If you’ve ever watched the Olympic games, you’ve probably seen some unbelievable feats of athleticism and mental strength, and some pretty impressive physiques. Personally, I’ve been really inspired.

The sprinters, both male and female, jump out to me – lean, muscular bodies with extremely well-developed glutes. And how about the male gymnasts? Those guys have some seriously jacked arms.

You may or may not know that gymnastics training uses mostly bodyweight exercises. So it begs the question that many have asked me before, “Can you build muscle doing bodyweight training only?”

The short answer is yes, you certainly can build muscle with bodyweight exercises alone! But it will be much more difficult, unless you’re part of a small section of the population. I’ll explain below.

Let’s start with what it takes to build muscle.

gymnast-body

Muscle Building 101

Let’s quickly cover what it takes to build muscle. Building muscle primarily comes down to 3 factors:

1. Mechanical Tension

This is primarily what happens when you lift heavy things. If you’ve ever tried lifting a heavy barbell off the ground that weighs more than you do, this is mechanical tension at work. You’re working your hardest to keep your shoulders packed, spine neutral, and core tight. When muscles are exposed to lots of mechanical tension, they respond by growing.

2. Metabolic Stress

This is the burning sensation that you get when muscles are fatigued. It’s also known as the “pump” in the bodybuilding world, as muscles engorge with blood which can make them look swollen and vascular.

3. Muscle Damage

This is the muscular soreness that you feel 24-48 hours after a workout. While you don’t need to feel soreness to build muscle, it is generally a good sign that local muscles are being repaired and getting stronger.

There’s more that goes into the science of muscle growth, but we’re going to leave it at the basics. As long as you have significant mechanical tension and metabolic stress (muscle damage plays a smaller role), you will build muscle.

In real world terms, you can fulfill these requirements through a variety of different training methods.

Of course, traditional weight lifting is an effective means of building muscle. Resistance bands can also build muscle. Even just tensing muscles in what’s called isometric contractions can build muscle.

The big question for this article is whether the resistance of your bodyweight is enough to stimulate muscle growth?

Can Bodyweight Training Build Muscle?

If you are new to exercise or have very limited exposure to resistance training, than YES, bodyweight training will definitely build muscle.

Unfortunately, for the rest of you, it’s going to be an uphill battle. It’s certainly possible, but you’ll have to get creative with your programming and implement the rule of progressive overload. That means, making exercises more difficult over time.

Problems of Bodyweight Exercise for Muscle Growth

build-muscle-bodyweight-exercise

The problem with bodyweight exercises for muscle building is that it’s often very difficult to create enough mechanical tension, especially in the lower body, to stimulate those large muscles grow.

1. Targeting The Largest Muscle Groups

Performing staple bodyweight exercises like push-ups, squats, and lunges will give you a great workout for your chest, arms, shoulders, and quads. But the two biggest muscles in the body – the glutes (the 3 muscles that make up your butt) and the lats (the widest muscles in the body that fan from under your armpit across and down to your lower back) will be difficult to challenge with just bodyweight exercises.

If you have a pull-up bar, you can build some decent lat muscles, but the glutes will still be difficult to target.

2. Increasing The Challenge

In addition, continually making exercises harder (which is necessary based on the principles of progressive overload) becomes challenging unless you add more and more reps. And even when you do add more reps, you’ll most likely end up improving your muscular endurance, which won’t translate into packing on lots of muscle.

In order to put on muscle using bodyweight exercises, you have to strategically make these staple exercises more difficult. Examples would be progressing to a one-legged squat (pistol squat) to build leg muscle, a one-arm push-up for chest and arm muscles, or a one-arm chin-up for back and bicep muscles.

one-arm-push-up

For most people, learning to master these new, advanced exercises takes time, a lot of failure, and an incredible level of dedication and precision.

In the context of what is most effective for building more muscle, I would make the argument that it’s much easier to simply add weight to the bar.

Advantages of Bodyweight Training

While bodyweight exercises may not maximize your ability to build muscle, they are some of the best exercises you can do to maintain strength, stay flexible and become more comfortable in your body.

1. No Equipment Necessary

Along any fitness journey, there are bound to be obstacles. You might not always have the access of the time to go to a gym. Because you can do bodyweight exercises anywhere and any time, it’s easier to be consistent with your workouts

You might have the best-designed exercise program in the world, but if you don’t do it regularly, you’re not going to get great results. For this simple reason of higher compliance, I think bodyweight exercises are great for everyone.

2. Great Starting Place

If you’re new to strength training, bodyweight exercises are a terrific place to start. You will build muscle. You will get more comfortable in your own body. And you’ll develop a good foundation of strength that you can then apply to weight training, or any other training modality you choose.

Sample Bodyweight Exercise Workout

bodyweight-workout

Here’s a sample bodyweight workout you can do at any time, anywhere. A few things to keep in mind during bodyweight training:

1. Focus on the eccentric (or lowering) part of the exercise. For example, the eccentric part of a push-up is when you lower yourself from the top of the push-up to the ground. For a squat, the downward motion as you sit down is the eccentric movement. Training the eccentric will lead to more muscle damage.

2. Focus on single-leg exercises. As mentioned above, the leg muscles are strong and powerful, which can make it difficult to get enough mechanical tension. By using single-leg variations, you can increase the chances of muscle growth.

Workout Instructions:

This workout is comprised of two bodyweight circuits.

Circuit #1:

Perform the exercises in sequence, with no rest between exercises. Complete 3 total rounds.

Exercise Reps/Time Instructions
Bodyweight Squats 10 Reps 3-sec eccentric, 1-sec hold at bottom
Push Ups 10 Reps 5-sec eccentric, 1-sec hold at bottom
Hollow Body Hold 45 seconds

Rest: 60 seconds

Circuit #2:

Perform the exercises in sequence, taking up to 30 seconds of rest between exercises. Complete a total of 3 rounds.

Exercise Reps/Time Instructions
Pull-Ups 5 Reps 5-sec eccentric (jump up to the bar if you can’t do traditional pull-ups)
Skater Hops 30 seconds
RKC Plank 30 seconds

Rest: 60 seconds

Try out these workouts and let me know how they go! I’d also love to hear your thoughts on bodyweight exercises. Share below!

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5 Comments

  1. profile avatar
    Derek Tanner Aug 22, 2016 - 13:54 #

    Great article. I have wondered about this exact topic many times. Im 43 and not as interested or have the time to do alot of weight lifting to develop mass. But don’t want to be flabby/lean in quad glute area. This explains where i can utilize the weights that i do have. Thx Nick

  2. profile avatar
    Nick Aug 24, 2016 - 12:17 #

    Hey Derek, thanks. I’m glad this helped shed some light on the issue. I would say adding some moderate to heavy squatting and deadlifting combined with bodyweight exercises should give you what you’re looking for. Thanks for the comment!

  3. profile avatar
    Bobby Aug 26, 2016 - 17:37 #

    After a devastating car accident I spent 16 years start/stopping the gym, the weightroom and various other methods of exercise. Last year I discovered body weight exercises and now have a 30 minute exercise routine of pull-ups, burpees, squats, push-ups, planking and sit-ups… After a year I am back to yoga again with all the credit going to body weight exercises. Highly recommended for those trying to restart their exercise career! I am 51 and have never felt better in my life….

    1. profile avatar
      Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT Aug 29, 2016 - 22:07 #

      Awesome, thanks for sharing Bobby and congrats on sticking with it and believing in yourself.

  4. profile avatar
    BT Aug 28, 2016 - 06:12 #

    Yep, great article, thank you for the info!

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