Upper Body Bodyweight Workout: How To Get Crazy Results

Photo of a man performing a pull up on a bar in the woods.

If you choose to segment your training in an upper/lower split, then you might be on the lookout for an upper body bodyweight workout, and a leg workout.

But how do you know if that kind of split is right for you?

If you are a beginner or an intermediate I usually recommend a three times per week full body routine.

The reasoning behind it is that you will have a higher frequency with exercises, leading your body to adapt easier. However, if you choose an upper/lower split, the frequency will stay the same and you can:

  1. Save time on every individual workout
  2. Concentrate more on leg development

But what is the idea behind an upper/lower split and how can it help you achieve your goals?

I’m glad you asked.

Upper/lower split

An upper lower split refers to a division in workout sessions in which you train the upper body for three days, and the lower body for up to three days (I prefer two).

Most commonly such a split will be divided as follows:

  • Upper body: M/W/F
  • Lower body: Tue/Thur

If you choose this template, you can further split the lower body days, training the quads and calves in one session, and the hamstrings and glutes in another.

PROS

  • You can keep the frequency high, as opposed to other splits. If you want to get good at an exercise, you should do it often. A three times per week upper body bodyweight workout will keep the frequency higher for - say pull ups - than a chest, shoulders, back, legs, arms split.
  • It is more time efficient than a full body routine (on a per workout basis). Subtracting the leg exercises from your workout and moving them on a separate day will shorten your training sessions.
  • You can maximize the development of your leg muscles. Having a separate day for leg training will allow you to go hard at it and focus your entire training energy in that area.

CONS

  • Not time efficient in the long run. While this split can save time on a per-workout basis, you will spend more time training overall. This is a matter of goals; if you want stronger and bigger legs, we still recommend it.
  • You will lose training potential in other areas. Most people doing a three times per week full body routine use the rest days to work on skills such as the L-Sit or handstand. With this split, you will have less spare days to dedicate to other movements.

I’ve been doing an upper/lower split for the past few months, and I have to say that I am really pleased with it. Presented above are the only drawbacks I’ve stumbled upon.

Now that you know what you’re getting yourself into, it’s time to see how the routine may look like.

Upper body bodyweight workouts

Picture of a man flexing his upper body

We will segment these workouts into beginner, intermediate, and advanced level.

We should note that I will be presenting a basic routine and play around with it. If you want to make your own routine specially crafted around your goals, be sure to keep reading and also check our article on the best bodyweight exercises.

Here are some factors that can make a routine harder:

  • Intensity (i.e., do a harder progression, add weight, etc.)
  • Time under tension (i.e., do the exercises slower)
  • Rest (decrease the amount of rest between sets)
  • Add one more pushing and one more pulling exercise

These can also be used oppositely. If you want to make a workout easier, just do easier variations of the exercises, take bigger rest breaks, or subtract some of the exercises.

Beginner

Skinny man posing in front of a wall that has two muscly arms drawn on it

We should start by noting that not everyone starts at the same level. If you are unable to perform one of the exercises, you can regress them to an easier variation.

Warm-up

  • 2-3 minutes light jogging
  • 15 arms rotations
  • 15 shoulders rotations
  • 15 elbows rotations
  • 15 wrist rotations

At this stage, you will not need to go really crazy with the warm-up. The following exercises are relatively easy on your joints so warming up for 20 minutes is overkill.

Strength work

  • 3 x (8-12) Pull ups
  • 3 x (8-12) Dips
  • 3 x (8-12) Inverted rows
  • 3 x (8-12) Push ups
  • 3 x (8-12) Hanging knee raises
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets and 2-3 minutes between exercises

As you can see, you will be performing three sets of eight to twelve repetitions of an exercise, then you will go to the next one.

Intermediate

Man on the beach stretching his back muscles

Once you are able to comfortably do the exercises above, you should start working your way up through their progressions. Being proficient at the beginner level will not bridge the gap between beginner and intermediate.

You should train through the progressions with the aim to achieve the exercises in the following workout:

Warm-up

  • 2-3 minutes light jogging
  • 15 arm, shoulders, elbows, wrist rotations
  • Wrist stretching routine (see video below)
  • 1 x 10 pull ups
  • 1 x 10 dips
  • 1 x 10 push ups

At this point pull ups, dips and push ups should be easy enough for you that you place them in your warm up. Doing so prepares the joints for the workout to come.

Strength work

  • 4 x (6-8) Archer pull ups (per arm)
  • 4 x (8-12) Elevated pike push ups
  • 4 x (8-12) Archer rows
  • 4 x (15-20) Dips
  • 4 x (8-12) Chin-ups
  • 4 x (8-12) Pseudo planche push ups
  • 4 x (8-12) Hanging leg raises
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets and 2-3 minutes between exercises

At this point, we have added one more exercise for pushing and one for pulling. Additionally, we have also increased the intensity of the exercises by either changing the progression or by adding more repetitions.

The volume was changed too. You will be performing four sets instead of three.

