Bodyweight exercises need to be part of your program if you want to get build muscle, burn fat and improve your overall athleticism.
But I’m not just talking basic pushups, sit ups and high rep calisthenics.
That’s beginner stuff that won’t really build muscle beyond your first few months of training.
We’re talking about really working hard on high tension, advanced bodyweight exercises that can only be done for somewhere between six and fifteen reps, on average.
The nice thing about these is that they’re very natural and can usually be done pain free by most people.
Below is a list of my top 20 bodyweight exercises for size and strength.
1) Chin/ Pull Up
These build the lats and biceps very effectively. An impressive number of full range, perfect reps is twenty. Everyone should do at least fifty total reps per week of some sort of chin up variation.
The parallel grip chin/ pull up is easiest on the shoulders and elbows and is the one I recommend most. Doing them on rings is safest as it allows for the most natural movement but is also significantly more difficult.
2) Rope Climb
Awesome for true functional, relative strength. Your goal is to climb a twenty foot rope using just your hands.
3) Inverted Row
Some type of inverted row variation, either on a bar, rings, ropes or suspension straps should be included for mid back thickness and strength.
To increase the difficulty try holding each rep for a few seconds at the top.
To target the upper back musculature (teres minor, rhomboids, rear delts) you want to have your elbows directly out to your side when rowing. For more lats and mid-back, row with your elbows tucked to your sides.
4) Front Lever
This is one of the absolute BEST exercises for activating and building the lats. Maybe even better than chin ups. It’s also one of the best abdominal exercises you can do and will put crunches and sit ups to shame. To progress into doing the dynamic movement I recommend starting with isometric holds. Four sets of 10 seconds twice per week will be good for most people.
5) Muscle Up
Very few people will ever master the muscle up but if you take the time and have the dedication it’s very impressive to be able to pull off. Doing five perfect reps is a good goal to shoot for.
6) Handstand Pushup
These will build big shoulders and cause less pain than a barbell military press. An impressive number to shoot for is ten full range reps. To get started on these you need to first master the handstand.
It’s been said by high level gymnastic coaches that the ability to handstands is one of the most important things you can develop to improve your overall athleticism.
Once you are able to hold a handstand with your feet against the wall for 60 seconds you can start progressing into handstand pushups.
Some of the variations I use most often in training myself or clients are the steep incline suspended pushup (with your feet in the straps), regular suspended pushups on rings, divebomber pushups and one arm pushups.
A good goal for most people is ten one arm pushups. That’s strong and impressive.
8) Ring Fly
The function of the pecs is to draw the arm across the midline of the body. Vince Gironda and Larry Scott introduced me to this exercise back in the early 90’s and I was blown away by how well it worked.
It’s one of the most challenging, yet brutally effective moves you can do for building your chest.
Lower yourself slowly, always being sure to brace your abs, squeeze your glutes and pause in the bottom position. Be prepared for some HARD work and expect to see some biceps growth from this exercise as well.
9) Ring Dip
If you do them straight up and down they will blast your triceps better than just about any other exercise. Twenty five reps done in this manner is a good goal to shoot for.
For more chest emphasis you can lean forward by flexing at the hip and holding your legs out in front of you and instead of simply pressing your way out of the bottom, try to squeeze/pull your way up.
10) Inverted Shrug
The big knock on bodyweight training is that it does nothing for your traps to give you that yoked look. But that’s because people don’t know about the inverted shrug. Get on the rings and flip yourself upside down. Once you’ve stabilized your body simply shrug up and down.
11) Hand Walking/ Crawling
Walking on your hands is an outstanding way to develop shoulder strength and stability. This can be done upside down in the handstand position or it can be done in pushup position with your feet in the Power Wheel.
Done in the latter manner it will train your abs harder than anything you’ve ever done. Shoot for 100 yards with perfect form, meaning no sagging or A-framing hips.
Aside from walking on your hands, any type of crawl is awesome for full body strength and athleticism.There are numerous types of crawls such as bear crawls, tiger crawls, crab walks, etc.
I suggest incorporating them into your workouts at least once per week as a finisher or a warm up.
