If your quest is to increase strength and build muscle, incorporating bodyweight exercises is a must.
The question is: which bodyweight exercises should you concentrate your efforts on? Which ones will give you the most bang for you buck? Let’s investigate.
Some bodyweight exercises are simply too easy. They only serve a purpose as active deload exercises or warm up movements.
On the other hand, others are so advanced that even the majority of the strongest men out there can’t perform a single rep!
Fortunately, there are some great bodyweight exercises that fall somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. They are challenging enough to provide a muscle building stimulus, yet simple enough so that most trainees can do them without a 10 year gymnastics background.
There are many variations of each of these movements, but I will only list the variation that is doable or at least attainable by most trained individuals.
Before we get into these movements, there is one prerequisite that must be mentioned: In order to perform advanced bodyweight exercises, you need to have your body fat levels in check.
For men, this means body fat levels of 12% or less and for women 20% or less. If you’re not at these levels or better, get on a good fat loss diet or you’ll be unable to do these awesome exercises.
Some of these movements are a bit complex so I shot a video for you. If you have any trouble visualizing any of these exercises, simply check out the video at the bottom of this post.
Alright, here are the top 10 bodyweight exercises for muscle building and strength.
Tucked Front Lever
Few exercises scorch the lats as well as the front lever can. As much praise as the chin up gets for being “the greatest lat exercise”, I would go out on a limb and say the front lever causes superior lat activation.
Simply grab an overhead bar with a shoulder width, pronated grip. Keep your elbows straight and lift up your hips until they are in the same horizontal plane as your shoulders.
Hold this position isometrically for multiple reps of ten seconds each. Progress by pushing your shoulders back until your arms are at a 45 degree angle to your torso.
Headstand Push Up
The headstand push up a tremendous for upper body strength and shoulder development. Be sure to become proficient at holding an isometric handstand prior to attempting this movement.
Flip up into a handstand with your feet up against the wall. Lower your head down to the floor and push back up forcefully until the arms are fully extended. Repeat.
Once 10 perfect reps can be achieved, elevate your hands onto blocks or parallette bars, thus increasing the range of motion.
This is the king of bodyweight horizontal pulling. It’s definitely not the most exciting or satisfying bodyweight movement, but it is important.
You see, most bodyweight exercises train the anterior side of the body. Without balancing that work with strength training that emphasizes the posterior side of the body, negative postural changes can occur.
This imbalance can lead to the dreaded “caveman look” (rounded shoulders and overly internally rotated arms) and/or shoulder injuries. The inverted row is the answer to this potential problem.
To perform this exercise correctly, grab onto a pair of suspension straps or rings and get into a horizontal position. Elevate your feet and place them on a box. Your arms should be fully extended, and your shoulders should be just a few inches off the floor.
Now brace your entire body and pull yourself up until your ribcage makes contact with your hands. Be sure to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top. Return in a controlled fashion to the starting position. Repeat.
Strap Push Ups
Doing your push ups while holding onto suspension straps or rings makes them far superior to just cranking out push ups with your hands on the floor.
The rings/straps allow for increased vertical range of motion, which helps to better develop the chest. Also, because of the freedom of movement in all planes, you get better activation of your stabilizers.
Start by grabbing onto the rings while maintaining a perfect plank position. Set your neck in a neutral position, squeeze your glutes and brace your abs. Next, lower yourself until your ribcage makes contact with your hands. Push back up forcefully until your arms are fully extended. Repeat.
Once 20 perfect reps becomes possible, simply wear a weighted vest or drape some 5/8 inch chains over your back.
Strap Pistol Squats
Although nothing builds size and strength like the barbell back squat does, the pistol squat is superior to all other bodyweight exercises for increasing leg strength and development.
Even if you prefer to train with barbells, the pistol squat can offer huge benefits, including:
a) Increased balance between left and right side
b) Decreased stress on the spine and shoulders. Since you’ll have no bar on your back during a pistol, your shoulders and spine get a break.
c) Forced mobility work. In order to master the pistol, you’ll need to develop adequate flexibility/mobility. This additional mobility work can be the key to long-term health and training longevity.
Simply attach your suspension straps to a chin up bar. Adjust them to hip height. Grab the handles and walk back until the straps have no slack in them. Lift your left leg off the ground and extend it straight out in front of you. While keeping your weight on your right heel, squat straight down. Then extend your right leg and return to starting position. Repeat.
Glute Ham Raise
The glute ham raise is a unique exercise because it works the hamstrings in both hip extension and knee flexion simultaneously. Additionally, it effectively strengthens your lower back region.
I find the glute ham raise to be indispensible as an assistance exercise, activation exercise or a deload exercise.
Set your feet in a glute ham bench. Start in hip flexion. Extend your hips until your body is parallel to the ground.
Then continue to rise by pushing your toes hard into the toe plate and flexing your hamstrings. Your torso and thighs will finish in a vertical position. Lower yourself down to starting position and repeat.
Once you can perform 20 clean reps, hold onto a weight across your chest or add band resistance to the movement.
The L-sit is an amazing isometric core strength exercise. It will give you a bullet-proof core and also teach you how to keep your entire body braced. It also has awesome carryover to just about every worthwhile exercise and every athletic endeavor.
Grab onto a pair of parallette bars (if none are available, put your hands on the floor) and support your bodyweight. Start with a tucked (bent knee) position and perform multiple reps of 10 seconds each. Once you can hold it for 60 seconds, progress by extending your knees a few inches at a time.
Continue this knee extending progression until you can hold your legs out straight. Once you can hold the straight leg position for 60 sec, you’ll have a “strong as steel” core.
A variety of grips can be used (supinated, pronated, neutral, rings). I recommend varying them to prevent overuse injuries.
Be sure to pull yourself up until the chin clears the bar and lower yourself to near-full elbow extension.
If you are unable to perform them yet, simply use band assistance until you can pull up your own bodyweight. Being able to crank out 15 clean crisp reps is a nice display of above-average relative strength.
Parallel bar dips have been a staple exercise in the routines of bodybuilders (for chest, shoulder and tricep development), gymnasts (for upper body strength) and powerlifters (as an assistance exercise for the bench press) for years. That is a testament to the effectiveness and versatility of this exercise.
Performing this movement on rings adds yet another dimension: freedom of movement.
This freedom will make this exercise more difficult, but it strengthens the stabilizers and allows your body to find its best groove. Both of these benefits will lead to greater training longevity.
Set up your rings to hip height. Grab onto the handles and elevate your feet off the floor. Lower yourself down until your upper arm (from your shoulder to your elbows) are parallel to the ground. Then extend your arms back to starting position. Repeat.
Hanging Leg Raise
Although the hanging leg raise is one of the best ab exercises, the hanging leg raise works the entire body. I consider it a mandatory exercise to master as it has carryover to many other full body movements.
Simply grab onto a chin up bar with a pronated grip. Start the movement by lifting your legs towards your chest with a bent knee position. Bring them up as high as possible. Full range is achieved when your knees are on your chest. Return in a controlled fashion to the starting position. Repeat.
Once 20 reps can be performed in this manner (full range), start to extend your legs, a few inches at a time.
Your goal should be to have your legs straight and touch your shins to the bar for 20 reps.
Here is a video I shot for you to give you a visual of these exercises:
There you have it: the best 10 bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength. We’ve got work to do. Let’s get to it!
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