Yes, You Can Build Muscle Using Only Body Weight… with these 7 tips
“All gyms are closed indefinitely.”
If you told me a year ago that this would really be a thing, I would have thought you were crazy.
But here we are.
If you are one of the thousands stuck at home, unable to workout, and worried about how to maintain all that hard-earned muscle, let me ease your mind.
Even without a single piece of gym equipment, it’s possible to do. In fact, you can not only maintain your muscle, you can continue to build it.
I’ll tell you how.
How Muscle is Built
Without going into a huge scientific explanation, I want to provide a quick summary of how muscle growth – known as “hypertrophy” – occurs. In a nutshell, whenever the muscle is stressed beyond what it’s used to over a period of time, the body adapts by improving muscle strength, size, and/or endurance so that it can handle that same stress more easily in the future.
An example of this is someone who wants to run a marathon. You don’t just hop off the couch and hit the nearest 25K. I mean you can try, but chances are you’ll be crossing the finish line in an ambulance instead of on foot.
Instead, you’d start by running shorter distances, increasing those distances as you become able to complete them successfully. After months of slowly increasing those distances, you’ll eventually find yourself running that 25K without an ambulance in sight.
This is an example of how the body develops adaptations to overcome ongoing stress. In this case, the body is getting the message that it needs to increase its ability to run long distances because you keep pushing it to do so; so it responds by developing additional capillaries to provide more oxygen to the muscles, increasing heart size and its pumping efficiency, and increasing the number of endurance-specific muscle fibers to make running longer distances possible.
This same example applies to heavy lifting too. If you try to lift something heavier than you are used to on a regular basis, the body begins to develop adaptations that make it possible as time goes on. One of these is hypertrophy; an adaptation that creates visibly larger muscles that are better equipped to lift/push/pull heavy things.
(If you want the science-y version of muscle growth (hypertrophy), check out my post here.)
So why am I telling you all this?
Because we have to remind ourselves that muscle growth is not at all dependent on barbells or dumbbells or cables or machines. In fact, these are merely tools designed to do the same thing: to provide a source of resistance the body is unaccustomed to managing. But guess what? You have the ability to do this without any equipment at all. In fact, the only thing you need is something every one of us already has:
Using Bodyweight to Build Muscle
So if you are already in phenomenol shape, I’m betting you’re thinking, “There is no way a bunch of air squats are going to build this booty!”
And you might be right. If you aren’t doing enough of them.
See, the key here is to push the muscle to perform an action that it simply cannot complete. In the lifting world this is known as “muscle failure.” When you see someone attempting to do a bench press, grunting and shaking and looking like they are going to drop the weight on their face without a spotter there to help, they are pushing their muscle to failure.
Remember, you have to push the body beyond its current capacity to force it to adapt. Thirty air squats might not do it for you; but 100 or 200 might.
So let me repeat what I just said: Do an exercise to f-a-i-l-u-r-e. Not till it burns. Not till it’s super hard. We’re talking until you can’t do it anymore.
That, my friends, is all that it takes.
Wait, wait, wait some of you are saying. I thought you had to stay in a certain rep range – like 8-12 reps – for muscle growth to happen?
Yes, this is the traditional thought, but studies are finding that lower repetitions with heavier weights have more influence on strength than on muscle hypertrophy. It turns out, muscle growth may have more to do with lifting to failure; regardless of how many repetitions are involved.
And that’s great news for all of us facing an indefinite gym-less future.
How to Intensify Bodyweight Exercises for Even the Strongest Among Us
For people at the beginning of their muscle building journey, standard body weight exercises are all they need to initiate hypertrophy. However, for the more advanced lifter, the idea of doing three sets of 300 air squats sounds about as thrilling as cleaning the bathroom baseboards.
No worries! Here is a list of modifications that can cause even the beefiest lifters to successfully fail.
(Note: I’m using the push-up as my main example, but most of these suggestions can be applied to just about any body weight exercise. Search for “increased difficulty bodyweight [your specific exercise].”)
1) Shorten rest periods between sets.
Maybe 200 air squats aren’t all that bad for some, but try reducing the rest time between sets and I bet you’ll be crying for mercy afterwards. If you can complete the number of reps with as low as a 20 second rest period between sets, then you’re not doing enough of them. Add more reps while keeping the rest period short.
2) Add a pulse at the most difficult part of the movement.
Let’s say you’re doing a push-up. Easy peasy, right? Now try adding a pulse at the bottom of the movement. The first ten might feel easy, but 15 reps might be something else all together. Combine it with a shorter rest period between sets and you’re sure to fall on your face.
3) Emphasize the eccentric portion of the exercise.
Let’s use the push up for this example too. The portion of the movement people typically focus on is the push “up” (thus, the name). This is a concentric contraction, which is the portion of the movement we typically find most difficult when lifting. However, the eccentric portion of a movement is the exact opposite. In a push-up, this means significantly slowing the movement on the “down” portion of the exercise instead of the up. Take five or six seconds to lower your body down before pushing up as you normally would.
4) Add intensity/ballistic movements to an exercise.
Jump squats, jump push-ups, and jumping lunges are excellent examples of adding ballistic movement to an exercise. Want to make it even more difficult? Perform the eccentric portion of the exercise slowly and add a ballistic movement to the concentric phase. For example, take five to six seconds slowly lowering yourself on a push-up, then immediately blast into a jump push-up once you reach the bottom.
5) Do compound sets.
A compound set is when two or more exercises using the same muscle group are performed consecutively with no rest in between them. For example, perform ten reps of a standard push-up followed immediately by ten jump push-ups.
6) Go unilateral instead of bilateral with movements.
If a standard push-up is too simple, consider one-arming it to increase the difficulty substantially. Air squats just not cutting it? Grab a chair and do a single leg squat onto the seat, then stand back up using only one leg. Even that’s too easy? Try a pistol squat. Yikes.
7) Perform an exercise elevated or inverted.
Try a push-up doing a handstand against the wall. Elevate your feet to waist height during dips. Elevate your feet on a step or chair while doing glute bridges. These may seem like small modifications, but boy they can make a big difference.
Do you have any modifications that you find extra difficult not listed here? Let me know! Or if you need help developing an at-home workout because of time, injury, or a global pandemic, contact me. I can help!