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Building Muscle Through Bodyweight Exercises

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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

Advantages of Bodyweight Exercises

Bodyweight exercises are precisely what they appear to be — resistance-training exercises that you perform solely using your own body weight and zero equipment. Due to the absence of specialized equipment, you can engage in bodyweight exercises virtually anywhere. Undoubtedly, you are already incorporating bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats, lunges, planks, and burpees into your regular workout routine. However, it is worth noting that you can also develop muscle mass and strength through bodyweight exercises.

If you are accustomed to lifting heavy weights at the gym, handling barbells, or utilizing weight machines, replicating those activities at home can present certain challenges, explains Alexis Colvin, M.D., an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at the Mount Sinai Health System. Nevertheless, this does not imply that you cannot build muscle while being limited to bodyweight exercises; it just means that you need to alter your training methodology. For instance, you might need to perform exercises at a slower pace or increase the number of repetitions, sets, or duration for each movement. “To effectively develop muscle, it is imperative to provide a challenge to the muscle,” emphasizes Dr. Colvin. Therefore, the ultimate objective is to identify the modifications that challenge your muscles. Determining what works best for you or what pushes your body to its limits may require some trial and error.

One major benefit of bodyweight exercises is that they involve functional, compound movements, enabling you to concentrate on proper form without the added resistance. By engaging in exercises such as squats, push-ups, and lunges, you enhance your proficiency in movement patterns commonly employed in everyday life. Additionally, these exercises target multiple joints and muscle groups simultaneously. Dr. Colvin asserts that stabilizing exercises like bird dogs, planks, and single-sided movements also activate numerous smaller muscles. Incorporating these types of exercises into your routine challenges various muscle groups in your upper and lower body, as well as your core, effectively targeting muscles that are not typically worked with weights.

Certain studies have compared exercises using external loads to bodyweight movements and have shown comparable results in terms of muscle gain. For instance, a small-scale study comparing loaded bench presses to bodyweight push-ups demonstrated similar muscle growth in the chest and triceps after an eight-week period. Another study focused on post-menopausal women deemed high risk for type 2 diabetes indicated that twelve weeks of high-intensity bodyweight interval training led to a comparable increase in muscle mass as a combination of aerobic and resistance training.

And, in another investigation, regarding the implications of weightless physical conditioning, one faction performed a sequence of arm bending maneuvers (imagine: bicep curls) with a substantial burden, while the other executed the maneuvers using their own body mass, ensuring the persistence of tension throughout the complete extent of motion. The group utilizing body weight exhibited a similar augmentation in muscle magnitude compared to the burdened group.

How Muscle is Developed by the Body

The process of muscle development, scientifically referred to as hypertrophy, involves challenging the muscle fibers and increasing the synthesis of proteins, according to Molly Galbraith, C.S.C.S, the co-founder of Girls Gone Strong. There are three methods through which you can achieve this via exercise: mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and microtrauma. While most training methods incorporate all three methods to stimulate hypertrophy and maximize benefits, different workout techniques may emphasize one method over the others. It is not necessary to specifically design your workouts around each method, but understanding how they contribute to muscle development can be beneficial.

Mechanical Tension

Mechanical tension is primarily experienced during weightlifting. By subjecting the muscle to the right amount of resistance, tension is created, triggering cellular and molecular responses that facilitate muscle growth. Increasing the total volume of repetitions and sets performed for each exercise can also enhance mechanical tension, leading to better muscle development. Slowing down the eccentric action or the lowering phase of movements, such as during a squat, can also increase tension. In some cases, certain bodyweight exercises, such as push-ups or pull-ups, provide sufficient resistance on their own.

Metabolic Stress

The sensation of intense exertion felt during exercises like squats, holding the bottom position of a push-up, or completing the final rep of sit-ups is a result of metabolic stress. Metabolic stress occurs when waste products called metabolites, such as lactate, accumulate in the muscle tissue. This leads to hormonal, cellular, and growth factor reactions, which contribute to muscle growth. Metabolic stress can stimulate the release of anabolic hormones like testosterone and growth hormone, which promote protein synthesis. Additionally, it can cause cell swelling and trigger the production of growth factors, proteins that encourage tissue growth by supporting cell reproduction.


Microtrauma refers to the small tears that occur in the muscle tissue as a result of resistance training exercises. When these tears happen, the body initiates the repair process, which kickstarts muscle growth.

