Ask most gym-goers what they should do if they want to build muscle and most likely the answer will be to lift weights at the gym. But what if you can’t get to the gym?
Can bodyweight exercises build muscle? Yes, bodyweight exercises can build muscle if you use the following principles: increase reps, decrease rest times, perform variations, train to failure, increase time under tension, and implement mechanical drop sets.
It might not be as straightforward as adding more weight to the bar each time you lift, but if you’re strategic about it, you can still get results. In this article, we’ll show you how and discuss these principles further.
What are Bodyweight Exercises?
Bodyweight exercises refer to movements that use only your bodyweight.
You’re going to be pulling, pushing, jumping, doing any kind of activity using only your weight as the resistance. It may sound simple but you’ll be surprised by just how more challenging you can make it by implementing even the smallest changes such as moving the positioning of your hands or switching up the number of sets and reps you do.
If you do think you need that extra guidance to help get the best potential out of your bodyweight routine though, then check out FitBod’s app for bodyweight exercises. It’ll give you an entire training session based on the information you give it, such as what target muscles you want to hit.
Or, you can put your entire trust in FitBod and it’ll generate an efficient bodyweight routine for you.
Related Article: Can You Build Muscle With Light Weights? (Science-Backed)
Benefits of Bodyweight Exercises
There are plenty of benefits to bodyweight exercises, that encompasses more than just the great gains you’ll get.
Think about the time it takes to get ready for the gym, pack all your things, carry your work or school clothes, not to mention the actual travel to and from the gym. That’s a lot of time! With bodyweight exercises, because it uses no or minimal equipment, you only really need to change into your activewear, find a space in your living room or backyard and you’re good to go. It really is a convenient way to workout, that helps you maximize your time and get the most out of your day.
2. SUITS ALL LEVELS
Bodyweight exercises are typically seen as beginner-friendly workouts, but with the variations and changes you can implement, you can really make them challenging for you, even if you are an advanced lifter. There is something for everyone so it won’t be boring or monotonous.
3. FUNCTIONAL IN EVERYDAY LIFE
Most of the common bodyweight exercises that you will do are movements that you replicate in everyday life. Using bodyweight exercises, you’ll have increased mobility, flexibility and stability to perform daily tasks such as carrying the groceries from your car to your kitchen (and all in one trip!) or rising from your chair.
It’ll reduce the risk of injury as well as make your quality of life better by making your life easier.
How to Build Muscle
Whether you love to workout in the gym or do bodyweight exercises at home, the ways to build muscle are the same.
Here are some things you need to consider:
1. PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
The body is a great thing. Give it a stimulus and it will eventually adapt to it and this applies to fitness as well.
Say you start doing an exercise that’s challenging. You’re sweating, you’re tired, and you struggle but you get through it. Then you do it again the next week and then again after that. Eventually, you’re going to adapt to this stimuli and it’ll become easier and easier until you hit the point where it’s actually too easy for you. Now, you need to find a way to make it harder.
This is where the term ‘progressive overload’ comes in. Progressive overload means that you’re gradually doing more than what you were previously doing. You need to constantly challenge yourself as your body adapts.
Related Article: Can Bodyweight Exercises Build Glutes? (Yes, Here’s How)
Some ways to do this are:
Add More Weight
One way to do this is to add more weight to your exercises.
By moving with extra weight, you’re demanding your body to adapt to heavier loads. However, too many people compensate form for heavier weights. It should be your first priority to ensure that you’re able to lift whatever weight you’re lifting with the correct form and technique. Don’t add weights if you find that you’re sacrificing your technique for it.
Shorter Rest Times
Reducing your rest times in between sets can really help your progress, even if you’re still lifting the same weight. You’ll likely be more fatigued but if you’re able to lift the same load with less recovery time, then that’s a sign that the load is getting easier for you and that you’re adapting.
Most lifters will be allergic to the word ‘volume’ and for good reason. It’s tiring and it can be less fun lifting reps of 12-15 with a lighter weight than it is lifting 3-4 heavy reps. But it’s also a way to help you get that progressive overload. More volume amplifies the intensity of your workout and gives you more work to do.
2. CALORIE SURPLUS
Not everything you do to build muscle happens in the gym.
In fact, a lot of the hard work comes in the kitchen. To adequately build muscle, you need to be eating in a caloric surplus. This means that you need to be eating more calories than what your body burns on a daily basis and it is these added calories that will give you the extra energy your body needs to build muscle. You might know this as bulking.
For example, let’s just say your maintenance calories is 2000 calories per day. That’s how much you have to eat so that your weight remains the same—you won’t gain weight and you won’t lose any either. To put you in a caloric surplus to build muscle, while minimizing as much fat gain as possible, try adding an extra 200-500 calories. This will make your daily calorie goal around 2200-2500 per day.
This is just an example caloric surplus as it’s a number that definitely varies depending on the individual. Some people might find that they are rapidly gaining too much fat eating at this caloric surplus, so they may need to lower the number of excessive calories they’re eating. If you find that you want to eat at a larger surplus or a smaller one, then simply adjust your calories to suit your needs.
