You Don’t Need Weights to Get a Full Upper Body Workout—Try This Quick Circuit Routine

Work your upper body with these creative, challenging exercises—no weights required.

Good news for at-home exercisers: You don't need a set of weights to get a solid upper-body workout. All you need are a few household items and this workout from NASM-certified trainer Jennifer Romanelli, co-owner of Trooper Fitness in New York City.

A powerlifter at heart, Romanelli abandoned the barbell when gyms closed during the COVID-19 shutdown and found joy in pushing her body in new ways—like in her living room, using chairs and towels to target the chest, back, shoulders, and arms. "The benefit of doing [bodyweight-only] work is that you learn about you," she says. "You're able to move your body efficiently, get stronger, and then when you do apply weight, your body's more receptive to it."

Bodyweight exercises not only build muscle but they can also power you through your days. "Tweak your training to what you want to do in your life—make it work for you," Romanelli says. (For her, that means carrying a toddler in one arm and a stroller in the other…while she walks up five flights!) Your sense of accomplishment will grow every time you do a few more push-ups or hold your plank a little longer, and that progress will motivate you to work through the challenges, Romanelli says.

Modified handstand push-ups


(A) Put hands down on floor, then place feet on a chair in back, so body forms an L shape. (B) Bend elbows and lower head toward floor, between hands. Press back up, and repeat.



(A) Place hands on two chairs and walk feet back to a plank position, shoulders over wrists. Bend elbows 45 degrees and lower chest toward chairs to perform a push-up. Press back up to plank. Drive hands into chairs; lift hips and feet off the ground, and sweep them underneath you, landing in a reverse plank with legs straight out in front, heels on the ground, and arms straight. (B) Bend elbows 45 degrees, and lower butt toward floor to perform a triceps dip. Press back up, driving hands into the chairs and lifting hips and feet off floor to sweep them underneath you and back to a plank position for the push-up. Continue alternating between push-up and dip.

Towel chest fly


(A) Start in a modified plank position (on knees), each hand on a towel or glider in front of you. (B) Maintaining modified plank, with pelvis tucked slightly forward, glutes and abs engaged, drive towels straight out to the sides, slight bend in the elbows. Press up as you slide the towels back under shoulders. Repeat.

Triceps extensions


(A) Place hands on a chair and walk feet back to a plank position. (Keep feet wide to make it easier, closer together to increase the challenge.) (B) Squeezing elbows toward each other, bend them straight back, upper body lowering toward floor, shoulders steady. Press back up to straighten arms, and repeat.

Bat wings


(A) Start seated, knees straight and heels planted, leaning slightly backward, with elbows bent and each placed on a towel behind you. (B) Drive elbows outward, back lowering toward floor. Then, squeezing shoulder blades together, pull elbows back toward center as you sit up taller. Repeat.

Towel ab rollout


(A) Start in a forearm plank position, shoulders right over elbows and both feet on towels. (B) Maintaining a strong plank position, glide feet back so shoulders come behind elbows. Then pull forward, shoulders returning back over elbows. Continue moving back and forth.

Adductor plank


Start with your right elbow on the floor, then put left foot on top of chair and right foot under the seat, getting into a side plank position, hips stacked and right shoulder directly over right elbow.Keeping body in a straight line from shoulder to feet, hold for 30 seconds. Then switch sides.

The drill

Circuit 1: Pyramid

Perform Modified Handstand Push-Ups and Shoots "pyramid" style, starting at 2 reps each and building to 4, 6, 8, and 10, then back down (2 Handstand Push-Ups, 2 Shoots; 4 Handstand Push-ups, 4 Shoots; etc.).

Circuit 2: Tri set

Do 3 sets. Towel Chest Fly:12 repsTriceps Extensions:10 repsBat Wings:15–20 reps

Circuit 3: Ab Finisher

Do 3 sets. Towel Ab Rollout:15 repsAdductor Plank:30 seconds each side

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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