In or out of the gym, some of the best and most effective exercises for building muscle are body weight exercises!
While it is great to have easy access to everything in one location, you don’t need a big gym, machines, or lots of equipment to build muscle. This is especially true for the muscles of the upper body. You can hit every major muscle with just four exercises.
Whether you’re training in a fully equipped gym, outdoors, or at home, there are some important things to remember when it comes to building muscle:
1.Multi-Joint Movements Get Priority
If you’re going to use bodyweight exercises for building muscle, make sure they involve movement at more than one joint. You’re able to handle more weight and move it through a greater range of motion, which puts more stress on the muscles. Whether you’re training your upper or lower body, most of your training program should focus on exercises like this.
2.Do More to Keep Progressing
To grow stronger or bigger, you need to stimulate your muscles to do more. Over time, make sure you perform more sets, more reps, more weight, and train more. While it is important to increase the amount of work in these areas, don’t do all of them at once. One or two at a time is plenty.
Results in any area are the result of consistent work over a period of time. Here are a few famous quotes to remind you that big accomplishments don’t happen overnight:
Rome wasn’t built in a day…
The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step – Lao Tzu
We must move forward, not backward! Upward, not downward! And always twirling, twirling towards freedom gains! – Kodos
I’m sure you get the idea. Be patient, stick with it, and have fun along the way!
4.Never go through the motions
Simply doing an exercise doesn’t guarantee results. Your technique matters for getting the results you want! Don’t rush to get your sets over as fast as possible. Slow down, pay attention to both the lifting and lowering phases of your reps, and get good muscle contractions on as many reps as possible.
Even with the perfect training program and all the right bodyweight exercises for building muscle, you have to eat right! Good nutrition is the foundation for muscle building and physical performance, so don’t ignore this area. It doesn’t need to be “perfect”, unreasonably strict, or bland and boring, but it needs to be consistent and in line with your goal. In other words, don’t think you can eat whatever you want, whenever you feel like it and build the body you want.
Now, let’s talk about bodyweight exercises for building muscle!
The pull up fights for the top spot on my list of the best bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength. If you want true upper body strength and muscles that mean business, pull ups are where its at.
Pull ups work your lats, forearms, biceps, brachialis, trapezius, abs, and triceps depending on which grip you use.
- Neutral grip – the “strongest” grip. This position uses the brachialis which lies below the biceps, is the stronger of the two muscles, and initiates elbow flexion.
- Supine grip – This one uses more biceps.
- Prone grip – This is the hardest of the three.
Make sure you engage your lats and use them to pull yourself up. At the bottom of each rep, pull your shoulders away from your ears and down towards your hips before pulling yourself up.
Use all three hand positions in your training, and no half reps! Go through the full range of motion on all reps. For an added challenge, you can add weight like I did in the video, or try some of the more challenging variations!
If you find this exercise difficult, start with the easiest grip and work your way up to the others, or start with an assisted version like the one in the video. I like using the assisted version from the video to teach the movement, but you can also use a resistance band for assistance with full pull ups.
The exercise that everyone knows and hates. It also fights for the top spot on the list of “most butchered exercises”. Done the right way, they are challenging, effective, and one of the best bodyweight exercises for building muscle. Chest, triceps, front deltoid, and abs are all at work here.
Avoid the “T” position when performing push ups. This puts you in an internally rotated position (think hands turned inward. You can see this if you look at my hands in the image below) and is not friendly on the shoulders.
You should look like an arrow or the letter “A”; head in line with your torso, with your arms at an angle to your body but below the shoulder. This may take some adjustment, but you’ll be better off once you get used to it.
I can’t keep up with the number of push up variations, so it is unlikely you’ll ever get bored with this exercise. Mix it up and have fun with it!
This is one of my favorites to use with my personal training clients. Lats, trapezius, rhomboids, rear deltoid, biceps, brachialis, abs, and forearms all get worked here.
In this trainer’s opinion, if rows aren’t on your list of bodyweight exercises for building muscle and improving strength, you need to put them there now! They are easy to adjust, involves the most number of muscles, and can be performed by anyone at any level of fitness.
Use a different hand position like with pull ups, adjust the height of the bar, or raise your feet off the ground to make it harder or easier. Lots of options for variety on this one.
Dips are a great exercise for the triceps, but that’s not all. It is a pressing movement, so your chest is involved, as well as the front deltoid.
Good form is important for targeting the right muscles, but also for avoiding issues with shoulder pain. A slight forward lean is ok for full dips, but keep it small. If you’re doing them using a bench, keep your torso upright and close to the bench.
I don’t have dip bars in my gym, but gymnastics rings work well for this exercise. The rings make easy to adjust the difficulty, plus the added benefit of being forced to stabilize against the moving straps.
Most bodyweight exercises for building muscle are multi-joint movements, but there are a few isolation exercises too. This triceps exercise is usually done in the gym with a cable machine, dumbbells, or a barbell, but we’re going to make it work without the equipment.
This exercise is easier the more upright you are, so adjust your position as needed. Make sure you’re only bending at the elbow to isolate the triceps and get the most from this exercise. Also, watch your wrists! Keep a tight grip on the bar and don’t let your hands bend backwards or you might feel some pain in the wrist.
If you don’t have a straight bar you can also do these using gymnastics rings or a suspension trainer.
This is a good one if you have a TRX or gymnastics rings. You’ll have to play with the position to get it just right, but use your biceps to curl your hands towards your shoulders. The movement is the same as with dumbbells or a barbell, so make sure you don’t turn it into a row.
While you need the rings or suspension trainer to do the biceps curls, the other exercises can be done using them too! Think of it as another way to increase the difficulty and change the stimulus to your muscles.
Regardless of where you train, bodyweight exercises are a great addition to any fitness program. Try adding some of these to your next upper body workout!