Whether you’re a gym junkie currently without access to the weight room or a fitness novice researching what equipment you really need, you’ve probably wondered if you can truly build muscle without weights.
Some encouraging news: While you may not be able to reach bodybuilder status with bodyweight-only training, you can still build muscle (and strength) without a proper weight room.
The Key to Building Muscle with Your Bodyweight
“Don’t underestimate the power of bodyweight exercises,” says California-based trainer Chris Gagliardi, ACE-certified medical exercise specialist. Bodyweight exercises—like pushups, squats, lunges, and pullups—recruit tons of muscle groups, both big and small.
The one factor that determines whether you can truly build muscle with bodyweight exercises: proper stimulus, says Gagliardi.
Read More: 6 Reasons Why You’re Not Building Muscle
Basically, you need to be able to actually feel your muscles working during the exercises, work to the point of muscle fatigue, and continue to do more work over time.
To build muscle, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recommends performing three to six sets of six to 12 reps for a given movement. If a bodyweight move is challenging enough that you can only perform six to 12 reps at a time, it can help you build muscle.
However, if you have to bang out dozens of reps of an exercise just to feel the burn, you’ll need to find a way to make it more challenging, Gagliardi says.
Scaling Bodyweight Moves For Muscle-Building
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make bodyweight exercises harder, including switching to single-limb exercise variations or changing your body angle. For example, if bodyweight squats are too easy, switching to single-leg squats will up the challenge.
Another option: Slow the tempo at which you move during exercises: “If you do a movement slowly and increase your time under tension, you can make it more challenging,” Gagliardi says.
Research backs up the idea that slowing down the pace of your exercises (known as tempo training) may help you build muscle. One small Journal of Physiology study, for example, found that performing leg extensions to fatigue using a tempo of six seconds up and six seconds down led to greater increases in muscle protein synthesis (the process of building proteins to repair muscle damage) than a faster tempo. (Yes, this study used weights, but the concept still applies to bodyweight moves.)
Read More: How Long Does It Take To Build Muscle?
On the flip side, if you struggle to knock out fewer than six reps of a bodyweight exercise, modify it so you can do more. A few ways to do this:
- reduce your range of motion (don’t squat as deep)
- change your body angle (elevate your hands for pushups)
- add stability (use a chair to help you balance during single-leg exercises)
No matter how you modify or progress your bodyweight exercises, know that you don’t need to max out on every set. Instead, stop at the point of technical failure, or the point at which your form begins to break. Not only does pushing to the point where you literally can’t perform another rep increase your odds of injury, but a study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports found that it’s unnecessary for building muscle.
The Best Bodyweight Exercises For Building Muscle
If you want to build muscle with bodyweight exercises (or maintain it!), Gagliardi recommends focusing on the following bodyweight exercises.
If standard bodyweight squats are too easy, switch to a single-leg version (like Bulgarian split squats, skater squats, or modified or standard pistol squats) and/or slow down your tempo.
There are many different lunge variations to choose from, including forward, reverse, curtsy, lateral, and walking lunges. To make lunges more challenging, combine multiple variations into a single rep. For example, perform a forward lunge, then a lateral lunge, and then a reverse lunge, and count that as one repetition.
If you have stairs, a bench, or a sturdy chair, do bodyweight step-ups. Make them more challenging by focusing on lowering to the floor as slowly as possible before starting the next rep, and/or adding a knee lift to the top of every rep.
4. Calf Raises
You can do calf raises on the floor, but you’ll get even more muscle involved if you perform them on a step or elevated surface. To make these more challenging, do them on one leg.
To make pushups easier, elevate your hands on a sturdy chair, bench, step, or countertop. (If you don’t have something to elevate your hands on, do pushups from your knees instead). To make pushups more difficult, try slowing the pace, placing your hands closer or farther apart, and/or lifting one hand or foot off the floor.
All you need to perform dips is a sturdy chair or bench. To make dips more challenging, slow your pace, and/or take weight out of your legs.
If you happen to have a pullup bar at home, take advantage of it. If you can, perform standard bodyweight pullups. Otherwise, hop off of a bench or chair to get some help from your legs. If standard pullups are too easy, slow your tempo, place your hands closer or farther apart on the bar, or try these pullup variations.
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