How to build muscle with bodyweight exercises

You don’t need weights to build muscle. Here’s how you can use bodyweight exercises to bulk up

While lifting heavy weights is certainly the fastest route to getting jacked, it's perfectly possible to build muscle using bodyweight exercises alone. And with gym closures a distinct possibility as long as there is no Covid-19 vaccine on the immediate horizon, we figured we would share some tips on how to get stronger without having to add dumbells to your shopping list.

Muscle-building bodyweight workouts

So long as you’re continually stressing your muscles, you’ll see gains from bodyweight exercises. You’re just swapping the gym’s weights rack with your own body. 

The better news is that you’ve got some different options you can choose on your path to bigger muscles. And some might surprise you.

There’s one thing, however, there’s no getting around. Building muscle requires discipline and sustained effort. Anyone that tells you otherwise is lying or trying to sell you a miracle product that – spoiler alert – doesn’t work. 

1. Running

You weren’t expecting to see running in this list, were you? Jogging won't ever get you hench, but hill sprints are an effective way of building strength in your legs, and increasing muscle endurance and fast-twitch fibre development. Not only that, it’s a form of high-intensity interval training, which is proven to burn fat at a rapid rate. So, not only can hill sprints build your muscles, you’ll also be able to see them!

The simple act of running up a hill has a similar effect on your muscles as lifting weights in the gym. Your muscles in your core, legs and feet all coordinate to power your body upwards, fighting against gravity as well as supporting your weight. 

Find a steep hill, at least 35m long, and go. Sprint up as hard as you can, then walk or gently jog back down. Start by trying to do three. Then five. Finally work your way up to 10 and beyond. Want some extra motivation? Time yourself. The pride you’ll feel as you shave seconds off as the weeks pass will make it much easier to keep at it.

2. Home workouts

The most obvious answer! From press-ups, to lunges to pull-ups, any kit-free workout that requires you to hurl your own body around will build muscle. 

We’ve got a simple four-week muscle building bodyweight plan that caters both for beginners and experienced exercisers. Check it out.

3. Shadowboxing

Shadowboxing is excellent for improving your balance and proprioception (your awareness of the position and movement of your body.) It will help work those little stabiliser muscles all over your body, giving you a better platform to lift heavy. If you want lean, fast-twitch muscle, start throwing punches. 

Try high-paced shadowboxing for five two-minute rounds, with a one-minute break between each round. Start the first round with just your hands, then round two just focus on kicks. For rounds three, four and five put everything together, being conscious to keep up the intensity whenever you feel it dropping.

Just beware of your surroundings. LED TVs and hanging lightbulbs tend to take issue with being accidentally swiped.

4. Handstands

There are few exercises better for working your shoulder muscles than handstands. The strength required to hold yourself up is just one aspect of this impressive bodyweight exercise, with your wrist, core and stabilising muscles all through your body also helping keep your balance. 

Loads of free handstand training programmes are available, designed to take you from needing a wall to stay upright all the way to doing freestanding handstand press-ups. Find one that lets you follow along day-by-day, like the video this enthusiastic chap presents.

5. Animal flows

Ground-based bodyweight exercises designed to mimic movements seen in nature, Animal Flow is a workout programme created by movement coach, Mike Fitch. The movements might look and sound silly, but exercises such as bear crawls and crocodile walks will have your muscles burning in no time.

You do need a fair bit of floor space to cover, but even just holding the mid-flow poses until failure is an effective way to build strength and endurance.

Familiarise yourself with some flows – YouTube is awash with video tutorials like the one below – then start off with a 10-minute workout broken up into 40-seconds’ flow(s) of your choice – followed by 20 seconds’ rest.

6. Yoga

Unless you’re familiar with Joe Rogan’s obsession with it or remember the cringe-worthy ‘Broga’ fad of the 2010s, you probably don’t associate yoga with jacked guys. But this most ancient of bodyweight exercises can absolutely be used to build muscle.

Check out our guide to yoga styles to find out how.

Muscle-building bodyweight exercise tips

Get with the (tracking) programme!

Despite there being broad ‘rules’ for muscle growth that apply to everyone, people’s bodies react differently. It’s one of the reasons it’s so important to track your workouts. You’ll notice patterns much faster, spot where progression has slowed and find it much easier to build upon your successes. 

It’s simple, just log your workouts on your phone at the end of each session. Or, even better, use a fitness tracker to do the hard work for you.

Increase your protein intake

This one’s a no brainer, right? You’d be surprised the amount of people who think they can build muscle without the right diet to back it up. Protein is crucial for muscle growth so make sure you’re getting enough. 

On a basic level, the Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) is 0.75g/kg bodyweight per day in adults. But if you’re training to build muscle you’ll want to increase this. One study found that you’d need to consume 1.6g of protein per kilogram bodyweight per day for muscle building. In plain English that means if you weigh 75kg you’ll want around 120g of protein. 

Work out your own protein needs by multiplying your bodyweight (in kilograms) by 1.6.

Learn more about how to ensure you're getting enough protein here.

Rest up, buttercup

It’s so tempting to associate rest with inaction and laziness. After all, hard work gets results, right? Everyone from superstar athletes to Instagram meme accounts talk about the importance of embracing the grind to achieve your goals. And while hard work is obviously crucial, rest is equally as vital for muscle growth

Here’s the thing: during your recovery periods your body isn’t really at ‘rest’. It’s spending energy topping up your glucose stores and repairing the muscle tissue damaged during exercise. Deprive it of that recovery period and you’ll rob yourself of the progress you’re working towards.

Slow down

As much as it can be tempting to go hell for leather, it’s worth slowing down just a tad. It’s much better to pick a training plan you can stick to over one that’s packed with wild moves or ever more elaborate kit requirements. 

Any of the suggested types of bodyweight training outlined above are all great choices. You could also try our four-week training programme to build muscle with bodyweight exercises. It’s the perfect muscle-building plan, with variations for beginners and experts.