Can You Really Build Muscle with Bodyweight Exercises?

A woman exercising

You know that strength training by lifting weights will help you build muscle. But what about bodyweight only exercises? The answer is yes – read on to learn more.

Can Bodyweight Exercises Build Muscle?

A significant percentage of exercisers have quit the gym weight room and opted for home-based workouts – whether for the cleanliness, the privacy, the lack of judgement, or just the convenience of not having to drive, park, check in, change and then all of that in reverse.

Home based workouts can have a few downsides – but all of them are easily overcome. One hurdle is equipment. But unless you’re training for competition and need barbells and extremely heavy weights, most home-based equipment is pretty affordable. [Read: Working [Out] Remotely – The Benefits of Exercising at Home] Hand weights (dumbbells) and kettlebells are good choices. A stability ball, a TRX Suspension Trainer or BOSU Balance Trainer are also great options that use only your body weight for an infinite variety of resistance, plus pretty much continuously engage your core. [Read: Get Excited About Exercise: Try Something New]

Bodyweight exercises have a number of advantages. For one, they’re typically functional, compound movements that allow you to focus on your form without the added resistance from holding weights. These strengthen the movement patterns you use in everyday life – like squatting, lifting, twisting, and climbing stairs. Bodyweight exercises that focus on stabilization target many of the smaller muscles that often don’t get challenged when using weights.

Here’s a bodyweight-only workout that will challenge all the major muscle groups – each round takes about six minutes, so do two or three rounds for best results:

To build muscle with bodyweight-only exercises means changing up the way you may be used to training with traditional weights. But it all comes down to challenging the muscles. So how does that work?

How the body builds muscle

Building muscle mass – what science calls hypertrophy – involves challenging muscle tissue so that its cells create new proteins. Exercise does this by creating mechanical tension, inducing metabolic stress, or creating microtrauma. Most types of training will incorporate all three, which of course delivers the biggest benefit – but different workout techniques may target one more than the others. Let’s look at each of these to understand what’s going on.

Mechanical tension typically comes from lifting weights. The muscle is loaded with enough resistance (weight) to create tension, and cells respond in ways that lead to muscle fiber gains. There are other ways to increase mechanical tension besides the amount of weight lifted. One of these is to increase the total volume of work by increasing the number of repetitions and sets. Increasing the time under tension by slowing down the movement is another way. And with some exercises, like pushups and pullups, the body’s weight alone provides sufficient mechanical tension.

Metabolic stress creates that burning sensation you feel when you’re pulsing through squats, holding the bottom of a push-up, or on that final rep of crunches. It occurs when normal waste products that form as a result of exercise (like lactate) build up in the muscle tissue. This in turn triggers hormonal, cellular, and growth factor reactions that lead to creating new proteins in muscle cells.

Microtrauma are tiny tears in muscle tissue that occur during resistance training. The body then works to repair that damage, which jumpstarts muscle growth. Any exercise can generate muscle microtrauma, and it’s not always just the result of lifting weights. Dance, running, or simply movements your body’s not accustomed to can cause microtrauma.

Building muscle with bodyweight exercise

There are lots of ways to challenge your body and encouraging muscle fiber growth with bodyweight versions of traditional weighted exercises. Here are some good ones, in no particular order – you’ll want to consider your own individual preferences and possible limitations when choosing which will work best for you:

1 – Increase reps and sets; decrease rest time

The more you do an exercise, the more metabolic stress you put on your muscles. With bodyweight-only versions of exercises, you’ll do more reps and sets than you would when using weights. By limiting rest breaks between sets (without sacrificing good form of course) you’ll put more stress on muscles, promoting growth. For example, if you’d typically lift weights for about eight to ten reps, try doing that same exercise for 20 reps at home with just your bodyweight, and take a shorter rest between sets.

2 – Change the angle or tempo of the exercise

To increase microtrauma, try changing the angle or direction of the movement. For example, take your lunges out to a diagonal instead of straight forward or backward. Or add an incline or decline to your push-ups. By changing the angle, other muscles may get involved in the movement, and different parts of the same muscle group may be called upon to work as well.

Change the tempo of an exercise by slowing the downward (eccentric) phase of the movement, which is when your muscles are resisting gravity. For example, go down slowly into a squat for a count of five, then explode up quickly back to the starting position. Another great option is to slow down the entire exercise. Using the squat example again, you lower down for a count of three, hold at the bottom for three, then rise back up on another count of three. This increases the muscles’ time under tension, creating more microtraumas within the muscle fibers.

3 – Add holds and half-reps

These techniques are somewhat similar to the tempo change just suggested. They add more metabolic stress to the muscles, which means more gains. Try holding a bodyweight lunge at the bottom of the movement for five counts before rising back up.

Half-reps involve rising only part-way to the top of the movement before starting the next rep. For example, drop down into a lunge or squat, rise halfway up, then drop back down again before returning to standing. Or when doing a glute bridge, stop short of coming all the way down to the floor before starting the next rep.

4 – Perform single-sided exercises

By loading up one side of your body at a time during an exercise, you’ll increase both mechanical tension and microtrauma to that set of muscles. Try switching from standard (bilateral) to single-sided (unilateral) versions of the squat, glute bridge, or deadlift. With unilateral moves, one side is doing all the work rather than sharing it across both sides, where the stronger side can often take over.

Keep up the challenge to continue progressing

As with any kind of exercise, there’s always the possibility you’ll reach a plateau if you keep doing the same thing over and over. The body is actually very good at adapting to the demands imposed on it – so if your routine starts to feel easy, that means your body’s adapted to what you’re doing, and you’re likely not building any new muscle fibers.

That’s why it’s so important to keep steadily challenging yourself by adding variations, mixing things up, and progressing. So keep challenging yourself with different ways of doing your usual exercises, or try something altogether new to really shake things up!

If you’d like some guidance in building a strength training routine that will help you reach your goals and fits your lifestyle, I can help! Reach out to me here and let’s have a conversation.

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