Is Bodyweight Training Effective for Building Muscle?


bodyweight trainingBodyweight training is incredibly effective for building muscle.

Some would even argue that it’s better than free weights.

Bodyweight exercises don’t beat up your joints as much as traditional weight training exercises do. They allow for a more natural range of motion and improve your overall athleticism quite effectively.

Advanced bodyweight exercises require unmatched levels of full body tension. This is what leads to incredible strength gains.

However, there are still those who  argue that bodyweight training isn’t as effective as weight lifting when it comes to building muscle.

That’s because it’s often associated with high reps, endurance and the military.

But if you look at the muscular upper body development of male gymnasts it kind of paints a different picture.

The problem is that most people don’t know or utilize proper bodyweight progressions. So they never really increase the resistance.

They just do basic variations of pushups or inverted rows and then think to themselves, “This is too easy to build muscle.”

And they’re right. Those two exercises, in their most basic form, would be too easy and wouldn’t provide enough tension or overload to build muscle.

But what about if you worked up to one arm pushups?

Or one arm inverted rows?

Jungle Gym XT steep incline pushups?

Ultra wide grip inverted rows to the neck with the elbows flared and a 2-3 second hold at the top?

Then you get to the point where you’re adding chains or weighted vests to those exercises?

Now, technically that’s not strictly bodyweight training anymore. In that instance it becomes bodyweight plus resistance.

But it’s still a variation of bodyweight training and is still highly effective.

Bodyweight Training Requires Patience & Dedication

Another reason people think you can build muscle more effectively with weight training is because it’s a lot easier to grab a heavier dumbbell than it is to progress from a crow stand or frog stand all the way to a planche pushup over the course of 18-24 months.

That takes a LOT of patience and discipline. The other problem is that as you’re getting bigger and as you gain weight through proper nutrition, the bodyweight exercises become more difficult so then you can’t progress as quickly. Or you perceive a lack of progress and give up.

Most intelligent coaches would argue that a chin up is superior to a pulldown for building muscle. So why wouldn’t other bodyweight exercises be effective?

Why wouldn’t l-sit ring dips with a forward lean be more effective than a bench press?

Why wouldn’t glute ham raises be more effective than leg curls?

Why wouldn’t front levers be more effective than stiff arm pulldowns?

Why wouldn’t Power Wheel Rollouts be more effective than an ab machine?

I’d argue that they are.

The lack of knowledge regarding bodyweight training and its proper progressions is what prevents more people from getting the results they should from it.

Bodyweight exercises can build muscle rapidly, especially if you keep progressing to more difficult variations of each of them.

Simply doing tons of reps, as most people do, won’t help you build muscle at all.

What Builds Size and Strength?

To gain muscle and strength you need significant loading and tension. Ultra high rep work provides neither.

It does very little to activate the fast twitch fibers either, and those have the greatest potential for growth. So you need to keep that in mind and stick with reps in the 5-12 range, predominantly.

For lower body exercises you can go a bit higher. Twenty rep pistol squats, for example, will force some pretty good leg growth.

When you have those two factors covered you need to add in the appropriate volume and frequency needed to elicit muscle and strength gains.

I’ve put together the ultimate bodyweight only training program called Body Weight Body Building.

RIC_BWBBPad3D

It’s perfect for guys who want to take 60-90 days off of heavy weights to let their joints heal up a bit, or for those of you who train at home with limited equipment.

I personally always run at least four months of pure bodyweight training each year and highly recommend it to all my clients.

Click HERE to grab this 90 day muscle building program.

Become a Renegade Insider

  • Learn the 5 Essential Rules of Muscle Growth
  • Get Unusual Tips for Rapid Strength Gains
  • Boost Your Testosterone Naturally
  • Become a Master at Getting Shit Done. FAST
  • Find Your Passion. Live the Dream

49 Responses to Is Bodyweight Training Effective for Building Muscle?

  1. Gary Deagle June 10, 2011 at 11:18 am #

    Going through the bodyweight progressions with the holds and handstands in uncaged has been some of the most fun training I have done in a long time. Its almost like working out for the first time because everything is so new and each workout you are progressing a little with them.

