When it comes to resistance training, many of us sell ourselves short. We figure if we’re not pumping iron, pulling cables, tossing medicine balls, or otherwise making use of the latest, greatest, and heaviest training equipment, a workout isn’t legit.
But exercises performed with just your own body weight can produce real results in terms of strength, mobility, and muscle growth. Just look at gymnasts. “Pound for pound, they’re some of the strongest, most defined athletes in the world,” says Trevor Thieme, CSCS, Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content. “And pretty much all they do are bodyweight exercises.”
Can You Build Muscle With Bodyweight Exercises?
You bet. “You can definitely build muscle using only your body as your barbell,” says Thieme. “No matter your level of fitness, no matter how much experience you have, bodyweight exercises can be a highly effective way to pack on lean mass.”
Not only can bodyweight moves sculpt muscle by themselves, but they can also help you master proper exercise form before you start adding weight. That will enable you to work out more efficiently and with less chance of injury as you progress.
“As a strength coach, I’m always pushing people to challenge their bodies through resistance. But before any of that happens, they must first master body weight,” says Dustin Hassard, NCSF-CPT and owner of Modern Athletics in Washington. “Every exercise, at its heart, is a bodyweight exercise.”
The Best Bodyweight Exercises for Muscle and Strength
The key to bodyweight training is to select exercises that are challenging for you, says Thieme. These moves are on experts’ shortlists because they’re efficient, effective, and work a variety of muscle groups.
The classic pull-up, that classic back and biceps shredder, is a strength-training staple for a reason: It’s the ultimate test of relative strength (i.e., how strong you are for your size), which is the only kind of strength that matters.
- Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width and hang at arm’s length (a position known as a dead hang).
- Keeping your core engaged, squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull your chest to the bar, so at least your chin clears it.
- Pause, and then lower yourself back to a dead hang.
The plank has become the gold standard of core exercises. Experts love it because it gives you a ton of bang for your buck.
“This isometric bodyweight exercise strengthens the major core muscles along with the glutes,” says Jim White, ACSM HFS, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness and Nutrition Studios. It can also be therapeutic: “It’s a great exercise, especially for those with back pain.”
- Assume a push-up position, but with your weight on your forearms instead of your hands. (Your elbows should be directly beneath your shoulders).
- Clench your glutes and engage your core to lock your body into a straight line from head to heels.
- Hold for time — or until your form begins to deteriorate.
3. Jump Squats
This plyometric variation on the bodyweight squat is all about explosive power. Pause for a count of two at the bottom of each rep to eliminate built-up elastic energy. The increased challenge will help you become stronger and more explosive faster.
- Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, elbows bent, and hands together in front of your chest.
- Keeping your chest up, core engaged, and back flat, push your hips back and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Push yourself back up explosively, jumping straight up.
- Land softly, lowering yourself immediately into your next rep.
Hassard says: “You want to be as explosive as possible, but still be able to land softly. When you’re jumping, that’s like hitting the gas pedal on your car. When you’re landing, that’s the brakes. You don’t want to slam on the brakes.”
You don’t need to be loaded down with iron to benefit from this basic movement pattern. Just lowering yourself in place — while maintaining proper form — will engage your glutes and quads, helping you sculpt a stronger, more powerful lower half. “And it’s OK if you need to do high-rep sets to fatigue your muscles,” says Thieme. “That will just target your endurance-oriented type I muscle fibers, which people often ignore in strength training, but which studies show have growth potential.”
- Stand tall with your hands by your sides, feet shoulder-width apart, and toes pointed forward.
- Keeping your back flat and core engaged, push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Pause, and then push back up to the starting position.
5. Squat Jacks
This plyometric squat variation is inspired by a classic calisthenics move, providing strength and cardio benefits. “This is a more challenging form of jumping jacks, which adds an extra strength aspect to the quads and glutes,” says White. “These will be sure to keep your heart rate going while strengthening those muscle groups.”
- Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, elbows bent, and hands together in front of your chest.
- Keeping your chest up, core engaged, and back flat, push your hips back and lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor. This is the starting position.
- Jump your legs out to your sides and then back to the starting position.
- Continue for reps or time.
6. Turkish Get-Up
The Turkish get-up is often performed with a kettlebell, but the bodyweight version is still highly effective for enhancing overall fitness.
