Bodyweight Exercises that Build Muscle

By Terry Grant

When you think about ways to workout that build muscle, one rarely thinks of bodyweight exercises. Mostly what comes to my mind are, heavy weight squats or deadlifts, bench presses and barbell rows. Now do not get me wrong, those things will help you build muscle, however they usually require lots of equipment and some workout experience, so that your joints can handle the heavy weights.

With that being said, those ways are not the only ways that you can build muscle. If you are a beginner to weight training, most strength coaches will say that they do not think you have any right even touching those weights until you get good at bodyweight exercises. Even the military trains their soldiers with different types of bodyweight exercise routines. The good thing about working with your body weight is you can allow your joints to build up before you start increasing the load on them by adding weight.

Now lets take a look at some of the best body weight exercises that should be listed in your workout routine. Keep in mind as you get stronger most of these exercises will be able to get harder to allow for a progressive overload cycle. There are many ways to do this and we will talk about it more as we progress, but usually it involves adding some type of weights to your body, in the form of weighted vests, chains or other weighted items. Well what are we waiting for, lets have some fun and learn these exercises:

Bodyweight Squats

There are different types of bodyweight squats you can choose from. The picture to the right shows one that you can start off with and move on to other ones that are harder from there. Some of the other options as you get stronger are: Goblet Squats, Single Leg Squats and Bodyweight Squats (with an added weighted vest).

The Important thing to remember is to try and focus on the exercises form. Focus on keeping a straight and neutral spine throughout the movement. Also focus on pushing from your heals and not your toes.

Another type of squat that I recommend doing after you gained strength in the regular bodyweight squat is the Bulgarian Split Squat. These type of squats are really good at adding strength to your stabilizer muscles. The picture on the left shows the Bulgarian Split Squat done correctly in good form. You can progress with this exercise as well by either using dumbells or a weighted vest.

Single Legged Romanian Deadlift

The single legged Romanian Deadlift is another unilateral (one-leg) exercise that can help you focus on balance and stabilizer muscles.

The picture on the right shows a person performing the exercise in decent form, however what would make it even better is if he was looking straight down to keep his spine completely straight. One of the most important things while performing this exercise is to try and keep that straight line traveling from your rear leg to your head.


You can add difficulty to this exercise by adding dumbells as you get stronger. Believe me though at first your main focus should be trying to stay in balance and not fall flat on your face. 

Chest Dips

Chest dips are an awesome exercise that can really help bring some size to your chest. The way that you perform the dip can have a massive impact on whether you are hitting more of your triceps or chest.

Basically the more you lean forward in your dip position the more emphasize you will be putting on your chest and not your triceps. However I advise you to be very careful on how far you go down when performing a dip. This movement can put a good amount of tension on your shoulder muscles and joints. This could possibly have you ending up in an injury if you go down too far.

As you can see in the picture on the left, this position would put some amount of emphasize on the chest but also quite a bit of it would be placed on the triceps.

Chin Ups Or Pull Ups

Alright, now we have come to the almighty chin ups or pull ups. This exercise is a must for anyone seeking out a huge back.

Basically when performing a chin up, a lot of the load is going to be placed on the biceps and less so on the back muscles. The opposite is true about the pull up.

Whichever one you choose has its own benefits. I actually would probably cycle through doing both of them, so you can build your biceps up along with your back. You should probably start out with the chin up first though and then move on to the pull up as you get stronger.

Push Ups

Here is an exercise that is a pretty famous one, yet is performed wrong sometimes. The push up can help your chest grow in size while avoiding shoulder injuries that are common with the bench press.


The military loves this exercise for training their soldiers, and you should too. Make sure you keep a straight and neutral spine throughout the whole movement. You really want your core muscles supporting you while you do the exercise. Try not to look to the side like the girl in the picture is, but you can’t blame her for looking, she happened to see me walking by lol… kidding. 

Inverted Rows

The inverted row is the opposite of the push up due to the muscles that it works. This is important because you want to keep your muscles in balance. This exercise will help increase the size of your back muscles.

The picture to the right is pretty self explanatory. Some people do like to use the underhand grip instead of the overhand, either way works, but the underhand will again put more emphasize on your biceps instead of your back. Also, focus again on keeping a straight spine by supporting it with your core muscles.

As you progress with strength in this exercise you can then move to putting your feet on a bench. This will cause you to have to lift more of your body weight then you had to when your feet were on the floor.

Handstand Holds

The last exercise is what I think can end up becoming an upper body squat to you, handstand push ups. But before you can do that, you must first start out with handstand holds.

Handstand holds are a great bodyweight exercise that will help build the strength in your shoulder muscles. Just by holding that position for a certain amount of time will wear you out. You need to use your core again to support your spine and keep it in a straight line. Start off trying to hold the position for about 20 to 30 seconds, then you can increase the length as you become stronger.

After you have mastered the handstand holds, you then move on to handstand negatives. This is when you start off in the position of a handstand hold, but you slowly lower yourself into a headstand and then start back over. Instead of holding seconds, you now go by reps.

After the handstand holds start to become easy, you then move onto handstand push ups. Performing the handstand push up is pretty much the same as the handstand negatives, except when you reach the headstand you push yourself back up into a handstand again.

Moving Beyond the Regular Bodyweight Exercises

There will come a point when these body weight exercises become too easy for you. That is when you will have to step it up to the next level. As I have mentioned in some of the previous exercises, you do this by adding weight to your body. This weight can be in the form of a weighted vest, chains or dumbells. Really the type of weight matters very little as long as you are adding the weight. I feel the weighted vest is more universal for most of these bodyweight exercises. You can get one that can weigh up to 85 pounds and this will most likely keep you occupied for quite some time.

The good thing about sticking to the body weight exercises and just adding weight is that you are getting to benefit from the natural movements that these exercises allow your body to move through. In most cases, you are moving your body through space and are not moving a weight through space. That is why these exercises are so great and tend to be nicer on your joints then some of the bodybuilding exercises. If anything, most successful strength coaches recommend you at least starting out with a bodyweight program prior to you starting to do the bodybuilding exercises, like barbell squats, deadlifts and bench press. I hope these exercises help you along your way to building the body of your dreams.

Until next time,

Terry Grant

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