We have the answer: bodyweight exercises.
Bodyweight exercises are some of the best exercises, especially during a quarantine when you’re stuck at home without barbells, dumbbells, or other strength training or conditioning equipment.
Don’t worry - we’re in this with you and want to keep you pumped up!
You may have questions about bodyweight exercises, and we’re going to answer them in this guide, including:
- are bodyweight exercises effective?
- can bodyweight exercises build muscle?
- can bodyweight exercises burn fat?
- what bodyweight exercises build muscle?
- what bodyweight exercises burn the most calories?
- how to make bodyweight exercises harder?
And lots more, so let’s get started...
Are bodyweight exercises effective?
Does a trail runner who drank too much coffee the day after taco night sh*t in the woods?
The answer, friend, is a resounding YES.
A study published in the American College of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Journal found that bodyweight workouts are an efficient way to decrease body fat, improve VO2 max and boost muscular fitness.
"Today, using body weight as resistance during circuit training may grow in popularity as financial means to special equipment and facilities access have declined for some. Body weight can provide an adequate training load as long as it results in sufficient aerobic and resistance training intensities.
HICT can be a fast and efficient way to lose excess body weight and body fat. The incorporated resistance training contributes significantly to the amount of fat burned during a workout.
When resistance training exercises using multiple large muscles are used with very little rest between sets, they can elicit aerobic and metabolic benefits. Research has found that these metabolic benefits can be present for up to 72 hours after a high-intensity exercise bout has been completed."
Other than friends with benefits, metabolic benefits are some of our favorite benefits. Get some with bodyweight exercises!
Can bodyweight exercises build muscle?
Ok, we know that bodyweight exercises can get you in excellent shape - look at military recruits after boot camp - but what about using bodyweight exercises for packing on muscle?
Online trainer and fitness coach Jason Ferruggia explains why bodyweight exercises are great for building muscle.
“Bodyweight training is incredibly effective for building muscle. Some would even argue that it’s better than free weights.
Bodyweight exercises don’t beat up your joints as much as traditional weight training exercises do. They allow for a more natural range of motion and improve your overall athleticism quite effectively.
Advanced bodyweight exercises require unmatched levels of full body tension. This is what leads to incredible strength gains.”
There you have it - drop the "curls for the girls" and hit some pull-ups instead - your muscles will show you the love after.
Can bodyweight exercises burn fat?
If you think the best way to burn fat is to jog slowly on a treadmill for hours on end, you’re doing it wrong.
HIIT (high intensity interval training) is one of the most effective ways to incinerate fat, and bodyweight exercises are perfect for these types of workouts.
Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, exercise physiologist and Bowflex fitness advisor explains:
"Bodyweight exercises have been around forever for one main reason: they work."
Bodyweight exercises are highly efficient, which means you can use them when doing circuit training or HIIT workouts, which are proven to incinerate fat stores.
"You can do HIIT with both cardio and strength training, and because HIIT workouts are typically pretty short (you can only maintain max-effort work for so long!), you can often be done in 30 minutes or less. That convenience and low time commitment makes bodyweight HIIT circuits easier to stick with than, say, weightlifting for most people.”
What bodyweight exercises build muscle?
Ok, so now that you’ve seen why bodyweight exercises are super-efficient at building muscle, it’s time to choose the best exercises to include in your muscle-building program.
It’s important to choose total-body bodyweight exercises - think squats, not calf raises - and perform them through the full range of motion with excellent technique.
"Research published in Physiology & Behavior showed that muscle growth "can occur independent of an external load," and, in fact, all it takes to get swole is performing exercises through their full range of motion.
A bodyweight squat, performed with immaculate technique, can be just as effective as traditional weight training methods, and, when it comes to building muscle, there's really no need to keep adding more and more weight to your barbell."
We'll show you some awesome muscle-building bodyweight exercises soon...but first, what about getting six-pack abs with bodyweight movements?
What bodyweight exercises burn the most calories?
Similar to muscle-building exercises, the best bodyweight exercises for burning calories and burning fat will tax your entire body. Here’s a checklist to use for exercise selection from the American College of Sports Medicine:
The exercises selected for an HICT circuit should function to:
- promote strength development for all major muscle groups of the body
- use large muscle groups to create the appropriate resistance and aerobic intensity
- create a balance of strength throughout the body (e.g., you would not want to prescribe five exercises for one body part while only prescribing one for another; creating a balance of strength around a joint is an effective way to prevent injury and improve movement efficiency (1))
- be immediately modified or adapted as necessary to increase or decrease exercise intensity
- be safe and appropriate for the participants in the training space provided
- be interactive with the available features of the training environment (e.g., stairs, benches, walls, etc.)
