Training Without a Gym – The Upper Body
The upper body can further be broken down into pulling and pushing movements. Pulling recruits the biceps in your arm, and your back musculature (in a very broad sense). Pushing recruits your triceps, and your chest/shoulders. The rest of your body stabilizes your movement, keeping you balanced and giving you the base and center of gravity necessary to push/pull from.
Note: Here’s the spreadsheet version, without explanations.
Pushups are an exercise where the basic rules are as follows: keep your body straight and rigid, lie face down, and use your arms to push yourself into a plank position. A complete rep involves fully-extended arms (not hyperextended) and either your chest or your nose should touch the ground. Keep your palms on the floor and a bit wider than shoulder width apart, so your thumb still touches your deltoid. Keep your fingers either pointed straight ahead or outward — don’t point them in. The reason for this is that pointing them inwards encourages you to flare your arms — they should be 45 degrees from your body, rather than 90 degrees, to balance the involvement of your arms and chest.
Incline Pushup: These are done with your arms elevated at a higher position than your feet. Your body should still be rigid, but instead of your nose touching the ground, a good metric for a completed rep is having your chest touch the surface you’re keeping your hands on — like a bench or table.
Pushup: This is the regular pushup — no bells, no whistles, just good old hard work.
Diamond Pushup: Instead of keeping your arms shoulder width apart, bring your palms together to make a diamond with your thumbs and index fingers. This increases the difficulty but focuses mostly on your triceps.
Clapping Pushup: In a regular pushup position, push with enough force to get yourself off the ground entirely, clap, and hit the ground again. This is a plyometric exercise — basically, this means it’s an explosive exercise meant to teach you to put more power behind a certain movement and do it faster. Plyometrics were first developed as a training tool in the Soviet Union for Olympic sprinters.
Archer Pushup: Going back to pectoral focus, an archer pushup is done by keeping your arms further apart, and then lowering down completely onto one arm while the other simply supports your weight. Then, you push yourself up into the starting position and repeat on the other side.
One-Armed Pushup: The final test for the pushup is to do a quality one-armed pushup. You start off with your legs far apart, and your weight on one arm. Keep the other arm either behind your back or use it to grip your leg, and then follow the rules of the pushup — down, and up. If that gets too easy, you can bring your legs closer together until you eventually manage to do one-armed pushups with your legs together.
The chest is a complicated muscle, and doing pushups only works certain parts of it. Similarly, the pushup recruits much of your bicep but leaves your shoulders missing some of the action. That’s where the dip comes in.
Bench Dip: These are rather common, and often seen prescribed to beginners at the gym. They’re also simple, and deceptively effective — facing away from a higher surface like a bench or a chair, keep your palms on that surface and, with your feet straight out in front of you, lower yourself down until either your butt touches the floor or your arms go from straight to bent at a 90 degree angle.
Dip: The dip proper is done on two parallel bars, or two stacks of boxes, or two sturdy chairs held in place by stacks of boxes. That’s why it’s also an exercise I haven’t done in awhile since I rarely hang out at the local playground where parallel bars are easily available. The rules here are the same — one hand on each bar, dip down until your arms are bent 90 degrees, and extend them back into an upright position. You can lean into the dip if you want to target your chest — keeping your body rigid and straight, however, targets the arms more.
Clapping Dip: These are, just like the clapping pushup, a plyometric alternative to the regular dip. Once again you perform the exercise but with more power, enough to get yourself off the bars and clap once before gripping the bars again.
Single-Bar Dip: Instead of dipping with two parallel bars, grip a single bar, and lower yourself until your arms hit that 90-degree angle. Bonus points if you manage to do it high up on a pull-up bar, without your body touching the bar.
Korean Dip: The arguably hardest dip variation, this is done with a single bar — behind you. Same rules apply as per the single-bar dip, only this time, you’re gonna have a much harder time as you’re effectively holding the bar behind your back.
While your arms and chest are important when training push, the oft-neglected muscles used mostly for stabilization are the shoulders. Don’t ignore your shoulders. Put them to good use. At a gym, you’d satisfy this need for strong shoulders through the notorious overhead press — without a gym, you do a pike press/push up. Start with a downward dog position, with your hands and feet on the floor and your torso and arms in a single line. Lower down until your head touches the ground, and press back up.
Floor Pike Pushup: This is the most basic level, and involves starting with your feet and hands on the same elevation. You can start with negatives if a full press is too difficult.
Decline Pike Pushup: Start with your feet up on a bench or chair, and repeat the basic rules for the pushup. Remember to keep your arms and torso aligned.
90-Degree Pike Pushup: For the 90-degree pike pushup, get your legs up against a wall or a high bench until your legs and body/arms are at a 90-degree hinge, then do your pushup. For an added challenge, do these at a wall and inch closer to it until you’re doing assisted headstand pushups (hands on floor), or handstand pushups (hands elevated, head down to floor).
