What weightlifting can I do at home to increase upper body strength?
August 22, 2013 1:39 PM   Subscribe

I regularly walk 6+ miles a day. I'd like to extend my exercise to increasing my strength. Ideally, I'd do bodyweight exercises, but I've tried to do some recently, and my upper body strength is not capable of more than two pushups, nor a single chair dip . So, I need to build my upper body strength with weights, and I want to do so at home. I can get a set of dumbbells. Please tell me which ones, and how to use them.

Books I have on hand:

New Rules of Lifting for Women
You Are Your Own Gym
posted by ocherdraco to Health & Fitness (29 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
No suggestions for specific weights but you should probably do some shoulder presses and chest flys. (The main place I feel muscle ache after pushups isn't in my arms, it's in my chest and shoulders.)
posted by elizardbits at 1:44 PM on August 22, 2013

Are you interested in doing modifications (wall pushups, knee pushups) or just in going straight to weights? You can work into body-weight exercises slowly, if that's what you really want to be doing.
posted by aimedwander at 1:46 PM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

TRX requires some set up prior to use but you can vary the intensity of your workout and also train many different areas.
posted by Cuspidx at 1:46 PM on August 22, 2013

Alternative suggestion - don't try and go straight for regular pushups, but start with (I don't know the proper name for them), the ones where you are almost standing up, pushing yourself away from a wall. You change the angle slowly over time to increase the percentage of your bodyweight you use. I recommend reading "Convict Conditioning" which is a stupidly-named book with a ridiculous central pretense, but an excellent set of exercises. Its not just pushups, there is a core set of exercises, with easier versions that build up to insane (I'll never get there) versions.
posted by Joh at 1:48 PM on August 22, 2013

I went from no pressups to 11 (go me!) by doing them against the wall and on my knees and slowly working up to real ones. This is definitely achievable, but likely slow. I've spent about a year getting to 11, though I haven't been focusing on just this!
posted by kadia_a at 1:48 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I started out only being able to do like five pushups, from my knees, and then I started following the 100pushups schedule and now I can do a whole lot of pushups, not using my knees. My core strength is also way better.

What I'm saying is, you can use weights if you want, but you can also build upper body strength just using your body.
posted by rtha at 1:48 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a variation of 'You are your own gym' aimed at women: did you try beginning the program in YAYOG and couldn't do the beginner exercises, or was there some other problem? Body by You certainly starts at a much easier level than a pushup.

Basically, you can adjust bodyweight exercises to any level of strength. Not being able to do a push-up is not a reason to give up on bodyweight exercises.
posted by jacalata at 1:49 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

A slight derail: With respect to bodyweight exercises, you need to be patient. 2 good pushups is better then 6 crummy ones. And if you stick to a good workout plan that includes lots of rest, in a few months you'll be doing more than 2 pushups.
posted by shino-boy at 1:52 PM on August 22, 2013

Have you tried just starting with the plank pose? That really helped me get to doing full-on push-ups.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 1:53 PM on August 22, 2013 [5 favorites]

Oh I should also say: I'm not a woman but I have been doing strictly bodyweight exercises for the past 18 months. My progress has been slow and steady. Also I agree with joh, Convict Conditioning has a great program for pushups.
posted by shino-boy at 1:55 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stumptuous.com has a section on equipment, with articles on how to equip a home gym and what exercises you can do without weights. The site is aimed at women who want to lift, but much of the advice is gender-neutral. Even if you decide to stick to bodyweight exercises, such as inclined pushups, check out the site.

If you want to get dumbbells, I recommend a basic bench (for doing bench presses and a few other exercises that you can't do on the floor) and basic iron hex dumbbells from a sporting goods store, starting with 5, 8, and 10-lb sets. As you get stronger, you can add 15, 20, 25, etc.-pound weights. These days, stores like Dick's Sporting Goods are selling basic cast iron dumbbells for about $1/lb., so that initial set would cost about $46 plus tax.

Bill Pearl's Getting Stronger is a great overall guide to exercises, and he has a couple of dumbbell-specific workout routines (i.e. they don't require barbells or machines). The drawings of how to do the exercises are precise and unlike photos in other books don't have distracting details.
posted by brianogilvie at 1:56 PM on August 22, 2013

Response by poster: aimedwander: "Are you interested in doing modifications (wall pushups, knee pushups) or just in going straight to weights?"

I don't know. I'm a little overwhelmed by all these questions. I just want to do something that I can start immediately.

Potentially relevant: I don't have any open wall space in my apartment where I would have room for wall pushups.
posted by ocherdraco at 1:57 PM on August 22, 2013

Have you tried doing alternative pushups like countertop or bent knee pushups? I have some pretty rudimentary hand weights (basically some of these) and I am much more likely to knock off a few sideways pushups than get the weights out. I would also suggest keeping an eye out on local freecycles and craigslist because I see weights come up on them all the time and you might be able to get some equipment for not much investment.
posted by jessamyn at 1:57 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't have any open wall space in my apartment where I would have room for wall pushups.