- be easily transitioned to accommodate minimized rest time
Don't think bodyweight training will get you in excellent shape? Keep reading for tips on how to make regular bodyweight movements burn baby burn...
How to make bodyweight exercises harder?
If you’re super-fit and crush pushups in your sleep and bodyweight squats in the shower, you may want to add intensity to the more common exercises. Here’s how you can do that, according to fitness expert and strength coach Tom Coffey:
Perform high reps. Simple, right? If 20 is easy, do sets of 100 and see what happens.
Increase time under tension. Go slow on the way up and even slower on the way down. Enjoy that burn, baby.
Be explosive. Explode through your rep - just make sure you're thoroughly warmed up to reduce your risk of injury.
Add 2 or more elements. Try jumping squats into a pull-up, then to a pushup, then repeat.
Use leverage. Body weight training is just applied physics to the body. The basic principles of leverage:
- The longer the lever, the easier it is to move an object.
- The shorter the lever, the more effort required to move that same object.
Leverage applied to body weight exercises:
- The more elevated your feet, the harder the exercise becomes (L-sit pull-ups, handstand pushups, and body rows with your feet on a box)
- The more elevated your hands, the easier the exercise becomes (wall pushups and standing ring rows)
Redistribute your weight/remove a hand or foot. Pistol squats, one-arm pushups, and single-leg deadlifts are all great ways to make bodyweight exercises more challenging.
The Best Bodyweight Exercises (with Variations)
Pushups. Start in a high plank position with your hands flat on the floor a little bit wider than shoulder-width apart, wrists under shoulders. Keeping your body in one long line, bend your arms and lower yourself as close to the floor as you can. Push back up - that’s one rep.
Make it easier:
Wall pushups. Place your hands against a wall and keep your back straight. Bend your elbows until your face almost touches the wall, then press through your hands and extend your arms so you're back at the starting position.
Kneeling pushups. The kneeling pushups is the classic, scaled version of the regular pushup. Instead of doing a pushup from a plank position, start with your knees on the ground, keep your body in-line and your core engaged as your allow your upper body to "kiss" the floor, then press through your hands to return to the starting position.
Make it harder:
Elevated (feet up) pushups. Get your feet on a ball, bench, wall, or anything higher than the floor. The balance required will fire your stabilizer muscles and increase resistance for your upper body.
Pushups on an unstable surface. Place your hands or feet on an unstable surface such as a bosu ball, stability ball, or other unstable object to work your core even harder than normal.
One leg up pushups. Take away a leg and your core has to work even harder to maintain balance.
Handstand pushups. It’s a deceptively simple exercise, but the handstand pushup is also a supreme test of your upper-body strength and core stability. You’ll feel this most in your shoulders and triceps—the primary muscles in this move—while also working your core. Just make sure to grab a friend or spotter if you're just starting out...this is not a rookie bodyweight exercise!
Hindu pushups. From a push-up position, raise those hips and in one swift movement use your arms to lower the front of your body until your chin comes close to the floor. Think of yourself dive-bombing straight into the floor but pressing through your arms right before your face makes contact. Make sure to keep your knees off the floor as you swoop up. Reverse the move to come back to the raised-hip position.
"Air" Squat. The bodyweight squat (or “air squat”) is an important exercise for building and maintaining lower-body strength throughout your life. Place your feet about shoulder-width apart, and maintain a natural arc in your back. Spread your weight through your feet as you hinge your hips and knees into the squat. Throughout the movement make sure your feet are directly under your knees, and your knees are pointing forward —not drawn inward.
When you get to the bottom - thighs parallel to the floor - press through your heels to stand back up straight. Squeeze your butt and keep your core tight as you return to a standing position.
Make it easier:
Wall sit. Who needs a chair when there’s a wall? Slowly slide your back down a wall until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your knees directly above ankles and keep back straight. Go for a minute per set (or however long it takes to turn those legs to jelly). When you've mastered this movement, move on to wall squats.
Make it harder:
Jump squats. Jump squats are perfect exercises for athletes or bodybuilders looking to improve their explosive lower-body power, and for obstacle course racers who want to improve their ability to clamber over hurdles and keep moving fast. Make sure to land softly as you go into your next rep, forcing your muscles to handle a workload in both the concentric and eccentric motions of the exercise. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart. Sit your butt back and bend your knees to drop into a squat, keeping your chest upright. Jump up into the air as high as you can and straighten out your legs. Land back on the floor with soft knees.
Pistol squats. The pistol squat is a test of balance, core strength, and leg power. Begin by lowering yourself into a one-legged squat, and stick your free leg and your arms in front of you to maintain balance as you push your hips back and lower yourself to parallel. Then return to standing.