“Although the exercise has a lot of steps, the payoff is huge,” says Hassard. “It’s all-inclusive of every muscle and joint, trains stability and mobility simultaneously throughout shoulders, hips, and core, and makes for a fast warm-up.”
- Lie on your back, with your legs straight and arms at your sides.
- Bend your right leg, placing your right foot flat on the floor just outside hip width. Extend your right arm straight toward the ceiling, making a fist with your hand. This is the starting position.
- Engage your core, push through your right heel, and rise up onto your left forearm.
- Keeping your gaze on your right hand, rise to a seated position, supporting yourself on your left arm.
- Keeping your left leg extended and right foot on the floor, engage your core and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips so that they’re in line with your shoulders and the heel of your outstretched leg.
- Sweep your left leg underneath and behind you, bringing your left knee to the floor where you were sitting.
- Lift your left hand off the ground and straighten your torso toward the ceiling. You should now be in a half-kneeling position.
- Keeping your torso straight and right arm extended overhead, push through your back foot to come up to a standing position.
- Reverse the move to return to the starting position, and repeat. Perform equal reps on both sides.
Thieme says: “Never take your eyes off of your fist. You want your gazed locked onto that hand for the entire exercise.”
7. Diamond Push-Ups
Think of the push-up as an advanced plank that strengthens your chest and arms in addition to your core. This variation emphasizes the triceps, which often get short shrift when you’re not using weights, says White.
- Assume a push-up position (body straight, glutes and core engaged) with your thumbs and index fingers touching, forming a diamond shape.
- Lower your torso until your chest is a few inches off the floor, keeping your elbows tucked. (Don’t let them flare.)
- Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
8. Primal (ground-based) movement
In ground-based movement (GBM) exercises, your hands and feet are on the floor while you mimic animal motions and functional movement patterns — crawling, twisting, reaching, and just plain hauling it. “I always joke that if people want to get shredded fast, just stay on the ground,” says Hassard. “Because when you have all four limbs on the ground, it gets pretty brutal, pretty quickly.”
One popular move is the crab walk, which you probably haven’t done since you were a kid. Try it now, because it’s great for enhancing overall mobility and building the triceps and shoulders.
- Sit on the floor with your palms and feet flat on the floor, hands slightly behind your hips. Lift your hips a few inches off the floor.
- Move forward using a “cross crawl” pattern, simultaneously moving opposite hands and feet together (i.e., left hand and right foot, right hand and left foot).
- Continue moving forward with opposite hands and feet in unison for the specified number of steps, and then reverse the movement to work your way back.
The single-leg squat looks deceptively simple but gets a lot done. “It brings in muscles throughout the hips and knees and other parts of the body that work as stabilizers,” says Hassard. “When you have two feet on the ground, you’re not working those stabilizers [as hard]. When you do a single-leg exercise, you have to work on balance too. So muscles are being recruited in a different way.”
- Stand tall with your arms extended straight in front of your chest and your left heel raised a few inches off the floor in front of you.
- Keeping your back flat, core engaged, and left foot elevated, push your hips back, bend your right knee, and slowly lower your body as far as possible.
- Reverse the move to push yourself back up to the starting position. Perform equal reps on both sides.
Thieme says: “This move is also commonly referred to as a pistol squat, and it’s just about the most difficult bodyweight exercise you can do. If necessary, hold onto a secure pole or other stable surface as you perform this exercise.”
10. Static Lunge
The static lunge is a great way to gain strength, flexibility, and mobility. It’s an isometric movement works the quads, inner thighs, glutes, and hamstrings while stretching the hip flexors.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands at your sides.
- Keeping your chest up, back flat, shoulders back, and core engaged, take a large step forward with your right foot.
- Lower your body until your front thigh is parallel with the ground and your left knee is bent 90 degrees.
- Hold until fatigued. Perform equal reps on both sides.
Keep Your Bodyweight Workouts Fresh
Once you’ve gotten started with bodyweight exercises, experts say it’s important to mix things up occasionally to avoid plateaus. “You can easily make push-ups more challenging by just doing different variations — go from a standard push-up to an archer push-up, where you have one arm extended a little bit farther out to your side than the other. You can then try explosive or clapping push-ups,” says Thieme. “There are ways to progress any bodyweight exercise to make it more challenging.”