March 26, 2021 10 min read
Every year new products come out promising to test our bodies in new and interesting ways, giving us better and better results—allegedly.
While there are plenty of tools such as barbells and dumbbells that have an important place in the iron temple, there is something special about simply using your body weight to get results. You are, in fact, using the weight of your muscles (and bones) so other muscles can develop in strength and size. Whatever way you look at it, there is a pure je ne sais quoi in a bodyweight (or calisthenic) routine.
But the benefits of using your own body weight in your training plan are tangible as well, as we’ll see below. We’ve also compiled a list of some of the best exercises you can do to get a full-body workout and hit your goals—whatever they may be.
Any type of training—bodyweight or not—will build strength, some level of muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. Bodyweight exercises are especially useful in building muscular endurance since they often use higher rep counts than more conventional resistance exercises using weights.
This also plays into the fact that bodyweight movements place a large emphasis on the complete movement of your body, in whatever patterns it’s able to move in. This is especially important when considering that our muscles are used both for stability and for strength and that strengthening one means it’s also important to strengthen the other.
Take for example the push-up. With this relatively basic movement, it’s necessary to stabilize the entirety of the kinetic chain, all the way from your hands to your feet. Once you’re stabilized, it’s then time to produce the force you need. But you’ll only be able to produce as much force as your joints are able to stabilize, which is why it’s important to develop stability along with strength.
Your flexibility will also improve from the movement patterns common in bodyweight exercises. Strengthening not only your muscles but also your ligaments and tendons is important for maintaining balance and taking part in physical activities and functional movements.
This factor also plays into the importance that your core plays in bodyweight exercises. The core is extremely important in a wide array of movements and activities, and strengthening this area can help to protect you from lower back pain while also improving your posture. The core is also important in several compound exercises, allowing you to maintain better trunk stability and helping you lift more weight.
Bodyweight exercises also have the benefit of being for people of all fitness levels. We’re all familiar with planks and push-ups, and it doesn’t take much to get non-athletes into the swing of things by doing simpler movements.
Want to go harder? There are also plenty of different advanced bodyweight exercises to satiate your needs. For example, pull-ups can be spiced up in a variety of ways to make them extremely challenging, such as using one arm rather than two.
This convenience extends into other aspects of bodyweight workout routines as well.
No equipment is really necessary, and the equipment that may prove useful is easy to improvise. For example, a pull-up bar can be any old bar that holds your weight and you can grip. Do you want to introduce some weight into your training program? Just grab a milk jug or hold onto something else that’s heavy. Tricep dips? Use a chair if you can’t find parallel bars. The convenience lends itself well to sticking to working out since there are not many excuses you can give yourself. You can do it anywhere and anytime, with any amount of equipment.
If you get a good roster of bodyweight exercises under your belt—and you learn the proper form—it becomes infinitely easier to stay in shape, whatever your circumstances may be. Pop out a few tricep dips, push-ups, and pull-ups consistently enough, and you will begin to see results.
All of these factors lend themselves to making bodyweight fitness an extremely rewarding and useful part of anyone’s fitness journey.
The below exercises should be done in a circuit, repeating it three times. Ensure that you’re getting enough rest in between each exercise, but you also want to keep your heart rate elevated throughout and blood pumping.
The harder you go, the more gains you’ll get. However, also make sure you don’t push yourself too hard or overtrain.
20 Bodyweight Squats
Squats are one of the big three lifts along with barbells and deadlifts, but unlike these other top dogs in resistance exercises, the squat doesn’t require the use of a barbell.
Bodyweight squats aren’t just great for beginners who might not be able to lift as much, but they also force you to better pay attention to form and get into the nitty-gritty of which muscles need to engage when. Your breathing is also a major factor when bodyweight squatting since it mimics your cardio-breathing. When you’re using a barbel and a heavier weight, your breathing is used to brace—quick and shorter breaths than normal.
It also doesn’t hurt that the squat is one of the five fundamental movements of daily life according to the American Council on Exercise. This means that improving your squat has carry-over effects to a wide variety of functional movements and other exercises. Mastering the squat means improving a host of other things as well.
Begin by setting your feet shoulder-width apart and turning your toes out slightly. Brace your lower abs to engage them and look straight forward, or at a spot on the floor a few feet away. Begin the movement by slightly bending the knees but continuing through by hinging at the hips. Then, once your hips are hinged, reach the bottom of the movement by bending your knees.
You should keep going until your thighs are either parallel or almost parallel to the ground, with your heels about to begin lifting off the ground, and your torso may start to round forward. The ideal squat will have your torso and shins parallel to one another at the bottom of the squat.
Once you’re in this position, pause for a moment before exhaling and pressing through your mid-foot. Think of this as “pushing away” from the ground, rather than just standing up. You’ll want to do the hip hinge and knee bend in reverse until you’re standing straight with knees locked out. Give your glutes a squeeze and ensure your core is braced at the top.
There is maybe no more ubiquitous exercise than the classic push-up. It’s a gold standard when it comes to measuring upper body strength and a mainstay in gym classes everywhere.
The primary muscle movers in the push-up are the pec muscles—both the pectoralis major and the minor. Much like with the functional benefits of squats, having strong pecs has a variety of carry-over effects. Any action from the bench press to pushing open heavy doors will stand to benefit from some push-up work.
And since this is a pushing exercise, your other pushing muscles will also get involved. This will be especially evident with the triceps and the shoulders, which are both very important in performing this exercise.
