The 21 Best Bodyweight Exercises for Muscle Size and Strength

Best Bodyweight Exercises

A lot of bodybuilders and experienced lifters are very quick to dismiss bodyweight exercises, believing that they’re not challenging enough to be effective. Bodyweight training is, many people think, only suitable for beginners.

However, this point of view is not necessarily true, and there are some great bodyweight exercises that are perfect for packing on muscle or increasing strength.

Bodyweight exercises are the foundation of strength training, and you should really master working with your body before progressing to weights. After all, if you can’t do push-ups or air squats correctly, you can’t really expect to do bench presses, or barbell back squats correctly, either.

In addition, you can do most bodyweight exercises anywhere and anytime, making them useful for whenever you can’t make it to the gym. Bodyweight exercises also tend to be pretty joint-friendly, as movements are usually more natural than many machine and freeweight exercises.

But, can you REALLY build muscle size and strength with bodyweight exercises?

You bet!

According to studies, providing you perform your chosen bodyweight exercise using a full range of motion and take each set to failure, it will trigger the same response as other forms of strength training (1).

Another study compared bench presses and push-ups and found that these two different exercises were similarly effective for developing strength (2).

Of course, your training success hinges on choosing the right exercises. So, for this article, we reveal 21 of the best bodyweight exercises for building upper body, lower body, and core strength.

The 21 Best Bodyweight Exercises

Want to incorporate some body weight exercises into your training but not sure where to start? Here are 21 of the best bodyweight exercises for building muscle size and gaining strength.

Upper Body Exercises

There isn’t a bodybuilder alive who doesn’t want a muscular, hard upper body. These exercises will sculpt your pecs, lats, deltoids, and arms.

1. Deficit Push-up

Target muscles: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps

Deficit Push Up

Yeah, yeah – push-ups ARE already a very well-known exercise. Still, a lot of lifters ignore them in favor of barbell and dumbbell bench presses and the chest press machine. That’s a shame because the push-up is such a powerful exercise that it really should be at the top of your must-do list.

There are lots of different push-up variations to choose from, but deficit push-ups are probably the best place to start. Deficit push-ups allow you to use a larger than normal range of motion, making them more challenging and better for developing upper body strength and muscle mass.

How to do it:

  1. Place two dumbbells, yoga blocks, bricks, or thick books on the floor, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Squat down and place your hands on the raised surface, fingers pointing forward.
  3. Walk your feet out and back, so your body forms a straight line. Brace your abs and pull your shoulders down and back.
  4. Bend your arms and lower your chest down below the level of your hands.
  5. Push yourself back up, shrugging your shoulders forward at the top of each rep.

2. Pike Push-up

Target muscles: Anterior deltoids, triceps

With no barbell or dumbbells available, you may be wondering how best to train your shoulders. This exercise is the perfect solution. It closely replicates overhead presses, which, as every bodybuilder knows, is one of the best ways to build bigger, more muscular shoulders. This push-up variation is also a great way to beef up your triceps.

How to do it:

  1. Adopt the push-up position with your hands roughly shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and pull your shoulders back.
  2. Keeping your legs straight, lift your butt into the air so your body resembles an inverted V.
  3. Keeping your hips up, bend your arms and lower your head to within an inch of the floor.
  4. Push back up and repeat.
  5. Make this exercise harder by raising your feet to put more weight on your hands or by placing your hands on raised surfaces, i.e., deficit pike push-ups, to increase the range of motion.


3. Parallel Bar Dip

Target muscles: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps

Chest Dips Vs Triceps Dips

Before the bench press became the world’s favorite chest exercise, if you wanted to develop your pecs or triceps, dips were how you did it. Parallel bar dips allow for an increased range of motion, and you’ve got to lift your entire body weight using just your arms. As such, the dip is a potent upper body builder.

Broadly speaking, there are two ways to do parallel dips. One emphasizes your chest, while the other is more triceps dominant.

Check out this in-depth guide to learn the difference between chest and triceps dips and how to do them.

