Back in olden days, when there were no weights and machines. People who wanted to get stronger used their own bodies. Even in modern day, bodyweight exercises are used by many to build muscle and strength, and boost athletic performance.
If you think bodyweight exercises can only be used to build strength foundation for lifting weights, think again. With the right exercises and progressions, you can build muscles and strength with bodyweight exercises alone.
In this article, I will discuss the 7 bodyweight exercises you need to build muscle and extraordinary strength. Actually these exercises will work all the muscle groups and give you a fuller look. Also, these are all compound movements so you will be training different muscles with one exercise.
Instead of doing all the bodyweight exercises out there, focus on a few. In fact, these are among the safest exercises you’ll ever find.
I would love to take all the credit to this article but I have to acknowledge the 23 fitness experts who shared with me their top 5 bodyweight exercises, and inspired me to write this article.
Below, are the only bodyweight exercises you need to build muscle and strength. These exercises are scalable to different strength levels.
Whether you are a beginner or an advanced trainee – push ups will make a great addition to your regimen.
They work the pectorals (chest), deltoids (shoulders), triceps and the core. When done properly and regularly, push ups will build muscle and increase upper body strength. But you won’t benefit much from the classic push up. Add different variations to your workout for better results.
How to perform: To perform the classic push up, lie face-down, keep the hands straight and shoulder width apart. Align the torso hips and legs in a straight line. Lower your body until the chest slightly touches the floor then rise until you lock elbows and repeat. See video
Push ups variations
Grip variations: Hand grip determines the muscles being worked. Close grip push ups and diamond push ups target triceps, while wide grip target the shoulders and trapezius.
Decline push ups: Place your feet on a high surface like a chair or stairs when doing push ups. Exercises done with feet elevated are harder because they increase the amount of weight you are pushing.
Incline push ups: The opposite of decline push ups. Place your hands on bench that is your waist height, stand a few meters from the bench then do push ups. Use a lower bench to make the exercise harder.
Clap push ups: This is an explosive movement. Go down as you would, when doing a normal push up then push the body off the floor, clap the hands in front of the body then return to push up position and repeat. This activates the muscle fibers more and increases pushing explosiveness.
One arm push ups: After you have mastered other push up variations, start working on the one arm push ups. Start with assisted reps then move up to one arm as you get stronger. The arm should be directly under the shoulder and feet spread wide apart.
Most folks tend to train the more visible upper body muscles like is abs, arms and chest, and ignore legs. This is a huge mistake.
Legs are the biggest muscle group so they burn the most calories, and having strong legs will improve your health and athletic performance.
Squats work all the legs muscles, the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves and even lower back. In fact, doing deep squats will improve your hip flexibility.
How to perform: Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Squat by dropping your butt as if you are going to sit on a chair – make sure the knees don’t go past the toes. Go as deep as you can. Rise to starting position and repeat. See video
If you are like most people, you know only one squat variation. Here are different squat variations.
Stance variations: Close stance and wide stance work pretty much the same muscles. Find the stance which you are comfortable with and stick to it.
Jump squats: This is a great explosive exercise. Stand with feet shoulder width apart, lower yourself until the thighs are parallel to the floor. Jump off the floor explosively as high as you can, land on squat position and repeat.
Split squat: Stand in a split stance with one foot placed on a sturdy chair or box behind you. Keep the front foot flat on the floor. Lower yourself until the rear knee almost touches the floor then rise. Make sure the front knee doesn’t go past the toes as you squat. Do the same number of reps for each leg.
Pistol or one-legged squat: Once you have mastered other squat variations, move up to pistol squat. Stand on one leg with the other in front. Put hands out in front to help maintain balance. Lower yourself as deep as you can then rise and repeat. Start with negative reps if full pistol squats are challenging.
They mainly train the biceps, upper back, latissimus dorsi, shoulders and chest. There is no alternative for pull ups. If you don’t have a bar, you have to find one.
The only difference between pull ups and chin up is the grip. Chin ups are an underhand grip while pull ups are overhand grip.
How to perform: Grab the bar at an overhand grip with hands a little wider than shoulder width apart. Pull yourself until the chin is above the bar, lower the body until you lock elbows and repeat. See video
Pull ups progressions and variations
Horizontal pull ups: If you can’t do full pull ups, start with horizontal pull ups, also called inverted bodyweight rows. Use a bar or a table which is about your waist height. Lie under the bar, hold a shoulder width grip and pull yourself until the chest touches the bar. Then lower the body until you lock elbows the rise and repeat.
Negative pull ups: Negative reps are also another alternative for beginners. Step on a bench to get your chin above the bar. Step off the bench and slowly lower yourself until hands are straight. Get off the bar the step on the bench again and repeat.
