Essential Bodyweight Exercises to Build Muscle at Home

by Evelyn Valdez

Everyone has to start somewhere, and when it comes to strength training, the best place to start is with bodyweight exercises. Beginners aren't the only ones who can benefit from these exercises, intermediate and advanced lifters can too! Certain bodyweight exercises are essential for building strength, they also make for a great warm-up and as refreshers for form and technique. In fact, many lifters practice essential bodyweight exercises, like push-ups and pull-ups, regularly. Plus, they come in handy when you need to do a quick home workout!

If the recent pandemic taught us anything, it's that sometimes you need to think quickly and create your own effective home workouts with what you have! One of the best home workouts that anyone can do is using bodyweight exercises to create a circuit training routine. All you need is 30 min. to an hour and your body! To help you during times when you have to skip the gym, or for those who are barely starting out with strength training, we've put together a list of essential bodyweight exercises and break down how to do them correctly, plus how to make them more challenging. All to help you create your own bodyweight circuits that you can do at home!

Benefits of Bodyweight exercises

Bodyweight workouts can be performed by all fitness levels. They are typically used as a warm-up or by beginners who are easing their way into strength training with weights. But they can also help you stay active, and help you maintain muscle mass when you can't make hit the gym regularly.

These exercises might seem easy, but they are extremely effective. Don't believe us? Well, the American College of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Journal published a study that found that high-intensity bodyweight circuits are an efficient way to decreasing fat and boost muscular fitness. [1]

Aside from helping you lose body fat and keep you lean, other benefits of body exercises include...

Can be done anywhere by anyone

All fitness levels can benefit from performing bodyweight training. That's because these types of exercises can be easily modified by the person's current fitness level. 

Beginners can start by modifying difficult exercises, performing fewer reps, and taking longer breaks in between sets. Then once their body is used to the workouts they can increase their reps, shorten breaks, and focus more on their technique and form. 

The more experienced people can create a HIIT workout, add more reps, shorten breaks, accelerate the pace, or enhance their workouts by adding resistance bands and/or ballistic movements.

That is the beauty of bodyweight training! You can tailor your routine that works for your body and can easily make it more difficult as you start making progress. Plus it can be done anywhere, no gym or equipment required!

It's a full-body workout that requires less time

Working with your own body weight is high output and low investment. What that means is that bodyweight training helps one build strength without investing several hours a week. A short full bodyweight circuit can work all the muscles in your body and you can easily switch from one exercise to the next. This leads to less rest time in between exercises thus making the workout more intense and your body will burn calories faster. 

There are a variety of body exercises that work your entire lower and upper body - squats, pull-ups, push-ups - just to name a few. Another great thing about this form of training is it helps strengthen your core muscles. A lot of the bodyweight moves are compound movements which means they work various muscles at once, and it almost always works your core. A strong core is essential because it can help improve posture, reduce back pain, and increases strength in all of your extremities. [2] 

So essentially this type of training can help you get stronger, more toned, and makes it easier for you to perform other physical activities without investing hours at the gym.

Help with technique and form

Bodyweight exercises allow you to really focus on your technique and form. Instead of focusing on lifting a heavy weight, your focus is fully on your form and technique. For those sheltering in place with no equipment or weights, this is an excellent time to work on your technique and for your body to recover from stress on your joints due to constant weight lifting. On the plus side, training with only your body puts less stress on your joints so you're less likely to get injured. 

Increase flexibility 

Strength training is effective at building muscle mass, but training with heavy weights all the time can lead to a lack of range of motion and overall inflexibility. That is why many experienced weight lifters regularly perform bodyweight exercises on top of lifting weights. 

There a variety of bodyweight exercises that fully engage your body and force your muscles and joints to move through the full range of motion. Which in turn, helps you improve flexibility the more you perform those exercises.

A good example of this would be yoga! Yoga has various exercises that work against your own body weight while at the same time improving your flexibility. With all the time in our hands right now, it wouldn't hurt to practice a new physical activity like yoga! Combine it with a bodyweight HIIT circuit and you'll gain or maintain strength, stay lean, and increase your flexibility!