With the archer pull ups, we are working towards achieving the one arm pull up. Additionally, they are a great strength building exercise for our lats. This will come in handy when we start training the front lever.

Elevated pike push ups are meant to strengthen our shoulders for freestanding handstand push ups (again, if that is one of your goals). Separately, you should also be working on holding a freestanding handstand.

Lastly, the pseudo planche push ups will build the strength for the coming planche.

Advanced

Daniel Vadnal from FitnessFAQs performing the straddle planche

Daniel Vadnal from FitnessFAQs performing the straddle planche

So you have reached the advanced level of this upper body bodyweight workout.

At this point, you should easily hold a freestanding handstand, and your lats should be powerful enough for the front lever.

Your deltoid muscles should be strong enough to support handstand push ups, and the planche is within your reach. Let’s see how an advanced workout would look like:

Warm-up

  • 2-3 minutes light jogging
  • 15 arm, shoulders, elbows, wrist rotations
  • Wrist stretching routine (see video above)
  • 1 x 10 archer pull ups
  • 5 min advanced tuck front lever*
  • 5 min advanced tuck planche*

* set a timer for 5 minutes and do as many sets as possible in that amount of time, without fatiguing. You are warming up and getting your body used to the movement pattern, not working out just yet.

Strength work

  • 3-5 x (3-5) One arm pull up
  • 3-5 x (6-12s) Straddle or Full planche hold
  • 3-5 x (6-12s) Straddle or Full front lever hold
  • 3-5 x (6-10) Handstand push ups
  • 3-5 x (6-10) Muscle up
  • 3-5 x (10-12) Toes to bar

This is what a sample workout routine would look like.

However, I would only recommend doing the beginner routine to build a solid foundation. Afterward, constructing your own routine based on your goals would be ideal.

How to create a workout plan

Every routine presented above was progressing upon the previous one.

These routines can differ so much from one individual to another, that there is no such thing as a one fits all routine.

Therefore, you should learn how to make your own workout from scratch. You have to be aware of your goals, how much time you are willing to spend training, and what goals you should prioritize.

Let’s get started.

Warm-up

Man starting a sprint on a highway in the desert

As we know by now, the goal of the warm-up is to prepare your body for the workout to come. Every athlete has different needs, so finding a universal warm-up is difficult, if not impossible.

There are three main components of every warm-up:

  • Blood flow
  • Mobility
  • Preparing your joints for the strain

Let’s break down every warm-up in the example routine to see my thought process when creating it.

Beginner


  • 2-3 minutes light jogging
  • 15 arms rotations
  • 15 shoulders rotations
  • 15 elbows rotations
  • 15 wrist rotations

The blood flow part of the warm-up is the light jogging. Its role is to raise the temperature of your core and raise your heart rate so your muscles are optimally oxygenated. Aside from this, it will also lead to a better activation of the central nervous system.

For mobility, you’ll be doing the arms, shoulders, elbows, and wrists rotations. The role of this part is to warm up your joints and surrounding tissues by taking them through their full range of motion (without trying to increase that range of motion).

At this point, you do not need to prepare your joints for the strain. The exercises are easy enough on your joints so it won’t be required.

Intermediate


  • 2-3 minutes light jogging
  • 15 arm, shoulders, elbows, wrist rotations
  • Wrist stretching routine
  • 1 x 10 pull ups
  • 1 x 10 dips
  • 1 x 10 push ups

The blood flow section is the same as for the beginner (presented above).

However, the mobility part has some new elements. Aside from the circles, you will also be doing the wrist stretching routine. It is meant to take your wrists through their range of motion by shifting your weight on them.

In the intermediate phase, you will most likely start working on the handstand. Properly warming up is a must if you want to avoid injury.

Lastly, you will be preparing your joints for strain by doing 10 pull ups, dips, and push ups. The idea behind this is that you’ll be doing harder exercises than these, and those exercises will be quite heavy on your joints.

Just as a powerlifter doesn’t start his training with his max weight, so you should include easier variations of an exercise in your warm-up.

Advanced


  • 2-3 minutes light jogging
  • 15 arm, shoulders, elbows, wrist rotations
  • Wrist stretching routine
  • 1 x 10 archer pull ups
  • 5 min advanced tuck front lever*
  • 5 min advanced tuck planche*

With the advanced workout, you’re getting into strenuous exercises such as the planche, front lever, and one arm pull up.

The blood flow and mobility parts will stay the same (presented above).

However, you will be preparing your joints for strain in a different manner.

Now that the exercises are more difficult, you will have to increase the difficulty of the exercises in the warm-up. For example, if you’re working on one arm pull ups in that session, you will use archer pull ups in the warm-up, as opposed to the regular pull up used in the intermediate workout.

Furthermore, since the routine includes the straddle or full variation of the front lever and planche, you will be doing easier variations of these exercises in the warm-up phase.

Strength work

Now that we have covered the warm-up, it’s time to see how you should construct your upper body bodyweight workout.

