Suggestions for HIIT exercises using the upper body?
February 5, 2013 10:26 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to incorporate HIIT into my workout routine but I would like to focus on my arms, chest and back.

I run 4 miles ~4-5x per week. I love running but I would like to do something for my upper body because I'd like to get stronger and well, I have toned legs with spaghetti arms.

I'd like to replace a couple of my running days with about 20 minutes of HIIT. Traditionally I have used HIIT in the past by sprinting a half mile, walking one minute, repeat. I'd like to try something other than running that uses my upper body. Any suggestions?

(also - I HATE HATE HATE lifting weights, and am concerned that I would injure myself doing super fast repetitions. So, I hope to avoid weights but if people have had positive experiences then please share them!)
posted by pintapicasso to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you want stronger, toned arms, you're going to want to lift weights. You'll see better results with low reps and higher weights, which would mean no super fast reps.
posted by entropicamericana at 10:34 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

The only upper body HIIT I've seen done is pushups. On the other hand, you can also probably use pullups. In some classes we've done fast things with body bars (lighter weight bars kind of like barbells), like fast split jerks.

But basically, HIIT is hard with upper body. Regardless, if you do a lot of pullups and pushups, you will get stronger arms, though.
posted by ldthomps at 10:38 AM on February 5, 2013

Do you have access to a rowing machine? It's not purely upper body but certainly would do plenty for your back and arms, and to lesser extent chest.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:45 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The point of HIIT is that it increases your cardiovascular fitness more efficiently than exercising at a moderate pace for the same amount of time. It's not meant to make you stronger or tone your muscles, just to improve your body's ability to pump oxygen to the right places and utilize it better when you're working hard. So HIIT is unlikely to be useful for the upper-body goals you've described.

Also the reason there are not a lot of suggestions out there for upper-body based HIIT is because the muscles in your arms aren't big enough to quickly ramp you up to a high-intensity level of effort. You could do pushups until your arms won't push anymore, but you probably won't get your heart rate up far enough to get the cardiovascular benefits that HIIT is meant to develop.

If you want to use your arms as part of a HIIT workout, you have to find ways to also incorporate the bigger muscles in your body. Burpees as fast as you can for 30 seconds will engage your arms a bit, for instance, while also getting your heart rate up high, quickly. But honestly they're probably not going to tone your arms very much.

You've found the most efficient, scientifically-based method of building cardio fitness with your running. Instead of trying to use it to build strength and tone muscles, which this method wasn't designed for, look for a similarly well-respected and scientifically-supported method to improve your arms in the way you want, whether it's strength or bulk or whatever.
posted by vytae at 10:51 AM on February 5, 2013 [6 favorites]

To tone your upper body, you have to build muscle. Muscle is built with weight-bearing exercise. HIIT is better-suited for cardiovascular training, which generally uses the largest muscle groups that help to raise your heart rate (generally the legs), so HIIT is usually a matter of running or other leg-centric activities.
posted by xingcat at 10:54 AM on February 5, 2013

Rowing machine is a great suggestion- lots of core strengthening, in addition to back & shoulders, and you can probably do some HIIT with it. However, it's really more a core exercise than triceps, etc.

My favorite upper body is a suspension trainer; I do some angled pull-up type exercises with it and some angled pushups. You can do a fair number of exercises with it (search on youtube). Weights may be a better workout, but the suspension trainer is fun so right now I'm more likely to do it.
posted by lyra4 at 10:55 AM on February 5, 2013

The upper-body HIIT I've used has been limited. I've tried kettlebell clean & presses, push presses, and jerks, rowing machines, sandbag work combined with pull-ups or push-ups, and burpees. Note that most of those involved whole-body efforts that included an upper-body push or pull instead of being solely an upper-body effort.

I would really think that dumbbells or kettlebells in the 15-20 pound range would be better than bodyweight-only exercises for you, since you say your goal is strength. The reps don't have to be super-fast; heavy overhead work gets quite sweaty and difficult even at a normal bar speed after a minute or two.

