By Ryan Rhodes, MD
I love body weight exercises. Pushups, pull-ups, wall squats, pikes, and dips; I love them all. Its so nice being able to perform an exercise where all you need is the human body and Sir Issac Newton’s Law of Gravity. Not to mention they are all time tested workouts, most of them going back to recorded history as far as the ancient Greeks. They worked then and they work now.
I also love working a muscle to failure, that feeling you get where you just can’t work anymore. You’ve used all the gas in the tank and its shot. It’s been known in the fitness community for many years that working a muscle to failure is the quickest way to see benefits in strength and size. Stressing a muscle to its maximum creates the most microtears in that muscle. Despite the use of the word “tear,” this is good thing. Your muscle then repairs itself by forming new crossbridges (bridges of muscle fibers) when it repairs to add more strength and size. Long story short, wearing a muscle out makes it adapt and get stronger.
Combining these two concepts of exercise creates not only a fun but an effective workout.
For this series of workouts, there are two workout days − an upper body day and a lower body day. You can do both groups in one day if you’re feeling extra spry, but make sure you give your muscles time to rest and recover afterwards.
You can also alternate your primary resistance exercise routine in the following set up : upper body day – lower body day – rest/cardio day – upper body day – lower body day – rest/cardio day – rest/stretch/yoga. Or if, you prefer, you can simply incorporate it into whatever schedule you have now (FYI, this is what I do).
Caution: you will be sore the next day!
Upper Body Workout Day 1
Chest Press – Push Ups
For a chest press, lie on a bench or flat on the floor if you don’t have a bench. With a dumbbell in each hand lowering the weights down till your elbows are at 90 degrees or barely touching the floor (Don’t rest your arms on the floor. That’s cheating). Then slowly and in a controlled motion push the weight back directly up till your arms are straight squeezing your chest in the process. Repeat for 10 reps. Pick a weight that’s heavy enough so that 10 reps are hard to do meaning you should be feeling it and struggling at 7-8 reps.
For pushups, here is a video on how to perform the proper push up. But I will point out ways to correct form that I see many people doing. Make sure you lock up your core; keep everything tight. Tighten you stomach, squeeze your glutes and hamstring not to the point that it exhausts you but just to the point that everything is tight. This helps you keep your spine in a neutral position and prevents that pelvic “dip” some people get while doing pushups. Also, make sure your hands are directly under the shoulders and just wider than shoulder length. Make sure you are lowering yourself far enough down so that your chest is about a fist’s distance away from the ground. Have someone put there fist there if you need to. Do as many as you can until you can’t physically do anymore. This will be harder since you just did a chest workout, but you might surprise yourself at how many you can do. If you can not physically do a single one on your feet then do the push ups from your knees. You can also move to your knees after getting to failure on your feet to truly push you chest muscles to failure.
“Rocket Launcher”/Lunging Rows – Pull-Ups/Band Pulldowns
This might new to some people. For this exercise you want to get in a “Rocket Launcher” stance or a straight lunge. In a lunge position with your knee over your ankle in your front leg and your back leg straight as can be pushing back on the toes align your upper body with your back leg. You will have to tighten your core muscles to do this properly. It helps to do this near a mirror to make sure you have proper form. Your whole body from your ankle to your head should be straight enough to launch a rocket off of, hence the name rocket launcher. Once you’re in the proper stance, grab your two dumbbells (same weight picking principle as before) and perform a row. Using your back muscles, pull the weights towards you with your wrists facing each other. Pull the weight up to your upper body bending your elbows, while keeping your spine and leg aligned, till your elbows are parallel with your sides. Then slowly lower the weights back down. Repeat for 10 reps. The rocket launcher stance might mean you have to pick a little less weight than you think for this move.
Pull-ups can be pretty difficult for a lot of people, but they’re one of the best ways to build upper body strength. If you go to a gym, most of them should have a piece of equipment that will allow you to do pull-ups. If not, there are a variety of ways you can do them at home. The cheapest and most convenient is a door jam pull-up bar, which wedges into a standard sized door frame. If you do use this method, just make sure that the bar is very secure and to make sure the bar won’t mark up your door frame. For the form, keep you hand about the same width as with a pushup, slightly wider than shoulder length. Palms should face away from you. This will concentrate more tension on your back muscles. When your palms face toward you (chin up style) you are still primarily using your back, but your biceps do part of the work. And no kipping. Kipping is that jerking body movement some people do to try to use momentum to help get their chin over the bar. They might do kipping in Crossfit, but they’re goal is time to complete a workout, not optimal muscle growth. Do as many non kipping pull-ups as you can until you can not physically get your chin over the bar. It’s ok to drop down for a second and jump up and keep going, just make sure you’re working yourself to failure.