You’ll want to begin by getting into a plank position on the floor, but with your hand slightly wider apart than your shoulders and elbows locked out. Your legs should be extended out and your core braced, being able to draw a straight line from your neck to your ankles—that means no arching or sagging.
Before beginning, make sure that your core muscles are braced. Inhale and bend your elbows slowly to lower yourself down until they’re at least 90-degrees. Pause at the bottom of the movement before reversing the moves.
10 Walking Lunges (Each Leg)
The lunge is another great exercise for the lower body. It targets all of the major muscle groups in the legs and it’s a great supplementary movement to add to your squats.
The walking variation of the classic lunge adds another interesting twist to the mix. It’ll work the same muscles as the regular lunge—the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves—but it’ll also add an extra challenge of having to maintain balance between every step.
This added challenge can effectively activate your core muscles, leading to greater development in this area. And with a stronger core will come more trunk stability, greater balance, and carry-over benefits to your other exercises.
Begin by standing tall with a clear walkway in front of you. Have your feet about hip-width apart, with your core and glutes braced and your chest up. Choosing one of your legs, step forward until both of your knees reach an angle of 90-degrees. This will mean your front thigh should be parallel to the floor.
Continue by pushing off the back foot and going directly into the next step. While pausing in the middle will be easier, it’s far more challenging (and rewarding) to try to stay as low to the ground as possible between steps.
Burpees are an absolutely amazing exercise to do, especially if you’re looking to work up a sweat and lose some extra body fat. This movement uses pretty much every single muscle in your body and requires several different parts of your body to move in unison and coordinate together. This includes your thighs, glutes, triceps, chest, quads, and abs.
Doing several in a row is sure to be a challenge and it’ll leave you huffing, but the benefits are definitely worth the work put in.
This movement is basically just a push-up followed by a jump. You’ll want to begin by standing straight and then lowering into a squat, with feet shoulder-width apart. Lowering your hands to the floor in front, kick your feet back and go down into a push-up. Then, jump your feet back up towards your hands, in the starting position. Once you’re here, explosively jump up and reach toward the ceiling with your hands. The more “explosive” this movement, the more you’ll get out of it.
This is another common exercise that’s often used as a test of core strength. Being a hold instead of a movement, it’ll challenge your muscles in new ways, especially when it comes to your trunk.
It’s also easy to scale up. Not feeling the burn after 15-seconds? Just go for longer to challenge yourself.
While a hold won’t be as complex as a movement, the form is still important to get the most out of the plank. Begin in the plank position—facing down on the floor, with your forearms supporting your upper body and your toes supporting your lower body. Your elbows should be directly below your shoulders, with forearms facing forward.
Brace your core and stay as rigid and straight as possible.
20 Mountain Climbers
Much like burpees, mountain climbers challenge pretty much every part of your body and have the potential to raise your heart rate if you do them at a quick enough tempo. This makes them excellent for overall conditioning, agility, and core strength.
The prime movers are the quads, so you’ll be getting a great workout in the lower body. However, your arms, shoulders, and chest have to work as well to stabilize your upper body. Your core must then stabilize the rest of your body. While the tempo will depend on your experience level, the faster you go, the more benefits you can expect.
Getting into the plank position, make sure that your hands are about shoulder-width apart, with your core braced and your body in a straight alignment. Begin by pulling your right knee towards your chest, going as far as you can. Quickly switch legs at the same time, pulling back your right knee while bringing up your left. Continue going like this, aiming for a relatively fast tempo so you’re breathing heavily by the end.
The one potential downside to using just your body weight to train is that progression is decidedly more difficult.
While this is somewhat made up for in terms of muscular endurance, due to the increased rep counts, resistance exercises can gas out your muscles more simply due to the fact that you’re using more weight. This leaves the question of how one should aim to progress and develop by just using bodyweight movements.
Like we just mentioned, one of the easiest ways is to just increase the number of reps or sets one does. This will put more volume on your muscles, allowing you to progress. However, this strategy doesn’t necessarily scale up, and at a certain point, you might be doing too many reps for it to be worth it.
Another thing you can do is increase the tempo of the movements, or introduce high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into your workouts. Minimizing your rest times, or making certain exercises into supersets, can not only make your workouts go by faster, but it can also turbocharge your gains by challenging your muscles more. Another key part of this is decreasing the tempo during the actual exercise.
Slowing down your movements will maximize your muscles’ time under tension, which is exactly what you need for more muscle development. This will also make the exercises significantly more difficult the slower you go. The benefits are the gains, of course, but the slowed tempo will also allow you to focus on your form more. While form is paramount in all types of training, it’s especially important in bodyweight movements—since there’s less weight “challenging” you, it’s necessary to properly activate all of the muscles you’re meant to be activating.
Another way to progress is by opting for more difficult movements.
For example, adding chin-ups or pull-ups into the mix is a fantastic way to develop your upper body and even your core muscles. If you want to add some extra weight to your workouts, using milk jugs or other household items can also be useful. The sky really is the limit when it comes to bodyweight exercises and how you utilize them.
And if you’re looking to get shredded, add some jumping jacks or cardio into the mix between your workouts. Working up a sweat will help you lose fat and let the muscles you’ve been working on, shine through.
Although the workout we’ve outlined above will put you well on your way to a shredded body, most of the work is going to come from putting the right stuff on your plate.
Challenging your muscles is crucial, but without fueling them properly you’re not going to get very far. That means including healthy sources of protein in each meal, such as chicken or fish. Along with plenty of protein, you’ll need healthy, complex carbs to power your workouts, and healthy sources of fat to round things off. Only once these pieces are in place can you effectively reap the rewards of the bodyweight routine lifestyle.