Bulgarian split squat. The challenge of a single-leg squatting motion is tough enough. Add to that the stretch and activation of your rear leg’s hip flexor, and you have the makings of an ultra-effective bodyweight exercise that improves strength and mobility at the same time. Stand in front of a bench or stability ball and place the top of your rear foot on the bench or ball. Lower yourself down so you rear knee almost touches the floor, then press through your heel to the starting position.
Forward lunges. Stand with your feet together. Take a big step forward with your right foot. Bend your right leg until your front thigh is parallel to the floor and your back knee is just barely touching the floor. Push up through your back front heel to return to the start position. Repeat on the other side.
Make it harder:
Walking lunges. Perform the standard lunge, but instead of staying stationary, you'll step through your lunge so your rear leg becomes your front leg of the next lunge.
Jumping lunges. Start in a lunge with your left leg forward, hands at your sides. Bend both knees to 90 degrees, keeping your abs tight and back straight. Swing arms to propel your body up, straightening your legs. Land back in a lunge and continue jumping. Repeat on the other side.
Reverse lunge. Start standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Step backwards with your left foot, landing on the ball of your foot and bending your knees to create two 90-degree angles. Push through your right heel to return to standing. Repeat on the other side.
Curtsy lunges. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Step your left leg diagonally behind your right leg and bend your knees to lower into a lunge. Push through your right heel to stand, and sweep your left leg out to the side. Repeat on the other side. Let’s show a little respect. When lunging, step left leg back behind right leg, bending knees and lowering hips until right thigh is almost parallel to the floor. Remember to keep your torso upright and your hips square.
Side lunges. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.Take a big step out to your right. Bend your knee and push your butt back to do a side lunge. Keep your chest lifted and core tight.Repeat on the other side.
Inverted rows. Find a park bench, table or other horizontal surface that will safely support your weight. Grab on, tighten your core, and pull your chest up while keeping your body in a reverse-plank position.
Pullups. If you're lucky enough to have a pull-up bar at home, or can find some scaffolding or a tree branch, grab on, pull your weight off the floor, and rise until your chin is at the same height as your hands, or slightly above. Keep your core engaged throughout the movement. Lower down, and repeat.
Single leg deadlifts. Start in a standing position with your feet directly under your shoulders. Lift one foot off the ground, hinge at the hips, and lower your chest until it's parallel to the floor. Keep your core and butt engaged throughout the movement with your knee slightly bent. Focus on maintaining balance while also strengthening your grounded leg.
Planks. Lie facedown with forearms on the floor and hands clasped. Extend legs behind you and rise up on toes. Keeping back straight, tighten core and hold the position for 30 to 60 seconds (or as long as you can hang).
Side plank. Like the regular plank, a side plank is simple but challenging way to isometrically target your core strength and your balance. When you do this movement keep your hips in line with your body. Lie faceup and roll to the side. Come up onto one foot and elbow. Make sure your hips are lifted and your core is engaged. Time how long you can stay there with your core engaged and your hips in-line, and try to get better each workout. Switch sides so you're balanced.
Hollow rocks. Lay on your back and slightly raise your head and feet. Keeping your body in a slightly concave position, rock back and forth keeping your abs tight and your entire core engaged.
Bear crawl. Start on your hands and knees, rise up onto your toes, tighten your core, and slowly reach forward with right arm and right knee, followed by the left side. Continue the crawl across your room, and back, if you don't have much space. The key to this move is to stay controlled, keep your core engaged, and focus on perfect form.
Burpees. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms by your sides. Bend your knees and reach forward to place your hands on the floor. Kick your legs straight out behind you and immediately lower your entire body down to the ground, bending at the elbows. Use your arms to quickly push your body back up and hop your legs back under your body. Jump straight up into the air, reaching your arms overhead. End with your knees slightly bent.
Jumping lunges. Perform the standard lunge but at the bottom of the lunge, jump out of it and switch legs mid-air so you're at the bottom of a lunge on the other side.
Mountain climbers. A staple of athletic training, mountain climbers are another great core exercise that really fires up your hip flexors and abs while also challenging your upper body to maintain balance. Try them with sliding disks under your toes, or perform them with your hands resting on a medicine ball to ratchet up the imbalance and increasingly challenge your core. Start in a high plank and draw your right knee under your torso, keeping your toes off the ground. Return your right foot to the starting position. Switch legs and bring your left knee under your chest. Keep switching legs as if you're running in place.
Bodyweight exercises will get you in excellent shape, build lean muscle, and burn fat. Plus, you can do bodyweight workouts from the comfort of your own home. Give these a try and keep training! Don't forget to focus on your workout recovery when you're done - your improvement doesn't just happen during your workouts, but when your body heals and gets stronger after, too.