For some people a pull-up just isn’t possible though. It requires a large amount of strength to do even one. It is especially difficult for most women. You can make it slightly easier by using either a pull-up assist band (can be found at most sporting goods stores) or by placing one foot on a chair while doing pull-ups. Other options include doing a lat pull down with a cable machine at a gym or using a resistance band with a door attachment to mimic a lat pull down movement. If you prefer to work out at home and have limited equipment, there is a way to make a modified pull up bar that allows you to do an easier version of a pull up. Pad the ends of a broomstick with hand towels and placed them securely on the top of two chairs, one on each end. Lay under the broomstick and pull yourself up. It should look like this.
Shoulder Press – Pike Press/Weighted Circles
Stand up straight with good posture wither either feet shoulder width apart and one in front of the other, whichever is more comfortable. Grab a heavy dumbbell in both hands, and position them up above your shoulders with your elbow bent at a 90 degree angle. Press both weights straight up directly above your head till your arms straighten out. Slowly and with control lower the weight back down to the starting position. Repeat for 10 reps total. Same rules apply for picking a weight. Do not drop the weight on your head. That will hurt.
Pike presses are great body weight exercise that can completely blast your shoulders. To start this exercise get in the plank position just as if you were about to do a pushup. Now bring your feet closer to your head sticking your butt into the air keeping your legs and body straight. Your whole body should resemble and upside down V with the crown of your head in line with your hands. (A) Keeping the rest of your body locked up tight and straight, lower your head nearly to the floor between your legs then back up again. (B)
Repeat for as many reps as you can. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, your shoulders should be crying, almost hurting.
Some people might not be strong enough to perform this. For them, an alternative would be to grab two lighter dumbbells in each hand, straighten both arms out the side forming a “T”, and start doing arm circles, just like you would as a warm up. Keep going forward till your shoulders are too tired to continue, then start going in reverse till you’re not able too anymore.
“Roman” Curls – Chin-Ups/Kneeling Curls
Have you ever seen an old movie with Roman soldiers? Did you notice how they would salute by placing their hand to the opposite chest?
This is the same motion for a Roman curl. Remember the rules of picking weights. Start with a dumbbell in each hand in the same position as a standard standing curl. But instead of curling straight up, curl the weight up diagonally to your opposite armpit. Slowly lower back down. Alternate hands between reps. Do 10 reps for each side.
We’re back to the pull-up for our body weight exercise. Same form as the pull up except now your palms are facing toward you. When you pull yourself up, make sure to squeeze your bicep at the top and hold it for a second.
If you’re not able to do pull-ups, then we go back to the dumbbells. Pick a light weight a drop to one knee. Dropping to one knee is going to keep your from using your lower body momentum to curl the weight up. Now curl the weights up with both hands as fast as you can for as many reps as you can.
Overhead Standing Tricep Press – Dips
For an overhead tricep extension some people prefer to use a pair of lighter dumbbells in each hand. I prefer one heavy dumbbell held with two hands. Pick a heavy dumbbell and grab the end of one by placing your palms under the large end. Carefully lift the weigh up and over your head and lower the weight behind your head till the bottom is resting just behind your neck. (A) Using your triceps extend the weight up till your arms are nearly straight.(B) Then lower it back down carefully. Repeat for 10 reps. When done, carefully move your head around the weight and lower it in front of you and down to the floor. This can be sitting or standing.
Dips are an exercise just as old as pushups and here is a video showing you how to perform them. These can be done anywhere there is a difference in elevation by just a few feet. Typically they are done with resting the hands on a chair or bench and feet directly in front. Put as much weight on your arms as you can. Starting from a straight arm position, lower yourself down as low as you can then push yourself back up. Repeat for as many reps as you can. You can make it easier by keeping your knees bent and harder by straightening your legs. If you don’t find it challenging with straight legs, you can raise one leg and switch down leg every 5 reps. If you still don’t find this challenging you can place your feet on another chair or bench to raise them up to the same level of your hands. If you go to a gym and already have super strong triceps use the dip station there. This is the most effective variation of dip since all the weight of the body is put on the tricep.
If you’re new to weight lifting, then just going through this once should be sufficient. If you’re a little more experienced, repeat the whole routine 1-2 more times.
This is the end of the workout for Upper Body day. Come back tomorrow for the Lower Body workout!
Edited by Jacques Courseault, MD