Bodyweight exercises are simple, convenient and very effective for keeping fit. But are they good for building muscle?
Absolutely… but some moves work better than others.
Effective bodyweight exercises for building muscle generate high levels of mechanical tension (force) and metabolic stress (burn) in the targeted muscles. Outlined below are some of the best.
The pull up is an excellent exercise for building muscle in your back and arms. You against gravity!
If pull ups are beyond your current strength level try performing bodyweight rows instead. As you get stronger hold your body closer and closer to horizontal.
The classic bodyweight exercise for strengthening the chest, shoulders and triceps. Loooped 41 inch resistance bands provide a really simple and effective way to overload this move when the regular version becomes too easy.
Performing your push ups from gymnastics rings or a suspension trainer reduces stability and increases the difficulty of this move. Easily scalable from easy to hard simply by changing the angle of your body. The more vertical you are the easier the movement and vice versa.
Pistol squats are often recommend as the bodyweight exercise for strengthening the lower body but they are not suited to certain body proportions and (in my opinion) are too technical to perform safely to a really high degree of effort. Split squats offer a safer alternative!
Simple and effective the wall sit is great for getting the legs (particularly the quads) screaming!
The real downside when it comes to building muscle with bodyweight exerises is progression. With barbells, weights and machines you simply add more load as you get stronger which provides an ongoing stimulus for your muscle to grow.
This is trickier with bodyweight exercises. One option is to change the leverage of an exercise. For example progressing from regular push ups to one arm push ups. The problem with this strategy is eventually you end up putting your joints into disadvantageous positions making it much easier to acquire niggles and strains. Furthermore a lot of energy is lost trying to maintain good technique which detracts from your primary goal of overloading the target muscles.
Adjustable weighted vests provide a good solution. Instead of trying to master harder and harder exercise skills you can simply add load to the basic moves like push ups, pull ups and split squats and put all your energy into performing them to really high degree of effort.
SPeed Of Movement
T0 increase time-under-tension and fatigue more muscle fibers (both useful for building muscle) you should slow down the speed at which you perform your bodyweight exercises. This is one of the best changes I’ve made to my workouts in 20+ years of resistance training.
During a fast, explosive repetition there is a big surge in force production at the beginning of the exercise (which exposes your body to injury) followed by a complete drop-off as momentum does the rest. During a slow, controlled repetition your muscles produce just enough force to move the resistance creating more stable and constant tension throughout the exercise.
The net result is your muscles do more meaningful work and your connective tissues are protected from large fluctuations in force. Definitely a good habit to practice!
For loads more bodyweight exercises which you can use to effectively build muscle and get fit download a complimentary copy of The Gymless Training System eBook.