You don’t need a gym, or even any equipment, to have a great workout.
While you might think that strength training requires heavy weights to get results, the reality is that just by using the weight of your body you can create enough resistance to build muscle and burn fat. All you need is an effective workout plan.
In this article, I’ll provide three upper body workouts to build muscle that you can do at home, with or without dumbbells. After each of the workouts, you can download them to the Fitbod app (for free), where you can get step-by-step exercise demos and track your progress over time.
Rules To Follow When Doing At-Home Workouts
An effective at-home workout plan requires well thought out movements and technique to ensure you are getting the most out of your efforts.
Some rules to keep in mind when doing at-home workouts are:
1. FOCUS ON COMPOUND MOVEMENTS
Compound movements are exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time.
For example, a pushup is a compound exercise that works the chest, shoulders, arms and core. You can also do compound exercises that combine two exercises into one move to target even more muscles (for example, a front squat to push press combo).
Compound movements recruit more muscle than isolation movements which gives more stimulus for muscle growth.
Related Article: How Many Exercises Make An Effective Arm Workout?
2. FOCUS ON PUSHING AT LEAST ONE SET TO FATIGUE
In order to build muscle mass, you must fatigue the muscle. This is because muscle growth happens after the muscle breaks down, which happens as a result of muscular failure during a set.
Learn more about whether you can do bodyweight exercises every day.
3. FOCUS ON KEEPING REST PERIODS SHORT
For example, on the first set of an exercise, you’d perform your maximum number of repetitions until you reach fatigue. Say for example, 20 reps. Normally you’d wait 60-90 seconds to rest and then perform another 15-20 on set 2. With shoulder rest periods of 10-30 seconds between sets you make sure that you fatigue within a low rep range of about 6-10.
4. FOCUS ON PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
The best way to progressively overload your muscles to ensure growth is to add load by way of weight or resistance. However, if you are limited with the amount of equipment you have to achieve this, you must consider other methods of overloading.
You can achieve this by:
Increasing the total number of reps you perform with each exercise week to week
Increasing the total number of sets you perform each workout
Adding tempo work to increase time under tension. Time under tension relates to the amount of time that your muscle is put to work. This can be achieved by increasing the length of time that you put the muscle under stress while you work through each phase of the movement.
Workout #1: Chest Focused Workout At Home
CHEST WORKOUT: BODYWEIGHT VERSION
Decline Pushups: 3 sets of 10-15 and one set until failure
Start with your elbows fully extended and your hands placed on the floor just outside shoulder-width apart and the balls of your feet elevated onto a bench or box. With your hips and knees extended throughout the exercise, flex your elbows to descend your chest to the floor while keeping your elbows at a 45-degree angle to your torso. Return to the starting position after your chest reaches just above the floor.
Pushups: 3 sets of 10-15 and one set until failure
Start with your elbows fully extended and your hands placed on the floor just outside shoulder-width apart. Brace your core by breathing into your stomach and flexing the abdominal muscles to create a straight and rigid posture from your heels to your shoulders. With your hips and knees extended throughout the exercise, flex your elbows to descend your chest to the floor while keeping your elbows at a 45 degree angle to your torso. Return to the starting position after your chest reaches the floor.
Diamond push ups: 2 sets of 12-15 and one set until failure
Start with your elbows fully extended and your hands placed on the floor about 1 inch apart. Brace your core by breathing into your stomach and flexing the abdominal muscles to create a straight and rigid posture from your heels to your shoulders. With your hips and knees extended throughout the exercise, flex your elbows to descend your chest to the floor while keeping your elbows at a 45 degree angle to your torso. Return to the starting position after your chest reaches the floor.
Related Article: The At-Home Push-Up Workout To Build Chest & Arms
Dips: 3 sets of 10-15 and one set until failure
Use two chairs or two countertops to support your body weight with both hands. Lower your body by bending your arms while leaning forward. Dip down until your shoulders are below your elbows. Lift your body up by straightening your arms. Lock your elbows at the top.
Burpees: 5 sets of 10 with 20 second rest periods
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on the floor directly in front of, and just inside your feet. Jump your feet back to softly land on the balls of your feet and lower your chest to the ground. Jump your feet back up so that they land just outside of your hands. Reach your arms overhead and explosively jump up into the air. Land and immediately lower back into a squat for your next rep.