4. Handstand Push-up

Target muscles: Anterior deltoids, triceps

If you have mastered pike push-ups and are looking for a more challenging bodyweight shoulder exercise, handstand push-ups are the one for you! This exercise not only develops strength and muscle size but is also good for your balance, too. However, you must be able to do a solid handstand to do this exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Take off your shoes; the last thing you want is to make this exercise harder by creating extra friction against the wall.
  2. Find a smooth wall to do your push-ups against, and make sure there are no pictures or other obstructions that will get in your way.
  3. Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor, about shoulder-width apart. Your fingers should be pointing forward. Put a cushion between your hands for safety if you think you need one. Your hands should be about 12-inches away from the wall.
  4. Starting with one foot forward and one foot back, kick up and into a handstand so that your feet are resting against the wall. Brace your core and get your balance. Keep your legs straight.
  5. When you feel stable, bend your arms and lower your head down to lightly touch the floor/cushion.
  6. Extend your arms and push yourself back up.
  7. On completion, lower your legs back to the floor and stand up. Take a moment to check your balance; it’s not uncommon to feel a little dizzy after doing this exercise.

5. Pull-up and Chin-up

Target muscles: Latissimus dorsi, biceps

Pullups vs Chinups

Pull-ups and chin-ups are classic upper body pulling exercises. And yet, a lot of lifters struggle to pump out ten reps, and some can’t do them at all. This could be because they’re too heavy (FAT!) or too weak. Regardless, being able to do ten pull-ups is a fitness benchmark that every exerciser should be able to reach.

Pull-ups and chin-ups are similar but involve different hand positions. Pull-ups are done with a pronated (overhand) slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, while chin-ups are done with an underhand, less than shoulder-width grip. Both work the lats and biceps, but chin-ups place your arms in a mechanically stronger position, so some people find them easier.

Regardless of which one you do, pull-ups and chin-ups are almost unbeatable for building a wider, stronger back and more muscular arms.

Learn how to do and the differences between pull-ups and chin-ups here.

6. Inverted Row

Target muscles: Latissimus dorsi, biceps

Inverted rows, also known as Australian pull-ups, are another great upper back and biceps exercise. However, unlike pull-ups and chin-ups, which are vertical pulls, inverted rows are a horizontal pull. Balancing vertical and horizontal pulling movements is vital for building not only a big, strong back but also for the structural integrity and health of your shoulders.

As an added benefit, inverted rows are somewhat easier than pull-ups and chin-ups, as you don’t need to lift your entire body weight to do them. This means they’re perfect for heavier and less-capable exercisers and for doing after chin-ups and pull-ups when your muscles are fatigued.

You can read more about this awesome upper body pulling exercise here.

7. Handstand Wall Walk

Target muscles: Pectoralis major, anterior deltoids, triceps

This challenging upper body exercise is a great way to develop your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core. It’s also an effective way to improve shoulder joint stability and general balance and coordination. You may get a few funny looks when you first do this exercise, but when the naysayers see how effective it is, they’ll be lining up to try it for themselves!

How to do it:

  1. Adopt the push-up position with your feet against the bottom of a smooth, clear wall. You’re probably going to leave footprints on the wall, so it may be best to do this exercise outdoors.
  2. Brace your core and, keeping your arms fairly straight, walk your feet up the wall and your hands backward until you are inverted and in a handstand position.
  3. Walk your hands forward and your feet back down the wall until you return to the push-up position.
  4. That’s one rep – keep going!

Lower Body Exercises

While a lot of bodybuilders neglect their lower bodies, we don’t want you to be one of them. After all, friends don’t let friends skip leg day! Instead, use the following bodyweight exercises to build and strengthen your glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.

1. Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat

Target muscles: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, abductors, adductors

Rear foot elevated split squats, also known as Bulgarian split squats, are one of the best bodyweight lower body exercises around. Working one leg at a time means there is more weight on the target muscles, and you’ll have to work harder to stabilize your hips and knees, further increasing muscle engagement. This exercise is also very functional and good for improving balance and mobility.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your back to a knee-high exercise bench. Bend one leg and place the top of your foot on the bench behind you. Hop forward and into a split stance.
  2. Bend your legs and lower your rear knee down toward the floor. Keep your back straight and your chest, and look straight ahead. Try to keep your front shin close to vertical, and do not let your knee move beyond your toes.
  3. Push down through your front foot and stand back up. You should feel that about 60% of your weight is on your front leg, and about 40% is on your rear leg.
  4. Do the same number of reps on each leg.

