David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
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 ab 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 basic exercises, such as push-ups, inverted rows, and sit-ups, for increasingly higher reps and expect to get big and strong. That won’t work.
What you need to do is build up to more advanced bodyweight exercises that require extremely high levels of full body tension and that you can only do for about 6 - 12 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. But either way, here are my top 7 bodyweight exercises for building muscle size and strength:
These are about the best exercises there is for building the lats and developing a wide, powerful back. And they are also great for building the biceps. 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. Simply hang from a bar, with your arms straight, and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Lower all the way back down, and repeat. An impressive number of perfect, full range reps is 20. But when you can do about 12 you should make it harder; either by pulling yourself further up until your chest touches the bar, or by adding extra weight to increase the resistance.
If you’re not currently strong enough to do full range chins, start by doing partial reps. To do this, stand on a bench and get yourself into the top position. Then lower yourself a few inches before pulling back up. You can then gradually increase the range of motion over time, 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 the bar or straps are at neck level when you pull yourself up), you'll put more emphasis on the upper back; whereas if you keep your elbows tucked in to your sides you'll work your lats and mid-back more.
To make it more difficult, hold each rep 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.
These are excellent for developing the chest, triceps, and front deltoids. And they are very good for the core too. Adopt the push-up position and lower yourself until your chest touches the floor. Then push back up until your arms are straight, keeping your body straight throughout.
You won't get big and strong by just doing basic push-ups though, as they'll quickly become too easy. So when you can do a dozen or so reps, make them harder by putting your feet up on a bench. Or you could do plyo push-ups, suspended push-ups, dive-bomber push-ups, or one-arm push-ups.
If you are really ambitious you could work your way up to doing planche push-ups (that is where your feet are in the air), but it will probably take a year or more to get there and will require a lot of discipline.
Demonstration of Planche Push-Ups
4. Parallel Bar Dips
This is one of the best exercises you can do for the chest, triceps and front delts. If you do them straight up and down you'll put more emphasis on the triceps. Or you can lean forward slightly to get 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 at least parallel to the floor; and when you can do 12 - 15 reps increase the resistance by adding extra weight.
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 coordination. Place one leg straight out in front of you and squat all the way down on your other leg. Then stand back up again.
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, aiming to get your hamstring to touch 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 though; 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 abdominal muscles. Start out by doing them on your knees and simply 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 them on your feet. Keep your abs braced tightly and your glutes squeezed hard throughout the movement.
7. Hanging Leg Raise
This is another excellent abdominal exercise, and is particularly good 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, you can progress further by continuing the movement beyond parallel, to the point where your feet go right up to the height of the bar.
So those are my top 7 bodyweight exercises for building muscle size and strength. There are dozens more 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.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 David
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on January 12, 2014:
Yes Sandyspider. That would be a good first step :)
Sandy Mertens from Wisconsin, USA on January 12, 2014:
First I need to concentration on exercising.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 21, 2013:
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.
Foyjur Razzak from Dhaka on May 21, 2013:
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.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on October 06, 2012:
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 on October 06, 2012:
The above has 2 pushing exercises, 2 pulling exercises, 2 core exercises, and 2 legs exercises.
iamageniuster on October 06, 2012:
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)