CHEST WORKOUT: DUMBBELL VERSION
Floor press: 3 sets of 15
Lay on the floor with a dumbbell in either hand (option to do one arm at a time), upper arm on the ground with elbows at a 90 degree angle, palms facing forward. Press both hands up, keeping your knuckles facing the ceiling, until you reach full extension of the elbow.
Dumbbell Flys: 3 sets of 10-15 and one set until failure.
Lie with your head and shoulders supported by a bench and your feet flat on the floor. Hold the dumbbells directly above your chest, palms facing each other, then lower the weights in an arc out to the sides as far as is comfortable. Reverse the movement back to the start. Keep a slight bend in your elbows throughout and don’t arch your back.
Superset: 3 sets of 10 decline pushups, 10 regular push ups and incline pushups to failure
Start in an upper plank position with your feet elevated using a chair, table or box and place your hands just outside of shoulder width. Keep your core tight and shoulders retracted, lowering your torso to the floor before pushing up. Perform 8 pushups in this position.
Then move your feet off of the support and perform regular pushups, with hands just outside of shoulder width. Perform 10 regular pushups.
Then elevate your hands using a chair, table or box and place your hands just outside of shoulder width to perform an incline pushup by lowering your torso to the edge of the chair, table or box before pushing up. Perform as many pushups in this position as you can until failure.
Related Article: Should You Train Chest And Triceps Together?
Dumbbell Squeeze Press: 3 sets of 15
Lie on your back on a bench (or on the floor) and hold your dumbbells with your palms facing in resting the dumbbells on your chest. Press the dumbbells together and extend your arms keeping the dumbbells over top of your chest. Continue pressing the dumbbells together and return to the starting position.
Related Article: How to Start Strength Training With Dumbbells Only
Workout #2: Back-Focused Workout At-Home
BACK WORKOUT: BODYWEIGHT VERSION
Superman: 5 sets of AMRAP until failure
Lie on your stomach with your arms outstretched overhead and your legs fully extended. Brace your core by breathing into your abdomen and flexing your abdominal muscles. Hyperextend your hips by flexing your glutes allowing your legs to lift a few inches off the ground while simultaneously flexing your shoulders to raise your arms to the same height. Keep your ears between your biceps while in this extended position before lowering your legs and arms back to the starting position.
Bird dog: 5 sets of 20 alternating
Start on all fours, with knees hip-width apart and your hands firmly placed on the ground about shoulder-width apart. Lift one arm out straight in front and extend the opposite leg behind you. You should form one straight line from your hand to your foot, keeping hips squared to the ground. Hold for 2 seconds then return your hands and knees to the starting position. Repeat on the other side and continue to alternate.
Rotation Pushup: 4 sets of 8 per side
Begin in push-up position with your feet together and toes on the floor and your hands placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. With your back flat, slowly lower your body toward the floor and push back up to the starting position and rotate your body 90-degrees from the floor, fully extending both arms, one in the air and one on the floor. Reverse the movement of rotation to return to the starting position and repeat, alternating arms.
Floor GHRs: 5 sets to failure
Hook your ankles under a couch, chair or have someone anchor them to the ground with both hands. Starting from a kneeling position, slowly lower your torso to the floor, catching your weight with your hands once you can no longer control the descent. Push yourself back up with your hands and squeeze your glutes to return yourself to the starting position.
BACK WORKOUT: DUMBBELL VERSION
DB bent over rows, wide grip – 4 sets of 15 with 4 second eccentric tempo
Stand upright holding a pair of dumbbells next to your hips. Push your hips backward keeping your knees bent to angle your torso to a 45 degree angle with the floor and maintain this position throughout the exercise. Position your extended arms so that the dumbbells are underneath your shoulders and palms are facing backwards. Pull your elbows up and out to the side until your upper arm is parallel with the floor and your elbow is at a 90 degree angle. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to starting position counting to 4.
DB bent over rows, narrow grip – 4 sets of 15 with 4-second eccentric tempo
Stand upright holding a pair of dumbbells next to your hips. Push your hips backward keeping your knees bent to angle your toso to a 45 degree angle with the floor and maintain this position throughout the exercise. Position your extended arms so that the dumbbells are underneath your shoulders and palms are facing each other in a neutral grip. Pull your elbows up past your sides squeezing shoulder blades together at the top.
