I get asked three questions fairly frequently:
Poke around on the Internet for answers and you’ll find all kinds of opinions.
Some people say that weightlifting is better for bodybuilding but not for building a “sleek,” “Hollywood” type of physique.
Others say that bodyweight exercises are better for fat loss because they burn more calories.
Others still say that bodyweight training the most “functional” way to train.
Well, in this article, we’re going to set the record straight on all these points and more.
By the end, you’re going to know the pros and cons of bodyweight exercises and whether they’re suitable to your goals or not, and I’m going to give you a highly effective bodyweight workout routine that you can start on right away.
So, let’s get started.
There’s a big difference between “exercising” and “training.”
Anything that involves vigorous physical activity can qualify as exercise, but training connotes a more systematic approach toward a known goal.
Zumba is exercise. Bigger Leaner Stronger is training.
If your goal is to stay healthy and lean, exercise (and proper dieting) can get the job done. If you want to build a lean, strong, and muscular physique, though, you need to train.
Which brings me to bodyweight workouts.
Bodyweight workouts have several advantages over weightlifting as well, including:
If you’re looking to build a large amount of muscle and strength as quickly as possible, though, they’re not the best choice.
This is because bodyweight workouts have limited value as a training method.
Progressive overload refers to increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers over time.
The most effective way to do this is to progressively increase the amount of weight you’re lifting (add weight to the bar).
This is why strength is highly correlated with muscle size. You’d be hard pressed to find a guy with small legs that can squat double his body weight for reps, for example.
When viewed through this lens of progressive overload, we can clearly see a major drawback to bodyweight training:
It tends to focus on increasing repetitions but not weight (overload), and this is great for building muscle endurance, but not size and strength.
That is, working up to 100 pushups or 20 pullups in one go isn’t going to result in nearly as much muscle growth as working up to bench pressing 1.5 x your body weight or deadlifting 2 x your body weight for reps.
Researchers call this the “strength-endurance continuum,” which is a polysyllabic phrase for a rather simple concept: if you want to get big and strong, you need to prioritize resistance training with heavy loads.
Now, there are ways to incorporate progressive overload into your bodyweight workouts, which we’ll be talking more about soon, but they don’t fully offset this disadvantage.
The significance of these four exercises is they form the core of every great weightlifting and strength training program, and for a good reason:
They train many muscle groups at once and they allow for very heavy weights to be handled safely (maximum overload).
The bottom line is any resistance training program–bodyweight or otherwise–that’s missing any of these movements would benefit from including them.
You can make do with exercises that we’ll discuss soon, but anyone that says that you can duplicate the level of muscle activation from an 85% of 1RM deadlift with a bodyweight movement is lying.
Now, before we move on, I want to quickly address a doubt you might have about what I’m saying:
Well, when you see stuff like this, you need to keep several things in mind:
If someone has been doing bodyweight workouts diligently for 10+ years and knows how to diet, he’s going to have a good physique.
That doesn’t mean it was the most effective way to get there, though.
When someone with a killer physique does bodyweight workouts exclusively, it doesn’t mean that’s how he built his body to begin with.
I know many people that gained a large amount of muscle and strength with traditional weightlifting and then transitioned more into bodyweight training for various reasons (lifestyle changes, new challenges, etc.).
Some people’s bodies respond incredibly well to resistance training of all forms and others respond quite poorly.
If you’re taking advice from a high-responder but are yourself a low- or even middling-responder, you’re not going to see anywhere near the gains.
Drugs are everywhere in the strength and muscle-building space, and they change everything. Learn to spot the obvious abusers.
The point is this:
If you want to get an accurate idea of how well a training or diet methodology works, you want to look at a broad cross section of results, not chase after outliers.
Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.
If you go searching for bodyweight exercises and routines, you’ll quickly be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of choices.
The good news, though, is out of the hundreds and hundreds of body weight exercises you could do, a small minority deliver the vast majority of potential benefits.
(Pareto principle strikes again.)
As you’ll see, your primary focus in bodyweight workouts is improving in a few basic areas: pushing, pulling, and squatting.
There are many variations of these movements and ways to make the more difficult, of course, but they are the foundation of all good bodyweight training.
So, let’s review the best of these types of bodyweight exercises and then look at how we can combine them into an effective and challenging workout routine.
No bodyweight workout is complete without some form of pushup.
I’m going to recommend that you do several types of pushups in your bodyweight workouts.
The first is the vanilla pushup:
And if you can’t do a pushup yet, here’s how to build up to it:
The pike pushup is a pushup variation that is great for training the shoulders.
The Dive Bomber Pushup is a good progression from the pike pushup (meaning it’s an exercise you progress to once you’ve built considerable strength on the previous).