2. Deficit Reverse Lunge

Target muscles: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, abductors, adductors

All types of lunges have the potential to be good muscle builders. Still, the reverse deficit lunge is arguably one of the best. Deficit exercises involve a larger range of motion than their regular counterparts, which means more work for the target muscles. Reverse lunges are a great way to overload your glutes and hamstrings and are more knee-friendly than forward lunges.

How to do it:

  1. Stand on a 4 to 6-inch platform with your feet together and your arms by your sides.
  2. Take a large step backward, bend your legs, and lower your rear knee down to within an inch of the floor.
  3. Push off your back leg and bring your feet back together on top of your platform.
  4. Step back with the opposite leg and repeat.
  5. Alternate legs for the duration of your set.

3. Step-Through Lunge

Target muscles: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, abductors, adductors

This exercise combines backward and forward lunges to deliver a demanding bodyweight leg workout. Shifting your weight from one leg to the other increases joint instability, producing more muscle engagement. In addition, step-through lunges keep your muscles under tension for longer, creating plenty of muscle-building metabolic damage.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet together and your arms by your sides.
  2. Take a large step back, bend your legs, and lower your rear knee down to an inch above the floor.
  3. Next, push off your back leg and step straight forward and into a front lunge. Again, bend your legs and lower your rear knee down to within an inch of the floor.
  4. Push off your front leg and transition again into a backward lunge.
  5. Continue for the required number of reps and then switch sides. Do the same number of reps on each leg.

4. Single-leg Glute Bridge

Target muscles: Hamstrings, gluteus maximus, quadriceps

Regular glute bridges are a popular butt and hamstring exercise, but a lot of people find them too easy. Crank up the intensity by switching to single-leg glute bridges to make your workouts more productive.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor. Lift and extend one leg. Brace your core.
  2. Driving your heel into the floor, push your hips up until they form a straight line with your knees and shoulders.
  3. Lower your butt back to the floor and repeat.
  4. Swap sides and do the same number of reps with the opposite leg.

5. Wall Squat

Target muscles: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, abductors, adductors

Wall squats, also known as wall sits, are an isometric exercise. That means your muscles generate tension without changing length, i.e., a static contraction. You can do this exercise one of two ways. Firstly, you can adopt the squat position and then stay there for as long as possible.

Or, you can push your back against the wall as hard as you can. Both options are effective, although the latter is better for building strength. Try them both and see which you prefer.

You can read more about wall squats in this detailed guide.

6. Squat Jump

Target muscles: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, abductors, adductors

With only your body weight for resistance, regular air squats probably won’t provide enough overload to build muscle or increase your strength. Switching to more explosive squat jumps will increase muscle engagement. You’ll also have to work harder to decelerate your mass as you land, creating another stimulus for growth. You’ll get a great burn and pump in your legs with this exercise.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward.
  2. Descend quickly into a quarter to half-depth squat.
  3. Using your arms for added momentum, explode upward and leap into the air.
  4. Land on soft knees to absorb the shock and quickly descend into another rep.

7. Sissy Squats

Target muscle: Quadriceps

Sissy squats are an old-school leg exercise that emphasizes your quadriceps. It feels a lot like extensions, but all you need is your body weight to do it. This exercise can be a little hard on your knees, so perform it with caution if you have a history of knee pain.

How to do it:

  1. Stand next to a wall or some other object you can use for balance.
  2. Rise up onto your tiptoes.
  3. Push your hips and knees forward and squat down as you simultaneously lean back. Descend as far as you can, ideally until your shins are roughly parallel to the floor.
  4. Drive your toes into the floor and stand back up.
  5. Tense your quads at the top of each rep and repeat.
  6. Without resting, move immediately to the next exercise.

8. Single-leg Calf Raise

Target muscles: Gastrocnemius, soleus

You can’t have a complete leg workout without training your calves. But, with no calf raise machine to use, you may be wondering how best to overload your lower legs. Single-leg calf raises not only involve lifting more weight, but they also introduce an element of instability to your workout, which increases gastrocnemius and soleus engagement.