    • Jason Ferruggia June 22, 2011 at 10:57 am #

      @Gary Deagle: That’s awesome to hear. And I concur.

      @Ahmed- True.

      @Scott- Thanks man.

      @Dan- Thanks

      @Josh- I agree. Yeah, it definitely takes patience and time that a lot of people won’t have.

      @Stevie- Maybe, maybe not. You should be feeling your lats more than your biceps.

  2. Ahmed June 10, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Like you said, with enough creativity and courage you can really challenge yourself with bodyweight training. For myself, bodyweight training has been a life-saver for situations where I don’t have time for the actual gym.

  3. Scott Shearer June 10, 2011 at 11:44 am #

    Way to deliver another GREAT blog post Jason! Now I’m off to the park for the 3rd time this week to get another TRX Bodyweight workout in!

  4. Raymond- ZenMyFitness June 10, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    I prefer weights and love deadlifting and squatting but body weights are pretty cool too!
    I can do an overheard press but I can’t do a freestanding handstand! but I still see them as supplementary and assistance ( or a de-load) to the main lifting but Hey it’s hard to argue against a gymnast’s body.

    Surprisingly I Read in Arnold’s Encyclopedia he even says it’s better to do Chin Ups then Lat Pulldowns! So yeah body weights shouldn’t be disregarded as second class.
    Raymond

    • Rios May 2, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

      “I can do an overheard press but I can’t do a freestanding handstand! but I still see them as supplementary and assistance ( or a de-load) to the main lifting but Hey it’s hard to argue against a gymnast’s body.”

      if you can’t do a handstand you have no business “seeing them” as supplementary NOR doing overhead press. And THAT my friend makes you a douchbag.

      • Jason Ferruggia May 7, 2013 at 7:58 am #

        Well, it certainly doesn’t make him a douchebag.

        • BodyweightReallyIsBetter February 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

          ^ @Rios, I was just thinking the same thing. Wow, what an idiotic statement Raymond…

  5. BJN June 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm #

    I’ve been going through progressions on ring pushups and have really felt a difference. I also use the rings for dips. I’ve done a couple TRX workouts and plan to do more. I can feel it works my muscles in a different way that’s needed and like you said it’s great in combination with weights.

  6. dan June 10, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    man that was really good

  7. Josh T. June 10, 2011 at 7:03 pm #

    Hey Jason,

    Great, great article. I’m only 19, but training bodyweight exercises is one of the biggest things that has contributed to my size,strength, and athleticism. In my opinion, working exercises such as handstands, handstand presses (tuck planche to handstand, etc.), and lever work as well as planche work build a type of athleticism that can’t be built with weights alone.

    Being 19, one of the most difficult things I find about progressions is that it’s hard to keep up the patience that is sometimes required to reach your goals. I’ve been working on the front lever progressions from Building the Gymnastic Body (great book, btw), for example, and after 5 weeks I already want to move on, but am not because I know (and hate,haha) that following through with the progressions in a slower, controlled manner will lead to the results I want, i.e., performing the front lever successfully.

    Anyway, just wanted to say again, great article. I think a lot of people diss bodyweight training when it should be a tool in everyone’s proverbial toolbox.

    • James June 11, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      @Josh T.:

      Hi Josh,

      I just got the Building the Gymnastic Body book but I can’t figure out what type of schedule and what exercises to do. I was wondering if you had any advice for what works?

      Thanks a lot.

      James

  8. David Jarzebowski June 11, 2011 at 12:41 am #

    @Gary, I couldn’t agree more. That is exactly how I feel at the moment; Uncaged is brilliant!

  9. Stevie June 11, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    I love bodyweight training but, like you say, the higher reps are less effective for building muscle than heavy lifting of 5-10reps are so i tend to use it more for fitness/conditioning than muscle building.

