Can I Build Muscle with Bodyweight Exercises?

"Can I build muscle with bodyweight exercises?" Yes, you can. But you'll need to make a few adjustments to the way you train. Find out more here.

Shot of two young men and a woman standing in plank position at the gym

Delta, omicron, BA.2 – two years on, and the COVID-19 virus is still a real threat 🦠

So, if you've tried heading back to the gym but found yourself uncomfortable with throngs of people huffing and puffing in your face when you’re stuck in a tight, confined, and oft-poorly ventilated space, well, that’s only understandable.

And even if you aren’t afraid of contracting the virus yourself, you may be worried about people close to you (e.g., elderly loved ones or those with underlying medical conditions).

So, you have no choice but to stay away from the gym.

Although this raises another concern: ensuring the safety of your closest and dearest is great and all, what about your gains? With only bodyweight exercises at your disposal, are you doomed to lose your gains?

Can I build muscle with bodyweight exercises?

Well, as we’ve established in a past article (covering the effectiveness of home workouts), not necessarily.

Give the article a read, and you’ll realize that so long as you’re progressively overloading and pushing near failure, you can experience the same degree of muscle growth – regardless of the load you’re using (i.e., be it lighter loads or heavier weights).

Meaning? Yes, bodyweight exercises do build muscle. (Sidenote: they can help you lose weight, too.)

But here’s the thing. While our past article highlighted the need to push to failure every working set, it didn’t provide much more guidance beyond that (oops!)

More specifically: how, exactly, do you “work harder” on bodyweight exercises to stimulate muscle growth?

Well, not to worry. You can think of this article as an “expansion pack” to the previous. Find actionable tips on how you can build – and continue building – muscle mass through bodyweight training at home.

How to build muscle with bodyweight exercises


#1: Increase reps

We all know that training volume is a key determinant of hypertrophy.

In general, the higher your volume, the better your muscle growth. So, since bodyweight exercises make it challenging (note: it’s not entirely impossible) for you to manipulate load lifted, the easiest way for you to increase volume – and, in turn, push near failure – would be through upping your rep counts.

To illustrate, let’s say you’re 60 kg – and performing bodyweight squats:

  • Week 1: 4 sets of 10 reps, equating to 2,400 kg lifted (math: 41060)
  • Week 3: 4 sets of 15 reps, equating to 3,600 kg lifted (math: 41560)

But wait. There’s a catch.

You can’t keep increasing the number of reps you do per set; there’s an upper limit where you’ll begin noticing diminishing returns (or worse, increased muscle loss). So, what’s this limit?

According to this 2017 meta-analysis, it’s 30 reps.

#2: Increase sets

Right. So, you’ve brought your rep count to 30.

Now what? Well, it’s time for you to look at the other side of the equation: the number of sets you’re performing. Once again, let’s examine how that’d work in your training (assuming you’re 60 kg and performing bodyweight squats):

  • Week 1: 4 sets of 30 reps, equating to 7,200 kg lifted (math: 43060)
  • Week 3: 5 sets of 30 reps, equating to 9,000 kg lifted (math: 43060)

See how simply adding one more set to your exercise significantly increases your training volume?

That said, the same limitation applies; you can’t keep increasing the number of sets you perform and expect to see improvements in muscle growth infinitely.

The point of diminishing returns kicks in when you surpass 30 working sets per muscle group weekly. What does that mean?

Well, we know that we’d see optimal muscle growth by training a particular muscle group twice to thrice weekly. Here’s what a typical bodyweight training program for glutes would look like, for example:

  • Day 1: Bodyweight squats and Bulgarian split squats
  • Day 2: Hip thrusts and lunges
  • Day 3: Nordic curls and side-lying hip abductions

Imagine if you did 4 working sets for each exercise. That tallies up to a total of 24 working sets already, which means you wouldn’t have much wriggle room left to increase the number of sets you’re doing. How now, brown cow?

#3: Try overcoming isometrics

One thing you could try is overcoming isometrics.

For those unimitated, the idea of overcoming isometrics is simply for you to try to move an immovable object with maximum effort. It essentially tires out your target muscle group “prematurely” before you move on to your actual working sets – “pre-shifting” your needle closer to the failure point.

Okay, sounds good. But how would you go about doing it without equipment?

Answer: get yourself a (long) towel. Because I know you’re sick of hearing about bodyweight squats, let’s switch up the example exercise.

So, let’s assume you’re doing pike pushups to target the front delts. What you’re going to do is step on one end of the towel and do a “front raise” while holding the other hand. Really engage your front delts – and activate them to the best of your ability against this immovable resistance. Keep this up for 20 to 30 seconds.

Then, once you’re sweating, shaking, and in absolute misery, head right into your pike pushups. The accumulated fatigue and metabolic stress mean that you won’t need to perform nearly as many reps (or sets) before you’re close to failure.

#4: Invest in home workout equipment

Finally: we know we said that you could build muscle with just bodyweight exercises. But, well, why not consider investing in home workout equipment?

Note that you don’t necessarily have to shell out “Big Money” for power racks or fully decked-out cable machines.

Instead, even resistance bands would go a long way in adding load to your exercises. Plus, they can even change up the resistance profiles of your exercises, so you experience more well-rounded muscle growth, too!

Start building serious muscle with GymStreak

Hopefully, this article has addressed your questions of, “Can I build muscle with bodyweight exercises?” and “Do bodyweight exercises build muscle?” once and for all. You can, and they do. And we’ve even gone through all the bodyweight training techniques you could leverage for maximum muscle growth.

The only problem? You’re not entirely sure how you could adapt loaded exercises to their bodyweight versions (e.g., bodyweight bicep curls?)

Don’t worry. That’s where GymStreak comes in. Find a ton of bodyweight exercises in GymStreak’s exercise library that’ll cover your muscle growth from head to toe. Better still: we even show you how to perform them correctly! So let's go; it's time to get your muscle on.

References


Nóbrega, S. R., Ugrinowitsch, C., Pintanel, L., Barcelos, C., & Libardi, C. A. (2018). Effect of Resistance Training to Muscle Failure vs. Volitional Interruption at High- and Low-Intensities on Muscle Mass and Strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(1), 162–169. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001787

SCHOENFELD, B. J., CONTRERAS, B., KRIEGER, J., GRGIC, J., DELCASTILLO, K., BELLIARD, R., & ALTO, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 51(1), 94–103. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764

Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 31(12), 3508–3523. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200

Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). The dose–response relationship between resistance training volume and muscle hypertrophy: Are there really still any doubts? Journal of Sports Sciences, 35(20), 1985–1987. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2016.1243800