Renegade row: 4 sets of 15 each arm
In a plank position, position a pair of dumbbells underneath your shoulders with your arms extended and palms facing each other. Feet at shoulder width apart. Place your weight into your left hand to bend your right elbow past your side until the right dumbbell reaches the side of your torso. Return the dumbbell to the starting position and repeat with the opposite side.
DB Rear Delt Raise: 4 sets of 15
Holding dumbbells in each hand, flex your knees and hinge at your hips to 90 degrees to position the dumbbells directly underneath your shoulders at knee height with your palms facing each other. Keeping your elbows slightly flexed and your back straight, raise the dumbbells out laterally with emphasis on tightening between your shoulder blades once the dumbbells reach shoulder height. Control the dumbbells as you return to the starting position.
Related Article: The 9 Best Side Delt Exercises To Grow Your Shoulders
Farmers carry: 3 sets of 10m
Hold the dumbbells directly at your side and brace your core to maintain a neutral spine. Walk forward and take small strides while keeping your torso neutral. Keep the dumbbells off of your body as much as possible.
Shrugs: 3 sets of 20
Hold the dumbbells at your side with straight arms, palms facing in. Keeping your arms extended, glide your shoulders up to your ears keeping your shoulders back and neck straight. Lower your shoulders to the starting position and repeat.
Workout #3: Arm-Focused Workout At-Home
ARM WORKOUT: BODYWEIGHT VERSION
Triceps Dips: 3 sets of 10-15 and one set until failure.
Place your hands on a bench or box behind you with your feet together, legs straight and heels on the floor. Starting with elbows fully extended, lower slowly as far as you can, then press back up until your arms are straight.
Crossbody Mountain Climbers: 4 sets of 20 each leg
Get into a push-up position and place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Your body should form a straight line from the feet to your head. Bring one knee toward the opposite elbow. Return to the starting position to repeat on the other side.
Triceps push up: 2 sets of 12-15 and one set until failure
Start with your elbows fully extended and your hands placed on the floor directly under your armpit. Brace your core by breathing into your stomach and flexing the abdominal muscles to create a straight and rigid posture from your heels to your shoulders. With your hips and knees extended throughout the exercise, flex your elbows to descend your chest to the floor while keeping your elbows tight to your lats. Return to the starting position after your chest reaches the floor.
Handstand Pushups: 3 sets of 3-6
Stand upright facing a wall. Extend your arms and place your hands just outside of shoulder width apart a foot away from the wall and kick your legs up catching yourself by placing your feet against the wall. Lower your head to the ground by bending your elbows and push your bodyweight back up.
Banded biceps curls: 3 sets of 15 with 4 second eccentric tempo
Stand with both feet on a resistance band holding the loops next to your sides with palms facing forward. Curl hands up to shoulders, squeezing biceps and keeping elbows next to your sides. Slowly release arms back to the start position counting to 4.
Plank Jacks: 5 sets 25 reps with 20 second rests
Start in a plank position with your arms extended and hands under your shoulders, feet together. Your body should be in a straight line from your head to your heels. Jump both feet out wide to each side as if you were doing a horizontal jumping jack. Stay in plank position as you quickly jump your feet back together. Perform plank jacks for 10–20 seconds to start. You can work up to 60 seconds or jump at a faster speed to make the move more challenging.
ARM WORKOUT: DUMBBELL VERSION
Shoulder press: 3 sets of 15
Sit on a bench or perform standing, with your back straight holding a pair of dumbbells just outside shoulder-width apart, palms facing forward and elbows flexed to your sides. Begin to extend your arms overhead by pressing through your palms while keeping your wrist and forearms vertical to the ground. The dumbbells should be in line with your ears at full arm extension before descending them back to the starting position.
Upright rows: 4 sets of 15
Hold a dumbbell in each hand and extend the arms resting the dumbbells in front of your hips, palms facing in. Keep the dumbbells next to your body and travel vertically from the floor as you flex your elbows up towards the ceiling. Once the dumbbells have reached chest height, lower them back to the starting position.
DB biceps curls: 4 sets of 15
Stand in an upright posture grabbing a pair of dumbbells with your palms facing forward just below waist height. Flex your elbows to raise one of the dumbbells upward. Your elbow should remain at your sides as you flex the dumbbell up to shoulder height while maintaining a neutral spine. Lower the dumbbell back to the starting position and initiate the movement with the alternate arm.