The easiest way to go about this is to build the routine around the following points:

  • Goals
  • Posture
  • Shoulder health

Note: In the “shoulder health” section we will also cover exercise selection so that you know what exercises to choose to achieve your goals and improve your posture.

If you are at the beginning of your journey, you should consider our full body routine, which was specially designed for beginners. We have taken the guesswork out and made a routine that you can easily follow.

Furthermore, beginners should first focus on the basics so they have a foundation to build on. That is the exact purpose of that full body routine.

If you are over the initial stages, let’s break down every point presented above.

Picture portraying the difference between goals focused training and aimless training

Goals

Figure Out What Is It That You Want To Achieve In Your Training And Work Towards That

Instead of working out aimlessly, it would be a good idea to figure out what is your goal with bodyweight training. Having a few goals will aid you tremendously in creating and sticking to a workout program.

Here are the most common goals in bodyweight training:

  • Muscle up
  • Planche
  • Front lever
  • Back lever
  • Handstand
  • The human flag

How do you go about choosing goals?


You should aim for no more than three to four goals at a time.

If you choose more than three to four goals, you will not be able to work toward any of them optimally. Having fewer goals means you’ll have more focus toward the ones you chose. There is only so much you can do in a workout session. If you have lots of goals prioritize the ones you want to achieve the most.

Think about the exercises you would like to learn then pick a progression and start working toward achieving them.

Result:

You will have more clarity concerning the exercises you should be doing, and you will make constant progress.

Picture showing the difference between excellent, good, poor and very poor posture

Posture

Assess Whether You Have Poor Posture And Select Your Exercises In A Way That Will Improve It

You should aim to fix any posture issues because they will prevent you from reaching your real potential. For example, if your thoracic spine is rounded, you will not be able to fully lift your arm over your head, which will impinge your progress with the handstand.

In the long run, posture issues can also lead to imbalances and injury.

Nowadays, most of these problems are a result of too much sitting down. However, if you have a training background, your posture issues may come from your past. If you go to any gym, you’ll see that most people religiously do their bench pressing. They never skip a single chest day; however, they do not equally train their back muscles. The combination of weak back muscles and a tight chest leads to slouching of the thoracic spine.

How do you go about choosing goals?


Two words: rowing exercises.

Aside from any necessary rehabilitation work, you should do more rowing exercises. Getting access to a gym and doing rowing exercises there would be ideal. A bodyweight alternative is the inverted row, which comes in a fair number of variations to keep the intensity high.

If you are doing rowing exercises but cannot see any results, then strive to add another such exercise in your workout plan.

Result:

You fix your posture and the muscles are able to exert their maximum amount of strength, leading to better progress and faster results.

A picture of a human body showing signs of shoulder pain

Shoulder health

select your exercises in a manner that will keep structural balance in your shoulders

In bodyweight fitness, most (if not all) upper body exercises are performed with the involvement of the shoulder. Therefore, keeping our shoulders healthy is of utmost importance if we want to perform well and stay injury-free.

The shoulder is the joint with the most range of motion in our entire body; which means that there are several planes of motion to be trained. Equally training them will result in structural balance, helping you avoid any injury.

Planes of motion:

  • Horizontal
  • Vertical

These planes of motions apply for both pushing and pulling. Let’s start breaking them down with example exercises, so you can better understand the concept:

Pushing:

  • Horizontal: push ups variations, planche
  • Vertical: two sets of movements, each at one end of the range of motion - dips, handstand push ups, overhead press, handstand press

NOTE: You may be confused as to what vertical pushing exercise to choose: dips, or a handstand progression? If you are a beginner, you should start with dips to build a base of strength. Once you are proficient, you should start doing both.

Pulling:

  • Horizontal: inverted rows, front lever, back lever
  • Vertical: pull ups, inverted pull ups

How do you go about choosing goals?


Keep a balance between the planes.

If you are a beginner, you should start with two pushing exercises and two pulling exercises. One of the exercises will be horizontal and the other vertical. Pretty simple, right?

As you progress, you may find balancing them quite tricky, depending on the goals you have. This may be the right time to add an extra exercise that will balance everything. Aside from adding another exercise, you could cycle them throughout your workouts.

Let’s take the handstand push ups (HSPU) and dips example:

  • Week 1
  • Mon: Dips
  • Wed: HSPU
  • Fri: Dips
  • Week 2
  • Mon: HSPU
  • Wed: Dips
  • Fri: HSPU

As you can see, there is a balance between the two ends of the range of motion. The same goes for every exercise and plane of motion, whether it’s pushing or pulling.

Result:

Your shoulders will be bulletproof, the chance of injury will decrease dramatically, and you will keep a high performance throughout your journey.

​Conclusion

In this article you have been provided with an upper body bodyweight workout; but even more important, you now have information on how to build your own routine.

Having a premade workout is good to get you started or to get an idea on how routine building works. However, since everyone is different, you will have to tailor the routine to your specific goals, eventually.

This is not the ultimate article to building a routine, as there is more that goes into it: programming, deloading, rehabilitation (if needed), and more. If you are a beginner or early intermediate though, this is more than enough.

Over to you.