    Also i would like to ask, regarding the chins, i can do 16-18 chins in a row (this is max numbers where the form becomes more sloppy at the 16 mark) and i do sets of 12. My biceps get a pump from doing them but u say that u shouldn’t be using ur biceps. Does this mean i am doing them wrong?

    Thanks

    Stevie

    • Lundix November 13, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

      @Stevie: What seems to work for me is to focus on bringing your elbows toward your core, instead of just going “I shall bring that bar closer to my face”

  10. Pete June 11, 2011 at 6:29 am #

    I love bodyweight training. I’m currently trying to work towards 15 dips, 15 pullups, and 5 full pistols. I do 7 eccentric inverted rows, 7 pullups, 7 dips, 5 slow and controlled shrimps, 18 calf raises, and 10 hand walkouts on knees 5x per week. Just trying to make those numbers go up, and I’m definitely getting bigger and stronger!

  11. Pete June 11, 2011 at 6:33 am #

    P.S.- The best part is I always feel fresh and never run down, and I get to work out outside at the park next to my house. Daily workouts also makes me work on flexibility every day.

  12. Eric June 11, 2011 at 8:38 am #

    I’ve always wanted to progress to 1-arm pushups, just not sure how, I’m looking forward to all the new progressions here and in the inner circle!

  13. Marc June 11, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    Good stuff, after 22 years military (now retired) bodyweight training is a staple in my daily life. I started manipulating my training with variations including time under tension and static holds. I have noticed an increase in my muscle development. patience is the key so if you are after quick gains then just eat like a horse and pump heavy iron. If you want to safely develope your physique do as Jason suggest, mix your heavy compound lifting with bodyweight training applying a proper progressive overload and you will be amazed at what a difference it will make. Again the key is patience, this is a life time journey.

    • Jason Ferruggia June 22, 2011 at 11:02 am #

      @Marc: Great post.

      @Vimal_ I’ll get to it sooner or later.

      @Abdiel- No. But I will. I’m still working my way up to it.

      @Nick- I think that because when your own bodyweight is suspended and everything is forced to contract harder the exercise becomes safer. Maximal tension equals maximal strength and it also equals maximal safety. You can press a bar overhead without having maximal full body tension as you should. But it’s really hard to do a handstand pushup without it. When you do that the stabilizer muscles, your core, etc all contract harder thus, IMO, making the exercise safer.

      @Gianni- Nice!

  14. Vimal June 11, 2011 at 10:03 am #

    In your next post, can you give us 1 or 2 samples of bodyweight only workouts for maximum muscle growth? I mean, strictly bodyweight..

  15. Abdiel Rodriguez June 11, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Jay sorry but I must ask, can you do a palanche!? Becuase if you do that would really be awsome. I say this because it is a lot more difficult to do for a man with muscular legs and beyond 155 bodyweight (as far as I know and have read). I say this because I beleive (just as you do) training should make you more agile mobile and mighty. But the bodybuilding image of physical greatness created in the 90′s by bodybuilders (and still alive) is of being big, slow, blocky and unflexible, and being just good at eating every 2 and half hours!

  16. Abdiel Rodriguez June 11, 2011 at 1:40 pm #

    Oh I forgot, great article! :)

  17. sam June 11, 2011 at 2:07 pm #

    Body-weight chinups and its variations just can’t be beat.

  18. John P June 11, 2011 at 3:07 pm #

    From my experience, I would have to say that bodyweight squats plus resistance (added progressively over time) have contributed the most to me building larger muscles.

  19. Nick Efthimiou June 11, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

    I can understand push ups being easier on the shoulders than barbell or dumbbell presses, but I would argue that things like muscle ups, handstand push ups etc are just as hard on the joints as their equivalent with weights.

    Most handstand movements require a good deal of extension through the back to keep your centre of gravity in place for instance.