Inside of your front door? Your bathroom door? Your bedroom door? Any door?
posted by elizardbits at 1:58 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a long term weightlifter, and I have recently had to build up muscle from being at a similar 0 pushup level of strength (post surgery). I strongly recommend starting with the "easy" bodyweight lifts and progressing up. "Easy" means from the knees, or the wall pushups others have mentioned.

Another thing that I found incredibly helpful- don't start with the contracting part of the motion (the actual pushing part of the pushup, for example), start with the negative part. Put yourself into "up" position of the pushup, then lower yourself as slowly as you can. Rest a bit, and do it again. Build up the number of times you can do this, then try the contraction phase of the lift. It took me a few weeks before I could actually do any pushups, I was just slowly lowering myself for a while. This also works for things like dips, etc.

If you are still hellbent on buying dumbbells, I'd recc these ones: http://www.amazon.com/Cap-Barbell-Neoprene-Dumbbell-8-Pounds/dp/B0084ZILY0

I'd guess you'd want (2) 5's, (2) 8's, and (2) 10's to start.
posted by DGStieber at 1:59 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If wall push-ups are too easy, you can try push-ups off a kitchen counter and progress from there. I would keep trying your push-ups regardless - two is a good start, and if you can add an extra one every few days or even once a week that's still progress!

Nerdfitness has a beginner bodyweight workout you could try.

One thing that's helpful there is using filled gallon milk jugs as your dumbbells if you don't know what weights to buy - if the milk jugs are too light/heavy you know where to start.
posted by zennish at 2:00 PM on August 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

I can't do pushups either, but I found wall pushups to be way too easy. What I ended up with is doing pushups against the countertop in my kitchen. It's high enough so all my bodyweight is not on my arms, and low enough so that SOME weight is on there. I had to find the right distance to plant my feet, and it made it easier when I found a spot with a wall right at that distance, for support. I have to make sure I keep my core in a really good straight line.
posted by CathyG at 2:00 PM on August 22, 2013

Have you tried just starting with the plank pose? That really helped me get to doing full-on push-ups.

This. Pushups are basically a plank that moves up and down. If you can't hold a plank for the amount of time it would take to do x number of pushups, you need more core strength first. My trainer had me do a couple of plank variations to build my strength for full pushups and I made really quick progress with them.

Variation 1: In a plank position, lower yourself onto your elbows one arm at a time. Then raise yourself back up into the plank one arm at a time. Repeat, alternating arms.

Variation 2: You need a step or low bench or block (6-12 inches high) for this one. Get into a plank with the raised surface right in front of your hands, then step up and down with your hands, alternating arms.
posted by keep it under cover at 2:03 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: elizardbits: "Inside of your front door? Your bathroom door? Your bedroom door? Any door?"

I've just had an apostrophe. Of course a door would work. Thank you.
posted by ocherdraco at 2:05 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

The thing I found most helpful about the 100 pushups program was that it gave me targets for sets and totals. I never signed up with them, but you don't need to - I just tracked my progress by noting how many I should be doing vs how many I could actually do. I progressed remarkably quickly (but given how different everybody's bodies are, YMMV of course).
posted by rtha at 2:16 PM on August 22, 2013

I love doing exercises with a kettle bell. I do pretty all of these and a few more besides a couple of times a week, followed by a good stretch. I enjoy it way more than free weights. Get a decent cast iron one if you can, but start light (5 or 10lbs). Good form is key. I took a class so I had an instructor show me how, but it's easy to do at home once you get the hang of it.

Nthing learning how to hold a plank. It was my bridge to doing real pushups.
posted by futureisunwritten at 2:25 PM on August 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

...and my upper body strength is not capable of more than two pushups

Do you have a couch or overstuffed chair? When I was recovering from thoracic back surgery, my upper body strength went downhill. I was forbidden to do regular pushup by my doctor. Eventually, I started doing pushups against the back of an overstuffed chair. I'd stand about two feet away from the chair, with my hands on the back, and do pushups in that position.

Things were slow at first...maybe only doing a couple to a half-dozen. But, I kept at it and eventually I was doing full sets.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:33 PM on August 22, 2013

2 good pushups is better then 6 crummy ones.

I am of this school of thought, too. If you can already do proper push-ups, then I would just build from there. Focus on form -- back straight, butt down, head up and eyes forward, and try to get your chest as low as you can. Doing them in front of mirror helps tremendously with this.

This is anecdotal evidence, but for what it's worth:

I am a woman without much natural upper body strength. Every time I have taken a significant break from training (like 1 year or more doing zero exercise), I have had to go back to square one with push-ups. But I always start with actual push-ups -- even if I can't do a single one, I start in the correct position and just try to do them until I collapse. Pretty soon, I can do one or two, and doing any more than that seems impossible. But then I can push myself to five, even though it kills me. Then 10, even though it kills me. I'm typically up to sets of 25 within a couple of months. I went through this process just recently, in fact, and now I'm pumping out 4x25 a day no problems. (Now I'm working on chin-ups -- could only do one three weeks ago, and it felt like even two was going to be impossible, but as of yesterday, I'm up to five.)