3. EAT ENOUGH PROTEIN
The building blocks for muscles is protein. This is why it’s pivotal to ensure that you’re eating enough protein in your diet to encourage that muscle growth. Combined with your strength training, whether that’s in the gym or using bodyweight exercises, you can stimulate muscle growth and see the gains you want to see.
Strategies to Build Muscle Using Bodyweight Exercises
Now we know the mechanics of building muscle, let’s talk about how to apply them to bodyweight exercises so that we can see muscle growth.
Related Article: Muscle Memory For Bodybuilding: What Is It? How Does It Work?
1. INCREASE REPS
One of the simpler, yet effective ways of encouraging muscle growth using bodyweight exercises is to increase the reps you’re doing. While you may be lifting lighter weights than you would in the gym, increasing the reps means that you can still hit the RPE (a scale used to measure how intense your exercise is) that you typically would. It may take longer to get there, but you can still get there.
2. DECREASE REST TIME
Rest in between your sets is important, but if you want to amp up the intensity, then shorten the breaks you take. If your rest break is usually between 60-90 seconds, then take the minimum time of 60-seconds and then do your next set. By reducing the time off between your working sets, you can ensure that the intensity is still there. Plus, if you find that you can perform your set just as well with less rest time, then you know you’ve improved.
3. PERFORM VARIATIONS OF ONE MOVEMENT
There’s always more than one way to execute an exercise. Let’s take push-ups as an example. It’s one of the most popular bodyweight exercises that can stimulate muscle growth and still give you a challenge.
With the push-ups, you have your standard push up where your feet and hands are levelled at the same height. However, if you want to challenge yourself, then a decline push up is a great way to do so. This is when you elevate your feet so that they are on a raised surface (like a chair or bench) while your hands are at a lower level (such as the ground). In this position, the weight distribution changes so you have more weight to push up against. If you need to make that even harder, then find a higher surface.
If you need to start off on an easier variation than the standard push up, then using your knees as your base instead of your feet is a beginner-friendly version. Also, the incline push-up is a good option. This is the opposite of a decline one as it’s your upper body that’s elevated and your lower body is on a lower surface. There is less weight on your upper body so it will be easier than the standard or decline push up.
Related Article: How To Get Better At Pushups (10 Tips That Actually Work)
4. TRAIN TO FAILURE
Training is failure is another strategy you can use to build muscle using only bodyweight exercises. This means you’ll be taking an AMRAP (as many reps as possible) approach and continuing your reps until you physically cannot do anymore. However, bear in mind that you still need to make sure that you have good form. There is no use pushing out an extra couple of reps that compromise your technique, not to mention, it’s quite dangerous. So train to failure to completely break down those muscles while maintaining good form.
Here comes the next part that people tend to overlook. Recovery. When you train to failure to completely break down the muscle, you need to give them adequate time to recover and rebuild. So don’t use this strategy every time you workout and when you do use it, make sure that the following week is a rest and recovery week or at the very least a deload.
5. INCREASE TIME UNDER TENSION
Bodyweight exercises can promote muscle growth if you increase time under tension. This refers to the amount of time you’re putting strain on your muscles. You can do that by slowing down your movements instead of finishing them as fast as possible.
A way to do this is to add tempo lifts to your workout. Let’s see what we can do with tempo squats as an example. Don’t just squat down and bounce back up. To make it a tempo, add a count to each phase of the squat movement such as 3210. When you lower yourself down, count to 3. That’s the first number and component. Then pause at the bottom for 2 seconds. The next number is 1, so give yourself 1 second to move from the bottom position back to your starting. Then the last number, in this case 0, refers to how long you can pause at the top before moving onto the next rep. You can make any exercise a tempo variation, which will put a bigger strain on your muscle and encourage growth.
Another way to increase time under tension is to slow down the eccentric phase of the movement. This the lowering part of an exercise that elongates the muscle such as when you lower yourself into a push-up or squat. This means more muscle damage, hence stimulating growth.
6. MECHANICAL DROP SET
Our final tactic that will help you build muscle using bodyweight exercises is by implementing a mechanical drop set into your training. This differs from the normal drop set in which you do the same exercise until failure and then lower the weight and continue. With the mechanical drop set, you are training until you’re too fatigued but changing the exercise slightly to enlist the help of other muscles to complete all your sets.
If you’re training your squat, then the first set can be heels elevated squat. To do this, find something to stand on that will slightly elevate your heels. This will be a quad-dominant exercise. After you do these reps, immediately switch to a narrow stance squat, so your feet are closer together without the elevation and finish with a wide-stance squat that will recruit the help of the glutes and hamstrings to complete the mechanical drop set. This will count as one set so make sure you don’t rest until all three variations are complete.
Doing so will definitely fatigue those muscle fibers, causing them to repair and rebuild bigger than before.
Building muscle with bodyweight exercises may not be as simple as adding weight to a bar but with these strategies, it can still be done. By adding variations, mechanical drop sets and increasing time under tension, amongst other tactics, you’ll find that you can still get the muscle growth you’re looking for.
About The Author
As a health and fitness writer, Emily combines her two passions—powerlifting and writing. With a creative writing degree under her belt, she spends her mornings lifting weights, her nights putting pen to paper, and eating too many snacks in between