No one ever said that building muscle had to require weights. You can use the weight of your own body to build a fitness routine that gets you ripped. Forget the beginner stuff like sit-ups, crunches, and leg lifts. These basic moves are not about truly giving your muscles a workout to encourage new growth.
The most effective bodyweight exercises are all about advanced tension that will prove to be a challenge, with even the most seasoned fitness gurus only being able to complete a limited number of reps. Even still, most good body weight exercises involve only natural motions and are considered pain free by those who give them a shot. Here are 20 top body weight exercises you should include in your fitness regimen to boost muscle growth and enhance strength.
1. Inverted Shrugs
Some people claim that bodyweight exercises do nothing to give you that incredibly sculpted look when it comes to your traps. However, the inverted shrug is bound to provide the yoked look that you desire. Grab rings and go totally inverted, using the help of a partner if necessary, and once you are there do basic shrugs. This may sound easy, but the weight of your entire body will make this a challenge that you can truly feel.
2. Ring Dip
If done in a perfect vertical position, ring dips will sculpt your triceps in an incredible way that is hard to compare to anything else. It is good to shoot for about 25 ring dips eventually for a good workout. To intensify ring dips, work on leaning slightly forward and flexing your hips just enough to hold your legs out in front of your body and then squeeze and pull your way up from the lowered position.
3. Hand Walking or Hand Crawling
Hand walking and hand crawling is accomplished in an upside-down position with your feet against a wall for support. Walking sideways with your hands or crawling sideways on your elbows will work wonders to enhance your upper body strength. You can also accomplish hand walking in a push-up position while your legs are situated firmly on a power wheel. Not only is hand walking good for building strength in your arms, shoulders, and upper back, this exercise builds stability and form for other core workout activities.
4. Pistol Squats
Pistol squats work well to develop all of the small and large muscles of the lower extremities. Doing pistol squats is not an exercise that most people are physically equipped to handle from the get-go and should be worked toward over the course of several days, if not weeks to fully prepare your tendons. This basic one-legged squat requires ultimate balance and stability. If you can manage to get to the point where you can do 20 pistol squat repetitions, you should consider yourself doing amazing.
5. Ring Fly
Ring flyes prove to be one of the more challenging exercises for your pecs, but well worth learning how to do. Lower yourself as slowly as possible and expect to feel the burn very quickly as you work on repetitions. Not only will you see a dramatic change in your pectoral muscles with ring fly exercises, you will see sculpting develop in your biceps as well. Ring flyes are great because they can be accomplished with high-end gym equipment and simple contraptions that you set up at home. Just remember to keep your form in check by keeping your body centered and straight while you work.
Push-ups alone should never be discounted as a useless bodyweight exercise, because even in the basic form this exercise can help create tone and strengthen core muscles. However, push-ups are easy enough to add variation to that you could easily trade things up when you master one specific routine. One example of a push-up that is more difficult to achieve is a one-armed push-up. In the beginning, shoot for 10 of these, master that skill, and then move on to more difficult variations, like dive bomber push-ups.
7. Handstand Push-up
Get inverted into a handstand position and you have shifted your body weight to an entirely new level. Doing handstand push-ups in the completely vertical position is bound to push your shoulder muscles to a new level of strength. Start out by trying to maintain a stable handstand for at least one minute. Once you have managed to master this skill of stability, gradually work on lowering your body towards the floor and then pushing back into the extended position. Try to get to 10 full reps and you can consider yourself skilled at this difficult exercise.
8. Front Levers
Considered the absolute best workout to build lats, front levers will also give your abs a run for their money, making basic ab workouts pale in comparison. If you can manage to use a bar to pull your body into a semi-planking position, try holding it there for four seconds at a time and then doing a few reps. This is definitely an exercise that will take some practice to work up to, which may be made easier by starting out with just isometric holds.
9. Muscle Up
Muscle ups are one of the most challenging bodyweight exercises and it is actually quite rare for most people to master this feat even if they make several attempts. However, if you can manage to get down the perfect form, even five reps of muscle ups is enough to provide you with an insane upper body workout. Muscle ups require you to lift your entire upper body up over a chin-up bar using only your arm strength and a quick swinging motion.
