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Challenging Bodyweight Exercises to Build Muscle

Challenging Bodyweight Exercises to Build Muscle

There is so much to love about bodyweight exercises - They can be done anywhere, require no equipment, and it's an effective way for beginners to begin building full-body strength and practice proper form before adding weights. But probably the best thing about these exercises is that they can be performed when you don't have access to the gym (things we've learned this pandemic) or just need to do a quick home workout.

Some might think bodyweight workouts aren't challenging enough, the exercises are just too easy. Although they can become easier as your body gets adjusted to the movements, they are still very effective at burning fat and building muscle. In fact, The American College of Sports Medicine's Health and Fitness Journal published a study that found that high-intensity bodyweight circuits are an efficient way to decrease fat and boost muscular fitness. [1]

Bodyweight training gets easier as you make progress (as with any training), usually, when that happens, free weights are added to make it more challenging. Unfortunately, not everyone has dumbbells or any type of weights at home. Luckily, you can make bodyweight moves more difficult without adding weights. So, to help you build (or maintain) muscle at home, we've put together the best bodyweight exercises for muscle building, plus tips on how to make them more challenging! That way you can continue strength training at home and make progress without adding any weight. 

Best bodyweight exercises to build muscle at home

To start building muscle in general, you should start building strength with bodyweight exercises. These are six of the best exercises everyone should master before hitting the weights. But they're always great to come back to when you want to work on better form, or when you're forced to do home workouts for an unknown period of time (like during a pandemic)! 

We know these exercises are a great starting point, but if you're more experienced you'll want/need more of a challenge. Stick with us, we'll be going over ways to make all bodyweight exercises, including these, more challenging!

Squats

The bodyweight squat is the exercise you have to master. It's a fairly simple exercise, but it actually targets multiple muscle groups at once, especially if you perform them with free weights! First, focus on mastering the form.

Here's how to do it:

To start, find a foot stance that works best for you. The most common is shoulder-width apart and toes slightly pointed outwards. Make sure your standing straight, looking ahead, and your core is tight. This is the starting position. Then lower your body down as if you're going to sit back on a chair, don't bend at the knees! Try to go as deep as possible, going through the full range of motion makes the exercise more effective.

Push-up

This is one of the best exercises for building upper body strength, so much so, that even bodybuilders and experienced lifters perform them regularly. It helps build muscle, strength, and definition specifically in your chest, but it also targets the delts, triceps, core, quads, and hip flexors.

Here's how to do it:

The key is to keep your hands an equal distance apart and right under your shoulders. Make sure your hips are in line with your shoulder, keep your core engaged, and squeeze your glutes too! Once you got your position ready, lower your body down to the floor, but make sure your back is straight and your lower body doesn't sag on the floor. Then push back up.

Superman punch

It's extremely difficult finding a back exercise that you can do at home with no equipment, besides the pull-up (and that's if you have a pull-up bar)! This is one that you should add to your home exercise list! It hits your entire posterior chain, meaning your back, shoulders, and glutes.

Here's how to do it:

Lie on your stomach with your arms extended overhead. Begin to lift your chest, arms, and legs off the ground. Squeeze your core and glutes as you do this. Keeping your arms and legs off the ground, pull your elbows in towards your sides and then punch overhead. Make sure that your movements are slow and controlled, feeling the tension along your backside. Repeat the punching motion while maintaining the glutes engaged and your arms and legs hovering above the ground.

Planks

Planks should be your go-to core exercise. Many turn to sit-ups or crunches to build abs, but the key to getting abs is strengthening your core. Planks help build core strength and stability while also activating other muscles in the lower and upper body. Making it the perfect total body exercise!

Here's how to do it:

To do a high plank, get into a push-up position. Make sure to keep your palms and feet firmly on the ground, with your core tight and engaged to provide stability. Try to maintain a straight line, so don't let your butt sag down or hunch your back. Hold this position for 30 seconds or longer.

Walking lunges

Squats aren't the only great compound leg exercise! Lunges are one of the best exercises that target your entire lower body (quads, glutes, hamstrings) to help build strong, sculpted legs. It's crucial to do it with proper form to ensure all your lower-body muscles are being engaged and activated.

Here's how to do it:

Step forward with one leg, allow the knee to track over the toe, and begin to descend so that the back knee is close to touching the ground. Drive through the heel of your front foot, contract your quads, and extend both knees to raise yourself back up. Repeat by stepping forward with the back foot and repeating the lunge on the other side.

Bulgarian split squats

This one requires a stable surface, so find something that is close to the height of a workout bench. Some people use their couch, get creative because similar to the lunge it works your entire lower body!

Here's how to do it:

Find your stable surface, and face away from it, place the front foot a couple of feet ahead of you, and place the back foot facing down on the stable surface. Adjust yourself if you need to, find a comfortable enough position that you're hips are able to sink down. Once you found your position, grip the floor with the front foot, engage your core, and lower your hips toward the floors so that your back knee comes close to the floor. Your torso will be slightly leaned forward but remember to maintain the torso neutral. Pause and drive through your front heel to return to the starting position.

5 ways to make bodyweight exercises harder

If you want to make the above exercises, and all other bodyweight exercises harder, then try changing up your routine by implementing these tips:

Change your tempo

Most already know that performing an exercise fast and with less rest is harder than taking your time and resting in between sets. It gets your heart rate up, you feel the burn in your muscles, and you work up a sweat - That's why HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is so popular. But doing the opposite, is just as good, possibly even better...