5 Essential Bodyweight Exercises

So now that you understand the power of bodyweight workouts, let's get to essential exercises that will become a staple in your routine. We've compiled a list of the 5 essential bodyweight moves that will target every muscle group and can be performed by all fitness levels. 

Bodyweight Squat

 

bodyweight squat

*Resistance band is added for intensity

We're starting with the most basic, essential exercise that everyone should be practicing - the squat. Doing a proper squat will help strengthen your legs, glutes, and several other muscles. With proper form and technique, it can also help with lower body mobility. 

To start, find a foot stance that works best for you. The most common is shoulder-width apart and toes slightly pointed outwards. Make sure your standing straight, looking ahead, and your core is tight. This is the starting position. Then lower your body down as if you're going to sit back on a chair, don't bend at the knees! To make sure you're doing them with proper form, keep these things in mind: 

  • Don't let your knees go inward. The deeper the squat the higher the chance of your knees caving in. To prevent that from happening, push your knees slightly outward as you descend down. 
  • Make sure your back is upright and not hunched over. Keep your shoulders relaxed, chest open, and look straight ahead (don't look down)! 
  • Don't lift your heels off the floor. Keep your heels on the floor at all times and push from your heels as you go back up to the starting position. 

There are also different, more difficult variations of the squat that people can perform as they make progress. Here are a few different options to amp up your workout:

  • Pistol squat - Typically performed with one leg and is a more advanced strength movement.
  • Single leg box squat - Similar to the pistol squat, but not as advanced. You still isolate each leg, but you squat down on a bench or box. 
  • Squat pulses - Add little pulses when you lower your body down to really feel the burn on your glutes.  
  • Bulgarian split squats - Similar to single-leg squats, except you have one leg lifted on a box or chair. It targets the quads more than any other muscle.
  • Jumping squats - Squat down and jump up to intensify the exercise and get your heart rate pumping. A great addition to HIIT circuits.

    Push Ups

    This is a classic exercise that everyone should perfect. Not only does it target your pecs (chest), it also targets your: delts, triceps, core, quads, and hip flexors. That is if it is performed correctly...

    The key is to keep your hands an equal distance apart and right under your shoulders. Make sure your hips are in line with your shoulder, keep your core engaged, and squeeze your glutes too! Once you got your position ready, lower your body down to the floor, but make sure your back is straight and your lower body doesn't sag on the floor. Then push back up. 

    This is not a beginner-friendly exercise! So if you're new to push-ups or aren't ready to do them then try a different variation of it that is easier on the joints, but still has your body moving through the full range of motion. 

    Here are other variations (for beginners and experts):

    • Kneeling push-ups - This is the best modification for beginners. Just get into the same position, except bend at the knees so you're on your knees as you lower your torso down. Once this becomes easy then you can start to try doing a few reps of regular push-ups. 
    • Incline push-ups - This is an elevated form of a traditional push-up. This is also beginner-friendly because it takes some of the pressure off your arms and shoulders. Find a table or desk that's sturdy, get into the same position as you normally would by placing your hands on the table. 
    • Diamond push-ups - This is an advanced modification. It's harder to execute because your arms are in a narrower position than shoulder-width apart. It really works your chest and triceps more.
    • One-arm push-ups - This is an extremely advanced modification. It isolates one arm so don't try this unless you've developed significant arm strength and control.

      Burpees

      You might remember these from middle school gym class, and if you've ditched these since then, it's time to start doing them again! This exercise activates almost every muscle in your body while burning massive amounts of calories due to the effort required to perform them. It's a great exercise that mixes strength and cardio. 

      To start, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lower your body down as if you're about to squat, then place your hands on the floor directly in front of you, shifting the weight onto your hands. Jump your feet back into a plank position. Your body should form a straight line. Then jump your feet back so they land near your hands. Reach your arms over your head and explosively jump up into the air. Then repeat.

      Here are a few other variations:

      • Beginners modification - Step back into plank position instead of jumping. This will be easier on your joints. Once you feel comfortable, introduce jumping into the plank position.
      • Advanced modification - Add a push-up when you're in a plank position then jump back up to the starting position. Really amp it up by doing a box burpee. So instead of jumping in the air, jump on a plyo box (or any sturdy elevated surface). Hop down to perform the burpee as usual with the added push up.

