The Capoeira Blog

6 Keys to Building Upper-Body Strength
January 15, 2008, 11:39 am
Filed under: Guest Posts, Tips & Guides

Image by GNovak

This is a guest post by Joaninha who writes the always informative and interesting Mandingueira (capoeira from the female perspective). Combine these tips with my post about the 5 Best Strength Training Exercises and you’ll be a hard bodied capoeira machine in no time!

It’s no secret that upper-body strength is an asset in capoeira. Even though the essence of the game rests more in dialogue than in acrobatics, who hasn’t daydreamed about pulling off fancy floreios in the middle of a raging roda? Just keep these key things in mind for training your upper body, and you’ll be unlocking one-handed macacos before you know it.

Key #1: Anywhere, anytime—No room for excuses!

Although you will have much more selection at the gym, one of the great things about upper-body exercises is that many of them can be done outside of one. You don’t need special equipment either, although getting a pair of decent weights would go a very long way.

Need a break from staring at your computer screen while at your desk? Perfect time for a set of tricep dips, with either bent or straight legs. Chilling in the backyard? Hang from a sturdy, safety-confirmed, I-will-not-hunt-down-Joaninha-if-this-breaks tree branch for a series of pull-ups. (This also works for any sturdy, safety-confirmed, etc. bars inside your home.) If you don’t have either, head on over to a local playground. Of course, any few square metres of ground forms the perfect push-up apparatus, and click here for a few more ideas!

Key #2: Mind over Matter

I met a capoeirista once whose teacher made students drop and do twenty every time they dared utter two fatal words: “I can’t.” If you already believe you’ll fail, why are you trying? This is especially important for women, who are constantly touted as “the ones with no upper-body strength”, even though their muscles are physically just as strong as men’s. As a result, studies have shown that women consistently and significantly underestimate, to a greater degree than men do, the amount of work they can do while strength training.

If you want to significantly improve your strength, make sure you are really working at the limits of your physical capabilities. When doing rep exercises, for example, you should be thinking seriously about calling on ancestral spirits to finish that last one. Learn to push yourself beyond what you think you can do.

Key #3: Drop and do twenty (and don’t complain about it)!

Faisca covered this already in a previous post: “Push-ups are the quintessential exercise. It’s a full body workout that works your back, abs, chest, and arms all at the same time.” They’re really the work-out champion of “tried and true”; why do you think teachers and trainers like them so much?

A good trick is to do at least one set of push-ups everyday, whether it’s after class, before bed, or first thing in the morning. Even if you just start with five a day (like, ahem, yours truly), if you take care to do each individual push-up properly (arms at full 90-degrees, no stopping mid-set), and stick to it daily, you will see results (hello, proper queda de rins). Just don’t forget to increase the number as you get stronger.

For those who have already “been there, done that”, or wish to concentrate on their chest muscles, switch to push-ups with your hands either wide apart, or close together and touching. And if you really want a challenge, consider clapping [in between] push-ups or the Dive-Bomber Push-up.

Key #4: Form Equals Function

As a fellow capoeirista pointed out after one particularly esquiva-happy class: it’s really hard to maintain form when you have so many reps to do. The only problem is that in working out, to sacrifice form is to sacrifice function, meaning what you just did was useless. That’s why going all the way down to a full 90 degrees is so important in push-ups, and why raising yourself all the way back up is just as, if not more, important.

Another time, we were practicing “bananeira push-ups” against a wall, and our teacher that class said that if we couldn’t do the entire movement (down to ground and back up), it was better to go all the way down then kick off the wall and start all over, rather than go half-way down and back up because the latter could actually harm us. Taking your muscles through their full range of motion every time is essential to their proper development as well as to injury prevention. If you want to go all the way in strengthening your upper body, then really go all the way.

Key #5: Variety is the Spice of Life

Mix it up! If your body repeats something often enough, such as the same exercise, the same number of times, every time, it will get used to that, stunting your ability to improve. Change something every time you work out, whether it is the number of reps, the difficulty of each rep, or the movement altogether. There are countless exercises and variations available for each muscle group in your upper body, so try not to play favourites.

Key #6: Divide and Conquer

I realize telling capoeiristas to take a break from training may be an exercise in futility, but it really is necessary. That is, it’s necessary in strength-training, where your muscles need at least one day off per week to rest and renew, if not more. A good routine to get into is just varying the muscles or muscle groups you work on each day. Divide your work-outs into triceps, biceps, chest, shoulders, and (upper) back, or combination groups, and rotate through them accordingly. Alternatively, if you regularly work out your entire body, you could alternate between upper-body and lower-body exercises. Something as simple as letting your muscles take a break every so often will do a world of good in the long run.

Bonus: Train capoeira!

If you can train, you can strengthen your upper body. How? Think about it: Queda de rins. Bananeira. Negativa. Ponte. Even maculêlê (with a long, vigorous routine)! It’s not just the fancy moves that require upper-body strength, and odds are you can already do most of the basic ones. Exercises that involve holding them, or doing sets of “push-ups” while in some of those positions will definitely help you on your way, and touch up your capoeira technique while you’re at it!

