A common question around the gym is whether you can build a great physique using bodyweight exercises only, and the short answer is “Yes, absolutely!”. Whether it’s the best approach is a more complicated question and depends on what type of physique you want, your genetics, and what type of workouts you enjoy. In this post, I’ll help you decide whether a bodyweight routine is right for you, and I’ll provide some sample routines to get you started.
Basic Pros and Cons of bodyweight training
- Requires little to no equipment
- Can be done just about anywhere
- Efficiently works the entire body
- High involvement of the stabilizers and core
- Less spinal compression than weight lifting
- Encourages low bodyfat
- Satisfaction of mastering one’s own body
- Difficult to progressively add resistance
- Lack of variety
- Lack of muscle isolation
- Less weight bearing effect than weight lifting
The lists above are generally self-explanatory, but it’s worth pointing out the major issue of progressive resistance. The beauty of weight lifting is that it’s easy to start with a light weight and progressively add resistance over time in a gradual, systematic, and measurable way. That’s how you coax the body into making gains. With bodyweight exercises, increasing the resistance is more complicated and less precise. Since you can’t adjust your own bodyweight at will (sorry folks!), the only option is to modify the exercises, for example by elevating the feet on push-ups or doing chest-to-bar pull-ups.
What type of physique does bodyweight training build?
Before pouring time and energy into a bodyweight routine, it’s important to understand what type of physique it will build. Here I’m referring to common bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, dips, leg raises, sit-ups, jumps, lunges, and squats. If you work your butt off on those exercises and keep a reasonably good diet, you’ll build a lean muscular physique along the lines of a rock climber, middleweight boxer, or actor from the movie 300. If that’s what you’re after, bodyweight training is a great option and simple to implement. If you’d rather have larger muscles like a football player, physique competitor, or high-level crossfitter, then basic bodyweight exercises alone aren’t going to cut it, and I’ll get into some options for you later in the post.
Bodyweight exercise routines
The key to bodyweight routines is to gradually build your volume (total weekly repetitions) over time. It’s not uncommon for experienced guys to perform hundreds of pull-ups and well over a thousand push-ups and sit-ups each week. That type of volume will transform you from a marshmallow into a piece of granite.
A couple of tips: Use strict form and a full range of motion on all exercises for maximum development. For best results, you’ll also want to work on performing more reps in less time by reducing your rest periods between sets, which increases the intensity of the workouts.
For proper recovery, I recommend training your full body 3 times per week, for example Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. If you prefer training more often, you may work out 6 days per week alternating upper and lower body days.
Here are a couple of sample routines that build volume each week. You may run either routine until you feel burned out, ideally for 8 or more weeks before switching to something else.
Sample routine 1
Done with as little rest as possible:
Pull-up (palms facing away) – pyramid of 1,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1. Build a bigger pyramid each week.
Push-up – pyramid descent of 14,12,10,8,6,4,2. Start with a taller pyramid each week.
Chin-up (palms towards you) – 20 reps in as many sets as it takes. Add 5 reps each week.
Dip – 30 reps in as many sets as it takes. Add 5 reps each week.
Hanging leg raise – 5 sets of 10 reps. Try to add reps each week.
Lunge – pyramid descent of 12,10,8,6,4,2 (each leg). Start with a taller pyramid each week.
Squat – 40 deep reps (below parallel) in as many sets as it takes. Add 5 reps each week.
Sample routine 2
Perform the following circuit 3 times. Add a circuit each week. Try to complete each circuit without any rest, and rest 2-3 minute between circuits.
Pull-up – 8 reps
Dip – 12 reps
Vertical jump – 12 reps
Chin-up – 8 reps
Push-up – 20 reps
Lunge – 15 reps (each leg)
Sit-up – 20 reps
Building massive muscles with bodyweight exercises
Achieving a heavily muscled physique using bodyweight exercises is possible, but it’s more complicated than simply doing more push-ups and pull-ups. Here are a several different approaches that work:
- Bulk up first. If you’re a large individual, like 250+ pounds, then bodyweight exercises are a whole different ballgame. Pushing and pulling that much weight for a lot of reps will build large muscles. I don’t recommend going on a Pizza Hut and KFC diet for this purpose, but if you’re currently overweight or have a lot of muscular bulk from previous weight training, then bodyweight exercises can be sufficient to develop or maintain muscle size.
- Perform progressively harder variations of the exercises. You may have seen high level gymnasts or YouTube “bar stars” with heavily muscled physiques. They got that way by doing more difficult bodyweight exercises such as handstand push-ups, one-arm push-ups, archer pull-ups, muscle-ups, iron crosses, planches, human flags, etc. It takes a lot of practice and hard work to build up to those movements, but doing so will build serious muscle, not to mention the ability to blow minds with your abilities!
- Pick the right parents. If you’re naturally an “easy gainer” with muscles that grow like weeds, then basic bodyweight exercises may be all you need. There are some guys who come out of the military or prison with huge arms and a barrel chest just from doing tons of push-ups, pull-ups, and dips. Football legend Hershel Walker built a herculean physique by doing 1000+ push-ups and sit-ups a day. If you have the right genetics, those exercises are enough to build mass.
- Combine bodyweight training with barbell training, which is the approach I’d recommend for anyone who enjoys calisthenics and wants to be big. Perform basic lifts like squats, bench presses, deadlifts, overhead presses, and barbell rows for 5-10 reps per set, followed by bodyweight exercises for higher reps. That way you’ll get the heavy stimulus and progressive resistance benefits of barbells along with the muscular endurance, core stimulus, and body mastery of bodyweight training. The best of both worlds.
I hope I’ve given you food for thought and helped you decide whether bodyweight training is right for you. Any questions just ask!