A Definitive Guide To Building Muscle With Bodyweight Exercises

One of the biggest myths in the fitness industry is that bodyweight exercises are only useful for leaning out.
So many guys think that to get big, they need to have a gym membership to gain access to free weights and resistance machines. Well that’s just not true.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter whether resistance comes in the form of a barbell, or your own body, as long as moving it puts the right level of demand on your muscles.

In this article, I’ll explain the principles behind building muscle with bodyweight exercises. I’ll break down bodyweight training, and lay out the principles you need to know to build as much muscle mass as you can without picking up a barbell.

First of all, it’s important to understand that without principle number one, you will not be training for hypertrophy. Instead, you’ll be working on strength. Similarly, if you bail on principle number two, you will not be training for hypertrophy. You’ll be increasing your muscular endurance. For the perfect bodyweight workout, incorporate both principles into your training program.

building muscle with bodyweight exercises

Use principles 1 and 2 in order to build muscle and strength with bodyweight exercises.

Principle 1: Amount Of Time Under Tension

Time under tension quite obviously relates to the amount of time that your muscle is put to work.

If the muscle you are working is not under stress long enough, and does not receive a large enough stimulus for growth, there is no precedent for the muscle to be rebuilt stronger and bigger than before. To apply the Time Under Tension principle, you must work your muscle for a long enough period of time that it is damaged (so that it will grow back stronger).

Explanation And Evidence

Lactate is produced as a byproduct of metabolism during strenuous activity, such as bodyweight or weight training.

The College of Health Sciences at The University of Brasilia, Brazil, conducted a research study to find how three different approaches to training impacted the blood lactate levels of the participants.The study looked at the effects on three groups:

  • Group one performed ten rep maxes, carrying out each rep more slowly than the last. This resulted in an exercise consisting of 30 seconds eccentric, and 30 seconds concentric movement.
  • Group two performed ten rep maxes, holding the isometric movement for five seconds and fully extending their muscles for each rep.
  • Group three performed twenty second long isometric contractions, fully extending their muscles, before performing ten rep maxes at a regular speed.

    building muscle with bodyweight exercises

    All three groups experienced an increase in their blood lactate levels, but it was the participants in group one whose lactate levels were the highest.

All three groups experienced an increase in their blood lactate levels, but it was the participants in group one whose lactate levels were the highest. Group two had the next highest levels. Group three had the lowest levels.

The findings demonstrated that you must keep the muscle under stress for a particular length of time – long enough to provide enough metabolic stress (raised lactate levels) to stimulate growth. In fact, it may even more beneficial to increase the length of time that you put the muscle under stress while you work through each phase of the movement.

The Takeaway

Perform bodyweight exercises slowly. Aim to take thirty seconds to complete each phase of the movement. Don’t race through your reps. When you finish, your muscles should feel sore.

Principle 2: Amount Of Tension Under Tension

Unfortunately, the amount of time you put your muscles to work is better for strength than for building muscle.

If time under tension alone was enough to build size, long distance runners would be much bulkier than they are.

It has been shown time and time again that the amount of tension you put your muscles under is also important. This is where the myth that weight training is the only effective way to build size comes from, but your body can provide plenty of resistance by itself.

There are several techniques you can use to increase resistance with bodyweight exercises.

building muscle with bodyweight exercises

There are several techniques you can use to increase resistance with bodyweight exercises.

Bodyweight Distribution

As with traditional weight training, it’s important that you fatigue your muscles within a low rep range if you want to build muscle mass.

While training for endurance requires high numbers of reps, this is because a lot of oxygen is needed to enable the muscle in question to work for longer. Higher rep ranges increase the density of the capillaries in your muscles, allowing more oxygen to get through. When it comes to training for size, however, your focus should be on tearing your muscle tissue using lower reps.

Clearly, with bodyweight training, you cannot simply increase your weight in order to put your muscles under more strain and to lower your rep ranges. This does not have to be a problem though. You can simply adjust the distribution of your weight to change the amount that is put on a particular part of your body.