Wide grip pull up: Grab the bar with hands wide apart then do pull ups. This is harder than classic pull up and it targets the latissimus dorsi more.
Side to side pull ups: These require a lot of strength. Grab the bar with hands wide apart then pull the body to one side, lower it to starting position and pull yourself to the other side and repeat.
Muscle ups: Very few people can do a single muscle up. Grab the bar a little wider than shoulder width apart then pull yourself up until the torso is above the bar and hands are straight. Lower the body to starting position and repeat.
Assisted one arm pull ups: The one arm pull up is arguably the hardest bodyweight exercise. Pull yourself up in one arm, use the other arm for support.
Hanging leg raises
Most of the ab exercises put pressure on the spine and are not good for the back. Hanging leg raises on the other hand are very safe.
They work the entire abdominal muscles, that is, the upper and lower abs. They also strengthen the forearms. Frankly, this exercise alone can develop ripped six-pack abs.
If you can’t hang for long, use hanging elbow straps to support the body.
How to perform: Grab the bar at shoulder width apart, keep the shoulders tight. Then lift the legs (keep them straight) until they touch the bar then lower them to starting position and repeat. See video
Avoid swinging the body, control the motion and do the exercise slowly.
Hanging leg raises variations
Hanging knee raises: Grab the bar at shoulder width, keep the shoulders tight. Bend the knees then bring them up as high as you can. Slowly lower the legs to starting position and repeat.
Half hanging leg raises: Beginners can start with this. Keep the feet straight then raise them until they are parallel to the ground, slowly lower them to starting position.
Back bridge will help correct that. Bridging will improve back health, stretch hamstrings and help get rid of back pain. Not to forget, neck bridge trains the neck muscles. A muscle group most trainees ignore.
Training the bridge at static hold is enough. Note that bridging requires spine and hip flexibility so it might take time to do a full back bridge.
How to perform: Lie flat face-up with knees bend and feet flat on the floor. Place your hands beside the head with fingers facing the feet. Use the hands to lift the torso and hips off the floor then arch the spine high off the floor. Hold that position for as long as you can. See video
Back bridge variations
Glute bridges: Lie flat on your back with knees bent. Place hands on the side the lift the hips high off the floor. Lower the hips until the butt rests on the floor then repeat. The glute bridge can also be done on single leg.
Neck bridge: Lie flat on your back on a soft and comfortable surface and bend the legs. Rest the hands on the chest. Lift the hips off the floor and arch the back while pushing head back into the floor. Lower the body until the shoulders touch the floor then repeat.
Handstand push ups
Whether you are into weight lifting or bodyweight training, having strong shoulders is a must. Handstand push up is the best exercise for building big and strong shoulders. It also strengthens the arms and trapezius.
If this exercise proves difficult to execute, there are easier progression exercises that make it suitable for anybody.
How to perform: You can do it facing the wall or facing away. With hands on the floor and feet against the wall, walk yourself up until the body is parallel to the wall. Keep the hand grip wider than shoulder width. Slowly lower yourself until the head almost touches the floor then rise until arms are straight and repeat. See video
Pike push ups: Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Bend and rest both arms on the floor at grip wider that shoulder width. This should form a V between the torso and the legs. Slowly lower yourself until the head almost touches the floor then rise and repeat.
Pike push ups with feet-elevated: Place your feet on a chair or box, such that the hips form a 90 degree angle. Hold a grip wider than shoulder width apart then lower yourself until head almost touches floor and rise until arms are straight and repeat.
Dive bomber push ups: This is a more challenging full body exercise which will strengthen the shoulders. Begin with hands and feet on the floor such that the body forms a V. The head should be tucked between the hands and feet spread apart. Lower the shoulders as you slide the chest forward until you arch the back and you are looking upwards, then reverse the movement and return to starting position and repeat.
Wall walks: This will build the strength you need to do handstand push ups. Start facing away from the floor with hands on the floor and feet against the wall. Lift the feet up wall as you walk with the hands towards the wall. Walk up until the body is parallel to the wall. Walk away from the wall with the hands to starting position and repeat.
Hill sprinting is a great conditioning exercise – it strengthens the legs, improves cardiovascular health and even raises growth hormones. Additionally, it will increase explosiveness and help build mental strength.
The first step is to find a steep hill. It should be challenging to walk up and down. A 30 meters hill is enough.
Start with a 5-10 minutes warm up. Then do 10 sprints if you are a beginner. Add 1 or two sprints in every workout.
These exercises alone can improve your physique and increase strength. Instead of doing many exercises, focus on a few which work. See hill sprint video
With these 7 bodyweight exercises you will be able to hit all muscle groups. Just start with the easier variations and progress to harder ones as you get stronger.
Have I left out a must-do bodyweight exercise? Let me know in the comments.