12) Pistol Squat
Pistol squats develop every muscle in the lower body along with great balance, stabilization, coordination and athleticism. Like many of the bodyweight exercises listed here the pistol will take several weeks of preparation to do properly and pain free.
Even if you have the strength to do them the first time out your connective tissue won’t be prepared for the stress, so please take the necessary steps to work up to them.
An impressive number of pistol squats to shoot for is twenty reps.
13) Back Foot Elevated Split Squat
Pistols are great but a lot of people will never be able to do them. This variation is more user friendly. Get in a lunge position and put your back foot up on a box or bench of about 6-12″ in height.
The quads respond very well too high volume so doing multiple 10-20 rep sets on this exercise is the preferred plan of attack.
14) Skater Squat
To do this exercise simply bend one knee behind you and squat straight down to the floor. It’s like a pistol squat only the leg is bent behind you instead of straight out in front of you.
Touch the back knee to a padded surface and then stand back up. The range of motion is far less so this is often a good first progression into pistol squats.
15) Single Leg Hip Thrust
While pistol squats take care of most of your lower body needs you may want to include some hip extension work to make sure you have all your bases covered.
This is especially important for girls who want an ass you can rest a drink on.
A great bodyweight exercise that does that for you is the single leg hip thrust.
Set up two benches, put your upper back on one and one foot on another with the non working leg bent and up near your chest.
Now let your hips drop down toward the ground as low as you can. Drive your heel into the bench and lift your hips all the way up, while consciously contracting your glute.
After you can knock out 15-20 reps with perfect form while keeping your hips stabilized and not hyperextending your lower back I’d throw some chains or band resistance over your waist.
16) Single Leg Back Raise/ Glute Ham Raise
Ok, I cheated here because I’m calling it a tie between these two exercises for the number 15 position.
I love glute ham raises for hamstring development and protection against knee injuries. But they aren’t 100% necessary.
Whenever you squat deep enough, like you do in a pistol squat the hamstrings get worked. The glutes also get a pretty good workout from pistol squats. But this does leave the lower back lagging behind a bit in the stimulation department if all you were doing was bodyweight stuff.
So to cover that part of the body a single leg back raise would be a great option. Of course you could do these with two legs until sets of twenty become easy. After that I’d switch over to the one leg variation on either a parallel or 45 degree angled bench.
This exercise is awesome for developing core strength and mastering it will do you a world of good and have great carryover to numerous exercises and physical activities. If you have lower back or hip pain this exercise can often cure it. Start with the bent knee version and progress slowly from there. Four sets of 10 second holds two or three days per week will be enough for most people.
18) Hanging Leg Raise
This is an advanced abdominal exercise so work your way up to it slowly over the course of several months. I’d have the L-Sits down pretty good first. If you’re a beginner it may two years until you’re ready for this one. The ability to do 15-20 really picture perfect reps without jacking up your lower back is pretty impressive.
19) Side Plank
Each of the exercises listed incorporates all of the core muscles but this is the only variation that really targets the obliques. The obliques are crucially important in maintaining a healthy lower back, locking out a heavy squat or deadlift and overall core strength and stability.
If you have strong obliques chances are good that you’ll possess a decent level of functional strength. This exercise can me made as easy or as difficult as you need it to be depending on whether you bend your knees, straighten them, use a back extension bench to do it on or use a weighted vest.
20) Back Bridge
This is a great exercise to improve the health of your spine. Start very slowly and be careful on these. If you have preexisting injuries you may never be able to do this.
Those with healthy spines should aim to work towards the point where they can bridge backward from a standing position to the floor and back up again.
Bonus Exercise: Neck Bridge
Once you’re capable of doing a back bridge you should strongly consider working your way into neck bridges, both the front and rear versions. A thick neck looks powerful and commands respect. Don’t walk around with a stack of dimes.
There you have it, the top 20 bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength.
Of course, there are tons more and it was tough narrowing it down.
This is far from a complete list and is only a fraction of the bodyweight exercises I use regularly. I like to mix these in with some barbell/dumbbell and strongman exercises but there’s no reason you couldn’t get by with just these alone. If you’re not already doing so add a few of these exercises to your program today and work your way up to the highest level of each.
I guarantee you’ll be happy with the results.
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