3 Great Upper Body HIIT Workouts To Build Muscle

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When most people tackle HIIT workouts, the emphasis is on total-body exercises like sprinting or burpees or lower-body movements like cycling intervals or jump squats.

Lower-body and total-body exercises are great for HIIT workouts because they incorporate multiple large muscle groups and require moving all or most of the body at once, which is the most effective way to increase your heart rate and energy expenditure.

However, it’s also possible to get a great upper body HIIT workout. A HIIT upper body workout can be a great option for anyone with a lower-body injury or who wants to do upper-body strength training in a more metabolically- and cardiovascularly-demanding way.

In this article, we provide some ideas for challenging upper body HIIT workouts for different fitness levels to help you strengthen and tone your upper body while burning calories and getting a great cardio workout.

We will cover: 

  • What Is an Upper Body HIIT Workout?
  • 3 Great Upper Body HIIT Workouts To Build Muscle

Let’s jump in!

A person doing a clapping push up on a field.

What Is an Upper Body HIIT Workout?

HIIT, which stands for high-intensity interval training, is a style of exercise training that involves alternating between performing bouts of vigorous exercise with easier recovery intervals.

HIIT workouts are super time-efficient and are a great way to burn fat and increase metabolic rate.

The vigorous intervals usually last anywhere from 10-60 seconds, with the goal of getting your heart rate up to at least 85% of your maximum heart rate during the burst.

Recovery intervals are intended to be short enough that your heart rate doesn’t drop too low (usually not below 70% of your maximum heart rate) but long enough that you can recover enough to fully attack the next hard interval with enough intensity.

Your fitness level, the overall duration of the workout, the length of the hard bursts, and the type of exercise you are doing will influence how long your recovery intervals need to be.

A person doing a push up, part of an upper body HIIT workout.

When creating your own HIIT upper body workouts or even total body HIIT workouts, a good guideline for the work-to-recovery interval ratio is 1:2 for beginners, 1:1 for intermediate athletes, and 2:1 for advanced athletes.

For example, if the “on“ or work intervals are 30 seconds, a beginner would go hard for 30 seconds and then recover at a low intensity for 60 seconds before going hard for the next exercise. 

An intermediate athlete would push hard for 30 seconds and then recover at an easier effort for 30 seconds, and an advanced athlete would push hard for 30 seconds and then recover for only 15 seconds before heading into the next vigorous effort.

Of course, you can play around with the ratios as you see fit in accordance with your own fitness level and the type of exercises you are doing.

However, the important thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t try to be a “hero“ and truncate your recoveries because you think that will make the workout harder. 

A person doing bench press exercises.

If the recovery periods are too short, you can compromise the integrity and entire purpose of doing HIIT because if you do not recover long enough to let your heart rate come down, you will not be able to get through the whole workout with the hard efforts being as hard as they truly should be. 

If you are not able to keep your heart rate at at least 85% of your maximum heart rate during those “on“ efforts, you are limiting your potential gains and missing out on the fitness benefits of the hard-easy interval style of HIIT.

Ultimately, it’s better to take a little longer to recover and allow your heart rate to come down to 70 to 75% of your max so that you can then get it up to closer to 90% of your maximum heart rate during the high-intensity interval than to take a shorter rest, have your heart rate drop to just 75-80% of your max and then barely get it above that 80% in the hard intervals.

You definitely want there to be a difference in the pace and intensity of the hard versus recovery efforts, and the hard efforts should be hard

An upper body HIIT workout is often more muscularly fatiguing than a lower-body or total-body HIIT workout. 

The muscles in the upper body are much smaller and generally not as strong as muscles in the lower body because they do not support the body weight all day. 

A person doing a shoulder press exercise.

3 Great Upper Body HIIT Workouts To Build Muscle

#1: Upper Body HIIT Workout

Complete 2-3 rounds of the following, with 15-30 seconds of rest in between each exercise:

  • 30 seconds of air punches 
  • 30 seconds of normal-width push-ups
  • 30 seconds of narrow push-ups or diamond push-ups
  • 30 seconds of wide push-ups 
  • 30 seconds triceps dips (knees bent for beginners, knees straight for intermediates, or using dip bars for advanced athletes)
  • 30 seconds of dumbbell overhead shoulder presses
  • 30 seconds high plank with forward reach
  • 30 seconds high plank with dumbbell rows
  • 30 seconds bear crawl
  • 30 seconds of upper right to lower left medicine ball chops
  • 30 seconds of upper left to lower right medicine ball chops
A person air boxing.

#2: Punches Upper Body HIIT Workout

If you only have a set of light dumbbells and you want to perform an upper body HIIT workout at home, you can just do different rounds of rapid punches.

  • 30 seconds alternating punches straight in front of your body
  • 30 seconds of punches to the right side of your body
  • 30 seconds of punches to the left side of your body
  • 30 seconds of punches overhead

Do as many rounds as you can, depending on your fitness level and desired workout length.

#3: Battle Ropes Upper Body HIIT Workout

Another great training tool for upper body HIIT workouts is heavy battle ropes.

These are thick (1.5-2.5 inches or so) braided ropes that can weigh upwards of 15 to 30 pounds or more, depending on the size of the rope that you use.

A person swining battle ropes.

The rope is typically folded in half and anchored at the midpoint around a stationary object.

Then, different upper-body or total-body cardio, metabolic, power, and strengthening exercises can be performed. 

For example, you usually assume an athletic stance or full squat position and then take one end of the rope in each hand and perform different patterns of rapid yet powerful undulations of the rope.

You might create really fast, alternating shallow waves with each rope end, or move both hands together and squat up and down as you thrust your arms arcing the ropes up and down as you squat, slamming them into the ground, and then lifting them back up in tandem.

Battle rope exercises lend themselves well to upper body HIIT workouts because the ropes are heavy, and the exercises rapidly elevate your heart rate. You should perform them at a maximum intensity for 20-45 seconds per interval.

A person swining battle ropes.

You can do a super challenging upper body HIIT Tabata-style workout with battle ropes. This involves performing all-out exercise for 20 seconds and then taking a 10-second rest before going again.

A traditional Tabata includes eight rounds using this format, but you can increase the overall duration as your fitness level improves for an even more challenging workout.

Here’s an example:

Warm up with 60 seconds of jumping jacks and 60 seconds of seal clap jumping jacks, where your hands sweep across your body parallel to the floor rather than going up overhead.

Then, complete 8 rounds of the following:

  • 20 seconds of max effort alternating battle rope waves / 10 seconds rest
  • Then, if you’re up for a second Tabata, move immediately into 8 rounds of the following: 
  • 20 seconds of max effort squats with a powerful battle rope thrust with both arms together / 10 seconds rest
  • Then, if you’re up for a third Tabata, move immediately into 8 rounds of the following: 
  • 20 seconds of max effort alternating battle rope waves using the maximum range of motion or arc you can make with each arm / 10 seconds rest
  • Finally, if you can do one more set, move immediately into 8 rounds of the following:
  • 20 seconds of max effort alternating battle rope waves using the fastest flutters you can do, trying to get as many reps as possible in each 20-second interval with 10 seconds rest after each set.

This upper-body HIIT workout is sure to get your heart pounding and shoulders, biceps, triceps, and traps burning.

Looking for other types of HIIT workouts to spice up your training? Check out our: 8 Awesome HIIT Workouts At Home

A person doing mountain climbers.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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