For example, if we consider push-ups, you normally distribute your bodyweight equally between both arms. However, if you put more of your weight on either arm, the resistance that side has to deal with increases. There are many ways to play with weight distribution using percentages. For example, you could split a load 60:40 or 70:30, depending on your goals and preferences.

It is important to point out here that if you shift your load in one direction to work one side of your body, you should repeat the exercise for the other side, otherwise your body will grow out of proportion and your strength will be uneven.

building muscle with bodyweight exercises towel assisted pushup

If you put more of your weight on either arm, the resistance that side has to deal with increases. There are many ways to play with weight distribution using percentages. For example, you could split a load 60:40 or 70:30, depending on your goals and preferences. Photo courtesy of Rough Strength.

Angular Training

You can use the angle of your body to increase or decrease the amount of strain you put on a particular group of muscles.

By doing this, you target a different part of the same muscle group.

Revisiting the push-up example, a regular push-up works the center of your chest, by spreading your weight across the whole of your chest. By shifting the angle of your body, you redistribute your weight, and therefore the tension. This allows you to put more focus, by adding more weight, to a particular area of your chest.

To change weight distribution, you can create an incline. By doing your push-ups with your feet on a chair (for example), you shift the tension onto the upper part of your chest. This will allow for the tension to be more directly focused on the muscles in the chest, which will allow those muscles to grow bigger.

Squeeze During Contraction

This approach is somewhat similar to isometric training, which can deliver amazing results.

It’s a really simple way to get more out of your workouts. To add an isometric approach to your bodyweight workouts, you would hold a contraction somewhere during the movement (usually at the top of the concentric contraction). This is a great technique, but rather than halt the movement completely, you can also squeeze your muscle for a second or two at the top of the movement. This will force your muscle to recruit more muscle fibers, meaning that the exercise will have more of an impact on your muscles.

For example, if you were to tense your biceps fully after performing a set of chin-ups, you would tear more muscle fibers, by prolonging the tension exerted on them.

building muscle with bodyweight exercises squeeze lemon

if you were to tense your biceps fully after performing a set of chin-ups, you would tear more muscle fibers, by prolonging the tension exerted on them.

Use A Bodyweight Drop Set

Drop sets reduce resistance in increments to tear muscle more effectively.

Luckily, there are different levels of bodyweight exercises. For example, a normal bodyweight squat is much easier to perform than a one-legged bodyweight squat. You can manipulate these differing levels of difficulty by gradually moving onto bodyweight exercises that are easier and easier to do. This will enable you to tear more muscle.

To perform a drop set, pick three exercises that target the same group of muscles. One exercise should be the hardest, one should be the easiest, and one should be somewhere in-between. By the time you’re on the final and easiest exercise, you’re forcing your body to recruit muscle fibers that wouldn’t have been used during the hardest exercise, thereby demanding more of your body.

Again, let’s look at push-ups. You might choose decline push-ups, normal push-ups, and push-ups on your knees. The decline push-ups are the hardest of these exercises, and you’d perform these until you couldn’t do any more. You’d then move onto normal push-ups, again until you cannot do any more. Finally, you would switch to the easiest exercise of the three – the push-ups performed with your knees on the ground.

Reduce The Speed

Another way to increase the tension that you put your body under is by slowing down.

building muscle with bodyweight exercises arnold bench dips

By reducing your speed, you eliminate momentum, making it harder for your muscles to push your through the movement.

By reducing your speed, you eliminate momentum, making it harder for your muscles to push your through the movement. Your body is then forced to recruit more muscle fibers, which means that more muscle fibers are torn, and more have to be built back up, stronger and better than before.

It’s fairly easy to see how this works if you consider push-ups. Say that you do as many push-ups as you can. You then try again an hour later, but force yourself to count to five on the way down and five on the way back. You wouldn’t be able to complete as many push-ups the second time around, and you would probably be more tired.

Increase The Volume

One of the easiest ways to increase the results you see from doing bodyweight exercises is by increasing the volume of the exercises you perform.

I’m talking about the number of sets you incorporate into your workout.

