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 just do basic exercises, such as push-ups, inverted rows and sit-ups, for increasingly higher 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 full body tension, and that you can only do for about 6–12 reps. By doing that, you’ll be able to dramatically increase your muscle size, and gain exceptional strength too.
Or, you could simply add extra resistance to some of the exercises. Then it’s not strictly bodyweight training – it’s bodyweight plus resistance. But it still works extremely well.
You can do bodyweight exercises together with weight training if you wish. Or you can do just bodyweight exercises. The choice is yours. But either way, here are my top 10 bodyweight exercises for building muscle size and strength.
These are about the best exercise there is 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 all the way back down, and repeat. An impressive number of perfect, full-range reps is 20. But when you can do about 12, you should 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, stand on a bench or chair and get yourself into the top position. Then 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 yourself up) you will target the upper back more. Whereas, if you tuck your elbows in to your sides, you will work your 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 after that, you can 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 five or six 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 touches the floor. Then push back up until your arms are straight, keeping your body straight throughout.
You won’t get big and strong by just doing basic push-ups though, 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 decline push-ups (with your feet up on a bench), clap push-ups, dive bomber 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 forward 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 around 12–15 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 triceps 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 over time.
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 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 strain on the connective tissues. Instead, start off with an easier one-legged squat, such as the Bulgarian split squat (that’s a one-legged squat with your rear foot elevated). And when you are comfortable doing these, you can start working your way up to doing pistol squats.
Then, when you can do 12–15 full range pistol squats, make them more difficult by holding a weight while doing them.
8. Bulgarian Split Squat
This is another excellent leg exercise, but it’s 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. You should be getting the top of your leg at least parallel to the floor. 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 just a few inches off the floor. Then pull it back in again.
When these become too easy, you can progress 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.