Although weight training is undoubtedly the best way to build muscle, if you don’t want to go to the gym or buy a set of weights there are some excellent bodyweight exercises that can do the job almost as well. And bodyweight exercises have the added advantage of being very natural movements to perform, as well as being much easier on the joints than conventional weight training.
But you can’t simply do basic exercises such as push-ups, inverted rows and sit-ups for increasing numbers of reps and expect to get big and strong. That won’t work. What you need to do is progress to more advanced movements that require a high degree of body tension and that you can only do for about 5 – 12 reps. By doing this you’ll be able to dramatically increase your muscle size, and gain exceptional strength too.
You could of course do a combination of bodyweight exercises and weight training if you wish. Or you could do just bodyweight exercises. The choice is yours. But either way here is my list of 10 of the best bodyweight exercises there is for building muscle size and strength….
These are extremely effective for developing the lats and building a wide, powerful back. And they are also great for the biceps. Chin-ups are where you have the palms of your hands facing towards you, and pull-ups are where your palms face away from you. There is also the neutral grip chin-up/pull-up, where your palms face each other.
Hang from a bar, with your arms straight, and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Lower to the straight arm position and repeat. When you can do about 12 good reps you’ll need to make it harder – either by pulling yourself further up until your chest touches the bar, or by adding additional weight to increase the resistance.
If you can’t do full range chin-ups, start by doing partial reps. To do this, first stand on a bench or chair and get yourself into the top position. Then simply lower yourself a few inches before pulling back up. You can then gradually increase the range of motion over time until you can do full reps.
2. Inverted Row
This can be done with a bar, with straps or with rings, and is excellent for building thickness and strength into the upper and middle back.
If you keep your elbows out to the side (so that the bar or straps are at neck level when you pull up) you will target the upper back more; whereas if you tuck your elbows in to your sides you will work the lats and mid-back more.
You can make this more difficult by holding each rep at the top for a few seconds. And when that gets too easy, place your feet up on a bench. And from there you could add extra weight – or even do one-arm rows!
This is a very advanced exercise, and most people will never master it. But I’m including it here because it’s such an excellent all round upper body developer, and if you can do it it’s very impressive.
The muscle-up is basically a pull-up followed by a dip. Pull yourself up on the bar and continue the movement until you are above the bar; then press yourself up until your arms are straight. A good goal to aim for is 5 perfect reps.
These are great for developing the chest, triceps and front deltoids. And they are also very good for the core. Adopt the push-up position and lower yourself until your chest just touches the floor. Then push back up until your arms are straight, keeping your body straight throughout.
Of course you won’t get big doing basic push-ups as they’ll quickly become too easy. So once you can do a dozen or so reps you’ll need to move on to more advanced versions such as incline push-ups (with your feet up on a bench), clap push-ups, divebomber push-ups, suspended push-ups or one-arm push-ups.
Perhaps the most difficult version is the planche push-up (where both of your feet are in the air), and it will probably take a year or more to work up to being able to do these properly.
5. Parallel Bar Dips
This is one of my favorites, and another great exercise for the chest, triceps and front deltoids. Do them straight up and down to put maximum emphasis on the triceps; or lean forwards slightly to get more chest involvement.
You can also do these on rings as well as on the parallel bars. Ensure you go down until the backs of your arms are at least parallel to the floor, and when you can do 12 reps increase the resistance by adding extra weight.
6. Handstand Push-Ups
These are about the best exercise there is for developing the shoulders; and they’ll also pump up your arms really well too.
Before you can do them you’ll first need to be able to comfortably hold a handstand with your feet up against a wall. Then lower yourself until your head touches the floor before pressing back up again. If you can’t get down that far, just go as far as you can and gradually increase the range of motion.
When you can do 10 – 12 reps touching your head to the floor, increase the range of motion further by placing your hands on raised supports and lowering your head to the floor between these. You should eventually be able to go down until your shoulders are level with your hands.
7. Pistol Squat
Pistol squats will develop every muscle in your lower body, as well as improving your balance and co-ordination. Hold one leg straight out in front of you and squat all the way down on your other leg. Then stand back up again, flexing your glutes and abs hard as you pass the parallel position.
Don’t try to do pistol squats straight away if you have never done them before however, as they place a great deal of stress on the connective tissue. Instead start off with an easier one-legged squat, such as the one-legged squat with back foot elevated. And when you are comfortable doing these you can start working your way up to doing pistol squats.
8. One-Legged Squat With Back Foot Elevated
These are another excellent leg exercise, but they are a lot easier than pistol squats. Place one foot up on a bench behind you, and squat straight down as far as you can go on the other leg – aiming to get your hamstring to touch your calf. Then stand back up again.
When you can do 15 – 20 of these you can make it more difficult by holding a dumbbell in each hand. Or you can start working your way up to doing pistol squats.
9. Ab Wheel Rollout
This is a great exercise for strengthening the abdominal muscles. Start by doing them on your knees and simply roll the wheel out in front of you until your arms are straight out in front of your head. Your body should be about six inches off the floor. Then pull it back in again.
When these become too easy you can graduate to doing them on your feet. Keep your abs braced tightly and your glutes squeezed hard throughout the movement.
10. Hanging Leg Raise
This is one of the best abdominal exercises there is, and it’s particularly good for the lower abs. Hang from a bar and raise your legs out in front of you until they are parallel to the floor, keeping them straight throughout. Return to the starting position and repeat.
This is quite an advanced exercise, so if you find it too difficult start out by doing them with your legs bent.
And when you can do 15 – 20 reps with straight legs, you can progress further by continuing the movement beyond parallel, until your feet reach the height of the bar.
So those are my top 10 bodyweight exercises for building muscle size and strength. There are many more of course, and some are so advanced they may take years to master – if you ever do. But these will give you a good start. So if you’re not already doing so, why not add a few of them into your program starting today? I’m sure you’ll be very happy with the results.