall. Get down into inchworm position (so, a full plank) as close to the wall as you can. Slowly and with steady control, start walking your hands backward and your feet upward, climbing the wall with your feet.

Your goal is to get your hands as close to the wall as you feel comfortable with. Definitely recruit your roommate as a spotter if you’re not used to being in an inverted position. You can reverse your walk and walk out away from the wall to get out of the position, or you can hop down if you’re used to the movement and feel super safe and confident.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to near failure (with three or four full range of motion reps left in the tank)

Workout 3: Chest Emphasis

You might be tempted to think it’s easy to train your chest without any equipment, but regular old pushups in stable sets get old after a while. Try out these pushup variations and really shake up how you’re training your chest at home.

Archer Pushups

Get into pushup position with your hands wider than normal. Rotate your left hand out so your fingertips are facing away from your body and lean to the right as you straighten your left arm. Sink into a pushup on your right side, keeping your left arm as straight as you can throughout the movement (you should be in a position similar to an archer stringing a bow, hence the clever name).

Switch sides by bringing the fingers of your left hand back to facing out in front of you and shifting the fingers of your right hand out to the side. Straighten your right arm as you lean to the left this time, and repeat. Try to flow back and forth between sides.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets (per side) to failure

Diamond to Wide Pushups

Start with a diamond pushup — with your index fingers and thumbs forming roughly a diamond shape directly under your chest — and keep your elbows locked to your sides as you sink into the move. Once you complete your diamond pushup, hop or walk your hands out to a wide pushup position. Make sure you’re not so wide that you’ll have little to no range of motion, but also resist the “chicken wing” flap of letting your elbows splay out to the sides. Complete that wide pushup, then hop or walk back into diamond position. That’s one rep.

Training Recommendation: 3 rounds of AMRAP (as many reps as possible) for two minutes each round

Split Pushup

Sink into a lateral lunge (I know we’re doing a pushup here, just bear with it). Lean forward until your hands reach the ground in front of your bent knee, then let your bent knee also (gently) hit the ground. In this position, shift your weight around until you’re comfortable sitting back into the hip of your bent knee. Walk your hands out in front of you until you’re in a position where you can lean forward and complete a pushup. Complete said pushup and press back into your hips. Shift your weight forward again and repeat.

Training Recommendation: 3 rounds of AMRAP for one minute per side each round

Pressmaster/Shutterstock

TRX/Bedsheet Flyes

Set up your TRX or makeshift bedsheet TRX and make sure it’s stable. Grab both handles on either side of your body and turn to face away from the doorway or anchor. Let your body drop forward with control, extending your arms out (with soft elbows) to the side. Make like you’re performing a cable flye, except your bodyweight is giving you the resistance. Keep your chest up and your torso stable and neutral throughout the move.

Training Recommendation: 4 sets to failure

Pushups For Time

Yep, we’re heading to classic pushups — no flaring out your elbows, folks — but with a bit of a twist. The twist? You’re going to bang out 100 reps as fast as possible. Keep your torso locked the whole time, engaging your glutes and quads to prevent your low back from sinking and your hips from rising. Set a timer, and see how fast you can get to 100 reps.

Workout 4: Arm Emphasis

Getting in a good arm workout with no weights can be tricky, but if you’ve got the right moves, you’ll have a good time. Since your bis and tris are significantly smaller than your other muscle groups, you’re still going to work to failure — but this time, you’re going to superset those moves. Once you’ve pushed your biceps to failure, hit your triceps (or vice versa). This will challenge your entire body to stay engaged as you fight to keep your core tight and your form perfect through these no-equipment arm lifts.

A1: Bicep Pushups

Set up in a regular pushup position, except instead of having your fingers facing forward, you’ll rotate your arms so that your fingers are facing back behind you. (So, instead of the crook of your elbows facing each other, they’ll be rotated out to face in front of you.)

You might have to play with your hand position — possibly just outside your shoulders — to find the spot where your combined strength and flexibility will allow this movement, but once you find it, perform pushups as you normally would. Keep your elbows tucked in and engage your biceps as you press your bodyweight slowly up and down. Keep only two or three reps in the tank and switch to tricep pushups.

A2: Tricep Pushups

Shake your wrists out and reposition your hands to regular pushup position (fingers facing forward). Keeping your elbows tucked in, lower your body down and back up in a clean tricep pushup — even though you’ll already be fatigued, make sure you’re not rushing these reps. Go to near failure (one or two reps in the tank), rest as needed, and complete three rounds of this circuit.

B1: Tricep Split Pushup

Set up the same as you did earlier for a split pushup, but keep your hands closer together than you did when you were emphasizing your chest. Make sure your elbows stay near your ribs throughout the movement. Complete to near failure, leaving two or three reps in the tank.

B2: Doorway Bodyweight Curl

Stand with your feet roughly straddling a stable doorway and grip the edge of the doorway (not near the door hinge, because you’ll get your fingers caught in there) with the fingertips of your left hand. Shift your feet forward and your torso back (like you would if you were setting up for a TRX inverted row) until your arm is straight. Curl your bodyweight up toward the door, using your biceps to control the movement both up and down. Complete to failure on each side, remembering that failure means as many reps as you can do with good form.

B3: Close Grip Quad Press

Sit back on your haunches like you’re leaning forward from the deepest squat you can do. Set up your hands on the floor a little above your shoulders, and widen your foot placement. Let your body sink toward the floor, equally distributing your bodyweight between your quads and arms as you press back up. Keep your elbows tucked in so the emphasis of your upper body pressing is on your triceps. Go until failure, rest as needed, and repeat the circuit three times.

C1: Weighted Tricep Pushup

Toss a loaded backpack onto your back (just how loaded it is depends on how strong your tricep pushup is). Complete as many tricep pushups as you can, to failure. It’s as simple as that.

C2: Negative Towel Curls

Fill a backpack with your college textbooks or the Harry Potter series and loop a hand towel through the top handle of the bag. Curl the bag up with both hands grasping opposite ends of the towel. Contract your biceps hard at the top and then slowly lower. Draw out the eccentric portion of the lift as long as you can, counting to at least a slow seven on each negative rep. Go to failure, and this time it’s okay to kip the weight up to starting position for the last couple of reps (since your focus in on the eccentric portion). Repeat the circuit three times, resting as needed in between.

Build Your Upper Body With No Weight

It can be tough to imagine how to build your upper body if you don’t have weights (or the motivation to lift in the absence of your barbell besties). But if you maintain a decent program for yourself, you’re going to be able to maintain your upper body muscle mass and strength at home — which is really what everybody’s after right now.

Jay Polish

Jay Polish

Dr. Jay Polish is an American Council on Exercise certified personal trainer, and holds an additional certification in Kettlebell Athletics. A competitive powerlifter, their personal training practice focuses on empowering both new and experienced lifters with body positive training methods of strength and circuit training.

They teach Theater and English in the CUNY system, where they received their PhD in English. They live in California with their wife and their fantasies of having multiple puppies. Their website is here. You can train with them through Trainerize.

When they're not in the gym, they moonlight as the author of two young adult books, LUNAV and LOST BOY, FOUND BOY (March 2018, NineStar Press).

Their debut novel, LUNAV, a lesbian enemies-to-lovers faerie tale, features dragons that grow on trees and friendship amongst rebellion. Their debut novella, LOST BOY, FOUND BOY, is a scifi re-telling of Peter Pan in which Neverland is a holomatrix, Hook is a bisexual cyborg, and Tink is an asexual lesbian computer interface.

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