From the beginning of time, exercises and movement patterns were mostly performed solely with one’s bodyweight. Over the years, and in part due to the evolution of mankind, barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands and kettlebells have become the norm in our resistance training programs. While I do believe these are permanently here to stay, occasionally reverting to bodyweight training could alternatively help increase your strength and muscle gains.
Here are my top 10 bodyweight exercises to improve strength and build lean muscle. Keep in mind, these exercises must be performed at moderate to high challenge level good enough to illicit a good physiological response on the nervous system.
1. CHIN/PULL UP: This is obviously a no-brainer. No other exercise collectively works the biceps, forearms and lats as effective as the chin/pull up. In my humble and professional estimation, there’s no preferred choice between a chin-up and pull-up. Do whichever is easiest for you for a decent number of reps. The close-grip parallel bar handles, which can be seen on most modern day pulley stations, are a bit safer on the shoulders and elbows. 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps no more than 3 days a week is ideal. When that gets too easy, attach weight plates via a dip belt to your body or simply wear a weighted vest and do as many as you can.
2. PISTOL SQUAT: This is arguably the most challenging bodyweight exercise due to its unique execution. This exercise will work your entire lower body and could even challenge them harder than a traditional back squat because each leg has to absorb the weight of the entire body. Balance, hip mobility and coordination are some the factors that impact this exercise so don’t get discouraged if you can’t do them initially. Patiently and gradually work your way up to perfection. Aim to do 15 reps per leg for 3 sets.
3. PUSH-UP: Considered by many as the the premier bodyweight exercise, the push up is arguably the most routinely performed exercise in the world. Its easy set-up makes it virtually possible to do anywhere. The chest, triceps and anterior deltoid are the primary muscles involved but the anterior core gets engaged as well due to its anti-extension component (preventing the lumbar spine from going into extension or ‘arching’). Perform as many reps until low back starts to arch and progress to weight plates on your back when it gets too easy. Unique variations like the one-hand push-up, TRX atomic push-up and decline push-up offers exciting challenges.
4. PLANK: The most basic and simplest core stability exercise for developing the abdominals. The plank is arguably everyone’s favorite exercise for working the abs. Although the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominus are the primary muscles involved, it is assisted by muscles of the trapezius, shoulder girdle, lumbar spine, quadriceps and calf muscle. The only drawback to the plank is it challenges the shoulder a great deal. This means a person with preexisting shoulder pain or chronic ailment will have a hard time holding a plank for a long time.
5. BULGARIAN SPLIT-SQUAT: This variation of the squat is much easier than the previously discussed pistol squat. Stand with your back facing a bench, chair or stool. Pick up one foot and place it on the bench or chair behind you and descend to a squat. High reps really work the quads and glutes very well with this exercises so aim to perform 3 sets of 12 to 20 reps.
5. SINGLE-LEG HIP THRUST: The hip thrust, invented by the innovative Bret Contreras, is the most effective exercise for activating the gluteus muscle group. No other exercise works the butt better than the hip thrust. It’s that simple! The single-leg hip trust is basically the same but performed with one leg. Make sure you drive the hip as high as you can when you thrust and hold and squeeze that butt cheek at the top. Perform 12 to 20 reps per side. For all you ladies looking to tighten and firm up your butts, this is a must do!
6. PARALLEL BAR DIPS: The most effective triceps builder is also the number one ideal supplementary exercise for developing the chest. Just like the push-up, the pectoralis muscle group and anterior deltoid are the prime movers. Do not dip the shoulder beneath elbow on your descent as that has been linked with impingement of the shoulder. Perform as many reps as possible and just like with the chin/pull-up, attach additional resistance when the challenge starts to get easier.
7. MUSCLE-UP: Inspired by the CrossFit movement, this unique exercise combines a pull-up and a dip. Because of its requirement of supreme athleticism, coordination and dexterity, most people will never be able to do this exercise. But if you’re like me and you welcome challenges, patiently practice and learn the movement. 6 to 8 reps will suffice for most people.
8. HANGING LEG RAISE: I talked about this exercise on my post on abdominal training last week as part of the hip flexion exercise. A very challenging exercises that requires balance and coordination, this exercise may take you time to master. But when done properly, it immensely recruits the fibers of the rectus abdominals. The only drawback is when performed too often, it can tighten the hip flexors. Take your time in learning the necessary steps and do this exercise no more than 4 times a month.
9. SIDE PLANK: Just like the plank, the side plank is one of the most popular exercises for working the obliques. And just like the plank also, shoulder stability and strength are the prime factors in performing the side plank. While some people can hold for as long as 60 seconds, I personally wouldn’t recommend more than 45 seconds of hold time to prevent stressing the shoulder joint too much. If 45 to 60 seconds is too easy, progress to advanced variations like the TRX or stability ball.
10. BIRD DOG: Not too many exercises target the anterior and posterior chain simultaneously. The Bird Dog is one of the few that does just that. The anterior core, shoulders, upper back, lumbar spine, glutes and various hip extensors are all engaged in this unique exercise. Balance and coordination are key factors so it may appear difficult initially, but once you master the technique, you’re going to want to make it a staple in your training program.