If we’ve learned anything about training over the last year, it’s that having an arsenal of bodyweight exercises to perform in the absence of weights is a good idea.
Although bodyweight exercises are often dismissed as being ineffective for building strength and muscle, nothing could be further from the truth.
Gains in strength and size are stimulated as a result of the muscles being able to overcome a bigger resistance, regardless of whether it’s from a barbell or body weight.
One study even revealed that a push-up program generated similar gains in muscle thickness and strength when compared to the bench press (1).
The reason why most lifters will overlook bodyweight exercises is simply because they’re considered ‘too easy’.
Whilst that may be the case for many bodyweight exercises, this article provides a list of 5 exercises that are advanced enough to challenge even the most seasoned gym-goers.
As a result, this will place your muscles under great tension, which is a powerful stimulator of both strength and muscle size.
Although they are ideal for performing as part of a bodyweight routine, you are free to include them as part of your regular weight lifting program.
You may even find that building strength in these exercises carries over to your other lifts as well.
So without further ado, here they are:
Although basic push-ups are a fantastic exercise, you will only be moving approximately 66% of your bodyweight.
Therefore, unless you’re a complete novice, or you have a very weak upper body, you will need a more advanced variation in order to create enough tension in the chest, shoulders, and triceps to stimulate strength and hypertrophy (1).
One such exercise is the one-hand push-up.
Not only is this exercise an awesome choice for developing the upper body, but due to the unstable nature, it will also help you to develop rock-solid core strength.
If you’ve never tried these before, be warned –
The one-hand push-up will humble the strongest lifters in the gym. Make sure your upper body is fully warmed-up first, and begin with sets of low repetitions.
How To Perform One-Hand Push-Ups:
- Assume the ‘end position’ of the push-up i.e. hands and toes on the floor, both elbows extended and body straight
- Move both hands inwards so they’re both directly underneath your chest
- Widen your feet as far as possible
- Remove one hand from the floor and either place it behind your back, or alongside your body
- Inhale deeply and brace your core
- Slowly bend your elbow and lower your body to the ground
- Don’t relax at the bottom of the movement
- Push yourself back up to the starting position by straightening your elbow
Make easier: Elevate your hand
Make harder: Elevate your feet
Bodyweight Triceps Extension
This is a deceptively challenging exercise that will set your triceps on fire.
Spending a few weeks training this exercise is a surefire way to add some thickness and mass to your upper arm.
Whilst the exercise may look very similar to a push-up, you should refrain from ‘pushing away’, and instead focus on ‘extending the elbows’.
Doing this will place the emphasis on the triceps as opposed to the shoulders and chest.
How To Perform Bodyweight Triceps Extensions:
- Whilst keeping your feet on the floor, place your hands onto an elevated surface, such as a wall or a sturdy bench
- Try and grip the edge of the wall or bench, so your hands are on both the horizontal and vertical sides – if you look at the video below, you’ll see how I’m ‘grabbing’ the edge of the wall as opposed to just resting my hands flat on the surface
- Assume the ‘end position’ of the push-up i.e. hands secure on the wall, toes on the floor, both elbows extended and body straight
- Make sure your feet are secure in their position and won’t slip
- Inhale deeply and brace your core
- Slowly bend your elbows whilst keeping your upper arm as vertical as possible – this will enable you to place the tension onto your triceps
- Keep your elbows close to your body and don’t let them flare out to the sides
- Lower yourself as far as possible whilst maintaining tension on your triceps
- Lift your body back to the start position by straightening your elbows – you should feel your triceps doing all the work
Make easier: Increase the height of the surface you place your hands onto
Make harder: Decrease the height of the surface you place your hands onto / Place your feet further away
Read also: Bodyweight Skull Crushers Guide
½ + 1 Pull-Up
The pull-up is a fantastic exercise for building strength and size in the upper back.
