Calisthenics are more are a fantastic way of staying fit and active, even when there is no gym nearby. They’ve been a staple of gym classes and military fitness programs for a very long time, and for good reason – they work. Many people think that in order to experience muscular hypertrophy, or muscle growth, they need to lift the heaviest possible weights as often as possible. And while it’s certainly true that heavy weights create a fantastic stimulus, they are not the only way to go. You can have a wonderful upper body calisthenics workout and still get the strength gains that you’re looking for. The trick is always to find the right exercises and shape them into a workout so that you’re not training blindly or indiscriminately. We’ll take a look at a number of different upper body calisthenics exercises and how to properly shape your new upper body calisthenics workout.
Upper Body Calisthenic Exercises
The Push-up: At some point in our history, the push-up became the most recognizable upper body exercise in the world. Whenever we discuss calisthenics, the very first thing that most people think of is a push-up. In its basic form, this is a simple exercise to perform. You just get down on all fours, bend your arms to at least ninety degrees, and then straighten your arms again. Of course, there’s a little more to it than that. To perform a perfect push-up, the biggest thing to consider isn’t even about how to press off the ground. It’s about your core. It’s very important to keep your mid-line as tight as possible when you’re doing push-ups. I like to have my clients practice driving their heels backward into the wall. This forces them to engage their core, and to squeeze their glutes as hard as possible. With that simple tweak, a push-up becomes a full-body exercise. You can even practice this with your knees on the floor, if you’re not able to do more than one or two regular push-ups.
One way to increase the amount of reps that you can do in a single set is to put your hands on something higher than your feet. Steps can be very useful here, or even a chair. This sort of incline push-up takes a lot of the strain out of the exercise, allowing you to really increase the volume. If you’re looking for a big chest and shoulders and you don’t have a barbell or dumbbells handy, volume is your friend. Don’t be fooled, though! Fifty or sixty of these in your upper body calisthenics workout will absolutely put a fire in your chest. Literally. The opposite is a great way to start making your exercises more difficult. Just put your feet up on something like a stair or even a chair, and suddenly you’ve got decline push-ups!
The Handstand Push-up: But eventually, if you really want to build muscle and get stronger, you’re going to need to make things a little more difficult. This is where gymnasts have a leg up on the rest of us. Handstand push-ups have been a staple of their routines for years! They look pretty intimidating, but there are some very simple ways to scale them so that even the least-experienced of us can get their benefits. The most basic way to scale a handstand push-up is to do something called a pike handstand push-up. Here is a great article explaining exactly how to do this! As you get more advanced, try putting your feet on a box or chair to really increase the load on your shoulders and upper chest. To make the exercise easier, bend your knees. This will take some of the load off. To make it harder, just keep your legs straight. As with every “pushing” exercise, we want to make sure we’re not overdoing these! A few reps go a long way!
The Dip: Another popular upper body calisthenic exercise is the dip. Just like the push-up, there are a number of variations on the dip, all designed to either make the exercise more difficult or considerably easier. In its basic form, you’re simply pressing yourself upright on parallel bars and then lowering yourself down until your arms are bent at ninety degrees before returning to your starting position. You can make this exercise more difficult by adding weight to it, by increasing the tempo, or by adding instability – like working out on a pair of gymnastics rings rather than bars.
To scale the difficulty back a bit, try using a bench or couch, with your feet out in front of you on the ground and your hands behind you. Press up to your starting position, lower yourself down, and then back up again. This will make the emphasis shift a bit. You’ll be focusing more on your triceps than your chest, but you’re still going to get a wonderful workout! Don’t have parallel bars, or rings? The bench dip is a wonderful substitute. Another option is to go old-school – Leo DiCaprio gives us a good demonstration in The Departed, when he stacks a bunch of textbooks together to form his dip bars. Great idea, but chair-backs work too. Just make sure they’re positioned about shoulder width apart, to prevent straining your shoulder joint too much, and you’ve got a way to do your chest dips.
The Pull-up: As I said in this article about calisthenics, the pull-up is my favorite upper-body calisthenics exercise, and it’s always included in my upper-body calisthenics workouts. Simply find a straight bar, grab hold of it, and pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar! Sounds pretty easy, right? As you’re going to find out, it’s a little more complicated than it sounds. There are two basic variations on the pull-up: palms-in or palms-out. If your palms are facing in toward you, then the majority of your pulling strength is coming from your biceps. You’re also placing your arms in a mechanically-advantageous position, which makes the exercise easier for most people. And that’s fine! If your focus is on building big arms, palms-in (or supinated grip) pull-ups are a fantastic bodyweight exercise. If your palms are facing away from you (or pronated grip), then the exercise will really focus on your back muscles, particularly your rhomboids and latissimus dorsi. These are huge muscle groups that many people neglect, so I encourage everyone to spend most of their pull-up time with their palms out. Once a pull-up becomes easier to manage, start trying chest-to-bar pull-ups. Exactly the same, only instead of stopping when your chin clears the bar, your chest actually has to touch the bar for the rep to be complete.
Bodyweight Rows: The pull-up is a challenging exercise, and you may need to scale it down a bit. That’s fine! Setting yourself up for some bodyweight rows is a wonderful scale, and requires no special equipment whatsoever. Just grab a towel, hook it around your doorknob or even close your door on it, lean back all the way, and pull yourself upright. Another benefit of bodyweight rows is that you can make them easier or harder as needed by adjusting where you stand. The closer you stand to your door, the harder the exercise is going to be. You can also really increase the volume on bodyweight rows, because your muscles are going to take a lot longer to fatigue this way. Bear that in mind when you’re designing your workouts!
Designing An Upper Body Calisthenics Workout
Now that I’ve gone over a few examples of upper body calisthenics exercises, it’s time to talk about how to put them all together in a single workout. I like my upper body calisthenics workouts to be fairly intense, to maximize the impact. Limit your rest as much as possible when performing workouts and try to get your primary work done in under 30 minutes. Designing your workout is pretty simple, if you know what you’re trying to accomplish – and you should always know what your workouts are trying to accomplish. There are two main goals with upper body workouts: strength and hypertrophy.
Strength workouts usually involve more difficult exercises, but with less repetitions. Here’s an example of a simple strength workout:
5 Rounds of:
5 Strict Handstand Push-ups
10 Strict Pull-Ups
Look at how basic this is! It doesn’t have to be complicated in order to be effective. Finish this workout off with some ab exercises and some stretching, and you’re set for the day!
Hypertrophy Workouts involve less difficult exercises, but a much higher rep scheme in order to create the stimulus we need to actually grow our muscles. Check out this example:
10 Rounds of:
5 Palm-In Pull-ups
10 Bodyweight Rows
This is a lot of volume! But we’ve chosen exercises that are a little bit less demanding, and we’ve made sure to add a lot of pulling exercises to compensate for the dips. Working hard, you can definitely get through this in 30 minutes, and you’ll absolutely be sore the next day!
The classic bodybuilding split will always be upper-body/lower-body on alternating days. There is absolutely no reason we can’t do that same split using only calisthenics workouts! The variations on calisthenics are absolutely infinite, and I’ve only laid out the basic principles of a few of the hundreds of exercises that you can, and should, explore. As you get more and more advanced in your calisthenics workouts, be sure to check out some of the wilder upper body calisthenics exercises that are out there. Be safe, have fun, and stay active! Don’t forget that calisthenics workouts can be incredibly useful in helping you recover from training injuries.