5 Best Bodyweight Exercises for Building Muscle
The best bodyweight exercises for building muscle are dips, pull ups, chin ups, pistol squats and push ups. All 5 exercises are compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups with enough tension to elicit a hypertrophy (muscle growth) response to add significant muscle mass.
To build muscle it is important you find a way to scale the exercises so that they are progressively more difficult. By increasing the intensity for each rep of an exercise, you ensure that the body will adaptively respond to the increase in stress by adding muscle mass and gaining strength.
This is why I have included the best way to scale each exercise to ensure you can continue to consistently challenge your body (with progressive overload) and build muscle as efficiently as possible.
Lets look how to implement each exercise and their progressions to build muscle.
Primary movers: Chest, Triceps, Shoulders
Dips are often called the body weight squat due to their effectiveness in building muscle and emphasising large muscle groups of the upper body.
With dips you will feel the most tension in your chest, triceps and shoulders. As with nearly all bodyweight exercises, there is also significant tension on the abdominals (your core strength) as they contribute to the stability and posture of the body whilst you execute the movement.
Because such a large number of muscles recruited to contribute to performing a dip, this promotes muscle growth as compound movements trigger the body’s natural release of more testosterone and growth hormone to help the muscle grow and recover from the work out.
This effect is far more pronounced with compound exercises like dips then it is with isolation exercises like the triceps pull down machine, hence why dips are so good at stimulating muscle growth.
Due to the fact that you are supporting and balancing your entire bodyweight, whilst doing a pushing exercise, the dips have more emphasis on the stabiliser strength of the shoulders then most other pushing exercises (bench press, pec deck machine etc.)
This added stimulus recruits more muscle fibres to maintain stability throughout the exercise. This increases the muscular tension on the chest, arms and the shoulders (in particular the rotator cuff). Parallel bar dips are a great way to maintain and develop rotator cuff strength so that your stabiliser strength is proportionately strong to your primary movers (the chest and arms) in a tolerable way.
For a full guide on how to increase shoulder stability with dips, take a look at my article…. How to Develop Shoulder Stability with Gymnastic Rings.
Progressions: There are two options available for increasing muscle mass with dips. One of the best ways to increase the intensity is to add weight using a dipping belt.
Adding weight to dips is the easiest and most effective way to maintain a progressive overload. Every time the weight you are lifting becomes comfortable for 12 reps you can add another 5 lbs to the belt.
This will be bring then number of reps you can comfortably achieve down to perhaps around 8 before hitting failure.
The increased level of resistance will stimulate an adaptive response from the chest, triceps and shoulders to increase your strength and muscle mass to cope with the higher workload.
Ring dips: Another progression with dips that I recommend for muscle growth is ring dips. Ring dips have many benefits, which tend to derive from the inherent instability of gymnastic rings.
The dominant stimulus with ring dips is instability. Rings are free to move in any direction. This means that your muscles have a greater responsibility to contribute to the stability of the movement rather then relying on static equipment as with a smith machine bench press.
Dips on gymnastic rings are far more difficult then using parallel bars to perform dips. For this reason I wrote a full in depth guide on how to perform a ring dip, with a clear sequence of progressions to master this exercise… How to Perform Ring Dips (Beginners Guide).
For consistent muscle building of the chest and triceps I would recommend that weighted dips form the basis of your training and the dips on gymnastic rings should serve as an alternative stimulus.
The stability strength gained in the shoulders from ring dips will transfer to the conventional parallel bar dip. As a result, you will be able to push more weight and do more reps on the fixed equipment and bust through stubborn plateaus of strength and muscle not to mention making your shoulder bulletproof.
Pull ups are one of the most comprehensive exercises for the upper body, and particularly emphasise the posterior chain (muscles of the back).
This is why I have included both pull ups and chin ups on this list. Whilst the two exercises seem to be similar and both hit the upper body, each exercise emphasise different muscles groups with differing levels of tension.
Therefore if you want to build proportional muscle in the upper body, you must train both exercises.
The primary movers of pull ups are the biceps and the lats (latissimus dorsi). However, your arms and elbows tend to be more out to the side of your body with pull ups rather then in front of your body as with chin ups.
So whilst there is still significant tension on the biceps and forearms, most of the pulling force will come from the large latissimus dorsi muscles and the muscles of the posterior chain (upper back muscles) contribute to pulling, maintaining posture and providing stability.
Generally speaking, the wider the grip you adopt, the less the biceps contribute and the more emphasis there is on the lats.
There is however a point of diminishing returns if your hands are out too wide, you will not have enough range of motion to really tax the lats, so if you are targeting the lats and your back, keep your hands a few inches wider then shoulder width apart to hit the target muscle most effectively.