        Plank

        Planks are a staple ab exercise because they help build core strength and stability. But the reason we added them to the list is because they activate other muscles in your upper and lower body. That's something traditional crunches and sit ups don't do. 

        There are two main types: high and low planks. For high planks just get into push up position, keeping your palms and feet firmly on the ground, and core tight and engaged. Make sure the lower body doesn't sag down, that can cause back pain. Hold that position for 30 seconds to a minute. For low planks, just lower down onto your forearms, tuck your pelvis like you're trying to round your lower back - this will help activate your core. Hold that position for 30 seconds to a minute. Both of these are beginner friendly, just try to hold the position as long as possible. Once you can successfully hold a plank with correct form for 30 seconds then you can increase the time to a minute and so on.

        Here are other plank variations to make it more challenging:

        • Side planks - They will help target your side abdominal muscles and strengthen your spine. 
        • Implement shoulder touches - When performing a high plank try shoulder touches. You simply lift your right arm to touch your left shoulder, return it to the ground, and perform it on the opposite side. This will help improve your balance and engage your entire core.
        • Spiderman plank - Get into a high plank position, pull your right knee towards the outside of your right elbow then push it back to the starting position. Do the same on the other side. 

        Pull up

        Pull-ups are the best back building exercise, they target the largest muscle group on your back - your lats. They also help strengthen your grip which is essential for all weight lifters. 

        You will need a pull-up bar for this or at least something sturdy that can hold your weight. Grab the bar with palms facing forward. Pull yourself up, making sure to drive your chest towards the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades at the top of the pull-up. Lower yourself down and repeat!

        Pull-ups can be intimidating for beginners, but there are several modifications that you can do to help you eventually succeed in tackling this exercise! 

        Here are a few variations:

        • Inverted rows - This modification is for beginners. If you have a pull-up bar, place it about waist high. Instead of pulling your entire body up, you'll be pulling your chest up, almost like doing a push-up, but in reverse. So you just place your hands about shoulder-width apart and pull your chest up to the bar. This will help you develop strength in your back and arms and help you to do a row properly. 
        • Negative pull-ups - This modification for beginners. It's the downward half of the pull-up. Place a stable chair or box under the bar, stand on it so you're slightly below the bar. Grab the bar as you normally would for a pull up then hop or jump up (in control) so your chin is above the bar. Then slowly lower yourself down to a dead hang and put your feet back onto the box or step. This exercise will still build strength in your back and teach your body the proper form for the movement. 
        • Narrow or wide grip pull-ups - This is more of an advanced modification. A narrower grip works the pecs more and a wider grip really works the upper lats and your shoulders. 

        Those are 5 of the most essential and best bodyweight exercises everyone should master! But there are way more bodyweight exercises you can easily do at home and implement into your own full-body circuit. Here are a few more that you can add to your routine:

        • Step-ups
        • Tricep dips
        • Mountain climbers
        • Bear crawls
        • Glute bridges
        • High knees
        • Lunges
        • Elbow to knee crunch
        • Supermans
        • Jumping jacks

        As you can see now, there are so many excellent bodyweight exercises that you can do in the comfort of your own home. You can even add resistance bands to your lower body workouts to really amp it up! 

        If you haven't already, include these in your home workout routine to maintain your full body strength when you don't have access to a gym. If you're just starting out then practice these to start building strength, then increase the resistance by adding in UPPPER Long and Short Resistance Bands before advancing to free weights!

        BTW - All of these exercises can be found on the Fit With Iulia fitness app! The Fit With Iulia app is created by Iulia, who is also the founder of UPPPER. Iulia has two goal-focused home programs that are updated with new workouts every week! So if you want more exercise ideas like the ones we talked about or want to have your workouts ready and planned for you - check it out and try the first workout for free!  

        Sources

          1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22228111
          2. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-healthfitness/Fulltext/2013/05000/HIGH_INTENSITY_CIRCUIT_TRAINING_USING_BODY_WEIGHT_.5.aspx

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