The downside is that, unless you’re using assistance, your minimum working weight will be your bodyweight. Depending on how many reps you can do, for the majority of advanced lifters, this will represent somewhere between 70-80% 1RM.
This can make performing sets of high repetitions very challenging since the fatigue generated is often so great that you can only perform one quality work set.
Therefore, the pull-up is an exercise that lends itself more towards lower reps.
The ½ + 1 variation is something you can do to make a set of lower reps more challenging and to stimulate more tension in the lats without having to add weight.
How To Perform ½ + 1 Pull-Ups:
- Hold onto a pull-up bar assume a ‘dead hang’ position i.e. elbows fully straight
- Perform a ‘½ rep’ by pulling your body up halfway i.e. to the point where your elbows are at approximately 90 degrees
- Lower yourself back down to the start position
- Go immediately into a full rep by pulling yourself up all the way until your chin clears the bar
- Lower yourself back down to the start position down under full control
Make easier: If you need to make this exercise easier, then you may not be ready to introduce it into your training. Continue with normal reps until you can perform a minimum of 6 with strict form, then attempt the ½ + 1 Pull-Up again
Make harder: Perform an additional ½ rep at the top of the movement
Read also: Best Chin-Up and Pull-Up Variations
Bodyweight Sissy Squat
Back when bodybuilding was first starting to become popular, bodybuilders wanted a way to jack up the size of their thighs without their glutes getting any bigger.
This was because large hips ruined lower body symmetry.
One exercise used to achieve this goal was the sissy squat, created by Monty Wolford.
Essentially, this exercise could be considered a ‘bodyweight knee extension’, since you are relying on the strength of the knee extensors to move the entire body.
Whilst the old-timers performed this exercise with a barbell across the front of the neck, the bodyweight version is more than challenging enough and perfectly capable of adding some size to your thighs.
How To Perform Bodyweight Sissy Squats:
- Stand next to something you can hold onto for support (fence post, tree, squat rack etc.)
- Take a deep breath and bend your knees whilst keeping your hips still
- As your knees bend and you begin to lean back, allow your heels to come off the floor and your bodyweight to move onto the balls of your feet
- Allow your knees to bend as much as possible
- Straighten your knees to stand back upright
Make easier: Reduce the range of motion
Make harder: Perform the exercise without holding onto anything for stability
Also check: A Simple Old-School Way To Grow Your Legs
Modified Handstand-Push Up
Full handstand push-ups are a beast of an upper body exercise and tremendous for building shoulder and upper body strength (2).
However, they are so advanced that many people will struggle to perform even just a single rep.
The modified handstand-push up (MHPU) is a much better starting point since it effectively reduces the load placed on the shoulders and enables you to perform a higher number of reps.
Developing strength in the MHPU will build a foundation from which you can safely progress into performing the full handstand push-up.
How To Perform Modified Handstand-Push Ups:
- Space your hands just beyond shoulder-width on the ground
- Place your feet on an elevated surface behind you, such as a wall, bench, or chair
- Keep your legs straight and your hips bent at 90 degrees
- Straighten your neck
- Slowly lower the top of your head to the ground
- Make very light contact with the ground and then push yourself back up the start position
Make easier: Lower your feet
Make harder: Perform with one leg raised in the air
Muscular strength and hypertrophy are developed by challenging the muscles with exercises that place them under a great deal of tension.
Whilst using standard bodyweight exercises may not allow you to maximize your gains, there are alternatives better suited for helping you to reach your goals.
Hopefully, the exercises included in this article will give you some new ideas for making bodyweight training more challenging, so the next time you’re in a situation without any weights, you can still train effectively to build both strength and muscle size.
- Kotarsky, Christopher J., et al. “Effect of progressive calisthenic push-up training on muscle strength and thickness.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 32.3 (2018): 651-659.
- Johnson, Abigail, et al. “Exercise Technique: Handstand Push-up.” Strength & Conditioning Journal 41.2 (2019): 119-123.