When I started trying to get back into shape, one of the best advice I got was to use bodyweight exercises. This way I could do the exercises anywhere and not have to buy all the equipment or commit to a gym membership first.
This advice came from a friend of mine who is a personal trainer. And the reason he told me to do this was, all to often people would get motivated to start working out, but after a month or two they’d lose interest. So what happens then to the home gym equipment you bought or the full year gym membership you paid for? They’re both left untouched and considered wasted expenses. He’d seen this way too many times and I glad that I did get sound advice.
Benefits of Bodyweight Training
One of the reasons I was so thankful was that as soon as I tried doing some of the exercises with just my body weight, I understood how difficult they were and how out of shape I really was. This was thanks to the many years of sitting behind the desk, working way too long hours and not being as active in sports as I used to be back when I was still in school.
Even as I’ve graduated to lifting weights and other exercises, I still use a lot of bodyweight exercises because of their many benefits.
- You can do them anywhere. Literally. Whether at home, in the office, or in your living room.
- They’re free. There’s nothing to buy, no equipment to get or membership to sign up for.
- They are functional. This is one of the biggest advantages for me. Weights get us stronger because of the heavier loads, but not all the movements are practical or functional in life.
- They improve relative strength. This means strength relative to how much you weigh. The best example of these are gymnasts who don’t lift weights yet are among the strongest on a pound-per-pound basis.
- They help improve our overall movement and balance.
Top Bodyweight Exercises Anyone Can Do
Of the many I’ve tried and done, for me these have been the most effective in getting me back to shape. I’ve also learned that there are so many variation and you can make them more challenging if you wanted to, but for these I’ll stick to the basic form of each.
Best Upper Bodyweight Exercises
As you’d expect this was the first exercise I did. Push ups are excellent not only for fitness and strength but they also help build stability. The main muscles worked when doing push ups are the chest, arms (triceps) and front shoulders.
It also does make our core work as well to help up stabilize our entire body as we do the exercise.
- Start by lying on the floor facing down.
- Position your hands on your sides facing the floor.
- Using your hands, push yourself off the floor.
- Slowly lower yourself back to the ground.
Pull Ups / Chin Ups
While the push ups is usually the first bodyweight exercise everyone learns, the pull up is probably the king of bodyweight exercises. It is the ultimate test of upper body fitness.
This was one exercise that took me a while to achieve. So you don’t need to worry if you can’t do one yet. There are a number of progressions you can do that will slowly let you get stronger and able to do pull ups on your own.
Here’s what I followed:
- Inverted rows (see the next exercise)
- Band assisted pull ups (using a large resistance band)
- Eccentric pull ups (at home)
- Leg assisted pull ups (at home)
- Full Pull ups
To explain, I began doing inverted rows which helped my back muscles get used to working out. Then I graduated to using band assisted pull ups when I was at the gym. At home, I also did practice on my own, using a couple of methods.
One, was just doing eccentric pull ups. This meant just slowly lowering my in a controlled fashion from the top of the pull up position. The other exercise I did was using a chair and my legs to kick off the chair to give me a bit of a boost until I got stronger.
Together this allowed me to be able to do my first pull up.
With pull ups, there are a lot of variations we can do, starting with chin ups. We can also use a narrow grip, as well as a wide grip. To hit other muscles we can also implement a neutral grip.
This is very similar to a pull up but instead of pulling ourselves vertically upwards we are more horizontal when doing inverted rows. Inverted rows are excellent for our larger back muscles. They work more of the middle back compared to the lats which are on the outer part of the back with pull ups.
This is much easier than pull ups or chin ups and can be used as a means to learning the pull up.
When doing inverted rows, the main variables involve the height of the bar and the height of your feet. The more upright you are the easier the exercise. The more horizontal your body is, which happens as the bar gets positioned lower. You can also increase difficulty by raising the level of your feet.
Dips or tricep dips are great if you want to beef up your arms or tone your triceps. Our triceps makes up two-thirds of our upper arm so working them instead of our biceps makes more sense if you want to get bigger ‘guns’. For women, doing dips also helps get rid of the extra flab under the back of the arms.
Doing dips at home is simple as all we need is either a chair, a solid ledge or stairs. You do need to make sure that the object should be solid and won’t give way to your weight or slide away otherwise you can hurt yourself.
The other thing when doing dips is not to go too low. At most dip down until your upper arms are parallel to the ground, meaning they are horizontal. Try not to go past this point as this will put extra pressure on the shoulders due to the extension and lack of leverage past that point.
Best Bodyweight Exercises for Legs
Body Weight Squats
This is one of the most basic movements that helps us in everyday life. It helps us practice the motion of sitting and standing without using our arms. Bodyweight squats work our entire lower body with the focus being on the thighs, namely the front thighs or quadriceps. They also work on our butt, hamstrings and calves.
Because our legs are very strong muscles, not having much load when doing this isn’t overly challenging. However, it is important to do it with good form as squatting helps us improve the mobility and flexibility of our ankles, hips and even thoracic spine.
Squats help us with overall coordination and agility. They are also the basis of many more dynamic exercise combinations that we can do when we want to increase the cardio factor when working out like when doing circuits.
The hip bridge is one of my favorite exercises because it targets muscles that we often don’t use or neglect which are the back of the leg muscles. The bridge, primarily works on the hamstrings and buttocks but also lets us strengthen our lower back. As someone who used to wake up in the evenings because of back pain, I can’t say enough about how helpful this is for back pain relief.
Lunges are one of the most versatile bodyweight exercises. This is a single limb exercise which means we only use one leg at a time. It is also very functional in that it is like stepping forward and pushing off with one leg which we do find ourselves doing every now and then in everyday life.
Lunges work the legs, focusing on the upper leg or thighs. The beauty about lunges is its variations. By using different variations this one exercise becomes many and lets us work our legs and hips from different angles. It is also great for improving overall lower body mobility, which counters being seated all day long.
A few variations of the lunge include:
- Forward lunge
- Reverse lunge
- Side or Lateral lunge
- Rotational lunge
Bulgarian Split Squat
To add more difficulty and coordination to lunges, try the Bulgarian split squats. You’ll need an object about knee high to place your back foot on for this exercise. Because you don’t get much support from the hind leg, this exercise works the front leg more making it great for strength building.
It also improves one’s balance on both legs since your stabilizer muscles need to work for stability. The one last thing it does is improve our mobility and flexibility, since it makes us extend and open our hips, compared with other leg exercises.
One of the more difficult single leg exercises is the pistol squat. This requires doing a squat but only on one leg at a time. The movement demands balance, coordination and a lot of strength. Like the pull up this is one exercise that took me a while to achieve. But it is well worth it.
Best Core Bodyweight Exercise
I’m not a fan of doing sit ups or crunches, so I was very happy to learn about the plank. This is another exercise that has a number of variations. The two most useful from my experience are the basic plank and the side plank.
With both exercises, use your elbow to lean on the ground and always make sure that the core is engaged. A number of variations also have people do it on their hands. The difference between resting on your elbows as opposed to your hands is that, being on your elbow focuses more on the core, while using your hands moves the target muscles upward closer to the shoulders.