While any physical activity can elicit this response in your muscles (squats, planks, deadlifts, etc.), unfamiliar exercises you have not previously performed can also induce this microtrauma. Furthermore, this phenomenon is not exclusively attributed to mechanical stress; activities such as dancing, running, bodyweight exercises, among others, can also generate microtrauma in the muscles.

Tips for Maximizing Results

The opportunities are limitless, to be honest. There are numerous approaches for altering your usual bodyweight training workout — even minor changes can lead to greater muscle gains. But here are a few specific tips for challenging your body and promoting muscle growth, courtesy of Galbraith. These are not listed in any particular order and the most effective way to incorporate these strategies is personalized, so try one or all five of these tactics in your next workout and observe which ones put your muscles to the ultimate test.

Increase repetitions and sets; decrease rest time

The more you perform an exercise, the more you’ll enhance the metabolic stress you place on your muscles. Complete more repetitions and sets of bodyweight exercises than you would typically do at the gym with weights for similar results. You’ll also want to minimize the breaks between those repetitions and sets, but without compromising your proper form. This places additional stress on the muscle, promoting growth. In fact, research indicates that low-load resistance training (with a light weight or bodyweight) combined with minimal rest may amplify metabolic stress and augment muscle size even more than lifting heavy weights and taking longer breaks. If you usually lift weights for about eight repetitions in the gym, attempt to perform the same exercise for 20 repetitions at home using only your body.

Vary the angle or tempo of the exercise

To increase microtrauma, consider taking your lunges for a stroll or stepping out on a diagonal — or introduce an incline or decline to your push-ups, as suggested by Galbraith. Changing the angle not only engages other muscles but also targets different sections of the same muscle group. Additionally, it is beneficial to decelerate the eccentric or downward phase of an exercise, as mentioned earlier, and then explode upwards.

Another option is to decelerate the entire exercise. For instance, descend into a squat over a count of three, hold at the bottom for three, and then rise over another count of three. This prolongs the period during which your muscle is under tension, meaning you are more likely to generate microtraumas within your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which possess greater endurance capacity than fast-twitch fibers.

Incorporate holds and half-repetitions

This can increase the metabolic stress on the muscles, resulting in more gains. For instance, if lunges feel effortless, hold the bottom of the movement (keeping both knees bent 90 degrees) for a few seconds before standing up. Alternatively, step back into your lunge, lift halfway up, then return to the lowered position before coming back up to a standing position.

Also, try stopping just short of fully standing up from a squat or lunge, or halting just before lowering all the way down in a glute bridge. This is effective because it prolongs the muscle tension or eliminates any points in the movement where the working muscle gets a reprieve.

Incorporate more plyometrics

To intensify the tension placed on your muscles, infuse some explosiveness into your movements. Squat jumps, lunge jumps, hinge jumps, burpees — they all contribute to more muscle building.

When a muscle is extended, it results in nerve activation that indicates a concentric shortening of the muscle. A more rapid extension (which occurs during the explosive part of a plyometric exercise) leads to a more intense nerve activation and a more significant contraction of the muscle. That more substantial contraction implies that your muscle is exerting more effort and is likely to cause more minor damage, thus resulting in more improvements. One study on young soccer players discovered that those who performed plyometric maneuvers had comparable muscle improvements to those who engaged in resistance training.

Engage in one-sided exercises

Vary your usual exercises that involve both sides of the body by focusing on exercises that target one side at a time. This could involve transforming a regular squat into a pistol squat, performing a single-leg bridge instead of a glute bridge, or attempting a plank while only using one arm and/or leg. These simple adjustments can increase the strain on the muscles and add more tension or weight to them, explains Galbraith. It makes sense, as one side of the body is carrying the full weight rather than dividing it.

Continue to progress

Like any type of exercise, there’s a chance of hitting a plateau if you repeat the same routine without experimenting with different variables or continually challenging your muscles in new ways. That’s why it’s crucial to continuously advance your program by introducing variations to the exercises and increasing the difficulty of certain moves using the methods mentioned above. This is how muscle growth continues to occur.

“If you find that everything feels incredibly easy, chances are you’re not making much progress in terms of muscle growth,” adds Dr. Colvin. Keep this in mind as a signal to change your routine. (And if you’re exercising at home and looking for ways to incorporate external resistance, you can always attempt these household item exercises that trainers highly recommend.)

