While a machine- and free-weight-packed gym might seem like the ideal place to work on your strength, you don't need weightlifting to get a stronger upper body. Body-weight exercises are often undervalued when it comes to increasing muscle strength and size, but with a few modifications, they can be extremely challenging and lead to impressive gains.
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How You Gain Strength
You get stronger by constantly challenging your muscles and nervous system during workouts. With a traditional weightlifting routine, this would predominantly revolve around lifting heavier weights. Without weights, however, you'll have to find other ways to create overload. The easiest way to do this is to add extra repetitions, and while this is certainly beneficial, over time you'll see diminishing returns, warns trainer Michael Matthews of Muscle for Life. Eventually your reps will get so high that you'll no longer be building size and strength, but rather muscular endurance. Instead, strength coach Nia Shanks advises performing tougher variations of body-weight moves.
Start with the body-weight fundamentals. When it comes to upper-body training, this involves pushups and chinups. For pushups, which work your chest, triceps and shoulders, you can either start with regular pushups, or opt for modified pushups on your knees if you're struggling with full ones. As for chinups, full-body-weight chinups that hit your back and biceps are tough. If you can do them properly, perform them to your heart's content, but if not, go for negative chinups, where you start in the top position and lower yourself down slowly. Personal trainer and bodybuilder Mike Duffy advises keeping your reps in the four to six range and building up slowly.
Becoming a Body-Weight Master
When these moves become too easy, it's time to crank up the intensity. Shanks recommends a technique known as 1.5 reps, where you perform a full repetition, then a half repetition to increase tension on the muscle fibers. She also advises using more difficult forms of the exercises. With pushups for example, once you can complete four to five sets of 10 to 12 reps, try close-grip pushups, then pushups with your feet elevated. For pullups, Florida-based personal trainer Matt Potak advises doing timed sets, where you perform as many reps in a given time as possible. Alternatively, switch to a wider grip, use slow negatives or wrap a towel around the bar to increase the challenge on your grip, forearms and biceps.
Adding to Your Arsenal
Just because you're trying to build upper-body strength without weightlifting doesn't mean you can't use any equipment at all. A set of resistance bands can be used on any pushing or pulling variation, either to make the exercises easier or harder. If you do decide to take the plunge and try weightlifting too, keep performing your body-weight moves, but alternate an upper-body weights workout with a body-weight-only workout.