Whereas, women I have trained with who do the knee pushups (aka girl pushups) never seem to graduate to real pushups in the same period of time -- if ever (though part of that is probably that most people I see doing the knee ones do them badly, with their arse up in the air), and that has been my observation across a number of different gyms and training environments.
posted by retrograde at 2:38 PM on August 22, 2013 [4 favorites]

Check out the FAQ at r/bodyweightfitness. Here's the direct link to their rank beginner routine, and you can find links explaining the various movements in the FAQ as well, as well as lots of other tips.

FWIW wall pushups -> incline pushups -> full pushups is the preferred progression instead of using knee pushups because the latter don't require much core stabilization.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:50 PM on August 22, 2013

I was going to recommend YAYOG (not that I've ever succeeded into doing it really regularly). It generally explains how to make the exercises easier. You can also do shorter ladders and work up to 7.5 minutes as well. (IIRC the advice if you do that is to just do ladders for a little longer each week until you hit 7.5 minutes and then continue with the later weeks.) You might have to swap Let Me Ups out altogether because they're still really hard when modified, at least for me.

Supposedly, modifying push-ups by putting your hands on a higher surface (wall, then counter or desk, coffee table, etc.) helps you build up to 'real' push-ups better than modifying by doing them on your knees (I guess because it requires more core muscles, which standard push-ups use). I did progress from the desk to the coffee table.
posted by hoyland at 4:09 PM on August 22, 2013

Couple of related thoughts (though not always related to each other).

Don't neglect your back. Push-ups are a good compound exercise but if you work really hard on those muscle groups, it can start to mess up your posture as the muscles in the front of your shoulders get larger, faster than the posterior muscles and the muscles in your back.

I'm sure you can find some other exercises in the links provided so far but the one that I can think of off the top of my head for this involves putting you left knee and left hand down on the edge of your bed, couch, coffee table, or pair of chairs. You want to be bent over with your back parallel to the floor. Then pick up your weight (water jug, bucket of rocks, dumbbell, whatever) straight up with your right arm to your shoulder. Keep your hips mostly straight but your back muscles will pull your shoulder back at the top.

The nice thing about weight lifting is that you're just using gravity. Any heavy thing works about as well as any other heavy thing of the same weight. So don't feel like you need anything fancy for weights. You need to be able to do the exercises you want without hurting yourself, know about how much it weighs, and be able to add weight to it progressively.

Lots of people start lifting weights and then give it up. There are used weight sets all over craigslist.

Mark Rippetoe's (a famous strength coach)Starting Strength program advocates 3x5 for most exercises. Three sets of five reps each. The idea is that after your last rep of your last set, you can't do it one more time without a lot of rest. You don't need to be that extreme because you have stuff to do but the closer you can get to it, the better off you'll be. So you want to find the version of push-ups that you can do that.

In a perfect world, you'd work up to 3x5 and then add weight every week. You'll probably want to add reps and when you get up to a certain point, step up the difficulty (this part is key). Keep track of what you're doing somehow. I use a table on a clip board so I can remember how much weight I lifted the last time I worked out otherwise I forget/get confused.

When you first start, your muscles will be FURIOUS with you for the few days afterwards. Stick with it, you'll recover faster pretty quickly. In a cruel twist of fate, the best way to sooth sore muscles (or at least get them to stop hurting faster) is give them the hair of the dog that bit them. If your muscles are crazy sore from doing push-up, the best cure is more push-ups, just do a lighter version (just a few reps or a lighter version of the exercise) or some other way of lightly working the muscles that are sore.

Building muscle is both localized and systematic. If you work out your legs (for example) and only your legs, you body will build muscle everywhere. Your legs would still get the most benefit. The more muscle groups you involve in your workouts the most strength you'll build everywhere. This is one of the reasons why it's often said that if you can only do one weightlifting exercise, do squats. It involves lots of big muscle groups and still works pretty well with just your body weight. Just read up on the technique so you do it right.

One common concern of women working out for strength is that they'll build big ugly muscles and look like a man. That won't happen unless you're a professional body builder or power lifter, even then, it's hard to do. So feel free to go nuts and lift heavy weights.
posted by VTX at 7:17 PM on August 22, 2013

One thing I found: I guess I had weak triceps, because when I started including tricep extensions, pushups got way easier.
posted by PMdixon at 10:37 PM on August 22, 2013

The Toast's weekly fitness challenge this week is all body weight based and will kick your ass as a beginner ( in a good way!)
posted by The Whelk at 7:58 AM on August 24, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Okay, I've tried several different things from this list over the past few days from the many different suggestions here. I've marked the Nerdfitness bodyweight circuit as best answer because it's the right fit for me: it's a workout I am able to complete (with door pushups, anyway), that is still challenging to me, and that won't annoy the neighbors below my apartment too much.

Thanks, everyone! Looks like I'm on my way!
posted by ocherdraco at 12:18 PM on August 27, 2013

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