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Use Bodyweight Exercises to Build Muscle Without Weights

Michael is an online fitness writer who's an expert in strength training exercises.

Handstand push-ups.

Handstand push-ups.

Body Weight vs Weight Training

Lifting weights can be a good way to build muscle. If you have a dumbbell then you can do some dumbbell curls. If you have a bench press then you can lift a heavy barbell and get a great chest workout. You need to buy weights and find a place to put them.

Most weight-lifting movements are not very natural. The strength you gain does not always help in real-life situations. This is especially true when using a machine. In most cases your body weight is much heavier than any weights you are going to try to lift.

One major advantage with body-weight lifting is that you are less likely to hurt yourself. I don't need a spotter while lifting my body. Another advantage is that you can do these exercises just about anywhere at anytime. If your weight is not enough for the challenge you want, you can lift yourself using one arm or one leg.

The main disadvantage is that you can not quickly change your body weight. But you can quickly modify the exercise to make it more difficult, which takes less time and effort than changing weights.

Gaining Muscle By Progressing to More Difficult Exercises

To gain muscle you need to challenge yourself. While push-ups are a good bodyweight exercise, standard push-ups are limited in their effectiveness; they may challenge you at first but over time they get easier and you stop making progress. You don't lift very much of your body weight.

If you want to see significant progress you need to increase the difficulty and think big. Work your way up to much more difficult exercises like handstand push-ups. I tried 10 different push up variations, including finger push ups with my feet against a wall.

There are a lot of really difficult body weight exercises. You are not limited to the exercises you can already do. Progress to body weight exercises that require more strength so you can become bigger and stronger. If you work on your whole body you can significantly increase your muscle weight; that means you will have even more weight to work with.

Adding Bulk May Require Additional Measures

Bulking up is not solely about lifting weights or your body weight. Most people that do body weight exercises are not trying to look bulky. They are more likely to have the body of an athlete and do athletic things. Gymnasts may be really strong and have big muscles but they don't look as big as some of the weaker weight lifters.

A lot of the people that do body weight exercises are women and women do not bulk up as much as men. You can get big rock-hard muscles doing body weight exercises but if you want to be really huge you will need to eat a lot of food like weight lifters do when they want to bulk up.

The woman in the video is practicing yoga. There are a lot of men that would not be strong enough to do what she does. Strength, speed, endurance, and even balance all involve your muscles. You should include exercises that require balance because they work your core muscles.

I got big legs muscles by increasing the distance, speed or resistance every time I went for a bike ride until I could bike 37 miles in 3 hours. My appetite increased so I was eating more food.

Examples Of Difficult Body Weight Exercises

If you think your body weight is not enough to challenge you, try the exercises listed below. Some of them are beyond me. Be careful when trying a difficult exercise. I got good at doing finger push ups by doing wrist rolls to strengthen my forearms. Do easier exercises first.

Pistol Squats: This is a one legged squat. You raise one leg out in front of you. Try to get it parallel to the ground. Then bend the other leg slowly lowering your body very close to the ground. When you are almost sitting down slowly raise yourself back up. Don't lean forward because it is harder on your knees. You want to lean back a little like you are sitting on a seat. For a version that is a lot easier, bend the raised leg behind you so the foot is behind your bum. Try some pistol squat jumps if the pistol squat is not challenging enough. When jumping, land on your toes.

Running or Biking: While lifting weights can make your leg muscles bigger and harder, I have large rock hard calf muscles from biking long distances. The best thing about running and biking is that you can easily control the intensity. You can go fast or slow and change the distance. For a shorter workout you can sprint up a big hill. If you don't find it challenging you are not going fast enough or far enough. When running you can also jump over things if you are careful.

Exploding Push-Ups: Do a fast push up with enough extra force to propel you higher than the starting position. You can also clap your hands after each push or even extend your arms out in front of you like you are flying. If you can clap once you can try clapping two or more times.

Finger Push-Ups: Get into the normal push up stance but use your fingers instead of the palm of your hand to hold yourself up. Then lower yourself down and push yourself back up. It is like doing normal push ups but it puts on lot of strain on your fingers. To make it harder use fewer fingers. There are people that can do finger push-ups with only one or two fingers. To make it a lot easier do it on your knees. I recommend you practice on your knees first to avoid hurting your fingers. Don't use the very tip of your finger. Your fingernails should not be touching the ground.

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One-Arm-One-Leg Push-Ups: Get into the raised push-up stance. Then put one arm behind your back and lift up the opposite leg. Lower yourself close to the ground and then push yourself back up. It is both an extremely simple and extremely difficult exercise. After a couple of failed attempts I was able to do one of them.

Decline finger push-ups for bigger forearms.

Decline finger push-ups for bigger forearms.

Handstand Push-Ups: You get upside down so your legs are in the air and you are holding yourself up with your hands. Do not slouch. The arms and legs should be straight. Slowly lower your body so your head is almost touching the ground and then slowly raise it up again. Don't try to use momentum. You want to be slow and steady. Ideally you should not be leaning against anything but you can make it easier by using a wall. A much more difficult variation is the one-handed handstand push-up.

Planche Push-Ups: These are like regular push-ups but your legs are in the air. You get into a raised push-up position, lean forward, and lift your legs off the ground while keeping them extended. Slowly lower yourself down and then push yourself up for one repetition. As with regular push-ups you can try these with one arm.

Superman Push-Ups: Lay down on your stomach with your legs and arms stretched out like Superman when he is flying. Push your body up so only your feet and hands touch the ground. Then lower yourself back down to the original position and do it again.

Crucifix Push-Ups: Do this push up with your arms stretched out to your side so your body forms a cross. It is the position a person would be in if they were crucified on a cross.