How to do it:

  1. Stand on one leg with the ball of your foot on the edge of a step so your heel is free to move. Use your arms for balance as required.
  2. Keeping your leg straight, lower your heel down toward the floor and then rise up onto your tiptoes.
  3. Continue for the desired number of reps and then change legs.

Core Exercises

Core is the collective term for the muscles of your midsection. A strong core links your upper body to your lower body. It’s not enough to have strong arms or legs; you need strength in the middle, too. Use these bodyweight core exercises to strengthen your midsection muscles.

1. Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) Plank

Target muscles: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques

Planks are an excellent exercise, but if you can hold a perfect plank for more than 60-seconds, it’s probably not challenging enough to increase core strength. And who really wants to hold a plank for three, five, or ten minutes? Talk about boring!

RKC planks involve contracting your core as hard as possible, so you fatigue your muscles much faster. It’s a sprint and not a marathon. This is not only a better use of your time, but it’s also an excellent way to increase strength rather than endurance.

You can read more about this challenging core exercise here.

2. V-Sits

Target muscles: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, hip flexors  

V-sits, also known as V-ups, are a challenging upper and lower abdominal exercise. Lifting your legs and upper body simultaneously means your abs are under a lot of muscle-building tension. However, this exercise can be a little hard on your lower back, so skip it if you experience any back pain.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight and arms above your head. Brace your abs.
  2. Keeping your arms and legs extended, raise your lower and upper body simultaneously. Reach up toward your toes, so you end up balancing on your lower back/butt, and your body resembles a V shape.
  3. Like back down and then repeat.

3. Flutter Kicks

Target muscles: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, hip flexors   

Flutter kicks are a tough-as-nails core conditioning exercise and are popular in the military. This move involves bracing your abs while you kick your legs in an alternating fashion. The kicking motion destabilizes your lower body which forces you to a) brace harder and b) recruit your obliques to maintain correct bodily alignment.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight. Place your hands next to your hips or under your butt as preferred. Brace your abs.
  2. Keeping your legs straight, lift your feet about 18-inches off the floor. Press your lower back into the floor.
  3. Without bending your knees, kick your legs as if you were swimming. Four kicks equal one rep, so 1, 2, 3, 1– 1, 2, 3, 2, – 1, 2, 3, 3, etc.
  4. Continue for the desired duration or until you cannot keep your lower back flat on the floor.

4. Bear Crawls

Target muscles: Rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, obliques, deltoids, pectoralis major, triceps 

The bear crawl is basically a moving plank. Transferring your weight from limb to limb as you move forward increases core engagement while also working your arms and legs. With so many muscles involved, this full-body exercise is also great for building fitness and endurance.

How to do it:

  1. Kneel down on all fours so your hands are directly under your shoulders and your knees are under your hips. Pull your toes up and press the balls of your feet into the floor.
  2. Brace your abs, pull your shoulders down and back, and rotate your elbows inward to engage your lats. Your lower back and neck should be neutral. Lift your knees a few inches off the floor while keeping your hips level with your shoulders.
  3. Without lifting your hips, move your left hand and right foot forward, and then your right hand and left foot.
  4. Continue crawling forward over the specified distance or number of steps.
  5. You can also bear crawl backward, sideways, and diagonally.

Read more about Bear Crawl

5. Lying Windshield Wipers 

Target muscles: Rectus abdominis, obliques

Lying windshield wipers are a challenging core exercise that specifically targets your obliques. It’s a great home alternative to equipment-based core exercises like dumbbell side bends, cable Pallof presses, and cable woodchops. Be warned; this exercise is more strenuous than it looks!

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight and arms extended out to your sides. Brace your core and lift your legs so they’re vertical.
  2. Using your arms for balance, rotate your hips and lower your legs down to the side until they’re just above the floor and close to your outstretched hand.
  3. Return to the starting position and then repeat to the other side.

Bonus Bodyweight Exercise – Burpees

The eagle-eyed readers among you will have noticed that we’ve only given you 20 bodyweight exercises so far. This is not an accidental oversight! Instead, we wanted to leave you with a final exercise that’s so good it deserves a section of its own – burpees.