Pull ups are significantly more difficult then chin ups as the chin up naturally puts you in a stronger line of pull in which the bicep can contribute more to the exercise. So don’t be disheartened if you can’t match the number of pull ups to your chin ups as this is more down to bio-mechanics rather yourself having a specific strength imbalance.
The difficulty of the pull up is worth the reward as they develop the musculature of the back, lats, core, biceps and forearms and they are an integral part in any body builders exercise regime due to their effectiveness for building muscle mass and gaining definition in the upper back.
Compound exercises such as pull ups that tax such as wide variety of large muscle groups are ideal for developing overall muscle mass and a sculpted, proportional physique.
Progressions: The easiest progression to implement for the pull up is to buy a dipping belt and to add weight plates around your waist. This way you can always maintain a progressive overload to keeping taxing the muscles as you get stronger.
Adding weight is one of the most effective ways to overcome a strength or muscle building plateau if you are stuck on a specific number of pull ups and you cannot seem to progress from there.
Because your bodyweight is largely remains consistent, adding just 5 pounds will increase the intensity of each rep and stimulate your muscles to grow bigger and stronger to cope with the increased workload.
Every time you get bigger and stronger, you can add another 5 pounds to the dipping belt to constantly challenge the muscle and maintain consistent growth.
Ideally you need to stay within that 8-12 reps per set frame work to build muscle. So you need to add the appropriate amount of weight in proportion to your strength.
However the 8-12 reps for 3-5 sets should regarded as a guideline rather then a hard and fast rule. You should always prioritise the quality for the reps rather then the specific quantity when it comes to adding muscles mass to you frame.
Doing 5 controlled pull ups where you emphasise both the concentric (pulling) phase and the eccentric (lowering) phase will yield far better results then if you try to hit 12 reps by rushing and sacrificing the quality of your form.
Primary movers: Biceps, lats, forearms, core.
Chin ups are a key exercise for building muscle mass with just your body weight. This is because they can effectively target your biceps better then any other exercise whilst also emphasising your forearms, core and lats.
To really focus the effort of your chin up training, on your biceps you need to adopt a close grip on the bar. You want your palms facing towards you and place your hands only a few inches apart from each other to maximise the tension on the arms.
The reason the chin up is so good for biceps is that the position of your arms in front of your body puts your biceps at a mechanical advantage to contribute more to the movement compared with any other muscle group such as the lats.
At the top of a chin up, with your chin over the bar, the bicep will go through its full range of motion and will be at peak contraction. Its at this point you should pause for an isometric contraction to really tax the biceps to elicit an adaptive response so that the muscle grows.
The chin up, similar to the pull up, also places a lot of tension on the lats and muscle groups of the back, but the key difference is that the anterior chain is more of a focus for the chin up.
The anterior chain includes the shoulders, chest, abs, hip flexors and quads. These muscle are more engaged to keep the hollow body position required for stabilising the chin up. Therefore if you want six pack abs, chin ups should definitely feature in your workout regime
Progressions: Much like the pull up, the most effective progression for the chin up is to increase the resistance by adding additional weight with a dipping belt.
This is one of the best ways to build big biceps as you can always increase the intensity by adding weight and ensure there is enough tension on the biceps to stimulate muscle growth.
One of the keys to muscle growth is ensuring you are spending sufficient time under tension to get the most out of your workouts. The optimal time under tension for building muscle is 45-75 seconds for each set.
That means for each rep should take you about 4 seconds to complete. So when applied to weighted chin ups that means you should spend:
One and a half seconds on the concentric (pulling up) portion of the exercise.
Half a second pause at the top (isometric contraction)
One and a half seconds in the eccentric (lowering your self down) phase of the exercise
If you try to aim for this tempo of reps per set then you will be on the right track to adding inches to your biceps.
Squats (Pistol Squat)
Primary movers: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Calves
There are many options for developing muscle in the upper body with calisthenics. With legs there are fewer options, so you may need to get a little creative. Normal bodyweight squats and lunges simply are not difficult enough to elicit that adaptive muscle build response.
Think about how your legs essentially carry and move your bodyweight around everyday. Your legs are naturally strong so you need to do an exercise that hits them with higher intensity to add muscle mass.
The best bodyweight exercise by far is the pistol squat (one leg squat). This works all the major muscle groups of the legs with a significant amount of tension as all of your bodyweight is on one leg and you have to control your balance and stability.
Pistol squats have several advantages over traditional barbell squats when it comes to muscle building:
The weight is not on your back as with a barbell. This is advantageous because with the pistol squat you are able to confidently go through a deeper range of motion then a barbell squat, without putting pressure on your back.
A lot of people limit their barbell squat depth to just 90 degrees because, any deeper then this, there is often a slight rounding of the back to compensate for the deep angle and a lack of mobility and flexibility because of tight hamstrings or restricted dorsi flexion.
