Top Bodyweight Exercises for Building Muscle

Top Bodyweight Exercises for Building Muscle

If you want to put on muscle mass, you don’t need access to a fully stocked gym. A set of dumbbells or a single kettlebell can certainly elevate your at-home training, but even if you only use your bodyweight and perhaps a chair or table, you can build strength and muscle too. Here are my top bodyweight movements to get the gainz, as well as some workouts that will put them all together for you.

But first, you’ll need to know 3 insider tips as to why these moves are so effective, and how to use them best. In my decades of sport and functional fitness training as well as coaching clients around the world, there are some universal principles that are the key to success:

1. Movement Pattern Balance – Ever done too many burpees and push-ups and your shoulders paid the price? Functional Bodybuilding is all about longevity and avoiding burnout and injury. We accomplish this by balancing the movement patterns in every workout so you’re not squatting too many times in a row, or hammering your shoulders in the same way over and over. You can train more often and more effectively by pairing complementary patterns like a hinge (such as in a deadlift) with a core movement. As an added bonus, your workouts will feel fresh and you can avoid the boredom of doing the same routine over and over.

2. Progressive Build – One of my mottos is Simple Equals Strong – and I’ve seen it play out too many times where clients take on too much too soon, only to get injured or feel dismayed by their training. Believe me, you can get an incredible pump from a simple isometric movement – and I’ll show you how below. How to avoid it? Start simple, and week by week you can progress your training by controlling key variables like the time under tension, the rest in between movements, and how many sets and reps you take on.

3. Time Under Tension – If you are new to tempo training, prepare to love the burn. Tempo refers to how fast you perform each move – so instead of doing an air squat at a normal pace, or as fast as you can, you’re going to slow it way down and control every second. A tempo prescription will always be 4 digits, and here’s how to read it:

1st – eccentric (how slow to lower down)

2nd – isometric (hold tension at the bottom of the movement)

3rd – concentric (how fast to come back up)

4th – isometric or pause (how long to pause before the next rep)

Example: 31X1 tempo for an air squat would mean lower down for a count of 3,  squeeze at the bottom for 1 second, eXplode up fast, and then wait 1 second at the top before the next rep. If you need more clarification check out our Program Information guide for tips.

Okay, you’ve got the basics – on to the moves!

Top Bodyweight Movements

1. Wall Walks

How to do it:

Lie on your stomach with your hands under your shoulders and your feet against a wall (wear socks or go barefoot if you don’t want to leave a mark). Push up onto your hands and walk your feet up the wall until your chest touches and your body is in a straight line, then control your walk back down.

Why I love it:

This move will tax both your shoulders and your core, while developing control from shifting your weight from side to side as you walk.

Coaching Notes:

Squeeze your butt as your legs get higher to help keep your body rigid and centered over your shoulders. Get your chest and nose to the wall if you can, and be sure to control all the way back down.

Scaling Option:

You can work up to this one by elevating your feet on a chair and working the pike handstand position, then walking up and down from that into a feet elevated plank. Other moves in the pike will also help, such as pike handstand pushups or shoulder taps.

2. 1 1/4 Cyclist Air Squat

How to do it:

Place something about 2-3″ high, like a book, under your heels. Now do an air squat – but wait! Before you come back up, throw another quarter squat in there for extra pump.

Why I love it:

This twist on the tried but true air squat will target your quads, making it an excellent companion to other knee flexion exercises without burning out the same muscles repeatedly.

Coaching Notes:

Don’t rush – control even the tiny part of the quarter squat and squeeze your glutes while you’re at it.

How to Progress:

If you have a kettlebell, dog, or small child lying around, load this one up for even more burn.

3. Bodyweight Hip Thrust

How to do it:

Lie with your shoulders on an elevated surface such as a bench, chair, or sofa. Place your feet on the floor in front of you with shins vertical at the top of the movement, and use your glutes to lift your body up and down. Tucking your chin a bit will help keep your spine aligned.

Why I love it:

Glute development translates to proficiency in so many other movements, and is a favorite for aesthetics too. Under-developed glutes are also common in clients, and this move will help you access this large and powerful muscle group for better squatting, lunging, hinging, and more. Want to look good? Glute pump. Want to move well? Glute pump!!

