How do I build upper body strength without weights?
April 2, 2008 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Looking for a simple routine to build upper body strength without weights.

I am interested in developing my upper body strength, but I am terrible at going to the gym in order to do so. I can do aerobics there every day, but I can never seem to get around to doing weights.

Anyway, I'm trying to change by starting off at home. I don't have any weights at home, so I am interested in a small set of exercises that I could do on a semi-regular basis to help develop my upper body strength. I would prefer something simple.

Thanks, y'all.
posted by rachelpapers to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Sassyfras at 7:10 AM on April 2, 2008

Do push-ups. Uber-simple, effective, no equipment required. You can buy free weights for cheap, or use soup cans, etc, if you're just starting out.
posted by Penelope at 7:11 AM on April 2, 2008

posted by notyou at 7:16 AM on April 2, 2008


Tricep dips on the edge of a chair.

Lift heavy things over your head. Use a jug of water or a dictionary or whatever's handy.

Handstands, against the wall if necessary.

posted by vytae at 7:17 AM on April 2, 2008

Shoot. Forgot the link: Simplefit.
posted by notyou at 7:17 AM on April 2, 2008

Install a chin-up bar.
posted by saladin at 7:43 AM on April 2, 2008

Yeah, put in a chin-up bar, and do pushups just...whenever you get the urge. Shovelglove is great, but only if you *do* it, which sounds like your big problem here. I do like the mindset of Shovelglove - taking 14 minutes only.

I know you said you'd prefer stuff at home. However, you might consider swapping out an aerobics class for a little time in the pool. Twice a week, get in the pool (assuming your gym has one) and just do what you can, resting no more than :30 when you decide on breaks. See for sample workouts. Swimming will not build huge biceps, but your shoulders will look like you've got a 2x4 in your shirt, and your arms will look like ropes.
posted by notsnot at 8:07 AM on April 2, 2008

The water jug thing is right on. Get a couple of gallon milk containers (or, heck, a couple gallons of milk) and use those as weights. They're fairly easy to hold, and if you use water, you can vary the weights. I usually started with having them about half full and using two for behind-the-head tricep extensions.

They work very well for water aerobics, using them as both weights (as described above) and floats (so you can extend your arms, lean back and do situp/Pilates-type core exercises).
posted by Madamina at 8:17 AM on April 2, 2008

Try this:

1) Start by touching your toes. Slowly stand up straight, keeping your arms outstretched; your arms will gradually point from down to front to above your head, until you reach full height. Continue reaching for the sky by standing on tiptoes. Slowly move the arms from the twelve-o-clock position outward, keeping them straight, and downward, until they rest at your sides. While your arms come down, you should gradually bring your heels back to the ground. The entire stretch should take about 30 seconds to complete. Repeat twice.

2) Slowly rotate your right arm vertically and clockwise, from pointing straight down to behind you to up to front to down. Alternate rotating the left arm and the right arm in the same manner. Repeat seven more times. It should look like the crawl or freestyle swimming stroke. Reverse the motion (backstroke) for eight repetitions.

3) Bend your arms at the elbow and hold them straight out so the elbows are horizontal to the shoulders. Keeping your face forward, twist your trunk to the left until your elbows point to the front and back. Twist your trunk to the right, keeping the elbows high, past the middle, until the left elbow is in front. Twist back. Do this seven more times.

4) Sit down on the floor, legs forward. Place your right foot flat on the floor, on the outside of your left knee. Point your left arm toward your outstretched left foot. Your left elbow should rest agaist the outside of your right knee. Keep your face forward. Your trunk should have to twist; hold this position for ten seconds, then mirror the pose. Repeat twice.

5) Lie on your stomach. Keeping your hips on the floor, push up with your arms (like a pushup) so that your back is arched and your face looks upwards. Hold this pose for ten seconds. Repeat twice.

Now do a set of no less than twenty pushups, keeping your hands far apart and your body straight and parallel to the ground.

After finishing your set of pushups, stand up and repeat step 3), then step 2), then step 1). Take your time doing the stretches. The slower and longer you stretch, the better (particularly during the post-pushup stretches).

All this stretching, aside from being exercise itself, will prevent the knotting and bunching you feel after a set of pushups and disperse tension, making pushups more effective and repeatable.

Also, keep a soft 6-pound medicine ball by the phone or someplace handy for when you're standing idle (on a hands-free phone call, for instance). Toss the ball between your hands as you stand and walk around. Try swinging your arms in slow arcs and cricles with the ball in your hands. Pass the ball from hand to hand behind your back and in front of you.

Remember, the slower and longer the stretches, the less the pushups will ache, the more the exercise will help, and the easier it will be to repeat the next time. Make sure to breathe comfortably and regularly throughout.
posted by breezeway at 8:30 AM on April 2, 2008 [2 favorites]

There are some good (illustrated) exercises and routines here and here.

You're probably best starting off with bodyweight resistance exercises, but adding some light free-weights later will help you make greater gains (you don't have to get a great big rack of dumb-bells, benches and weight-plates - just one or two sets of weights that can be pushed under a bed).

Pull-ups are recognised as one of the greatest upper-body exercises. Tough for the beginner, but if you do have a door-frame where you could put in a bar, you could start with assisted pull-ups and take it from there.
posted by boosh at 8:32 AM on April 2, 2008

get a set of rings
Elite Rings
posted by nameless.k at 9:08 AM on April 2, 2008

Use gymnastic techniques. Gymnasts are the experts at developing upper body strength through bodyweight exercises.

Two gymnastic resources to start: Beast Skills and Drills and Skills.

Articles about gymnastic ring training.

Ring Pushups

Rope climbing
posted by jason's_planet at 9:15 AM on April 2, 2008

Try some exercise/resistance bands. Like these.

