No Gym Required: Strengthen Your Upper Body at Home for Less

man doing a pull-up outside at a playground

Lyndon Stratford/istockphoto

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man doing a pull-up outside at a playground
Lyndon Stratford/istockphoto

Get Pumped

The average gym membership costs $58 a month, and two-thirds of those memberships go unused, meaning the vast majority of members pay about $700 a year to not get in shape. Add to that the fact that going to the gym can be fairly risky these days — if they're open at all. Fortunately, for most people, strong arms, tight abs, muscular shoulders, and a lean-muscled back can become a reality with a one-time purchase of about $50.

Related: 15 Indoor Workouts That Don't Require Going the the Gym

Choose Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups

Choose Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups

The U.S. Military Academy at West Point views pull-ups as an important part of cadets' physical training — and for good reason. Chin-ups and pull-ups work the back, shoulders, arms, and abdominals, says Sarah Ann Kelly, fitness professional and owner of "A pull-up requires you to lift your own body weight, " she says, "so you are increasing your strength and burning calories quicker than with weights."

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man doing a pull-up outside

Use Good Form

Pull-ups use an overhand grip with hands placed slightly wider than shoulder width. This variation, which emphasizes the back more than the biceps, is harder for most people to perform. Chin-ups are performed with the palms facing in. This supinated grip recruits the biceps more heavily, and because it uses more accessory moves to raise the body above the bar, many people find this version easier.

Related: 24 Fitness Myths to Debunk for Your Next Workout

Get Under a Pull-Up Bar
Petri Oeschger/istockphoto

Get a Bar

One of the most versatile pieces of workout equipment, a modern pull-up bar requires the user to perform compound exercises that simultaneously engage several muscle groups. According to Kelly, a chin-up bar can replace several pieces of expensive gym equipment, including a lat pull-down machine, assisted dip machine, shoulder press machine, and Roman chair. Also, "pull-ups can easily replace many back and bicep exercises that are normally done at the gym, like bicep curls, reverse curls, and seated rows," says trainer Mel Jones.

Buy a Pull-Up Station

Buy a Pull-Up Station

A modern, leverage-based pull-up station offers powerful workouts that engage the core and entire upper body. It doesn't require any installation, fits in most door frames, doubles as a versatile ground-based exercise system, and allows for a range of variations and customizations. An in-home body-weight-based workout routine centered on chin-ups and pull-ups can quickly produce radical gains in strength, agility, flexibility, and appearance — no gym membership necessary. 

Related: Sick of Doing Crunches? 16 At-Home Exercises to Target Your Abs

woman outside practicing pull-ups

Ease Into Your Routine

"Pull-ups are a really tough exercise, which not everyone will be able to do from day one," says personal trainer Vicky Gardner. But don't get discouraged. Performing negative pull-ups — jumping to the top of the movement and slowly lowering the body — can help build the strength needed to perform pull-ups. Another preparatory exercise is to simply hang on the bar with feet off the ground for increasingly longer periods of time, until you are able to lift your body.

Use Caution

Use Caution

Kelly strongly advises that women not begin a pull-up/chin-up regimen when pregnant, postpartum, or breastfeeding. "The hormones relaxin and progesterone increase joint laxity," Kelly says, "which can result in a dislocated shoulder." However, women who were proficient in pull-ups before becoming pregnant may continue to do them, she says.

Related: 16 of Today's Most Ridiculous Health Fads

windshield wiper pull-ups

Mix it Up

Phoenix-based sports chiropractor and certified strength and conditioning specialist Dr. Matt Tanneberg recommends challenging your body with the following variations:

Mixed grip: Hold the bar with one palm facing the body, the other palm facing away.

Towel pull-ups: Place a towel over the bar and pull your body up by gripping each end of the towel.

Windshield wipers: Instead of pulling straight up, pull up and to one side, then bring your body across to the other side.

L-sit pull-up

Try These Variations

Matt Tanneberg also recommends these twists on traditional pull-ups:

Hangs: Pull up until your elbows are at 90 degrees and hold the position.

L-sit pull-up: Start in a regular pull-up position, then straighten your legs out in front of you and perform a pull-up with legs extended.

Kipping pull-up: Swing the legs and use your body weight to assist in the pull-up motion.

Muscle-ups: Complete a pull-up and then extend your body above the bar into a finished dip position.

Add Weight

Add Weight

Like other exercises, chin-ups and pull-ups become radically more difficult — and effective — when weight is added. This is a great way to develop the latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats, which create the V-shape taper that's the hallmark of an athletic male body. "I know of no better way to do this than weighted pull-ups and chin-ups," says Mike Matthews, author and owner of MuscleForLife. "Weighted pull-ups and chin-ups do more than just build a back," he says. They also build extraordinary pulling strength, which is why "weighted chin-ups and pull-ups are a favorite among wrestlers, martial artists, and military professionals."

Related: Over 50? This Is the Most Important Change to Make to Your Workout Routine

Forget Sit-Ups

Forget Sit-Ups

Pull-ups have long been associated with well-defined arms, broad shoulders, and a muscular back, but an often-overlooked benefit is that they also help strengthen and tone the core, including the abdominal muscles and obliques. To intensify the core workout, Jones advises holding the knees and feet at a 90-degree angle (creating an L-shape) while doing chin-ups or pull-ups.

Floor exercise with a pull-up bar

Hit the Deck

Modern pull-up/chin-up bars can be easily removed from the door frame and become a base for several floor-based exercises, which, like pull-ups, can be customized with a wide range of variations. The bar can make push-ups more challenging or serve as a base for dips and — for those who are more advanced – handstand push-ups.

Related: 15 Indoor Workouts That Don't Require Going to the Gym

Iron Gym Upper Body Workout

Invest in Your Workout

The Iron Gym Upper Body Workout ($42 from Walmart) installs and detaches in seconds, because it uses leverage instead of screws or brackets to hold body weight. It allows for wide-grip, narrow-grip, and neutral-grip pull-ups and chin-ups, as well as palms-facing pull-ups. Reviewers laud its strength and stability, even for larger individuals.

ProSource Multi-Grip

Upgrade Your Bar

The ProSource Multi-Grip ($30 on Amazon) is bigger and wider than most leverage-mounted pull-up bars. With the extra heft come extra options, including 12 padded handgrips and several different handles. The bar is made from high-strength steel, holds up to 300 pounds, and comes with a limited lifetime warranty.

Related: This Cheap Workout Gear Can Help You Stay in Shape.