Bodyweight exercises need to be part of your program if you want to get build muscle, burn fat and improve your overall athleticism.
Not everyone needs to or should lift a barbell, but bodyweight exercises are essential. I’ve used them to rapidly transform the bodies of professional athletes, models and entertainers. One of the many things I love about them is they can be done anywhere at any time.
But I’m not just talking basic pushups, sit ups, air squats 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. You’re not locked into a fixed range of motion like you would be on a machine and your hands aren’t linked together like they would be when using a barbell. That makes these calisthenic movements far easier on your joints.
Safety and ease of use is all well and good but what does it matter if the exercises don’t get you jacked? That’s the real question- do bodyweight workouts and exercises build muscle?
The answer is a resounding YES.
Ever hear of Herschel Walker? Ever see the male gymnasts in the Olympics? What about some of the freaks you see on YouTube who only train outside on the bars in parks like Tompkins Square in New York City? Remember the size of Mike Tyson’s legs after he got out of prison, where he did thousands of bodyweight leg exercises every week?
Old time Iron Game legends always said that dips and chin ups were the two greatest muscle building exercises anyone could do.
Arnold Schwarzenegger always did tons of pull ups in his back workout.
There are countless other examples but you get the point by now. If you want to build a badass body, with functional strength, power and mobility you need to make bodyweight exercises a staple in your workout program.
Below is a list of my top 20 bodyweight exercises for size and strength.
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1) Chin/ Pull Up
Definitely in contention for the single greatest exercise on the planet, chin ups build the lats and biceps better than anything else. An impressive number of full range, perfect reps is twenty. And by perfect reps I mean starting from a dead hang and pulling up so that your chin clears the bar. You have to do that without kicking your legs, climbing an invisible ladder and rounding your upper back.
To maximize size and strength development 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
I hated climbing rope in gym class as a kid. Mainly because I was fat and weak as pond scum. My “climb” consisted of me flailing around on a swinging rope with my feet about three inches off the floor. I also was dressed like Howdy Freakin Doody and had an awful 80’s feathered hair cut. It was a mess.
But as an adult I have grown to love rope climbing and know that it is awesome for true functional, relative strength. It builds your lats, forearms, pecs, upper back and abs. Truly a total body exercise. If you access to a rope you should use it once or twice a week.
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, or ropes should always be included for mid back thickness and strength. The cool thing about inverted rows is that they not only train the muscles of the upper back but you also get an isometric workout for the lower back, glutes and hamstrings during each set.
There are a few different things you can do to increase the difficulty of the is exercise. The first is to try holding each rep for a few seconds at the top. You can also elevate your feet on a box. And finally, you can wear a weighted vest or drape chains around your neck. You can even have a training partner place a sandbag on your chest.
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 (and that may be all you ever need). Four sets of 10 seconds twice per week will be good for most people. Take the progression very slowly and expect to take two years to work up to straight leg variations.
5) Muscle Up
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. It’s essentially a combo of a pull up and dip so all of your upper body muscles get worked during it.
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. It’s best to do them band assisted or from a pike position at the beginning.
The pushup is still one of the top five chest builders in existence and always will be. I’d choose pushups over any type of machine or barbell press any day of the week.
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.
If you do them straight up and down on parallel bars they will blast your triceps better than just about any other exercise. Fifty reps done in this manner is a good goal to shoot for. Once you can do more than twenty perfect reps I’d start increasing the difficulty by adding isometric pauses for up to 3 seconds in the bottom position. When that becomes easy you can start adding weight slowly.
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. To make this variation even harder and more effective do them on rings.
9) 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. Hold each rep for a second at the top, brace your core and squeeze your glutes. Move slowly and maintain control and tightness from head to toe.
10) 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 or on furniture sliders.
Done in the latter manner it will train your abs as hard as anything you’ve ever done. Shoot for 100 yards with perfect form, meaning no sagging or A-framing hips. The ability to do that would mean you have off-the-charts core strength and stability.
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. If you are not used to crawling do WAY less than you can handle at first and give your body time to get acclimated.
11) Hill Sprint
This is technically not something you’d do inside of a gym or garage, but to leave it off the list seemed criminal. Sprints are one of the greatest forms of exercise someone can do. They’re like a fountain of youth, keeping your fast twitch muscle fibers in peak shape and melting ugly bodyfat.
Find a good hill that has at least a twenty degree incline to it and is anywhere from 30-100 yards long. Do a thorough warm up then hit 5-15 hard sprints one or two times per week.
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/months 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, slowly.
An impressive number of pistol squats to shoot for is twenty reps.
13) 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. As you get stronger and better at skater squats you can stand up a low box while doing them to increase the range of motion.
14) Jump Squat
Every program needs some form of explosive training. There’s nothing better for developing speed and power than jumps. Simply squat down then explode up as high as you can. Stick the landing softly then repeat.
If you have a box to jump on you’re in luck. The box jump is my other favorite plyo exercise that is very safe. The only problem is that most people set the box too high. That leads to shitty jumping form and potential injuries.
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) Glute Ham Raise
This is my favorite exercise for training the hamstrings. I first became aware of this exercise while studying the Westside Barbell Club methods and the writing of Louie Simmons. He and all the members swore by this exercise for building up weak hamstrings.
Almost everyone gets humbled the first time they try this movement because they can barely get a single rep. I was no different. I’ve even seen college and pro athletes not be able to pull one off the first time. But if you stay dedicated and put in the work you will be richly rewarded. Your hamstrings will get bigger and stronger, your knees will feel better and be more bulletproofed against injury, you’ll run faster and jump higher.
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) Ab Roll Out
So technically this one involves some equipment. But then again so do chin ups so lets not start splitting straws here. I don’t even know that means, anyway. Is that even a cliche? Is it splitting hairs? Ugh, I give up..
Anyway, you can get an ab wheel for ten bucks at your local sporting goods store. Or you can do these with your hands on furniture sliders, a barbell or suspension trainer handles.
They’re a very advanced exercise that you need to take time to work up to. I suggest going through beginner and intermediate level ab progressions first for a year or so before even attempting these. When you do start doing roll outs they should be done on your knees with a shortened range of motion. Progression should be taken VERY slowly.
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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