Exercises Using Only Bodyweight

Interested in getting started with bodyweight exercises? Below are several upper and lower body exercises that exclusively use bodyweight to help build muscle.


  • Targeted muscle groups: Chest, shoulders, core, triceps, upper back
  • Instructions:
  • A. Begin in a high plank position on all fours
  • B. Position your palms on the ground, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart
  • C. Bring your feet together and balance on your toes
  • D. Engage your core and quadriceps
  • E. Bend your elbows at a 45-degree angle and inhale as you lower your entire body towards the floor
  • F. Pause when your chest is slightly below elbow height
  • G. Exhale and push your body away from the floor until your arms are straight (but not locked)
  • Proper form:
  • Avoid letting your hips or lower back sag during the movement
  • Prevent your elbows from flaring out to the sides or moving forward as you lower your body
  • Maintain a neutral neck position and direct your gaze slightly forward towards the ground
  • Don’t tuck your chin or lift your head
  • Recommended sets and reps: Aim for 8 to 15 reps. Try completing 3 sets.
  • Modification:
  • For beginners, start with your knees on the ground until you feel confident with your form.
  • Progression:
  • Spiderman push-up
  • A
    • Commence in standard push-up stance

    B. While flexing your arms to descend, simultaneously elevate your left foot from the ground and thrust your left knee upwards to touch your left elbow. Cease the motion when the distance to the floor is approximately 3 inches.

    C. Propel yourself upwards and elongate your left foot back to the ground to revert back to the initial position. Duplicate the procedure on the contrary side.


    • Muscle groups targeted: Gluteal muscles, quadriceps, hamstring muscles
    • Instructions:
    • A. Stand with feet slightly wider than the width of your hips, with toes turned slightly outward and arms at your sides.
    • B. Contract your abdominal muscles to engage your core and keep your chest upright.
    • C. Take a deep breath in and hinge at your hips to start the movement, then bend your knees to lower yourself into a squat position. Your thighs should be parallel or almost parallel to the floor, your heels might start to lift off the floor, or your torso may start to round or flex forward.
    • D. While lowering into the squat, simultaneously raise your arms in front of your body until they reach chest height.
    • E. Exhale as you press into your heels and mid-foot to straighten your legs and return to a standing position. Your hips and torso should rise at the same time, and lower your arms back to your sides.
    • Proper form:
    • As you lower into the squat, ensure that you push your hips back and sit into your mid-foot and heels.
    • Recommended sets and reps: Perform 8 to 12 repetitions. Aim for 3 sets.
    • Modification:
    • If you are a beginner, try squatting onto a bench or chair. You will be performing the same motion but stopping before your thighs go lower than parallel to the floor, which is easier on the knees.

    Progression: Once you are comfortable with a standard squat, you can enhance your workout with a few minor variations.

    – Add a small pulse after each regular squat.

    – Add a small jump, leaping into the air instead of just standing at the top of the squat.


    • Muscle groups targeted: Gluteal muscles, hamstring muscles, quadriceps, calves, core
    • Instructions:
    • A. Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart.
    • B. Position your hands on your hips.
    • C. Take a slow and controlled step forward with your right leg.
    • D. Keep your spine tall and distribute your weight in your heels. Lower your body until both your front and back legs are in a 90-degree angle, with both knees directly over your ankles.
    • E. Pause briefly, then bring your right leg backward to return to the starting position.
    • F. Step forward with your left leg and repeat the same process.
    • Proper form:
    • Engage your core muscles to maintain stability and prevent any shaking or wobbling.
    • Recommended sets and reps: Perform 8 to 12 repetitions, then repeat on the other side. Aim for 3 sets.
    • Modification:
    • If you are new to lunges or have difficulty with balance, begin with forward lunges assisted by a chair.
    • A. Stand with your feet together and place your hands on the back of a chair in front of your body.
    • B. Keep your core engaged, chest tall, and shoulders aligned with your hips. Take a large step backward with your right foot and lower yourself down until your left thigh is parallel to the floor and both knees form 90-degree angles.

    C. Push through the mid-foot and heel of your left foot to rise out of the lunge, then step your right foot forward next to your left, returning to the starting position.