10. Skater Squat
Similar to the pistol squat, the skater squat requires you to push one leg behind your body while you squat straight to the ground. It is not uncommon for people to start out with skater squats and work their way toward being able to achieve the correct pistol squat form. As you lower your body, try to touch the knee behind you to the floor or a mat.
11. Inverted Row
It is easy to forget about the importance of working out the muscles in your mid back, but the inverted row can definitely get rid of that problem. The inverted row can be accomplished with a lot of different pieces of equipment, whether it is rope, straps, or rings. Row backwards with your elbows at your side to workout the mid back. If you want the action in your muscles to shift slightly upward, move the elbows further out from your sides.
3) Inverted Row
Some type of inverted row variation, either on a bar, rings, ropes or suspension straps should be included for mid back thickness and strength.
To increase the difficulty try holding each rep for a few seconds at the top.
To target the upper back musculature (teres minor, rhomboids, rear delts) you want to have your elbows directly out to your side when rowing. For more lats and mid-back, row with your elbows tucked to your sides.
4) Front Lever
This is one of the absolute BEST exercises for activating and building the lats. Maybe even better than chin ups. It is also one of the best abdominal exercises you can do and will put crunches and sit ups to shame. To progress into doing the dynamic movement I recommend starting with isometric holds. Four sets of 10 seconds twice per week will be good for most people.
5) Muscle Up
Very few people will ever master the muscle up but if you take the time and have the dedication it is very impressive to be able to pull off. Doing five perfect reps is a good goal to shoot for.
6) Handstand Pushup
These will build big shoulders and cause less pain than a barbell military press. An impressive number to shoot for is ten full range reps. To get started on these you need to first master the handstand.
It has been said by high level gymnastic coaches that the ability to do handstands is one of the most important things you can develop to improve your overall athleticism.
Once you are able to hold a handstand with your feet against the wall for 60 seconds you can start progressing into handstand pushups.
Some of the variations I use most often in training myself or clients are the steep incline suspended pushup (with your feet in the straps), regular suspended pushups on rings, divebomber pushups and one arm pushups.
A good goal for most people is ten one arm pushups. That is strong and impressive.
8) Ring Fly
The function of the pecs is to draw the arm across the midline of the body. Vince Gironda and Larry Scott introduced me to this exercise back in the early 90's and I was blown away by how well it worked.
It is one of the most challenging, yet brutally effective moves you can do for building your chest.
Lower yourself slowly, always being sure to brace your abs, squeeze your glutes and pause in the bottom position. Be prepared for some HARD work and expect to see some biceps growth from this exercise as well.
9) Ring Dip
If you do them straight up and down they will blast your triceps better than just about any other exercise. Twenty five reps done in this manner is a good goal to shoot for.
For more chest emphasis you can lean forward by flexing at the hip and holding your legs out in front of you and instead of simply pressing your way out of the bottom, try to squeeze/pull your way up.
10) Inverted Shrug
The big knock on bodyweight training is that it does nothing for your traps to give you that yoked look. But that is because people do not know about the inverted shrug. Get on the rings and flip yourself upside down. Once you have stabilized your body simply shrug up and down.
11) Hand Walking/ Crawling
Walking on your hands is an outstanding way to develop shoulder strength and stability. This can be done upside down in the handstand position or it can be done in pushup position with your feet in the Power Wheel.
Done in the latter manner it will train your abs harder than anything you have ever done. Shoot for 100 yards with perfect form, meaning no sagging or A-framing hips.
Aside from walking on your hands, any type of crawl is awesome for full body strength and athleticism. There are numerous types of crawls such as bear crawls, tiger crawls, crab walks, etc.
I suggest incorporating them into your workouts at least once per week as a finisher or a warm up.
12) Pistol Squat
Pistol squats develop every muscle in the lower body along with great balance, stabilization, coordination and athleticism. Like many of the bodyweight exercises listed here the pistol will take several weeks of preparation to do properly and pain free.
Even if you have the strength to do them the first time out, your connective tissue will not be prepared for the stress, so please take the necessary steps to work up to them.