    Having said that, bodyweight training is a valuable component of a good program, and I feel you should be able to at least to push ups, chin ups and pistols if you training to be anywhere near athletic.

  20. Steven Rice Fitness June 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    You article is about building muscle, but of course unless your sport is weight lifting itself, bodyweight exercises will tend to be more valuable for sport training and GPP.

  21. Niel June 12, 2011 at 1:22 pm #

    I say exercises/movements are either loaded or unloaded. No need to create more categories.

  22. Brandon Cook June 13, 2011 at 7:23 am #

    Ever since you’ve mentioned in the past that it is better to move your body through space, I have been incorporating more and more bodyweight exercises into my training. I still love squat and deadlift variations for lower body, yet always include some single leg bodyweight exercises as well. For upper body I do mostly bodyweight and add resistance once the reps get above 10 or use different progressions as you mentioned. I also think adding in some dumbbell work is a good supplement. Oh yeah… and the power wheel rocks! Finally an ab device that actually works!

  23. Geo June 14, 2011 at 4:36 am #

    Your post is just in time for my switch to bodyweight training, Jay. Looking forward to your program ideas and propositions.

  24. Gianni June 14, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Wow, sometimes it’s worth exploring your gym. I just discovered hidden way behind the foofy machines a massive monkey bar frame full of straps, bands, rings, battling ropes etc.. :)

  25. snow June 16, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    I am a huge fan of bodyweight exercises. When done correctly they are great! I also like to mix in some barbell and db work to get the best of all three worlds.

  26. Jason June 26, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    I love bodyweight exercises and start all clients off with them. I feel that if you can’t move your body properly than you can’t expect to work well with weights.

  27. Eric Martin July 22, 2011 at 8:26 am #

    Just as Jason stated above, bodyweight training should be the introduction for learning the proper movements you will need to be able to reproduce for overload training. Guess what, if I watch a person does push ups with their hands above their shoulders, how do you think they bench, the bar path ends up at their neck. For all athletes I train I use bodyweight exercises as my FMS to see where they are in regards to movement patterns, ROM, flexibility, etc. Great post.

  28. Steven January 21, 2012 at 5:46 pm #

    Hey Jason:

    Long time reader, first time commenter. I know you dislike the bench press, but which would you prefer to use as a primary upper body press movement? Heavy bench or weighted dips?

    Thank you,
    Steven

  29. Brock May 29, 2012 at 12:57 am #

    I train using bodyweight exercises only in the high rep range. I am only 17 and 5feet11 and weight 209lbs(95kg), sometimes veering towards 211lbs(96kg). Also I do a fair bit of Cardio. These two are said to not build muscle but I have been gaining weight ever since I started so…. What do you have to say about that. P.S I have an average diet, never count calories or protein, never drink shakes or supplement anything. Also I gained over 15lbs in 6 months only doing this type of training half the time (e.g 1 week on 1 week off). In one year I gained 26lbs and I took several months off in that time.

    • Rob April 7, 2013 at 10:07 am #

      Not a fair comparison since 17 year olds are in a stage of life where they naturally gain weight and muscle. Weight until you hit 25 and see if you get the same results.

      BTW – congrats on the gains, sounds like you are working hard at it.

  30. Greg July 7, 2012 at 2:51 pm #

    Jason,

    I was referred to your site from Adam at ripped. I enjoyed your article and plan on reading more of our blog articles. At my age I am thinking that after I finish my current weight lifting program I will probably convert over to body weight exercises as you have discussed. My main goal heading into the golden years of 50 + is to just stay fit and live a healthy lifestyle and take care of my aching joints. (My goal will not be to gain muscle). Thanks for your dedication and passion to your profession….I hope to learn much from your articles on living a healthy lifestyle.

    Thanks,

    Greg

  31. Kiwee November 23, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Hey Jason!

    I was doing mostly weight training before, but now I’m only working with bodyweight for a while. And I really had awesome gains with it, much more than with weights.