Nice thing is they take up no room at all and will give you a work out. I also think you can get them at W*lmart.

posted by sandpine at 9:41 AM on April 2, 2008

You can get a great home calisthenics routine by following the US Navy SEALs Workout Guide. It's a full PT program designed to be performed every day with no special equipment at all. It gives illustrated examples of how to do all the exercises, explanations of what muscle groups they work, and variations you can do to increase their effectiveness once you've gotten the hang of them. It's a great all-in-one personal fitness guide.
posted by autojack at 9:57 AM on April 2, 2008

A lot of these answers require equipment, but when I was looking into just this I found that the best exercises were found by Googling for "bodyweight conditioning." In those links you will find a plethora of exercises that involve only you and a floor, many times similar to what you see in gymnastic floor exercises and images of sports and military boot camp procedures. Good mornings, Hindu push-ups and squats, working your way up to planches and one-finger handstand pushups (grin), and so on will put you well on your way to your fitness goals.
posted by rhizome at 9:58 AM on April 2, 2008

Use a towel as a resistance band. stand on the middle of it, pull up with arms. You can place it in other positions and do the same thing. You can use doorways in the same manner. They are forms of Isometric exercises.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:23 AM on April 2, 2008

Ross Training

Order one of his books and follow it. It will change your life.
posted by nineRED at 11:41 AM on April 2, 2008

If you do aerobics at the gym, maybe switch out some of those classes for a muscle toning/yoga class? A lot of step or kickboxing classes have moved toward including weights or other resistance work right in there ("step and sculpt" etc). Yoga is especially great for triceps and shoulders.
posted by Pax at 11:53 AM on April 2, 2008

For an exhaustive answer to your question, check out Ross Enamait's work; specifically his book, Never Gymless, which details how to achieve elite fitness at home with little or no equipment.
posted by keith0718 at 12:18 PM on April 2, 2008

they have those stretchy bands you use for your upper body toning in pilates. i can't speak personally about them, but it might be a nice alternative to weights. also, i know it's just a poor substitution for weights so probably not what you're looking for, but i just use soup/veggie cans to do those behind-your-head arm lifts to keep the back of the upper arm from being flabby...
posted by ifjuly at 1:04 PM on April 2, 2008

Seconding Shovelglove. It's very effective and refreshingly sensible.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 9:39 PM on April 2, 2008

As other members have recommended, I would suggest doing Pullups and Chinups. They do wonders for your arms and back, and there are many different variations you can do once you master the traditional form that will really sculpt those upper body muscles. From personal experience you won't be disappointed in investing in this pull up bar , but i'm sure there are many others that are cheap and effective. You don't even need to buy one, maybe you can find or create something around the house that will suffice, and if all else fails your local park should have some monkey bars and the like to take advantage of.

If you're looking for a quick workout, a couple sets of pullups should only take about 10 minutes and should be enough to give you great results fast.
posted by Kyokusen at 9:58 PM on April 2, 2008

I am not a professional trainer, I have no certifications and I've never studied fitness training in any recognized institution, so be cautious about considering anything I suggest.

Disclaimer aside, I've been working out without weights for years now, and steadily building strength. "Without weights" does not mean without added weight to my body weight, however. One of the easiest things you can do (if you are very careful) is to load up a backpack with...whatever weighs a lot, and do the same stuff you were doing before--push-ups, pull-ups, whatever you can do with a backpack on (i.e. not sit-ups). This can easily be made progressive--if you do happen to have a set of free weights, you can add more weight in increments quite effectively.

Other strategies for enriching your exercise routine without using weights: look into some of the exercises that gymnasts do. Holy %$, I still can barely do any of these. But even just with a floor and a chin-up bar doing push-ups and pull-ups, you can really push yourself hard. Rest your legs on a table or desk and do push-ups, do a hand-stand against the wall and do push-ups, work on your one-armed push-ups (start at the top, legs spread far apart, and go as low as you can...then push up), use a towel in one hand with a chin-up bar and see how low you can drop that arm and do a pull-up (one way to work towards one-armed pull-ups), etc.

I also want to be clear that I'm not against using weights at all, although I do have a preference for free-weights vs. machines, as I'm not so into precisely targeting muscles unlike pro bodybuilders; it's my understanding that free-weights exercise more muscle groups at the same time, because you have to work harder to stabilize the weights at the same time as lifting them (and I believe the same is true for body-weight exercises). About a year ago I got a small set of free-weights for free from an older friend of mine whose son had left the house and no one there had any use for them, and I was (and am still) psyched! So, mostly I'm just a cheap bastard who doesn't want to pay for a gym or spend a lot of money on weights. Also, the idea of always being able to work out no matter where I am is appealing; I was recently stuck in a short-term apartment on a work gig with no gym access and figured out pretty easily how to do a damn good workout routine that actually kicked my ass pretty hard using not much other than a door frame, a small table, some chairs, and stairs...
posted by dubitable at 1:12 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

Nthing pushups, but remember that you can vary the difficulty if you find them too hard to do right away. You don't want to injure your rotator cuff attempting regular pushups right away if you really have little or no upper body strength.

From easiest to hardest:

* Pushups against a wall. Start with your hands at shoulder height, feet far enough away from the wall to allow for a full extension.
* Pushups against a raised object, such as the back of a sturdy couch or table that won't move, or the footboard of your bed, or even a stair if your staircase is wide enough to allow you to spread your arms out.
* Pushup off a sturdy item a few inches above floor level.
* Pushups on the floor from your knees.
* Pushups on the floor from your toes.

Once regular pushups are easy, try them again with your feet on something higher, like a stair.

Wider stance pushups work the chest more; narrow stance pushups work the triceps more.
posted by maudlin at 10:40 AM on April 3, 2008 [1 favorite]

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