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The Top 7 Bodyweight Exercises For Building Muscle Size And Strength

Updated on May 27, 2015
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David is an army trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifetime health and fitness enthusiast.

bodyweight exercises build muscle and strength
bodyweight exercises build muscle and strength | Source

Build Muscle With Bodyweight Exercises

Bodyweight exercises can be incredibly effective for building muscle. In fact some of them are at least as effective as using weights. Maybe more so.

For example, who would argue that chin-ups are more effective than pulldowns for building a wide back? And parallel bar dips are at least as good as the bench press for developing the chest – as well as being about the best thing there is for triceps development. Glute ham raises are much better than leg curls for the hamstrings. And power wheel rollouts and hanging leg raises are a lot better than the ab machine for the stomach and core.

Apart from this, bodyweight exercises are much easier on the joints than conventional weight training. And they allow for a more natural range of motion than lifting a barbell or dumbbell does.

However you can’t simply do push-ups, inverted rows and sit-ups for increasingly more reps and expect to get big and strong. That won’t work.

What you need to do is build up to advanced bodyweight exercises that require extremely high levels of full body tension, and that you can only do for about 5 - 10 reps. This will lead to exceptional gains in strength, and greatly increased muscle size. Just look at the upper body development of most male gymnasts and you’ll see what I mean.

You can also add resistance to many bodyweight exercises of course. Then it’s not strictly bodyweight training – it’s bodyweight plus resistance. But it’s still a highly effective method of training.

You can do bodyweight exercises together with weight training if you wish. Or you can do just bodyweight exercises – it’s up to you. So without further ado, here are my top 7 bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength…

1. Chin Up/Pull Up

These are the best exercises for the lats that there is. And they are also very good for building the biceps too. A chin-up is where you have the palms of your hands facing you, and a pull-up is where your palms face away from you. There is also the neutral grip chin-up/pull-up, where your palms face each other.

You can do these close grip, medium grip or wide grip. An impressive number of perfect, full range reps is 20. But when you can do about 12, you should make it harder by pulling yourself further up. Eventually you’ll be able to do them so that your chest touches the bar. If that gets too easy, add extra weight, as reps above 12 will do little to increase muscle size.

If you’re not currently strong enough to do full range chins, start by doing partial reps. Stand on a bench and get yourself into the top position. Then lower yourself a few inches before pulling back up. Gradually increase the range of movement until you can do full reps.

2. Inverted Row

This is usually done on a bar, but you can also do it on rings or straps, and it’s an excellent exercise for building thickness and strength into the upper and middle back.

If you have your elbows out to the side when doing this, so that when you pull yourself up the bar or straps are at neck level, you'll put more emphasis on the upper back; whereas by keeping your elbows tucked in you'll work your lats and mid-back more.

To make it more difficult, hold the movement at the top for a few seconds. And when that gets too easy, place your feet up on a bench. And finally you can add additional weight.

3. Pushups

These are excellent for developing the chest, triceps and front deltoids. And they are great for the core too. However they quickly become too easy, so when you can do a dozen or so full reps make them harder by putting your feet on a bench. Or you could do plyo pushups, suspended pushups, divebomber pushups or one-arm pushups.

If you are really ambitious you could work your way up to doing planche pushups (that is where your feet are in the air). But it will probably take a year or two to get there and will require a lot of discipline.

Demonstration of planche pushups

4. Parallel Bar Dips

This is one of the best exercises you can do for the chest and triceps. If you do them straight up and down you'll put more emphasis on the triceps. Or you can lean forward slightly for more chest involvement.

You can also do these on rings as well as on the parallel bars. Ensure you go down until the backs of your arms are parallel to the floor, and when you can do 12 reps, add extra weight.

Learn more about how to train with bodyweight exercises

5. One Legged Squat/Pistol Squat

Pistol squats are another excellent exercise. They develop every muscle in the lower body, as well as improving balance and co-ordination. Place one leg straight out in front of you and squat right down and back up on the other leg.

You should not try to do pistol squats straight away however, as they put a great deal of strain on the connective tissues. So start off with something a little easier, such as the one legged squat with back foot elevated.

To do this place one foot up on a bench behind you, and squat straight down on your other leg until your hamstring touches your calf. Then stand back up again. Work up to about 15 - 20 reps of these and then you can move on to pistol squats.

You will probably still have to do partial reps to start with, but gradually increase the range of movement until you can go all the way down. If you can do 20 full range pistol squats that’s really impressive. But when you get to 12 - 15 reps, hold a weight while doing them to make it more difficult.

How to do pistol squats

6. Ab Wheel Rollout

This is a great exercise for developing the abs. Start out by doing them on your knees; roll the wheel out in front of you until your arms are straight out in front of your head. Your body should be about six inches off the floor. Then pull it right back in. Later on you can graduate to doing it on your feet. Keep your glutes squeezed and your abs braced tightly throughout the movement.

7. Hanging Leg Raise

Another great abdominal exercise, particularly for the lower abs. Hang from a bar and raise your legs out in front of you, keeping them straight, until they are parallel to the floor. Return to the starting position and repeat.

If these are too difficult for you, start by doing them with your legs bent. And when you are proficient at doing them with straight legs, progress further by continuing the movement beyond parallel, to the point where your legs go right up until your feet touch the bar.

There are dozens more excellent bodyweight exercises of course. And some of them are so advanced they will take years to master – if you ever do. But these will give you a great start. So if you’re not already doing so, why not incorporate a few of them into your training program starting today? I’m sure you’ll be delighted with the results.


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    • dwelburn profile image

      David 4 years ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Yes Sandyspider. That would be a good first step :)

    • Sandyspider profile image

      Sandy Mertens 4 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

      First I need to concentration on exercising.

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 4 years ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Sorry Dania, but that's not true for most people. Doing sets of more than 12 reps will do little or nothing to build muscle for the vast majority of people. If you are very strong and can handle a good poundage for higher reps they can be beneficial. But muscular endurance training is completely different from muscle size training or strength training.

    • Dania Razzak profile image

      Foyjur Razzak 4 years ago from Dhaka

      When weight-lifting, doing several reps of lighter weights can improve your muscular mass more than fewer reps with heavier weights. Muscle mass is not built solely by lifting large amounts of weight endurance is likewise key. Many heavy lifters utilize this method and it also works.

    • dwelburn profile image

      David 5 years ago from Chesterfield, UK

      Yes; that's a great selection too. I was going to add handstand pushups but felt they would be too advanced for most people. The sprints are a great idea for fitness and fat burning. Thanks for that.

    • iamageniuster profile image

      iamageniuster 5 years ago

      The above has 2 pushing exercises, 2 pulling exercises, 2 core exercises, and 2 legs exercises.

    • iamageniuster profile image

      iamageniuster 5 years ago

      Great bodyweight exercises! My top 8 would be:

      1. One-armed Push ups

      2. Pull Ups (palms away from you)

      3. Upside-Down Situps (use gravity boots)

      4. 100 Meter Sprints

      5. Handstand (feet to wall) Pushups

      6. Chin Ups (palms facing you)

      7. Hanging Leg Raises

      8. High Squat Jumps (high enough that your knees touch your chest)