Upper Body Circuit - Body weight exercises beyond just pushups

author - melissa witmer strength and conditioning

This short session is a good introduction to body weight work for the upper body. Go beyond the pushup and into some interesting alternatives in this short, but effective training session!

Do each of the exercises for the recommended repetitions. Repeat the circuit 2-3 times.

  1. Rocking pushups (8-25 reps)
  2. Monkey Crawl (6-20 each direction)
  3. Wall catch pushups (10-20)
  4. Pike Pushups (10-20)

Rocking Push-ups


This is a great exercise for naturally cueing good push-up form. It is far superior to push-ups from the knees for those who cannot do full push-ups because the spine tends to maintain the preferred alignment throughout the movement and the elbows stay tucked in. 

For those strong enough for a high volume of regular push-ups, the rocking push-up is an excellent upper body warm up exercise that cues good form, and moves the shoulder through a large range of motion.

Side-to-Side Monkey Crawl


This Monkey Crawl exercise gives us a bit of rotational core stimulus and is good for training shoulder stability. As you get better at the exercise you can move your hips higher and move more slowly.

Wall catch push-ups


The goal of this exercise is to “catch” yourself with the elbows at about 90 degrees. This engages the muscle fibers of the pectorals very quickly. It adds a bit of power stimulus to your upper body routine.

If this is too easy, you can do a similar movement starting on your knees and falling forward. Go easy with just a few reps at first. It’s easy to overdo it on fast eccentric contraction exercises!

Pike Push-ups



This exercise is not a perfect substitute for pulling options, but it will target the lats at least somewhat similarly to a lat pull-down

Not recommended for those with shoulder impingement or anyone who cannot do overhead lifts. Though you could vary the angle and maybe find a variation that's comfortable.

General Principles

Usually with upper body strength workouts, you will see a balance of pushing and pulling motions to balance the development of anterior (front - like the pecs) and posterior (back) muscles.

The best option for pulling exercises is to do pull ups or chin ups if you have a bar. The second best option is to use a sturdy table for inverse rows. Third option is to find some heavy object and figure out how to do dumbbell rows.

I have not been impressed by any equipment free non-pullup body weight pulling exercises I've seen. So, the way I'm thinking about this during lock down is...what we really want most in upper body work is shoulder mobility, stability, and strength.

A lot of crawling based exercises (like the Monkey and others) will take of that for us. the lats are activated in more of an isometric stability function, but that's still functional and relevant to our goal of staying healthy and ready to get back into ultimate when that day comes. Crawling variations also have a bit of pulling motion though you're usually on all fours.

With a mix of crawling based exercises and pushing exercises, we will not develop any major front/back asymmetries. That's not really a concern. My main concern, even for someone who decides to just to a bunch of push-ups, is that they would not be getting in exercises with a larger range of motion in the shoulder if push-ups is all they do.

More Body Weight Workouts

Get five days worth of body weight workouts for ultimate here.

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