Tiger Bend Push-Ups: Start by doing a handstand with your arms fully extended. Move onto your elbows and then go back to doing a handstand by extending your arms again. It is a like a handstand push up but you go down to and back up from your elbows. For an easier version try ground tiger bend push-ups. In the ground version you start in the regular push up position. Then you go onto your elbows and back up again for each repetition.

Horse Stance: Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Then lower yourself by bending your knees and leaning back a little. Stop when your legs are bent at a 45 degrees angle. That means that your thighs are halfway to being parallel to the ground. It may help to imagine that you are sitting on a horse. While it is not that hard to get into the stance it can be very difficult to maintain the position. Try to hold the stance for 2 to 5 minutes. I recommend using deep slow belly breathing while you are doing it.

L-Sit: Sitting on the ground with your legs straight out, put your hands at your side and lift yourself into the air. Then try to hold it for 30 to 60 seconds. You should be on the palm of your hands and your legs should be parallel to the ground. To make it a little easier you can use your knuckles or fingers. You can also do it on the edge of a chair. I did it briefly using some books to get me just high enough that I could get my legs off the ground. My hands were on the books. The closer to the ground the more difficult it is.

V-Sit: Start by doing an L-sit then lean back and raise your legs. As the name suggests your back, bum and legs should form a V. It is a slight modification to the L-sit but much more difficult.

Planche: Your body is like a plank but your legs are in the air. You get into a raised push-up position, lean forward, and lift your legs off the ground while keeping them extended. Then you hold the position. Try to hold it for 30 seconds or more. You can increase the weight by holding a ball between your legs. If you are really feeling ambitious you can try one-armed planches or walking planches. The elbow lever is an easier version that has your elbows on the floor but it is still extremely difficult.

Reverse Planche: Get into a handstand position. Then bend your legs behind you. Your arms and body are vertical and your legs are horizontal.

Manna: Sit down with your arms behind you and your legs straight in front of you. Your hands should be pointing away from your body. Lean back and lift your body with your arms fully extended. Move your feet towards your head while keeping your legs straight. Then lift up your bum and extend your legs over your head. Your legs should become horizontal with your knees close to your nose.

One-Arm Pull-Ups: Simply pull your body up with your one arm so your chin is just above the bar or tree branch you are using. Your palms should be facing away from you. Do the move without swinging your legs around. Pull Ups are difficult but one armed pull ups are extremely difficult. You could also try one arm chin-ups by changing your grip so your palms are facing you. Chin ups are a bit easier than pull ups.

Muscle-Ups: You start by doing a normal pull up but you don't stop until your arms point straight down and your belly button is above the bar or branch. You go from pulling yourself up to pushing yourself past the bar. Your palms face away from you.

Hanging Knee-to-Elbow: While hanging, bring your legs up so your elbows and knees touch. Then slowly lower yourself down.

Hanging Leg Lifts: Grab something that you can hang from and just hang there with your legs straight. Wait until you are still. Then slowly lift your legs up so your feet are in front of you. Try to remain steady and don't bend your knees. If you want to make it harder you can do one-arm hanging leg lifts.

"L" Pull-Ups: While pulling yourself up raise your legs so the are parallel to the floor. Your palms should be facing away from you. When you lower yourself move your legs back into the starting position. You can hold the "L" position before lowering yourself. It is better for your abs than a normal pull up.

Front Lever: Grab onto something and lift yourself by raising your feet so they are as high as your head. Your body should become horizontal. It looks like an upside down planche. You can focus on holding it or do front lever pull-ups. To make it more difficult, you can try doing it with one arm. The one-arm front lever is usually done while turned sideways. The back lever is very similar but you face towards the ground. You are reaching behind your back.

Human Flag: Grab a vertical pole or tree and lift yourself up using your hands so you are horizontal. You should be taking the position of a flag on a pole with your body stretched out and parallel to the ground. It looks similar to the pull up starting position but horizontal. To make it even more difficult you can do human flag bicycles, human flag push ups or human flag crunches. For the crunches spread you arms apart.

Finger Handstand: Do a handstand with one finger or the slightly easier two-finger handstand. There is not much point to this exercise unless you need stronger fingers, but it looks impressive. Very few people can do it.

My results from doing pull-ups and chin-ups.

My results from doing pull-ups and chin-ups.

Cardio Strength Training

Most of the exercises I mentioned are stationary weight lifting exercising. You are lifting yourself up and lowering yourself down. Another way to build muscle is to do cardio. Use your legs or arms to travel long distances. It does not require weights but you might need a bicycle, boat or paddle board.

I gained 20 pounds doing cardio while I was losing inches of belly fat. It made me skinnier and heavier. Biking around a park or paddling across a small lake is relaxing and it can give you a great workout. Running or swimming does not require any equipment but the distance you can travel is limited.

With cardio, one day a week is enough to lose fat and build muscle. It works better as a weekly exercise. Workout hard. Then do it again next week.

Don't Just Bulk Up, Get Fit.

Why are you building muscle? Some people lift weights so their muscles look bigger. You can flex and show off. If you just want to flex your biceps then you can stick with weight lifting. Bulking up by building muscle does not mean you are healthy and fit.

If you want to go outside and do something fun then I recommend including bodyweight and cardio exercises. Doing body weight and cardio exercises is a good way to find your weaknesses. Get fit by strengthening your weak muscles, improving your balance and increasing your cardio vascular endurance.

You don't need weights to build muscle. If you have them, then include weight lifting, bodyweight exercises and cardio in your workout routine.

Cycling is good for building muscle and losing fat.

Cycling is good for building muscle and losing fat.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Michael H


Henning on June 27, 2015:

Who holds a full Planche for 30 seconds or more? Holding a proper Planche for 5 seconds is already extremely difficult and impressive.

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