Many of us know how to build lower-body strength without gym equipment. And we have plenty of at-home core exercises at the ready, too. But when it comes to upper-body workouts, we’re nothing without our dumbbells, our pull-up bars, and our weight machines. No-equipment upper-body exercises don’t come to mind as easily as crunches and squats. If we can’t make it to the gym—for whatever reason—our arms are simply doomed.
The thing is, there are actually a ton of no-equipment upper-body exercises out there. (And there are definitely too many for us to feel like we have no options.) Shoulder-tap planks and mountain climbers will work out your abs and arms in equal measure. Bear crawls are a great way to challenge yourself, especially if you have space to move around. And inchworms can act as a transition into and out of planks, making the go-to exercise just a touch more demanding.
Of course, there are a few more obvious upper-body exercises worth integrating into your rotation. Push-ups are a classic for a reason—though there are several modifications you can try to render them more interesting. Tricep dips may seem a little basic, but they can be an excellent way to build strength. And planks can be just as useful for your upper body as they are for your core—especially if you throw in some thoughtful modifications.
The good news? There are tons of no-equipment upper-body exercises worth crafting full workouts from. Do them all every day, mix-and-match a few as you see fit, or work to master just one at a time. Since they require no equipment, you can do them virtually anywhere. So once you’ve crafted a routine you love, you can take it with you no matter where you are—and no matter what fitness resources you have access to.
Push-ups are a great way to work out your arms, your chest, your back, your abs, and your legs. Though many of us are familiar with the classic exercise, a lot of us do it wrong. Start with your hands shoulder-width apart and your body lifted in a high plank. Then, bend your arms so that your elbows are at a 45-degree angle from your body. (That means they aren’t totally parallel to your body, and they aren’t splayed all the way out either—they’re somewhere in between.) Make sure to engage your core and glutes so that your body stays in a straight line as you push up and down.
If push-ups aren’t manageable for you, don’t sweat it. Lower your knees to the ground and try a push-up from there. If you want to make things more challenging (or just challenging in a different way), you can adjust the position of your hands. Widening your stance so that your hands are a little farther than shoulder-width apart will offer a different workout than a standard push-up, and walking your hands together to form a small triangle under your chest will too.
Planks are a go-to core exercise, but they can offer a great arm workout, too. To keep the focus on building upper-body strength, try trading classic planks for shoulder-tap planks. Start in a standard plank (on your hands, not your forearms), then brace your core as you lift your right hand up to touch your left shoulder. Once you’ve tapped your shoulder, put your right hand back down to support your plank, and then lift your left hand up to touch your right shoulder. Keep alternating your shoulder taps until you feel adequately challenged.
If shoulder-tap planks are too much for you, try building upper-body strength through a standard plank (or come down onto your forearms for a forearm plank). If you want to up the ante, try a full-on side plank. Start in a standard plank, then turn onto your right side, so that your left foot is stacked on top of your right foot. From there, lift your left arm straight up into the air, so that only your right arm, your core, and your stacked feet are supporting you. Do a static hold until you feel adequately challenged, and then, repeat this on the other side.
Though you may not have heard of the “superman” before, you’ve likely seen it—or even attempted something like it. Start by lying down, facing the floor. Your arms should be stretched out straight in front of you, and your legs should be stretched out straight behind you. From there, engage your core to lift up your front body and your feet. This should build strength in your upper back.
If this feels like enough of a challenge, keep lifting up and down—and experiment with how long you can hold yourself in the air at a time. If you want to make it a little tougher, add in an arm workout. Instead of starting with your arms stretched out in front of you, start with them bent—so that your elbows are in line with your ribs and your forearms are parallel with your body. Lift up from there. Then, while elevated, stretch your arms out straight in front of you, then pull them back into their bent position, then lower back down. This should increase your time in the air, and give your arms a little bit of heat.
Tricep dips may seem a little obvious, but they’re an effective way to build tricep strength—especially in lieu of equipment. Start by sitting down with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Then put your arms just behind the rest of your body. Make sure they’re about shoulder-width apart and that your hands are facing forward. From there, straight your arms until your body is lifted. (When elevated, your body should look like the letter M.) Then, bend your arms to lower your butt to the ground, and then straighten them to lift yourself back up. Keep going until you feel appropriately challenged. (This one might require more reps than some of the others.)
If this feels too easy, experiment with elevating your tricep dips. If there’s a couch or chair nearby, you can try doing tricep dips with your hands placed on that elevated surface (rather than on the ground). This can allow you to dip a bit deeper and get more of a challenge.
The inchworm can be an annoying workout move to do on its own, but paired with push-ups or planks, it can feel incredibly challenging. Start by standing up straight. Then, bend down until your hands touch the ground. (Try to plant them shoulder-width apart.) From there, you’ll want to walk your hands forward until you’re in a high plank. Then, you’ll want to walk your hands back until you’re standing up straight again.
You can repeat this move over and over on its own, or you can use it as a transition into and out of planks and push-ups. Try inchworming your way down, doing a push-up, and inch-worming your way back up. Or experiment with inch-worming your way into a high plank, doing a set of shoulder taps, and then inchworming your way back up to standing straight. Since this one works so well as a segue, options abound. Feel free to get creative!
There’s no denying it: Mountain climbers are a great way to work out your arms and abs. Start in a high plank, and make sure your hands are shoulder-width apart. Then, engage your glutes and your core as you lift one foot off the ground, bend your knee, and bring your knee in toward your chest. Then, kick it back out and re-assume your plank. Repeat this with your other foot. And keep going until you feel adequately challenged.
If you’re new to mountain climbers, you may want to take them slow. And even if you do, you’ll still get a veritably tough workout. (Just make sure to focus on the quality of your movement!) If you want to make things a bit more challenging, increase the pace until your mountain climbers feel like a bona fide cardio workout.
You can also experiment with spiderman mountain climbers. Instead of bringing your knee in toward your chest, you bring your knee around to meet your elbow. This will challenge your hips and glutes a bit more, but it won’t lend itself very well to cardio.
Bear crawls are tough. And while they’re especially great if you have room to move around, you can just as easily make them work in a more confined space. Start in a tabletop position, with your arms straight and shoulder-width apart, and with your knees touching the ground, about hip-width apart. Your feet should also be touching the ground, and your calves should form two parallel lines behind you. From there, press your toes into the ground to lift your heels and your knees off the ground.
This position can be challenging to hold—it’s basically a tabletop plank—but it’s just the beginning of this exercise. From there, crawl forward, taking a step with your right foot and your left hand, and then with your left foot and your right hand. The workout is more challenging if you move your foot and hand simultaneously, so try to do that to the best of your ability. If space is an issue, don’t crawl forward. Instead, lift your left foot and your right hand and bring them in to touch. Then do the same with your right foot and left hand.
Keep going until you feel appropriately challenged. And of course, if the bear crawl seems too intense, try a static hold of the tabletop plank.
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