    Progression: Plyometric Jump Lunge

    A. Begin in a regular lunge position.


    Descend downwards 1 to 2 inches to acquire impetus, then thrust through the feet and leap upright towards the roof. Alight tenderly. C. Recur on the contrary flank.


    • Muscle groups targeted: Core, pectorals, upper limbs, back, lower limbs, glutes
    • Instructions:
    • A. Commence in a quadruped position on the floor with hands arranged directly under shoulders, knees bent and arranged directly under hips, and feet hip-width apart.
    • B. Elevate both knees off the floor and elongate legs to assume a raised plank position on palms, squeezing glutes together and activating core. Actively push away from the floor and maintain a straight line from head to heels.
    • C. Maintain position for 30 seconds.
    • Proper form:
    • Tighten the core throughout the exercise
    • Ensure that elbows are directly under the shoulders
    • Keep forearms parallel to one another
    • Maintain your gaze towards the ground slightly in front of you
    • Recommended sets and reps: Hold plank for 30 seconds. Attempt 3 sets.
    • Modification:
    • Forearm Plank
    • This variation alleviates pressure on the wrists and is suitable for individuals with wrist issues.
    • A. Initiate in a regular plank position
    • B. Lower one forearm down to the floor at a time, with elbows in line with the shoulders. Place palms firmly on the floor or form gentle fists.

    C. Elevate both knees off the floor and elongate legs to assume a forearm plank position, squeezing glutes together and activating core. Actively push away from the floor and maintain a straight line from head to heels.D. Maintain position for 30 seconds.Progression:Side PlankA. Lie on the left side with knees straight. Prop the body up on the left elbow and forearm, keeping the feet stacked.B. Raise the hips until the body forms a straight line from ankles to shoulders.C. Tighten the core and breathe deeply throughout the duration of the plank exercise.D. Maintain position for 30 seconds. Switch sides; repeat.


    • Muscle groups targeted: Glutes, quadriceps, core, calves, shoulders, pectorals, triceps 
    • Instructions:
    • A. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward, and arms at sides.
    • B. Sit back into hips and flex knees to descend into a squat, keeping chest up and preventing the back from rounding.
    • C. Hinge at the hips to fold forward and place hands on the floor directly in front of the feet. Shift weight onto hands.
    • D. Jump both feet back and land softly on the balls of the feet in a raised plank position. The body should form a straight line from head to heels.
    • E. Bend at the elbows to lower the body, from chest to knees, all the way to the floor, then rapidly push up to return to the raised plank position.
    • F. Jump both feet forward, positioning them directly behind the hands.
    • G. Lift the hands off the floor, then push into the heels to rise up out of the squat and explosively jump into the air. Land softly.
    • Proper form:
    • When elevating the body to the plank position, make sure to lift the entire body simultaneously
    • Avoid “snaking” the body off the ground by lifting the chest first and leaving the hips on the ground

    Recommended sets and reps: Perform 10 reps. Attempt 3 sets.Modification:Walking LeapfrogA

    Begin in regular burpee position with hands on floor and legs in squat.B. Step right foot back until right leg is fully extended, then repeat the process with left foot, to assume a high plank position. Body should form a straight line from head to heels.C. Step right foot up and directly behind right hand, then repeat the process with left foot.D. Lift hands off the floor, then press into heels to rise up out of the squat and return to standing.Progression:180 Degree BurpeeA. Complete the full burpee repetition detailed aboveB. After last step (lifting hands in the air), jump and twist body 180 degrees, reverse and return to original position.C. Continue with next rep, repeat 180 degree spin each time.

    Bodyweight Exercise Routine

    The lower body workout provided by fitness instructor Emily Skye is outlined below for you to do at home (with instructions).

    Following a warm-up, perform the entire circuit three to four times. Ensure you have at least a 20-second rest between each exercise.

    • Sit-to-chair squat
    • Superficial stationary lunge
    • Vertical calf raises
    • Weightless deadlift
    • Sumo squat

    Rest and Recuperation

    Rest and recuperation are vital for the process of muscle-building, as with any exercise routine. If you are just commencing an exercise regimen, it is advisable to allocate a rest day for every two days of workout. Individuals who regularly train should include an active recovery day in their weekly exercise schedule. Active recovery may encompass stretching, walking, light cardiovascular activities, ample nutritious sustenance, and a high intake of water.