The burpee is a total body exercise, working your upper body, legs, and core. So, if you are ever short of time but still want a workout, a few sets of burpees will hold you over until you’ve got more time to train.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet together and your hands by your sides.
  2. Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor in front of your feet, shoulder-width apart. Try not to round your lower back.
  3. Jump your feet out and back to land in the push-up position.
  4. Bend your arms and lower your chest to lightly touch the floor.
  5. Push back up to full arm extension.
  6. Jump your feet in and under your body, knees close to your elbows.
  7. Leap up into the air as high as you can.
  8. Land on slightly bent knees and then repeat, repeat, REPEAT!

Looking for some challenging burpee workouts? Check out this article!

How to Make Bodyweight Exercises More Productive and Challenging

The best thing about bodyweight exercises is also their biggest drawback – your body weight. Using a fixed weight means it can be hard to progress your workouts without resorting to doing more reps.

Use the following methods to increase the difficulty of your bodyweight workout. You may not be able to use all of these methods for every exercise. However, there should still be enough options to ensure that your workouts are always challenging and productive.

1. Slow Down

Moving more slowly does two things; it means each rep takes longer to perform, and it eliminates all momentum, so you can’t inadvertently cheat your way through your workout. So, instead of using a typical 1:1 tempo (lift in one second, lower in one second), try a 2:2, 3:3, or even a 5:5 tempo. Slowing down makes any dynamic movement much harder.

2. Add Mid-rep Pauses

Like using a slower tempo, mid-rep pauses increase your time under tension and eliminate momentum. Plus, you’ll need to work harder to get your body moving again after each pause, increasing muscle activation.

To do paused reps, simply stop at the mid-point of your chosen exercise for 2-5 seconds. For example, during push-ups, pause with your chest hovering an inch above the floor, or, with rear foot elevated split squats, pause with your knee an inch above the floor.

Just make sure that, when you pause, your muscles are under tension. There would be no point in pausing with your limbs straight or unloaded, e.g., at the bottom of a pull-up.

3. Do 21s

Bodybuilders do 21s with biceps curls, but you can apply this training method to almost any exercise. Divide your chosen movement into two parts – an upper half and a lower half. Do seven upper-range reps, seven lower-range reps, and then seven reps to total 21.

21s increase time under tension and partially reduces blood flow into your muscles, starving them of oxygen and producing fatigue.

4. Take Shorter Rests Between Sets

The longer you rest between sets, the more recovered you’ll be, and the easier subsequent exercises will feel. Work harder by taking shorter breaks between sets so that you are more fatigued when you start pumping out the reps.

You can use this method in a very structured fashion to create progressive overload. For example, instead of resting 60 seconds between sets, start reducing your rest periods over a period of weeks to make your workouts harder, i.e.,

  • Week 1 – 60 seconds
  • Week 2 – 55 seconds
  • Week 3 – 50 seconds
  • Week 4 – 45 seconds, etc.

5. Do Back-to-Back Supersets

Make your bodyweight workouts harder by pairing similar exercises together into supersets. This means you’ll start your second exercise already feeling tired, which will make it considerably more demanding.

For example

  1. Sissy squats followed by squat jumps
  2. Dips followed by push-ups
  3. RKC planks followed by flutter kicks

Make sure that the second exercise is easier than the first so that you aren’t too tired to perform the second movement properly.

6. Wear a Weighted Vest

A weighted vest will make any bodyweight exercise harder. Simply strap it on and get to work! However, a little weight goes a long way, so don’t go too heavy too soon. Instead, start with about 10-percent of your body weight and increase gradually after that.

Check out this guide to the best weighted vests for more details on this useful training tool.


Bodyweight Exercises – Wrapping Up

Contrary to popular opinion, bodyweight exercises aren’t just suitable for beginners. No matter how long you’ve been training, you can build muscle and strength with bodyweight training, even if you have to use some workout intensifiers to make your workouts intense enough to be productive.

So, whether you are unable to make it to the gym or just want an alternative to lifting weights, it’s good to know that bodyweight exercises can be as productive as regular strength training.  


1 – PubMed: The Acute and Chronic Effects Of “NO LOAD” Resistance Training

2 – PubMed: Bench Press and Push-Up at Comparable Levels of Muscle Activity Results in Similar Strength Gains


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