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Bodyweight Exercises for Strength and Muscle

Use Your Bodyweight in a Weight Training Workout

By

Updated June 10, 2014

Pull-ups

Pull-up in progress

Photo (c) Paul Rogers and Cooloola Fitness

Using the weight of your own body to create resistance was one of the earliest forms of strength training. It's easy to learn, effective, and you can do it just about anywhere.

Although you can get quite inventive, the following exercises are the primary bodyweight exercises and how to do them. It's a somewhat fine distinction, but the core resistance bodyweight exercises are not the same as calisthenics, stretching, plyometrics or most yoga exercises (in my opinion anyway), although they may include elements of all these disciplines.

The exercises form the core of any bodyweight workout program. Many others are variations and trivial modifications.

Push-ups

The push-up is a classic bodyweight exercise, and it demonstrates quite clearly the principle of bodyweight resistance training.
  1. Lie face down on the floor, preferably on a firm carpet or mat or rubber surface, with feet together.

  2. Place your hands on the floor at shoulder level, facing forward. Keep a slight bubble in the hands and fingers, rather than positioning them flat on the hard surface.

  3. Raise your body up on the hands and toes until elbows are nearly straight, then lower to a point where the elbow is at a right angle. Don't let your body touch the floor.

  4. One "up and down" is one push-up repetition. Don't go too fast or too slow. Keep the head and neck steady.

  5. Do as many as you can in one minute, rest, then try again. Rest your knees on the ground if you find the exercise difficult when you first start out.
The push-up develops strength in the chest, shoulders and the triceps muscles of the upper arms.

Variations include resting knees on the floor, using a wide or narrow hand position and using one arm to perform the push-up motion (for the tough guys and girls).

The Squat

The squat without weights may seem easy, but once you get up around the 20 rep mark it starts to take a toll on the knees, upper legs and butt until you build some condition. Here's how it goes:
  1. Stand with feet about shoulder width apart. Keep hands on your hips, crossed over the chest, held out in front, or at your sides. I like the hands out in front because it allows you to settle back a little into the squat and put some emphasis on the butt muscles and hamstrings.

  2. Keeping the back straight, bend the knees and squat down until your knees are are at approximately 90 degrees (a right angle).

  3. Push up to the starting position and repeat. The squat develops legs and butt muscles and, over time, may strengthen knee joints. However, be cautious with this exercise if you have an existing knee injury or feel knee pain at any stage in the workout.

  4. Start with 3 sets of 10 repetitions.

Lunges

The lunge is a fundamental bodyweight exercise. Done in sets of 8 or more (each leg), lunges provide strength, balance and flexibility training. You can see how to perform the lunge in this example of a weighted lunge.

Options include a variety of arm positions -- at the sides, straight out in front, raised at each side, crossed at the chest or straight up overhead. Try them all, as each arm position provides a slightly different emphasis and perhaps level of difficulty. For example, the arms raised at the sides provides better balance and stability than arms crossed at the chest.

Other more advanced options include the backward lunge and the 45-degree angle side lunge.

Crunches

Crunches are a key exercise for strengthening the abdominal muscles. Many different types of crunches are possible. Some of the best are:
  • Standard crunch, in which the shoulders are raised off the floor while you contract the abs
  • Reverse crunch, in which the legs and knees are raised off the floor while you contract the abs
  • Combo crunch, which is a combination of both of the above
  • Bicycle crunch, which includes all of the above and you peddle the legs in the air as well (see examples in this article on best crunches)

Dips

Dips are performed with a chair or bench. You can also use a special machine at the gym that helps you. These are called "assisted dips." These instructions are for the standard dip from a bench:
  1. Make sure you select a secure bench or chair that will not slide from under you.

  2. Sit on a bench or chair and slide your butt forward off the bench so that you are supporting your whole body weight on your hands, with your butt hanging and your feet on the ground.

  3. Lower your body down until the elbow is at about 90 degrees (a right angle). Don't go below this, as the shoulder joint can get in a position that may not be safe for some people.

  4. You can start out with the legs bent at about 90 degrees and your feet more or less flat on the floor, then extend them out as you get stronger until your "dipping" on your heels with your feet stretched out in front of you.

Pull-ups and Chin-ups

  1. Stand below the bar, steady, then jump up and grab the bar with an overhand grip a little wider than shoulder width.

  2. Haul yourself up so that your mouth is about level with the bar. You can go higher if you want to clear the chin.
  3. Pull your shoulder blades back at the same time as you lift.
Variations include using an underhand or wide and narrow grips, claps, alternating over- and underhand, leg position and more.

Do as many as you can in a minute, then see if you have anything left for another set.

Pull-ups are demonstrated in this article. It's a difficult exercise for many people, especially women. While pull-ups or chin-ups are a good example of a bodyweight exercise, you may not have a pull-up bar at home or anywhere convenient. Most gyms have a pull-up bar, and you can improvise at home or away with a beam or bar meant for other things. Make sure it's solid and secure.

These six bodyweight exercises are all you need to build good strength and muscle in a fitness program. Don't forget that you can use most of them at just about any time and any place.

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