Note: This article focuses on training theory. For actual exercises, check out the following articles:
Bodyweight Exercises do have the potential to make your bigger and stronger. It’s just a matter of how you challenge your body. For example, a complete beginner would be able to add muscle and strength just from basic pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats.
However, after a few weeks this individual would need to make their workouts harder. There are a number of ways that you can make your workouts tougher with bodyweight exercises:
Method #1: Static Holds
Bodyweight Static Holds are exactly what they sound like: you hold a movement at a particular point. For example, you can hold pushups on the bottom position, when your chest is just an inch off the floor. There is a lot of science behind static holds, but I don’t need to get into it right now.
Just try static holds right now, on any exercise, for 30 seconds and tell me the movement doesn’t feel harder. It will be tough. You can create a complete bodyweight training program around static holds alone.
But eventually, even static holds will get pretty easy. So then you move onto…
Method #2: Increasing the Volume of a Workout
Sets x Reps x Exercises = Volumes. For example, if you’re doing 3 bodyweight exercises per workout at 3 sets of 10 repetitions of each, you’re total volume is 90 total repetitions. Now, if you increased the volume by either, adding in an additional bodyweight exercise, increasing your sets, or adding more reps, then you would increase your volume.
But what most people do is add volume indefinitely. Everything applies to the law of diminishing returns. At some point more volume will not work, and you’ll just end up wasting 2 hours of your life each day trying to build muscle.
I personally like to keep my workouts as short as possible. I urge you to time your workouts. For example, if 90 total reps takes you 15 minutes, and you built up your workout to 200 total reps, but that’s taking you over 45 minutes, then you need to figure out how to get more work done in a shorter period of time.
Is there a bodyweight exercise that you can take out? Can you reduce you rest periods between each set? Can you add in an intensity technique to make your workouts move faster? In other words, adding volume works, but don’t make your workouts too long.
Method #3: Make your Bodyweight Exercise Tougher
You can do simple things to make your bodyweight exercise tougher. Simply changing the position of your hands or placing your hands or legs on an elevated object can make a movement more difficult. Here are some variations of basic bodyweight movements:
- Elevated Pushup
- Spiderman Climber Pushup
- Close Grip Pushup
- Pushup Plank
- Inverted Row
- Stick Up
- Side to Side Pullups
- Gorilla Chins
Bodyweight Squat Variations:
- Lunge Jump
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- 1 Leg Squat
- 1 Leg Deadlift
- 1 Leg Stability Ball Curl
Method #4: Use an Intensity Technique
There are lots of great intensity techniques that you can perform that help you build lean muscle mass using bodyweight exercises. Some of the best ones are supersets, trisets, circuit training, and interval training.
Supersets/Trisets/Circuit Training - These three belong in one category. The basic idea here is to perform exercises one after the other with little to no rest in between each set. Supersets involve performing 2 bodyweight exercises back to back. Trisets refer to performing 3 exercises back to back. And Circuit Training involves performing 4 or more bodyweight movements back to back.
Interval Training – Interval training has a lot of definitions. But with bodyweight training, it refers to performing a particular movement for X amount of time, followed by a period of rest. For example, perform as many pushups in 30 seconds, followed by a 60 second break.
Interval training forces your body to maintain the tension on the muscle for a specific period of time. When most people do 10 reps, they try to do it as fast as possible to get the set over with. Their speed might not be enough to cause any significant gains in muscle mass.
Sample Muscle Building Workout
To get you started on your muscle building quest using just bodyweight movements, here’s a sample bodyweight routine:
- T-Pushups, 3×10, 60 seconds rest in between each set
- Reaching Lunges, 3×10, 60 seconds rest in between each set
- Pullup, 3×5, 60 seconds rest in between each set
- Inchworm, 3×5, 60 seconds rest in between each set
- Bodyweight Squat, 3×20 60 seconds rest in between each set
- Inverted Row, 3×10, 60 seconds rest in between each set
Pretty simple, but a very good place to start.
Downsides to Relying on Bodyweight Only for Mass and Strength
There are, of course, some downsides to relying only on bodyweight training for mass and strength. One of the key downsides is that it takes a lot of creativity. You don’t have the comfort of simply adding weight to a movement when it’s time to make a bodyweight workout harder.
However, there are lots of individuals who have built incredible bodies with just their bodyweight. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Bartendaz:
And don’t forget gymnasts:
However, this sort of commitment to bodyweight training is rare. Your best bet is to either join a gymnastics gym, or train with someone at the park with a skill level of a gymnast or “bartendaz” to show you the ropes.
Ever since I’ve started meeting up with my cousin at the park once a week, we’ve seen a lot of individuals with lean physiques and great strength. It is certainly possible to improve your strength and conditioning with just bodyweight movements.