It’s a complete upper body exercise because it emphasizes your chest, shoulders, and triceps at different points in the movement.
In terms of bodyweight shoulder exercises, it’s hard to beat the handstand pushup for sheer difficulty (and thus overload).
I want to shy away from exercises that require special equipment, but I need to mention the dip because it’s one of the absolute best upper body exercises you can do, bodyweight or otherwise.
There are two types of dips you can do: triceps (or bench) dips and chest dips.
Triceps (bench) dips are easier, and here’s how they work:
Here’s the chest dip, which is a progression from the triceps dip:
And here’s a simple dip stand for doing chest dips:
These are also exercise that can’t be done without equipment…but a pullup bar is cheap and, in my opinion, vital.
It’s vital because if you want to get the most out of your bodyweight training, you must be doing chinups and pullups.
They train every major muscle in your back and involve the biceps to a significant degree as well, and they do it in a way that just can’t be replicated otherwise (outside of the gym, that is).
There are many pullup variations you can do, of course, but you should build a foundation of strength with these two before progressing to more advanced types.
First, there’s the chinup:
If you can’t do a chinup yet, here’s a simple way to build the necessary strength:
Here’s the progression from the chinup–the more difficult pullup:
Here’s the bar I use and like:
If your budget and workout space permits, you can go in for a Power Tower instead, which allows you to do your dips, pullups, and ab exercises (that we’ll be talking about soon).
Here’s the one I recommend:
Just about every popular resistance training program you can find involves some sort of squatting.
It’s the simplest and most effective leg-building exercise you can do.
This exercise is the bodyweight equivalent of the barbell back squat, and if you want to build strong legs, you’re going to do a lot of it.
The squat jump is a progression from the basic bodyweight squat that adds a dynamic “explosive” element to your training.
The Shrimp Squat is a good introduction to one-legged squatting (which is a good progression from two-legged variations).
The pistol squat is a difficult progression from the shrimp squat that requires a considerable amount of strength and balance.
The lunge is primarily a quadriceps exercise but all the major muscle groups of the lower body come into play.
The Russian leg curl is a fantastic exercise for isolating your hamstrings.
The burpee is a classic full-body exercise that also builds your cardiovascular capacity.
The hanging leg raise is one of my favorite exercises for training the core (and the rectus abdominis in particular).
The bicycle crunch is a popular abs/core exercise that is particularly good for training the obliques.
The plank is often hailed as the ultimate core exercise, but research shows that’s a bit of an overstatement.
That said, it definitely valuable enough to include in your bodyweight workouts.
That’s it for my exercise recommendations.
Before we talk bodyweight workouts, though, I want to make sure you understand a vitally important part of weightlifting in general:
The key isn’t just doing exercises–it’s progressing on them.
We recall that as a natural weightlifter, the most important type of progression is overload.
When you’re weightlifting, the easiest way to do this is to add weight to the bar.
When you’re training with your bodyweight, though, you have two options:
We’re going to focus on #2 in this article because it requires no additional equipment and, frankly, it works better in most cases.
So, push yourself to make progress in your workouts and eat enough food and your muscles will grow.
Alright…it’s time to put some rubber on the road.
Let’s start your journey into bodyweight training with an assessment of your current fitness level.
Do one set of the following exercises to failure and record how many reps you get of each. Rest a few minutes in between each exercise.
Chinup (or pullup if you can)
After 8 weeks of the workout routine I lay out below, retest yourself to see how you’ve progressed.
And the workout routine itself:
Upper Body & Abs
2 x (sets of) Pushup (or regression to build up to the standard pushup)
2 x Pike Pushup > Dive Bomber Pushup > Handstand Pushup
2 x Triceps Dip > Chest Dip
6 x Chinup (or regression) > Pullup
3 x Ab Circuits
Lower Body & Cardio
2 x Bodyweight Squat
2 x Bodyweight Squat > Squat Jump > Shrimp Squat > Pistol Squat
2 x Lunge
2 x Russian Hamstring Curl
3 x Burpee
Upper Body & Abs
(Same as day 1)
(Same as day 2)
Let’s break down how all this works.
You don’t have to go to absolute muscle failure every set to make progress, but you need to come close.
(You’ll learn to recognize this point as you work out more–it’s where you struggle to get a rep and are pretty sure you’re not going to get the next.)
You want to rest enough in between sets for your heart rate and breathing to settle down but not so much that you lose your pump and workout intensity.
Progressions are indicated by the > symbols.
So, for example, once you can do 20 pike pushups, you then start doing dive bomber pushups for that and all future workouts. Once you can do 20 dive bombers, you start doing handstand pushups instead.
In this way, your workouts will change over time.