Strength is best developed with the most resistance feasible. Bodyweight exercises can be tough because they're either too easy (like push-ups are, for some people) or too hard (like pull-ups, for many people). This makes them hard to put into a HIIT program in a way that produces strength. HIIT also isn't really ideal for strength in the first place.
posted by daveliepmann at 10:56 AM on February 5, 2013

Best answer: Although I'm not sure how great it is for developing strength, if you want a good way to do HIIT you can always work on a punching bag. Alternate between speed rounds and more controlled, technical rounds. Anecdotal evidence is that after a long batch of speed rounds my arms were flopping around like dead fish.
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:14 AM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

do you have access to a heavy bag and boxing gloves? you could try a boxing workout consisting of two to three minute intervals of boxing combinations (combinations of jabs, crosses, uppercuts, hooks) at your maximum intensity. set a timer for two or three minutes and go at the bag, rest for one minute, and repeat five times. there's no way that won't get your heart rate up.

two minute intervals (or 500 meter intervals) on a rowing machine are another similar option.
posted by dynamiiiite at 11:16 AM on February 5, 2013

As others have said, HIIT really isn't for developing upper body strength.

There is no such thing as "toning" a muscle. However, if you wish to develop upper body strength but hate lifting weights, I recommend bodyweight exercises such as pullups, pushups, and dips. Pushups become too easy? Try one-armed pushups and handstand pushups. And yes, bodyweight exercise will make you strong.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:17 AM on February 5, 2013

Best answer: Canoeing and Kayaking. Swimming. Rowing is indeed great, but it's also mostly a leg exercise. It will make your arms and back stronger but won't neccesarily make you look much less spahetti-armed.

Another idea- incorporate push-ups and pull-ups into your HIIT sprinting sessions.
posted by beau jackson at 11:32 AM on February 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just started doing Zuzka Light's workouts. They are short but TOUGH, and use your own body resistance to work all your major muscle groups. Highly recommend.
posted by something something at 11:35 AM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all for the great suggestions. The reason why I was looking for a HIIT workout is because I would need to cut back on my running in order to fit this in, and I'm worried my endurance will suffer if I go down to 2-3 days a week running, 2 days lifting weights. I think I will dapple in some other stuff - try boxing, kayaking when it gets warm, swimming and see if I like anything enough to stick with it.

(TBH I think I was looking for a magic solution. Using HIIT to improve my running has been phenomenal and fun and only took ~20 minutes each time. From what I gather, bulking muscle isn't something that you can rush and if I really want to get strong I will need to cut out some time for proper workouts.)
posted by pintapicasso at 11:41 AM on February 5, 2013

Best answer: Keep your running workouts and just add in pushups/pullups 2-3x a week. Seriously. It only adds about 5 minutes to your workout.

I wanted to tone my upper arms (mainly so they wouldn't look flabby in tank tops) and started doing pushups and dumbbell rows (with a 20# kettlebell) at home 3x/week with 3 sets of 10 and hey! I have definition in my triceps now, AND I can lift things over my head with more ease. Wonder of wonders. It took all of a month to start noticing a difference.

Check out Mark Lauren's book "You Are Your Own Gym" for an amazing variety of bodyweight exercises. I think he lists 15 variations of push ups.
posted by sazanka at 1:07 PM on February 5, 2013

Best answer: If you are looking for the most efficient way to build muscle tone and strength then the answer is quite likely HIT. Single "I" there because there's no 'interval' it's just "High Intensity Training".

I won't wax too lyrical about it as I'm sure you're capable of doing your own research but we are, essentially, talking about a 20 minute workout with heavy weights, once a week. Significant research has demonstrated that this style of exercise beats or matches other weight-lifting programs.

One of the reasons that I used to hate weights was because of the boredom factor. This effectively eliminates this.

Here are some links in case you are interested about learning more:

Body by Science - which incorporates a lot of these principles.
Mike Mentzer's book, old school stuff, but worth a look.
Drew Baye's blog/website on HIT.
An academic paper, in case you're into that sort of thing.

Good luck.
posted by HopStopDon'tShop at 1:49 PM on February 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

You should look into heavy rope training, it's a good metabolic workout that also involves a good deal of upper body strength.
posted by exit at 3:15 PM on February 5, 2013

If you're into websites/apps rather than books, then check out Sworkit - it's an awesome (and free!) circuit training (bodyweight only) generator which allows you to choose how much time you have and what part of your body to focus on.
posted by atlantica at 6:13 PM on February 5, 2013

Response by poster: Hey all, wanted to pop back in and say that I ended up using the Tabata timer app on my phone to do burpees.... and holy hell my arms and chest are KILLING ME. It's exactly what I was looking for, thanks!
posted by pintapicasso at 5:33 PM on February 11, 2013

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