Upper Body Bodyweight Workout: 3 Routines To Maximize Your Gains

Having an upper body bodyweight workout routine is a surefire way to reach your goals.

Let us explain.

If you are a beginner or early-intermediate, we usually recommend a three times per week full body routine.

The reasoning behind it is that you will do all exercises more often, leading your body to adapt faster.

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?

We are 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 one or two days (we prefer two).

Most commonly, such a split is divided as follows:

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

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

Or, what we like to do, training more repetitions on day one, and less repetitions - more weight, on day two.

Pros

  • angle-double-right
    High frequency
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    Time efficient (per workout)
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    Better leg development

Cons

  • angle-double-right
    Not time efficient (long run)
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    Lose training potential in other areas

PROS

1. You can keep the frequency high

Frequency is one of the most important aspects of a good workout.

If you want to progress with an exercise, your body has to adapt to it. The more you do the said exercise, the better you become at it.

This is where frequency kicks in.

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.

2. It is time efficient on a per workout basis

A full body workout is time consuming.

As a beginner, you should be doing four upper body exercises, two leg exercises, and some core work too.

As you progress to intermediate stages, you will do about six upper body exercises and up to four leg exercises.

However...

If you do an upper/lower split, you will take all the leg exercises to a whole different day.

This will considerably shorten the time you spend working out per session.

3. Better leg development

With an upper/lower split 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

1. Not time efficient in the long run

If you want to properly focus on leg development, it will eat up more overall time.

While this split can save time on a per-workout basis, you will spend more time training overall, having extra days of training legs.

This is a matter of goals; if you want stronger and bigger legs, we still recommend it.

2. Lose training potential in other areas

Most people doing a three times per week full body routine use the rest days to work on the handstand or flexibility/mobility.

With this split, you will have less spare days to dedicate to other movements.

Our take on it

We’ve been doing an upper/lower split for the past few months, and I have to say that we are really pleased with it.

Presented above are the only drawbacks we’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 levels.

We 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:

  • 1. Intensity - i.e. do harder progressions, add weight, etc.
  • 2. Time under tension - i.e. do exercises slower
  • 3. Rest - i.e. decrease the amount of rest between sets
  • 4. Add more exercises

These can also be used the other way around.

If you want to make a workout easier, just do easier variations of the exercises, take longer 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

If you are unable to perform one of the exercises, you can regress them to an easier variations.

Warm-up:

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

Strength work:

  • 3 x (8-12) Negative Pull-ups or Pull-ups 
  • 3 x (8-12) Negative Dips or Dips
  • 3 x (8-12) Inverted rows
  • 3 x (8-12) Negative Push-ups or Push-ups
  • 3 x (8-12) Hanging knee raises

Rest:

  • 1-2 minutes between sets

The above is read as: three sets of eight, working all the way up to twelve pull-ups

If you can't do pull-upspush-ups, and dips yet, you can do the negative to build the necessary strength.

The numbers presented above are repetitions you should strive to achieve, not repetitions you should already be doing.

Start slow and build your strength gradually.

Intermediate

Man on the beach showing off his upper body muscles while doing dips

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 of light jogging
  • 15 arm, shoulders, elbows, wrist rotations
  • 10 wrist rocks/side
  • 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) Front lever progression
  • 4 x (15-20) Dips
  • 4 x (8-12) Archer rows
  • 4 x (8-12) Pseudo planche push-ups
  • 4 x (8-12) Hanging leg raises

Rest:

  • 1-2 minutes between sets

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 changing the progressions.

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

With the archer pull-ups, you are working towards achieving the one arm pull-up.

Additionally, they are a great strength building exercise for our lats.

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 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
  • 10 x wrist rocks/side
  • 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 (6-10) Handstand push-ups
  • 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) Muscle-up
  • 3-5 x (10-12) Toes to bar

Rest:

  • 3-5 minutes between sets*

*To avoid spending a lot of time working out, do paired sets.

Let's note One arm pull-ups as "A" and Handstand push-ups as "B"

To pair them you do 1 set of A, take 1.5 - 2.5 minutes rest, then do one set of "B", then take 1.5 - 2.5 minutes rest.

Repeat for as many sets as needed; in this case 3 to 5.

This is what a sample workout routine would look like.

However, there is a lot of work that is involved between the beginner, intermediate, and advanced stages.

You will certainly not reach all the repetitions in a workout, then jump to the next stage.

These are just examples of how the routines may look like.

Therefore, we only recommend doing the beginner routine to build a solid foundation.

Afterwards, 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 sprinting on a highway in the desert

The purpose 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:

  • 1. Blood flow
  • 2. Mobility
  • 3. Joint preparation

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

Beginner

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

The blood flow part of the warm-up is the light jogging.

Its purpose 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 purpose 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 do preparatory exercises for your joints.

The exercises in the workout are easy enough on your joints so it won’t be required.

Intermediate

  • 2-3 minutes of light jogging
  • 15 arm, shoulders, elbows, wrist rotations
  • 10 wrist rocks/side
  • 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 routine (presented above).

However, the mobility part has some new elements.

Aside from the circles, you will also be doing the wrist rocks.

They are 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 the workout 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
  • 10 x wrist rocks/side
  • 1 x 10 archer pull-ups
  • 5 min advanced tuck front lever*
  • 5 min advanced tuck planche*

As an advanced practitioner, you’re getting into difficult 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 the workout 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.

Example:

If you’re training 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

Photo of a man performing a muscle-up as part of his upper body bodyweight workout

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:

  • 1. Goals
  • 2. Posture
  • 3. Shoulder health

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 a beginner, you should consider our full body routine, which was specially designed for you.

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.

Goals

Picture showing the difference between having goals or lacking them

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:

  • 1. Muscle-up
  • 2. Planche
  • 3. Front lever
  • 4. Back lever
  • 5. Handstand
  • 6. The human flag

How do you go about choosing goals?

First of all, 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 be able to do, pick a progression and start working toward achieving them.

Posture

Picture showing the difference between excellent, good, poor and very poor postures of the upper body

You should aim to fix any posture issue because they will prevent you from reaching your real potential.

Example:

If your spine is rounded, you will not be able to fully lift your arms overhead, which will limit your progress with the handstand.

In the long run, posture issues can also lead to muscle 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. 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 to fix a rounded back?

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 improvements in your posture, then we recommend you to consult a specialist.

Shoulder health

Image of the anatomy of the shoulder

Most 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:

  • 1. Horizontal
  • 2. 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-up variations, planche
  • Vertical: dips
  • Vertical overhead: handstand push-ups, overhead press, press to handstand

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 with dips, you should start doing both dips and handstand progressions.

Pulling:

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

How to keep structural balance in the shoulder?

You do that by keeping a balance between the horizontal and vertical planes of motion.

If you are a beginner, you should start with two pushing 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 vertical, and the vertical overhead.

The same goes for every exercise and plane of motion, whether it’s pushing or pulling.

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 pre-made 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.

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.