And in the cases where there are no progressions (plain pushups and bodyweight squats, burpees, pullups, etc.), your goal is to simply increase the amount of total reps you can do each workout.
For example, if you can’t do one chinup yet, do chinup holds until you can do 20 and then progress to chinups.
Do these sets back-to-back without rest (3 sets is one circuit).
Bodyweight workouts (and the lower body workout in particular) are pretty cardio intensive.
If you need or want to do more cardio, though, do it either several hours before your bodyweight workouts or sometime after (you want to be as fresh as possible for your resistance training).
If you’re not sure how much or what type of cardio you should do to reach your goals, check out this article.
Something you should know. 🙂
That’s all there is to it.
I saved this for last because, quite frankly, it’s far less important than proper diet and training.
You see, supplements don’t build great physiques–dedication to proper training and nutrition does.
Unfortunately, the workout supplement industry is plagued by pseudoscience, ridiculous hype, misleading advertising and endorsements, products full of junk ingredients, underdosing key ingredients, and many other shenanigans.
Most supplement companies produce cheap, junk products and try to dazzle you with ridiculous marketing claims, high-profile (and very expensive) endorsements, pseudo-scientific babble, fancy-sounding proprietary blends, and flashy packaging.
So, while workout supplements don’t play a vital role in building muscle and losing fat, and many are a complete waste of money…the right ones can help.
The truth of the matter is there are safe, natural substances that have been scientifically proven to deliver benefits such as increased strength, muscle endurance and growth, fat loss, and more.
As a part of my work, it’s been my job to know what these substances are, and find products with them that I can use myself and recommend to others.
Finding high-quality, effective, and fairly priced products has always been a struggle, though.
That’s why I took matters into my own hands and decided to create my own supplements. And not just another line of “me too” supplements–the exact formulations I myself have always wanted and wished others would create.
I won’t go into a whole spiel here though. If you want to learn more about my supplement line, check this out.
For the purpose of this article, let’s just quickly review the supplements that are going to help you get the most out of your bodyweight (and other) workouts.
Creatine is a substance found naturally in the body and in foods like red meat. It’s perhaps the most researched molecule in the world of sport supplements–the subject of hundreds of studies–and the consensus is very clear:
Supplementation with creatine helps…
You may have heard that creatine is bad for your kidneys, but these claims have been categorically and repeatedly disproven. In healthy subjects, creatine has been shown to have no harmful side effects, in both short- or long-term usage. People with kidney disease are not advised to supplement with creatine, however.
If you have healthy kidneys, I highly recommend that you supplement with creatine. It’s safe, cheap, and effective.
In terms of specific products, I use my own, of course, which is called RECHARGE.
RECHARGE is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored and each serving contains:
You don’t need protein supplements to gain muscle, but, considering how much protein you need to eat every day to maximize muscle growth, getting all your protein from whole food can be impractical.
That’s the main reason I created (and use) a whey protein supplement. (There’s also evidence that whey protein is particularly good for your post-workout nutrition.)
WHEY+ is 100% naturally sweetened and flavored whey isolate that is made from milk sourced from small dairy farms in Ireland, which are known for their exceptionally high-quality dairy.
I can confidently say that this is the creamiest, tastiest, healthiest all-natural whey protein powder you can find.
There’s no question that a pre-workout supplement can get you fired up to get to work in the gym. There are downsides and potential risks, however.
Many pre-workout drinks are stuffed full of ineffective ingredients and/or minuscule dosages of otherwise good ingredients, making them little more than a few cheap stimulants with some “pixie dust” sprinkled in to make for a pretty label and convincing ad copy.
Many others don’t even have stimulants going for them and are just complete duds.
Others still are downright dangerous, like USPLabs’ popular pre-workout “Jack3d,”which contained a powerful (and now banned) stimulant known as DMAA.
Even worse was the popular pre-workout supplement “Craze,” which contained a chemical similar to methamphetamine.
The reality is it’s very hard to find a pre-workout supplement that’s light on stimulants but heavy on natural, safe, performance-enhancing ingredients like beta-alanine, betaine, and citrulline.
And that’s why I made my own, and I called it PULSE.
What makes PULSE special, you ask?
While everyone claims to have the best pre-workout supplement on the market, I can actually back up such claim with real science, and real numbers.
Bodyweight workouts have many advantages but aren’t necessarily for everyone.
They’re fantastic exercise and so-so strength and muscle builders, but they’re not as practical as weightlifting for maximizing muscle growth and sculpting a physique.
So, if you’re an experienced weightlifter looking for a new challenge, this could be for you. You can use bodyweight workouts to maintain your muscle and build muscle endurance.
If you’re new to working out and want to dramatically transform your body, though, bodyweight training is an acceptable place to start, but a good weightlifting program is going to get you there faster.