DB shoulder lateral raises: 8 sets of 15 with 10 second rest intervals
Stand in an upright position and hold a pair of dumbbells nett to your hips with your palms facing in. Keeping your elbows slightly flexed and your back straight, raise the dumbbells out laterally with a slight upward rotation until you reach shoulder height. Control the dumbbells as you return to the starting position.
DB triceps kickbacks: 3 sets of 15
Grab a dumbbell in each hand positioned to the outside of your hips with palms facing in. Slightly bend your knees and hinge at your hips to angle your torso 45 degrees from the floor. Pull your elbow up to the side of your torso with your forearm vertical to the ground. Keep your elbow against your side as your extend your arm behind you. Once you reach full extension, lower the dumbbell back to the starting position and repeat with the opposite side.
Building Muscle With Bodyweight Workouts
In order to build muscle, we need to apply stress to our muscles through progressive resistance. For example, making sure that each week you progress the total volume of weight lifted or resistance used by way of more reps, sets or load.
With bodyweight workouts, you are limited with what you have available for adding load, and simply repeating the same exercise plan week after week will only get you so far. Therefore, you need to make sure you are using other methods of progression, which can be challenging.
Studies show that bodyweight training does not increase absolute strength, specifically in the same way that weight training does. Absolute strength means the ability of an individual to move a certain external load (for example, a barbell or dumbbell).
However, bodyweight training is shown to develop relative strength as opposed to absolute strength. Relative strength means the ability of an individual to move a load that is defined as a percentage of their bodyweight. This is because bodyweight training exercises use bodyweight as the resistance, as opposed to adding an external load.
Bodyweight training not only progresses relative strength, but it can also significantly improve core and joint stability as it relates to the individual’s bodyweight.
What does this mean for muscle growth?
For someone who is new to strength training, they will be able to build muscle through bodyweight training. However, once they’ve exhausted their progressions of overall volume (reps and sets), resistance and time under tension, there is no longer sufficient stimulus for muscle growth.
This is not to say that there aren’t still many benefits to bodyweight training for anyone regardless of training age.
Maintain Muscle Mass
Bodyweight workouts can be beneficial in helping maintain muscle mass during a period of time when you can’t go to the gym. Bodyweight workouts can provide a continuous stimulus for your muscles to maintain their mass while you recover from an injury, go on vacation or during a gym closure.
Joint and Core Stability
As we mentioned earlier, bodyweight training as a means of improving relative strength does so in such a way that incorporates a lot more joint and core stabilization.
The compound movements that are typically incorporated into bodyweight training regimens require a significant amount of stability in order to reach failure or almost failure maintaining good form.
For example, if someone who is used to bench pressing 200+lbs was challenged to complete a high rep set of pushups using good form, they would need to use a lot more core and shoulder stability than they are likely used to.
Rehab and Injury Prevention
Strength training with weights commonly leads to injuries that are in part due to muscular weakness, imbalance or lack of stability.
This is where bodyweight training can come into play and compliment a weight training program as either a means of prevention or rehabilitation because of the increased emphasis on core engagement, balance and targeting specific muscle groups.
For example, the glute med is an important muscle involved in the squat and deadlift, and if it is weak or if there is an imbalance or compensation, this can cause knee, hip or lower back pain. Research shows that implementing bodyweight exercises that specifically target the glute med can help rehabilitation efforts and injury prevention in those who lift heavy weights.
While bodyweight training or at-home workouts with light dumbbells cannot provide the same stimulus for muscle growth that lifting heavy weights can, it can still be a very effective method of training for beginners, people who are injured, weight lifters who want to be proactive in preventing injury and to maintain muscle mass when you can’t get to the gym.
However, to be effective, an at-home workout plan requires well thought out movements and technique to ensure you are getting the most out of your efforts. Make sure you’re finding ways to progressively overload the resistance, shorten rest periods, increase time under tension and integrate compound movements.
About The Author
Maggie Morgan is a level 1 PN certified nutritionist who specializes in sport, exercise and performance nutrition, a strength training coach, and an elite level athlete. Maggie has competed in bodybuilding, and is an international-level powerlifter. Currently undertaking her Masters in Counselling Psychology, Maggie is not only able to lead others in strength and aesthetics through her personal experiences and scientific nutritional foundations but additionally by addressing the psychological and behavioral implications of exercise and nutrition. Through her writing and work with clients, Maggie works to provide information that’s responsible, rational and backed up by research, science, and fact within the health and fitness industry.