For most people, the idea of ‘bodyweight training’ conjures up images of endless reps of push-ups and sit-ups.
But training like that won’t get you anywhere.
If you want to build muscle, you need to apply the principle of progressive overload (which is just like gradually increasing the weights you lift in the gym).
When you apply progressive overload to bodyweight exercises, they are a fantastic way of building muscle.
They can be performed alongside a program including weights, or entirely on their own (when you’re traveling, for example).
There’s also an argument to be made that bodyweight exercises are even better than training with weights because the movements are very natural and you’re much less likely to injure yourself.
Below are five of the best bodyweight exercises that will help you build muscle safely on the road, at home or in the gym.
First and foremost, there is a difference between chin-ups and pull-ups.
- Chin-Ups: Your palms are facing towards you and there is a greater emphasis placed upon the biceps.
- Pull-Ups: Your palms are facing away from you and there is less emphasis on the biceps.
Chin and pull-ups are both great exercises that will help you build a strong back and big arms.
The best is the one that suits your goals, but world-renowned strength coach, Jason Ferruggia, advocates parallel-grip chin-ups (palms facing each other). This is because it is easiest on the shoulders and elbows, which helps prevent injury in the long run.
Jason recommends doing them on gymnastic rings, but this is impractical unless you have access to a great training facility, and they are significantly more difficult. I like to do them on the monkey bars in playgrounds when I can’t get to the gym.
Being able to perform 20 reps with perfect form is impressive. If you reach this stage you can make the exercise more difficult by adding weight (gripping a bag or dumbbell between your legs), or by progressing to one-armed variations.
Push-ups are a great exercise for beginners and they are much safer on the shoulders than the bench press, but they quickly become too easy.
Once you can perform 30 reps with good form, you should be thinking about moving on to tougher variations. Here are some great variations you can do to make sure you are constantly challenging yourself:
- Diamond push-ups: To perform a diamond push-up place your hands close together so the tips of your thumbs and index fingers touch. The space between your hands should form a diamond shape, like what you would do at a Jay-Z concert. This variation places more emphasis on the triceps than the regular push-up.
- Feet-elevated push-ups: Get into the position of a regular push-up, but elevate your feet by placing them on a stable surface, or in the foot handles of a TRX. Using a TRX will make the exercise more effective as it will also engage your core. You can increase the difficulty of this exercise by raising the angle of elevation.
- Handstand push-ups: Handstand push-ups target the shoulders, rather than the chest, but they are still a great full-body movement. Before attempting this exercise, master holding a handstand against a wall. Once you can do this for 60 seconds, try pressing up and down to perform the handstand push-up. Again, the TRX is useful here because you transition easily from feet-elevated push-ups to this variation.
- One-armed push-ups: One-armed push-ups are a big jump from regular push-ups, but they are extremely impressive to see. Rather than trying to walk you through it myself, I suggest you check out this video series by Jordan Syatt.
- Planche push-ups: These are the gold-standard of push-ups. A planche involves holding your body parallel to the ground and takes a great deal of strength and balance. And then you do push-ups as well. They look like this.
3. Pistol Squat
Pistol squats hit just about every muscle in the lower-body, and develop great balance, stabilization, coordination and athleticism.
As effective as they are, they’re pretty difficult and will take some time to work up to. Even if you have the strength to perform them straight away, you might not have the balance or flexibility to perform them safely.
With that in mind, you should work towards them slowly by following a series of progressions. A great starting point is mastering the split squat. The split squat is performed by elevating one of your feet behind you and using your front leg to lunge down. Working up to sets of 20 reps will help you prepare for the pistol. Once you feel ready, check out Al Kavadlo’s (pictured above) series of progressions.
4. TRX Rows
Some variation of rows should be included in your exercise routine to build a strong upper and middle back.
Inverted rows are a great starting point for beginners. In a gym, you would perform these by positioning the bar in a Smith Machine low in the rack, lying underneath it on the ground, and then pulling yourself towards the bar. At home or on the road, you can mimic this movement by getting underneath a table or desk, gripping the edge, and then pulling yourself towards the table. Of course, this relies on having a strong table or desk, with plenty of room around it.
For that reason, I much prefer using a TRX, which you can use anywhere and makes it easy to adjust the difficulty by increasing or decreasing the angle at which you row. You can watch strength coaches Eric Cressey and Greg Robins demonstrating this below:
5. The Human Flag
Who doesn’t love the human flag?
Visually, it’s probably the most impressive exercise in existence. But that’s not all it’s good for. It trains all of the muscles in the lateral chain that are often neglected. This includes the obliques, lats, and other muscles found along the side of your body.
I’m not going to lie, the human flag isn’t easy. Even if you’ve been training for years, chances are that you won’t be able to do one right away. It takes a lot of practice and patience to work your way up to the flag.
I suggest you get started with the Beginner Bodyweight Workout, which you can get by signing up for the newsletter at the end of this post. Once you’re comfortable with that check out this tutorial on Beast Skills.
Start Building Muscle Today
For a lot of people, the best bodyweight exercises will seem a long way off.
While that might be true, it shouldn’t put you off getting started.
Following the progressions of each exercise will enable to continually make progress and build muscle. The concept is no different from incrementally increasing the weight you would use in a gym. Except, this way, you can train anywhere and you will eventually be able to perform an incredibly impressive bodyweight movement.
Picking up a TRX will make these progressions easier, and the best thing about it is that it can go with you anywhere.
To start building muscle as soon as possible with nothing but your bodyweight, sign up for the newsletter below and I’ll send you a free copy of the Beginner Bodyweight Workout. The ebook contains a circuit that is perfect for building up a foundational level of strength that will allow you move on to tougher progressions in no time. Get started today!