Coaching Notes:

Experiment with your surface as well as your foot placement until you can really feel your glutes working. Many people find a bench is too high, so a medicine ball or footstool might be some other options to try.

How to Progress: 

If you have a mini band, adding a squeeze with your knees out at the top is a great way to spice this one up. Load it up with anything you can find around the house – odd objects work fine here. Or try the single leg variation – even better with an isometric hold at the top for 2-3 seconds each rep.

4. Star Plank

How to do it:
With your elbow under your shoulder and your hips and feet lined up, get into a side plank and then lift the top leg. Reach your arm overhead and keep that body lined up! No shame in a little shake here.

Why I love it:

Why settle for a plain old plank when you can work your hips, glutes, and shoulders at the same time?

Coaching Notes:

Be sure not to let your hip drop or move forward or backward away from your body. This move may also quickly reveal some imbalances from side to side. No worries – Functional Bodybuilding uses tons of unilateral movements to help with your structural balance from side to side, making you more powerful for bilateral movements too.

How to Progress: 

This movement can easily be scaled down to a side plank on your forearm, or scaled up by adding a weight in your top hand. Try it with a bottoms up kettlebell if you’re a superstar planker!

5. Archer Push Up

How to do it:
With arms in a wide pushup position, lower your body all the way over through the whole range of motion until your bodyweight is on one arm. Now push up through center and lower your body to the other side.

Why I love it:

This challenging position works the upper body horizontal push, while also hitting the smaller muscles and stabilizers that are neglected by a single plane of motion.

Coaching Notes:

Keep your core tight and don’t get sloppy with your positioning – the same rules of a traditional pushup apply where no part of your body flops to the ground uncontained.

How to Progress: 

If you’re working up to this advanced variation, make sure your pushup is already strong – if not, go back to traditional pushups at slower tempo, such as 30×0, until you build full control. You can also try the Archer Push Up on Rings, or the Slide Board Archer Push Up (use a magazine if you don’t have a furniture slider handy).

Put It All Together

Bodyweight exercises to build muscle are most powerful when combined into a training program you’ll do with consistency. If you’re simply working off a list of bodyweight exercises at random, you won’t get the same effect as when you progress them week by week. Here’s a workout from our bodyweight and low equipment workout program, Persist: Minimalist, that shows a sample of how you can combine a few of these moves into a fun and effective workout. And you can take a deeper dive by signing up for our email list for a free look at the full program.

Warmup:

EMOM x 9mins (Every Minute On the Minute – perform the first movement, then rest until the top of the next minute and continue to the second move; keep rotating through until 9 minutes is up.)
1st – Mountain Climbers 30sec
2nd – Frog Pumps x 20 reps
3rd – 10 Yoga Push Ups

Absolute Strength (Hip Extension + Upper Push)

Functional Body Composition Style
3 Sets
A1. Offset Push Ups; 2020 x 8-10/arm
rest 60sec
A2. Prisoner Good Morning; 4020 x 10-12reps
rest 60sec
A3. Bodyweight Hip Thrust; 20X2; 10-12reps
rest 60sec (back to top)

B) Sustainable Aerobic Grinder Full Body

15 Rounds:
1 Wall Walk
2 Turkish Get Ups (Make a fist and punch up to ceiling or hold onto any household object)
3 Pike Handstand Push Ups
4 Candlestick Roll Up*

*Scale by placing a bench or stacked mats behind you to elevate your body above your feet more.

Training Day Notes:

Functional Body Composition Style training is focused around building time under tension with slower tempos and higher rep ranges. What this allows for is getting your intensity built without the need for heavy weights, but rather longer muscle contractions. It is great when paired with shorter rest periods of activating metabolism.

Once a week I’d like to offer you a workout that allows you to work LONG and slow. The sustainable aerobic grinders are just for that. Find a rhythm and just plug along. You are not trying to race, but instead keep quality and keep moving.

Bodyweight Workout Bonanza

Sign up for a free sample of even more bodyweight exercises and workouts – with low equipment versions also included if you have access to a few tools.