As you get fitter and fitter, it will become harder for your body to tear muscle tissue. Your body will become resistant to change. However, by increasing the volume of the exercises you perform, you will be able to fatigue your muscles more with each set that you perform. The more sets you perform, the more you fatigue your muscle, and the more fibers it needs to recruit to complete the exercises.

Normally, I advise performing eight sets per exercise. If you were doing push-ups, I’d suggest doing set one until you cannot do any more, resting for a minute, and then performing seven more equal sets.

building muscle with bodyweight exercises vince gironda

Take a page out of Vince Gironda’s book and use eight sets of each exercise.

Focus On The Eccentric Contraction

In case you don’t know, muscle movements can be broken down into two distinct phases.

There’s the concentric movement and the eccentric movement.

During the concentric movement, your muscle shortens. In a chin-up, the concentric part of the movement is when you biceps pull your body up to the bar. The eccentric phase is when your muscle lengthens. So with chin-ups, it’s when your body moves back down to the ground.

Studies have shown that the eccentric part of movements are better for building muscle than the concentric parts. To focus on this part of a movement, simply perform it more slowly. Still using chin-ups as our example, simply count to ten as you lower your body. This will make the exercise much more difficult, and your muscles will be forced to work harder.

Decrease Your Rest Period

If you’re working to build muscle mass, or for hypertrophy, the last thing you want to do is give your body lots of time to recover in between sets.

This is because when you allow your body to recover for more than about 90 seconds, the focus will shift to strength instead of mass. By decreasing your rest period, you force your muscles to recruit different muscle fibers in your later sets, because the ones you used for the earlier sets have not yet recovered.

I would suggest resting for less than ninety seconds in between sets. Ideally, you would rest for between only 45 seconds and one minute.

building muscle with bodyweight exercises arnold rest period

I would suggest resting for less than ninety seconds in between sets. Ideally, you would rest for between only 45 seconds and one minute.

Periodize Your Training

Periodization involves adjusting your workouts, or program, to work toward a variety of goals at different times.

I recommend spending three to four weeks working on hypertrophy and muscle growth. During this time you should focus your training on size.

After that, you should spend three to four weeks working on strength. If you wanted, you could incorporate some weight training to do this, or you could use some of the approaches outlined above with extreme calisthenics. I’d recommend trying planches, headstands, pistol squats, and front levels.

Once you’ve done that, add in a week of recovery time. Allow your muscles to recover fully. Relax and have fun. If you like playing sports, hiking, or swimming, do that. Take it easy for a bit. After that, you can launch yourself right back into the hypertrophy stage again and go after it.

Free weights and resistance machines are not the only tools you can use to build a muscle. Bodyweight exercises can be just as effective. You just need to know how to use them to get the most bang for your buck.

Use the principles and techniques outlined in this article, and you’re all set for building serious muscle with no equipment beyond your own body.

About the Author

Todd KuslikisTodd Kuslikis is the founder of A Shot of Adrenaline and creator of Bodyweight Bundle, the bodyweight program that teaches you how to rapidly lose fat, gain lean muscle, and get in amazing shape with only your bodyweight.

Works Cited

Gentil, Paulo, Elke Oliveira, and Martim Bottaro. “Time under Tension and Blood Lactate Response during Four Different Resistance Training Methods.” Journal of PHYSIOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY 25.5 (2006): 339-44. Print.
“Muscle Fiber Hypertrophy, Hyperplasia, and Capillary Density in College Men after Resistance Training.” Journal of Applied Physiology. Web. 19 Oct. 2014. <http://jap.physiology.org/content/81/5/2004>.
Roig, M., K. O’brien, G. Kirk, R. Murray, P. Mckinnon, B. Shadgan, and W. D. Reid. “The Effects of Eccentric versus Concentric Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Mass in Healthy Adults: A Systematic Review with Meta-analysis.” British Journal of Sports Medicine 43.8 (2009): 556-68. Print.
Tanaka, Hirofumi, and Thomas Swensen. “Impact of Resistance Training on Endurance Performance.” Sports Medicine 25.3 (1998): 191-200. Print.

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