If pushups are the bread of calisthenics upper body workouts, then pull-ups are the butter. A real pull-up, like the pushup, is often done wrong. Proper pushups hinge on the fact that your torso and legs are straight, you’re lowering yourself down completely and extending your elbows completely, and your arms don’t flare out. Proper pull-ups hinge on keeping your torso rigid, and avoiding “kipping”, or the use of your legs to provide momentum into your pull-up. So basically, no swinging. Finally, your grip matters. An “overhand” grip is the traditional pull-up and involves you facing your palms as you pull yourself up. An “underhand” grip is the opposite. This is typically referred to as a chin-up. Chin-ups utilize your outer lats and biceps more, while the pull-up recruits more of the rest of the back, including your trapezius.
Negative Pull-Up: A negative pull-up is the start to your proper pull-up — you start by getting yourself over the bar any way you can (a chair might help), and then, with proper form at the top (chin over the bar), slowly lower yourself back into a hanging position. If you can take about 3-5 seconds lowering yourself down, you should theoretically be strong enough for a single proper form pull-up.
Pull-Up: Start in a “dead hang”, and tilt your body so your head is back and your feet are pointing forward slightly. This is to help make more use of your lats. While you can attempt to basically do a pull-up with your body completely perpendicular to the ground, this wouldn’t be an exercise that made much sense physically. You want a roughly even distribution of reliance on your biceps and lats here.
Clapping Pull-Up: The plyometric pull-up, the clapping pull-up is done with a very fast and powerful jerk up and over the bar. You can begin training this by simply pulling yourself over the bar, letting go, and grabbing it again on the way down until you feel comfortable clapping in between repetitions.
Typewriter Pull-Up: Much like the archer pushups, this variant of a pull-up basically involves pulling yourself up onto the top position of the pull-up, and then shifting your body from one end of a hand to the other end, extending the opposite hand out completely.
One-Armed Pull-Up: The one-armed pull-up starts with two variations — begin by gripping your wrist, and pulling yourself up. After you’ve done a few pull-ups, this shouldn’t be too difficult — you’re still using total arm strength, but you’re simply relying on one hand’s grip. After that, start by doing a regular pull-up, but while omitting a finger at a time on one of your hands. In the end, you should be doing pull-ups with one hand and one finger, before finally transitioning into negatives, and a full one-armed pull-up.
Whereas the pull-up reminds us more of the pike pushup or the overhead press than the push-up, rows are the traditional antagonist to your classic chest exercise. A row is performed just like a pull-up, but you’ll be pulling yourself up to a bar while your body remains parallel or nearly parallel to the floor. Traditional rows are done with weights, which make them easier to progress through — just bend over a bench or plain bend over and get started — but bodyweight rows get a little tricky, as the progression lies in teaching your body how to remain completely parallel to the floor while hanging from a bar (the “front lever”, as it’s known”).
Australian Pull-Up: This is your most basic bodyweight row or “inverted” row. Choose a bar roughly as high as the distance from your head to your hand, with your arms outstretched at shoulder width. Next, use that bar. Parallel bars for dips typically work best, although some playgrounds have special bars low enough for a pull-up like this. The rules are basically like doing an inverted pushup — don’t extend your elbows more than normally, and be sure to keep your body rigid as you perform this.
One-Armed Row: Once you’re comfortable with the inverted row, remove one hand from the grip. One-armed rows are much easier than one-armed pull-ups, and require much less preparation and progression work to get to.
Tucked Front Lever Row: The first progression for a front lever row is through the tucked front lever row. Start by heading back to the pull-up bar. Lift your body until your back is parallel to the floor, with your knees tucked to your chest. Then go for a row. No matter how small it is, what really counts here is that you’re training your lower back and lats to maintain that tucked position.
Advanced Tucked Front Lever Row: Once you can complete a tucked front lever row with relative ease, start to get your knees off your chest and away from you. Begin by keeping your knees pointing up, so that they’re at a 90-degree angle with your body. Then extend one leg. Then the other, with both legs far apart as though you were trying to straddle an invisible flying horse. And finally…
Front Lever Row: If you train diligently, within a year or some very tiring months, you’ll manage your way into a full-on front lever with a clean row. You will impress all your Instagram friends.
There you have it! A lot of opportunities to train yourself into tip-top fighting shape from a strength perspective without the use of a gym. You don’t even really need a bar if you’re just starting out — all the floorwork will be enough of a challenge, to begin with.
Note: This is not a comprehensive listing of all that can be. There are plenty of amazing exercises that I haven’t listed here. These are, however, by and large the exercises that I do/aspire to do in order to achieve comprehensive strength. You can pick and choose exercises, find other sources, or just give this a read through, ignore it, sip on your smoothie, and pack your bags to go do squats and deadlifts (parts of me envy you!).
Finally, do not be fooled by the somewhat tame reputation of regular calisthenics. Watching a man deadlift might be impressive, but I can squat down and deadlift about 200 pounds without much trouble and still struggle to hold a dragon flag, and that at a bodyweight of just about 135 pounds. Gymnasts are disgustingly strong. But they’re also ridiculously disciplined. Anyone can learn to squat, but doing a proper pistol squat takes a lot of patience, stretching, balance, and frustration.