    Just for the numbers’ sake: I managed to put on 15 pounds since summer. In the last two years of weight training, I only got at most 5-6 pounds. And I’m not exaggerating.

    I’m doing every sets to failure, staying in the 6-15 rep range. I work with basic bodyweight exercises using a weighted vest sometimes. Imo the set count/session is also a very important factor, since you need to put enough tension on the muscles, but you also need to avoid overtraining, so a balance is needed.

    Hope I could add some ideas!

    Thanks,
    Kiwee

  32. Billy Edwards November 28, 2012 at 1:38 pm #

    Its great someone actually fully realised the potential of bodyweight exercise. i cant stand guys who think pressups and pullups are the only ones out there. even worse are the guuys on crappy websites who’ll say how fantastic bodyweight exercise is, followed by “it can be a nice little change once in a while from weights” and then a circuit routine of pressups situps and jumping jacks insues. love the site btw jay.

  33. Gaby lacroix March 3, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    I bought the building muscle 2.0 but cant access the work out pdf, can some one help me? can I get another one by mail. help please cant wait to start this one.

  34. rob April 7, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    Great post. I have been doing body weight training exclusively for 6 months and have seen great progress. I do suspension (freestyle trainer – not TRX) scattered circuit training, 6 exercises X 10 reps x 10 sets, do either battle ropes or speed bag between sets. I lost 15 pounds initially in the first 4 months, stayed stable for 6 months, and am have now put on 10 pounds in last three months (mostly muscle).

    btw, I am 46 so my goals are a little different now than they were a few years ago.

  35. DAVID ASBURY April 10, 2013 at 10:13 am #

    Bodyweight only resistance certainly worked for Tom Hardy,his trainer had him doing bodyweight resistance only in preparation for the film Warrior….the results kinda say it all,average genetics too.

  36. Chris April 18, 2013 at 6:33 am #

    As a strength and conditioning coach I always recommend mastery of body weight movements as part of the bigger picture.

  37. Todd Kuslikis July 24, 2013 at 6:22 pm #

    Jason, this is a great article. I would love to see you come up with a specific progression of bw exercises for each body part. I like the couple of examples you gave but think it would be super helpful to have a full list of progressions for chest, shoulders, back, etc.

    Anyways, thanks so much for touting the benefits of calisthenics. I totally agree that you can build mass with them.

    Todd

  38. Mark P August 20, 2013 at 5:39 pm #

    Excellent post, Jason.

    I would say that there are plenty of benefits associated with bodyweight training that make it worth implementing in a program. I’ve written about it before, too (if you don’t mind me posting it here.) http://www.brainbodybelly.com/2013/08/16/why-i-like-bodyweight-training/

    I believe if one takes the time to add resistance (e.g., weight vest) and learn more difficult progressions (pushup vs one-arm pushup), a trainee can attain the benefits of endurance, developed proprioception, joint integrity, etc. AS WELL AS strength and muscle building.

    • Mark P August 21, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      Oh, and my apologies, I didn’t read the rules regarding posting links. Take it down if you would prefer so.

  39. Darren pallatina September 10, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    Great article! I’m 78 kilo. So pretty light. I run a lot due to being military. And do weights… Recently started pushing weights more and it’s negatively effected my running. My comfortable weight is 68 to 70 kilo. So I need to drop down a bit… I’m seriously considering switching to bodyweight only. I’m happier toned than bulk. What’s the point in benching 120kilo if I can’t run I say. :) but thanks for this article. It’s one of many I have read today giving positive feedback on this type of training.

  40. Oskar F September 21, 2013 at 7:31 am #

    Bodyweight training definitely worked for me. I’m naturally a skinny-fat guy and couldn’t do a single push up when I started training. By getting strong on bodyweight exercises and doing them frequently I signalled that a skinny-fat physique is not acceptable.

    The chin up is my favorite exercise, since it creates a wide back and thereby the illusion of wide shoulders if you keep the waist trim.