With the pistol squat there is far less risk of back injury yet still a high amount of tension on the target muscles (particularly your glutes) as you can go through the entire range of motion and activate more muscle fibres, not to mention the increased time under tension and more emphasis on the eccentric contraction- all of which are key factors for muscle growth.
Pistol squats require a higher amount of balance and stability then barbell squats. The extra stability strength has to come from your legs and core muscles. Having to stabilise your body to a higher degree with the pistols squat acts as another stimulus that the body has to adapt to by increasing in strength and muscle, when practised within the appropriate rep range.
Increase stabiliser strength, coordination and balance will improve your other lifts, address muscle imbalances and make your body more resistant to injury.
Pistol squats can be done anywhere so you can build muscle, whilst travelling, without access to the squat rack.
If your progression with traditional barbell squats has plateaued then pistol squats serve as a great alternative stimulus thanks to the emphasis on stability and deeper range of motion.
If 12 consecutive pistol squats are becoming too comfortable or perhaps you have hit a plateau in either strength or muscle building, then the best thing to do is to grab a dumbbell or put on a weight vest and add some weighted resistance to the exercise.
Adding weight to calisthenics may seem like a contradiction in terms but weighted pistol squats are too good to ignore.
Most of the resistance for the exercise is still going to come from your own bodyweight so you will only need a relatively light kettlebell, dumbbell or weight vest to progress with.
There are limited variations of purely bodyweight pistol squats if your goal is muscle building, so by adding weight you can combine the scalability of weight lifting with the benefits of bodyweight exercise.
Adding weight is will help you maintain a progressive overload and keep your reps within the optimal rep range for muscle growth.
Push ups are another great, all round compound movement with a focus on your chest, triceps and shoulders. There is additional muscle engagement in the core and glutes in order to keep the body in the stable, straight, correct alignment.
With a regular push up, you will be pushing approximately 70% of your bodyweight (depending on how tall you are). This is significant resistance for a lot of people. However the primary movers of the chest, triceps and shoulders have the potential to be very strong and are capable of pushing much more weight then this.
If you are capable of 15+ consecutive push ups for three to five sets, then the emphasis of your training will shift more towards developing endurance strength rather then increasing your muscle mass.
With push ups it is very easy to scale the difficulty of the exercise to help meet your muscle building goals so you can continue to build mass on your chest, triceps and shoulders. Lets have a look at those progressions…
Progressions: Push ups are one of the most versatile bodyweight exercises with many different ways to specifically target the chest, shoulders and triceps and make the exercise more challenging.
The best way to increase the intensity of the exercise is to elevate your feet with a chair or bench and perform decline push ups.
The steeper the angle of decline, the greater the proportion of your bodyweight is supported by your arms and the harder the chest and shoulders have to work to push all your bodyweight for 8-12 reps.
The best benefit of the decline push up is that you can increase the angle of decline in proportion to your strength. Once push ups from a bench become too easy, you progress to a chair, and then something higher like a plyo box.
This is a great way to progressively overload the muscle with increasing levels of tension. When practised in the appropriate rep range, the body’s adaptive response to this tension is to increase in muscle and strength.
From decline push ups you can progress further with deficit push ups, where you hands are elevated off the ground, so that you can increase the range of motion of the exercise.
Another progression is to practise push ups with gymnastic rings, which add a increased stability component to the exercise.
And if you become really proficient with push ups you can progress to the ultimate variation which is the handstand push up. However for most people this will be more of a maximal strength movement rather then an exercise that you can rep out consistently for 8-12 reps for 3 sets and spend the optimal time under tension in order to efficiently build muscle.
If you are looking to build muscle in your chest or shoulder with push ups, I created two separate articles to highlight the exact push up variations that will add mass to these muscle groups and the best sequence of progressions to get the most out of your workouts. For shoulder check out… Top 3 Push up Variations for Shoulder Mass and Strength and for chest check out… 4 Push up Variations for Chest Muscle Mass.
Related questions: Can you Increase Strength with Bodyweight Exercises?
Yes you can build maximal, explosive and endurance strength with just your bodyweight. You just have to find the right progression and keep finding ways to make the exercise more difficult.
For explosive strength think about exercises like, explosive push ups and box jumps. For endurance strength think burpees, push ups, bodyweight squats. For maximal strength development, you can do handstand push ups and weighted versions of pull ups, dips, chin ups and push ups.
What is more important for strength development with calisthenics is to keep the resistance high enough so that you can only do 1-6 reps without sacrificing form. You can build muscle this way too through whats called mechanical tension however the emphasis of this sort of training will be to increase your overall strength consistently.
If you have anymore questions please leave a comment below and I will get back to you. ↓ ↓ ↓