18 Comments so far
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[…] Click here to read 6 Keys to Building Uppper-Body Strength […]

Pingback by 6 Keys to Building Upper-Body Strength (And Other News) « Mandingueira

Great article! Anyone who has doubts as to where,when, and how, certainly has no excuses after reading this! I do the vertical push-ups everyday in my apartment. I’m up to multiple sets of 5-10 reps each. I generally do them until I can’t push anymore. lol It’s helped so much! My handstands are straighter, au’s steadier, and my qeda-de-rins are all but flawless. I can even push myself from a kneel to a handstand with just my arms as support! Upper body management is definitely key in making your style more…

Comment by Pipoca

Thanks, Pipoca! Haha, and they have no excuse to doubt the effectiveness now either, after reading your comment.

Comment by Joaninha

Great post and great blog. I really liked the mind over matter… the mind has such incredible power to influence our results.

If you can train your thinking then you can accomplish anything. I know that sounds stupid but it is true…

I use to practice Capoeira and wow that is a great workout… just as good if not better sometime than regular weight training.

Comment by Dan

Thanks, Dan! It really does; although it sounds corny and all that, I can’t tell how many times making myself believe I could do something helped me actually do it. The reverse has happened as well though, so you can almost think of it as a double-edged sword. XD

Comment by Joaninha

[…] Myth Busters: Women and Upper-Body Strength 28 01 2008 This entry is a follow-up/sister post to the one I guest-wrote on The Capoeira Blog, “6 Keys to Building Upper-Body Strength“. […]

Pingback by Myth Busters: Women and Upper-Body Strength « Mandingueira

This post is really inspiring. I’ve been meaning to increase upper-body strength but doing push-ups everyday allows only slow improvements for me (worth it though). I’ve also noticed I’m not doing the proper way (arms at 90-degrees). Great stuff!

Comment by lmk

So upper body strength is the key to do proper,steadier and straighter handstands..?
I didn’t really know that..and doing push ups really help with the upper body strength too..?
I really Want to do capoeira..and become more stronger and flexible too..i’m just a kid..and is there any helpful advice with the upper body strength exercises..?

Comment by Aris

Thank you, lmk! (*considers whether or not to resort to line involving slowness, steadiness, and a race… :P)

Hey Aris,

Upper body strength will definitely help you to do handstands, since you are supporting all your weight on your arms, after all! However, I’ve also been told by teachers that a lot of movements are more about getting the balance right or not being afraid psychologically, rather than dependent on pure strength. However, there’s no doubt that once you do get it, it will help you to stay up longer, start walking on your hands, etc.!

As for push-ups, yup…as both Faisca and I mentioned, it’s because push-ups work nearly every part of your upper body. Just try them until you can’t do anymore, and see where you feel it!
If you click on the various links in my post, they all lead to sites that give more detailed advice on how to actually do upper-body exercises. If you’re interested in capoeira (which is great!), just taking the classes alone and nothing else will increase your strength and flexibility (in my experience). 😀

Comment by Joaninha

i’m a woman…over 40….not much upper body strength-have never “worked out” or anything like that. embarrassed to say i have tried for years, but have never been able to do even a cartwheel. what i do know and love, is music. i love music! and when i hear the capoeira music, i cannot sit still. despite my lack of physical conditioning and acrobatic ability, i want to learn capoeira; i want to play this beautiful game. i know you say anyone who wants to learn, can. can you play capoeira without being able to do the cartwheels and flips? can one still play capoeira and move to the beautiful rhythms and songs even if one is older and hasn’t the upper/lower body conditioning and strength?

Comment by theresa

Hey Theresa!

Absolutely. I don’t know if you’ve read a lot about capoeira, but a very recurring comment is that capoeira is not about the flashy acrobatics! It’s about the game, and the interaction between you and the other player, how you react to what they do and how you can make them react to what you do. As my teacher said recently, and I’ve read or heard several others say before that, acrobatics are a solitary activity—they require more space to do in general, so whoever does one in the roda will be far away from their opponent. Where is the interaction? To react and interact, you have to be close enough to force reactions and make each response actually have an effect and matter. So with that view, that capoeira is a two-person game (not a one-person project), and a dialogue (not a monologue), in my teacher’s and lots of others’ words: acrobatics are “filler”!

The only thing I would suggest is researching well the capoeira group you are thinking of joining, as some groups do emphasize the acrobatic aspect a lot more than others, even while recognizing acrobatics aren’t everything. But otherwise, you should definitely go for it!

Comment by Joaninha


thanks a gazillion, now i have something to do in those days where i can’t come to my Capo. classes 😎

Comment by Fouda

[…] 1 guest post on The Capoeira Blog […]

Pingback by Mandingueira’s 1-YEAR ANNIVERSARY « Mandingueira

Thanks, Fouda! (Sorry for the delay in response; I just saw your comment. =\)

Comment by Joaninha

wow thanks!
that really helps

Comment by leandro

nice artikle !!!
i like it 🙂

Comment by fino from indonesia

great article!
Not just knowing how to build upper body strength, clicking the link provided on this article, I can also find exercises to build core and lower body strength. Thank you for this great info ! 😉

Comment by Tika

I’m a *huge* fan of the 100 Pushups program. Seriously. It made a huge difference in my efforts to build some real upper body strength.

Comment by amanda

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