Slowing down as you perform an exercise keeps your muscles under tension thus making it more intense. Taking it slow also forces you to actually think about what you're doing and focus on the muscle group you're targeting. This will help you to stay focused and engage the right muscles. 

Here's an example of doing bodyweight squats at a slower pace: Take 3-5 seconds to lower down into the squat position. Add a pause at the most difficult part of the move, in this case, it'd be at the bottom. So once you're at the bottom count to two, then take 3-5 seconds to stand back up. Pause for a moment at the top and repeat.

By moving slowly through the exercise and adding a pause, you are increasing the time under tension. That pause causes the muscles to contract against resistance, making it stronger. If you really want to challenge yourself, experiment with slowing down on each exercise. The key is to move slowly, focus on the muscle groups you're targeting, and pause at the most difficult part of the move.

If you want to switch things up and have a more cardio-focused workout just speed up the tempo. Do this by decreasing the rest period in between each rep. Create a HIIT circuit by picking 4-6 of your favorite cardio bodyweight exercises and performing them back-to-back with no rest in between the exercises. Then repeat 2-4 times (rest in between each round for a minute). 

Make them unilateral

Making an exercise unilateral just means shifting the bulk of the work to one side of the body. Think, single-leg deadlifts or, like our above example, Bulgarian split squats! Making an exercise unilateral adds an extra stability challenge because the base of support is smaller making it tough to balance. It forces you to work harder, and the result of that? Unilateral strength which leads to strength overall! 

For example, a pistol squat is a more advanced variation of a bodyweight squat. It's more challenging because it is performed on one leg with the other lifted off of the ground in front of you. It is difficult, but practice makes perfect! Once you can easily do squats (at any tempo) take a jab at the pistol squat, but work your way up to it. I suggest placing one or both hands on a steady object until you can perform it without any support.  

Another great example of unilateral exercises is doing a one-arm plank. Simply get in plank position, lift one arm off the ground and hold it by your side while performing a plank. This will fire up your obliques and really engage them because your core is working harder to keep your body stable

Just remember, practice makes perfect. Unilateral exercises aren't easy, that's why it's on this list. So work your way up to them, make slight variations to help with your balance and coordination. You'll slowly build balance and unilateral strength and eventually be able to perform the exercise without any assistance!

Do more reps

This one is obvious, but an easy way to make your bodyweight training routine slightly difficult. Add more reps or sets to make the same workout feel harder again. Doing this makes it more challenging because you're increasing your overall training volume and also putting your muscles under more stress than normal. 

The point is to push your body to work a little harder than last time. Luckily, adding more reps and sets does the trick when you don't have weights!

Increase your range of motion

If you've ever had a trainer or even just an encouraging gym buddy, then you've probably already heard the term "move through the full range of motion". This means just pulling your chest all the way to the bar while doing a pull-up or lowering yourself into a deep squat (thighs parallel to the floor). It can be tough, but it helps build muscle. 

The muscles are usually the weakest when they're fully stretched, so by pushing yourself and working the muscles into that end range you're able to build strength effectively. Make it even more challenging and add some pulses at the end range before going back to the starting position. Pulsing 2-3 times will really fire up those muscles and make you realize that maybe you don't need to lift weights to get a decent workout. But pay attention to your body, the burn you feel should not be overbearing. It shouldn't feel sharp or stabbing, it should just feel like a burning sensation in your muscles. 

This is challenging though, so as always, work your way up to it. Doing this puts a lot of stress on the joints and muscles so gradually increase the range of motion as you become stronger. For example, beginners can start by performing a partial squat. Do this by squatting down on a bench or box. Gradually lower the box until you're able to go all the way down without assistance. This strategy can work for other exercises as well. You should know your limitations, just remember to push yourself a little harder the next time you perform the exercise.

Add two or more movements

Combine two or more movements to one exercise - Or also known as, compound movements. These types of movements engage various muscle groups and it adds more motion for you to move through, making it more difficult to perform. It can be done by either combining two exercises or just adding a rotational or twisting movement to the exercise.  

An example would be performing mountain climbers, but instead of moving your knees forward, you move each knee toward the opposite elbow. Thus making it slightly more difficult than you're used to. Another example would be doing reverse lunges to curtsy lunges to get all your leg muscles burning! Even simply adding a push-up to burpees increases the difficulty!

The bottom line, is you don't need a fully equipped gym to workout! Having weights definitely helps, but not having any shouldn't stop you from exercising. Using your own bodyweight to workout can help with weight loss, build muscle, and even improve mobility. Another added benefit of bodyweight exercises is the variety they can bring to each workout! Having variety is a key part of any training program, the way to get better, stronger, faster is by switching things up. So never stop adapting and try implementing a few of these changes into your routine to feel and see the difference!

P.S. Need home workouts? Or just want someone to plan effective workouts that will get you closer to your goals? Try the Fit With Iulia app! Iulia plans goal-focused workouts every week, implements an effective training split, and has plans for home and gym workouts. Try your first workout for free! The first workout is always available for everyone to try - no subscription required. Download the Fit With Iulia app, open the app, go to Goals & Workouts, and select the goal that best fits you.