An impressive numbers of pistol squats to shoot for is twenty reps.
13) Back Foot Elevated Split Squat
Pistols are great but a lot of people will never be able to do them. This variation is more user friendly. Get in a lunge position and put your back foot up on a box or bench of about 6-12" in height.
The quads respond very well too high volume so doing multiple 10-20 reps sets on this exercise is the preferred plan of attack.
14) Skater Squat
To do this exercise simply bend one knee behind you and squat straight down to the floor. It is like a pistol squat only the leg is bent behind you instead of straight out in front of you.
Touch the back knee to a padded surface and then stand back up. The range of motion is far less so this is often a good first progression into pistol squats.
15) Single Leg Hip Thrust
While pistol squats take care of most of your lower body needs you may want to include some hip extension work to make sure you have all your bases covered.
This is especially important for girls who want an ass you can rest a drink on.
A great bodyweight exercise that does that for you is the single leg hip thrust.
Set up two benches, put your upper back on one and one foot on another with the non working leg bent and up near your chest.
Now let your hips drop down toward the ground as low as you can. Drive your heel into the bench and lift your hips all the way up, while consciously contracting your glute.
After you can knock out 15-20 reps with perfect form while keeping your hips stabilized and not hyperextending your lower back I would throw some chains or band resistance over your waist.
16) Single Leg Back Raise/Glute Ham Raise
Ok, I cheated here because I am calling it a tie between these two exercises for the number 15 position.
I love glute ham raises for hamstring development and protection against knee injuries. But they are not 100% necessary.
Whenever you squat deep enough, like you do in a pistol squat the hamstrings get worked. The glutes also get a pretty good workouts from pistol squats. But this does leave the lower back lagging behind a bit in the stimulation department if all you were doing was bodyweight stuff.
So to cover that part of the body a single leg back raise would be a great option. Of course you could do these with two legs until sets of twenty become easy. After that I would switch over to the one leg variation on either a parallel or 45 degree angled bench.
This exercise is awesome for developing core strength and mastering it will do you a world of good and have great carryover to numerous exercises and physical activities. If you have lower back or hip pain this exercise can often cure it. Start with the bent knee version and progress slowly from there. Four sets of 10 seconds holds two or three days per week will be enough for most people.
18) Hanging Leg Raise
This is an advanced abdominal exercise so work your way up to it slowly over the course of several months. I would have the L-Sits down pretty good first. If you are a beginner it may take two years until you are ready for this one. The ability to do 15-20 really picture perfect reps without jacking up your lower back is pretty impressive.
19) Side Plank
Each of the exercises listed incorporates all of the core muscles but this is the only variation that really targets the obliques. The obliques are crucially important in maintaining a healthy lower back, locking out a heavy squat or deadlift and overall core strength and stability.
If you have strong obliques chances are good that you will possess a decent level of functional strength. This exercise can be made as easy or as difficult as you need it to be depending on whether you bend your knees, straighten them, use a back extension bench to do it on or use a weighted vest.
20) Back Bridge
This is a great exercise to improve the health of your spine. Start very slowly and be careful on these. If you have preexisting injuries you may never be able to do this.
Those with healthy spines should aim to work towards the point where they can bridge backward from a standing position to the floor and back up again.
Bonus Exercise: Neck Bridge
Once you are capable of doing a back bridge you should strongly consider working your way into neck bridges, both the front and rear versions. A thick neck looks powerful and commands respect. Do not walk around with a stack of dimes.
There you have it, the top 20 bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength.
Of course, there are tons more and it was tough narrowing it down.
This is far from a complete list and is only a fraction of the bodyweight exercises I use regularly. I like to mix these in with some barbell/dumbbell and strongman exercises but there is no reason you could not get by with just these alone. If you are not already doing so add a few of these exercises to your program today and work your way up to the highest level of each.
I guarantee you will be happy with the results.
PS. For a complete, fully detailed body weight only training program that will build a strong, jacked physique, check out Body Weight Body Building. You can download it right HERE.
Top 20 Bodyweight Exercises for Building Muscle & Strength