Bodyweight exercises can make you big and strong. While typically, bodyweight exercises are equated with higher rep schemes and endurance test – how many push ups can you do unbroken, for example – you can still adopt certain methodologies to enhance muscle growth and achieve hypertrophy without having to resort to weights.
One of the other advantages of bodyweight exercises is that they can be done almost any place, any time. The only thing you need for a bodyweight workout session is you. So, done right, resistance training that is purely based on bodyweight can maximize strength and size as well as equipment based training.
We are making four suggestions here for simple, easy to learn and use, bodyweight exercises. And, to keep you challenged, we suggest adaptations of those movement to turn dial up to 11.
Let’s look at some other ways to get strength and size out of your bodyweight routines.
Angles, Levers, and Planes of Exercise
If you are just looking for endurance or stamina then, by all means, do reps and set schemes that push your numbers up.
If you want to build strength and size, think about changing the plane of movement. For example, if you are doing a push up you can elevate your feet. Ultimate, the most challenging push up is probably a handstand push up. The force on the activated muscles is greater as you raise your legs more.
Thinking about the angle of movement changes the point of leverage and, as a result, directly impacts the amount of force you have to put into the movement.
Keep it Tense
Tension is one of a number of factors associated with muscle growth. Tension from strength training disturbs the integrity of skeletal muscle, causing cellular responses in myofibers and satellite cells.1
Tension has a huge anabolic effect and plays a role in hypertrophy, partially because of an increased rate of protein synthesis.2 Bodybuilders are more muscular than powerlifters because they focus more on stressing a muscle through its full range of motion for an entire set.
Other research suggests the amount of time a muscle is under tension is important for muscle growth. So if you want hypertrophy do these movements slowly. Keeping constant tension at moderate speeds has been proven to improve muscle ischemia and hypoxia, which assist in muscle growth.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology looked a subject who measured the strength of her left hand on day one, and then spent thirteen days training her right hand, performing ten maximal contractions each day. When the strength of her left hand was measured again on the thirteenth day, it had increased by 43%.
This is the essence of unilateral training. Training limbs individually, rather than engaging both sides together, is a popular and highly beneficial technique. Unilateral exercises are now widely recognized as an important part of any strength-training routine.
There are also other inherent advantages like helping you to overcome weaknesses in one side of the body and creating a better balance throughout your physique.
Lunges, one legged squats, and one-arm push ups are great examples of unilateral adaptations of the following exercises.
Ensuring that power levels are similar on each side of your body is important for maximum performance. Maintaining strength on both sides goes a long way in staying healthy and strong.
If you want to simultaneously strengthen your core and develop a solid foundation in bodyweight exercise, the L-sit is an excellent option.
A successful L-Sit requires the ability to exert constant tension, as well as flexibility and core strength. These are crucial qualities that will help you maintain health and vitality. Having such body control and suppleness will also be a great boon when performing the Olympic lifts.
You can build your own parallettes very simply, and add the extra functionality to this exercise. Playing with different variations of movements on the parallettes is a definite skill builder.
As you get more advanced, you can add the tuck into your practice, creating stronger tension in your core and challenging yourself even further.
The push up. A simple, classic movement. Something we all start with as children. Yet, it’s also something we can continue to refine and develop throughout our athletic life.
For some, achieving the push up from the toes can be a benchmark of fitness, signaling a level of strength and fitness perhaps previously unachieved. For others, push ups are something done hundreds, even thousands of times in boot camps and training camps.
Whether you’re bored with the standard push up or you’re looking for new ways to build strength, the following series of videos will walk you through good form, progressions, and a slew of variations. Always start with the classic, though:
There are also ways in which to modify the push up, if you are not quite ready for a full push up.
You can even start at the wall.
But, if you feel up to it, mash up variations that tax your muscles by hitting from different angles. The typewriter push up is a good example of time under tension being put to work in a unique push up.
Dive bomber push ups look like they’re probably great for shoulder strength and mobility, right?
Ultimately, when you feel ready, try to achieve one-armed push ups with this guide.
The lunge is a versatile lower-body drill that can improve strength, flexibility, and stability. Be sure to keep your torso upright and tight when you lunge. Your shoulders should stay stacked above your hips, and even though you engage the muscles in your upper body, your lower body will do most of the work. Use the lunge diligently in your workouts, and it will turn your legs into tree trunks.
And there are many ways in which you can create variations in your lunges to keep yourself engaged and enthusiastic about getting the results that are possible with hard work.
- Stationary lunge – Also known as the split squat. With your legs in a staggered stance, bend your knees and lower into the lunge position, then push up.
- Forward lunge – Starting with your legs side by side, step forward with one leg and lower into the lunge. When you push up, you can either walk forward or return to the starting position with your legs side by side.
- Backward lunge – Also called a reverse lunge, this move starts with a backward rather than forward step.
- Side lunge – Bring your foot out to the side and bend your knee. The other leg should stay straight. This variation may challenge your flexibility at first.
- Jumping lunge – Instead of merely pushing up from the bottom of the lunge, explode into the air so both feet are off the ground. Alternate your legs while you are in the air and land with the other leg forward so that you can pump out multiple unbroken reps.
Squats are the accomplishment exercises. They make you feel like kings and queens of the workout. They are also very versatile. You can fine a squat for any occasion. Bodyweight squats make excellent additions to any place, any time workouts.
If you are unsure of your squatting then you might want to get the rhythm in your bones for safer squatting before you go any further. Or, try perfecting your form with the wall squat.
Then move on to the basic squat.
However, to full challenge yourself, you have to start thinking about all the other things we talked about earlier: unilateral exercises, time under tension, and changing those angles in your exercises. The simplest one to tackle is time under tension in the squat.
Hold the deep part of the squat for a period of time. Keep movements slow, very slow in fact, without losing form. You can seriously tax your legs if you take your time.
Remember, any of the exercises in this page can held for time. You can take your squat or lunge at any angle and hold for 5-10 seconds. In that regard, a good isometric squat exercise is the wall sit.
But, let’s be honest, the one exercise that is going to challenge you and your strength the most in your squat portfolio is the one-legged squat or pistols.
First of all find out what is preventing you from doing pistol squats if you cannot do them. Otherwise, jump right in.
Yes, at first try, even the most experienced gym-goer will most likely experience difficulties with the pistol squat. Not only do you need strong legs to be able to do them, but you also need flexibility to lower down into the full squat, as well as balance and control to keep yourself from falling over. Just like anything else, when you practice consistently and work on your weaknesses, pistols will become less and less elusive.
Finally, if you are holding that deep squat on the ground and you want to engage your neurological system and create some new dynamics, add the crow. It’s a skill. It may not be a hypertrophy boon but when it comes to bodyweight exercises you want to feel free to put your body in awkward situations that put all your faculties to use to stop gravity bringing you crashing down.
1. Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24 (2010): 2857-872.
2. Miyazaki, Mitsunori, Karyn A. Esser. “Cellular mechanisms regulating protein synthesis and skeletal muscle hypertrophy in animals.” Journal of Applied Physiology 106 (2009): 1367-1373.
3. Burd, Nicholas A., Richard J. Andrews, Daniel WD West, Jonathan P. Little, Andrew JR Cochran, Amy J. Hector, Joshua GA Cashaback, Martin J. Gibala, James R. Potvin, Steven K. Baker, Stuart M. Phillips. “Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates different muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men.” The Journal of Physiology 590 (2012): 351-362.