Being on the road means that I can’t hit the gym like clockwork or track my nutrition very easily.
Does that mean I have to give up on fitness and building muscle?
While I do miss the gym and moving some heavy iron, I’ve learned how to build muscle without weights and have continued to get stronger and leaner.
Understanding how to properly use your bodyweight and some simple pieces of equipment is the key to success.
How To Build Muscle Without Weights
Bodyweight training is awesome for building strength, burning fat and improving flexibility.
Unfortunately, a lot of people associate bodyweight training with high reps and therefore believe there’s no way they could get seriously strong with bodyweight training alone. And they’d be right: simply adding more reps won’t create a significant enough overload to continually build muscle.
To build muscle and get stronger you need to place the muscles under tension by using significant resistance, which is something high rep work doesn’t provide.
So, to make bodyweight training an effective method of building muscle without weights, you have to progressively overload the muscles in the same way you would in the gym.
‘Progressive overload’ refers to the concept of placing demands on the body which must be increased gradually over time to continue building muscle. Without progressive overload, your muscles have no reason to grow and adapt to handling heavier loads.
To build muscle without weights, you need to continually challenge your muscles by doing increasingly difficult bodyweight exercises – just as you would use heavier weights in the gym.
Working towards advanced exercises such as the one-armed push-up, one-armed chin-up, pistol squat, planche, l-sit and front lever will ensure that you are constantly challenged. These advanced bodyweight exercises demand high levels of full body tension that lead to huge strength gains.
Working towards these exercises takes a great deal of patience and dedication, but is incredibly rewarding (as Jason Statham shows in the picture below).
The Benefits of Bodyweight Training
Bodyweight exercises belong to a group of movements known as ‘closed kinetic chain exercises’ (CKCE).
CKCE are defined as those where the foot (for a lower body exercise), or hand (for an upper body exercise) doesn’t move and remains in constant contact with a surface.
Closed kinetic chain exercises, as opposed to open kinetic chain exercises (such as the pull-down, bench press or leg press), offer certain advantages, including:
-Demanding more in the way of coordinative ability and stabilization,
-Engaging multiple joints and muscles in each movement,
-Greater muscular and neurological stimulation than OKCE
-And, arguably, they are more ‘functional’.
As if that wasn’t enough, because the need for equipment is almost non-existent when performing these types of exercises, transitioning from one exercise to another is easy. This is great news if you’re trying to burn fat.
Shorter rest periods between exercises will allow you to keep your heart rate elevated and send your metabolism through the roof.
For the purpose of building muscle and burning fat without weights, CKCE bodyweight exercises are fantastic.
The Best Bodyweight Exercises
The most important closed kinetic chain bodyweight exercises you need to learn are the squat, pull/chin-up and push-up.
They are the most important because, in combination, they provide a full-body workout, and each of them can be progressed easily. Working towards the the most advanced variations of these exercises is extremely tough and enable you to keep building muscle without weights for years to come
Squats are thought to be one of the best exercises you can possibly do. It’s easy to use progressions to make them harder as time goes by, but you should start by perfecting your form. Here’s how:
To start, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and put your arms out straight in front of you or behind your head.
Begin the descent by pushing your hips back and bending at the knees.
Look straight ahead and keep your chest up to ensure your back remains in a flat, neutral position. Your back should remain in this neutral position throughout the movement.
Squat down as low as you can whilst keeping your back straight, and then explode back up to the starting position by driving through your heels.
Your weight should be on your heels throughout the entire exercise.
Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups
Pull-ups and chin-ups are amongst the most important exercises to both novice and advanced athletes alike – which is why it sometimes referred to as ‘the upper body squat’.
Before we go on, it’s important to distinguish between a pull-up and a chin-up:
Pull-ups are performed with your palms facing away from you.
Chin-ups are performed with your palms facing you.
Both pull-ups and chin-ups work the back and arms, but chin-ups place slightly more stress on the biceps and are easier than pull-ups. Here are some pointers on form:
The movement begins from a dead hang. This means your arms should be fully extended, hands about shoulder width apart, chest up, and your shoulders back and tight.
Pull yourself up toward the bar, clearing the bar with your chin.
Lower yourself in a controlled motion, and repeat the process.
If you find yourself unable to perform a single pull or chin-up, work on performing negatives. To perform a negative, jump above the bar and try to lower yourself slowly and in control until you’re at the bottom of the movement. This is a great way to build some strength that will prepare you for the real deal.
The advanced variation of pull-ups and chin-ups is known as the muscle-up, which Jim from Beast Skills does a great job of explaining here.
Push ups engage your chest, shoulders, triceps, and core for a complete pushing exercise, and there’s a tonne of different variations to satisfy the beginner to the advanced athlete. They’re kind of a big deal.
To perform a basic push- up:
Place you hands on the ground slightly wider than shoulder width.
Lower yourself until your chest almost touches the floor.
Ensure you keep your body in a straight line throughout the movement by squeezing your glutes and bracing your abs as if somebody was going to punch you in the stomach.
Keep your elbows close to your body.
If you can’t do a regular push-up don’t panic. It’s easy to work up to push-ups by starting on an incline or a wall. The technique is exactly the same as above, only you’re more upright.
Once you can perform the basic push-up you can progress to diamond push-ups and eventually one-armed push-ups.
If you’re looking for more bodyweight exercises to try, check out these posts:
101 Bodyweight Exercises That You Can Do Anywhere
5 of The Best Bodyweight Exercises
5 of The Best On-The-Go Abs Exercises To Build A Core of Steel
6 Awesome Arm Exercises You Can Do Without Weights
Beyond Bodyweight Exercises
Bodyweight training is great, but there are a few pieces of equipment that can make your training even more effective.
Without finding a playground to do chin-ups in, the only way to train your entire body in the comfort of your own home or hotel room is with a TRX Suspension Trainer.
It comes in a small netted bag that you could easily cram into a backpack, and is lightweight. You can simply hook the TRX up to any door frame, tree, or railing and you’re good to go.
There’s an almost never-ending list of exercises that the TRX is good for, but it’s particularly useful for building impressive arms, a strong back and a solid core.
What makes the TRX so awesome is that exercises can easily be made more difficult by using a single limb, or performing them at different angles. For example, the bodyweight row can be done from an almost standing position to begin with, and eventually it can be performed with your feet against the wall.
This follows the all-important principle of progressive overload.
You can read my full review of the TRX here, or check out some other fitness equipment I recommend to people who want to build muscle without weights.
How To Get Started
Building muscle without weights is really no different from building muscle in the gym. You need to find a way to apply the all-important principle of progressive overload, eat well, and get enough rest between your workouts to recover.
It sounds simple – and it is – but with all the misinformation out there nowadays (not to mention people trying to sell gym contracts), it can be easy to get overwhelmed.
I spent a long time believing that bodyweight exercises were useless, and that the only way to build muscle was to go to the gym. Not only was that a waste of time, it was a huge waste of money.
The simplest way of getting started is to download your free copy of The Beginner Bodyweight Workout.
It’s a simple, effective, full-body workout that will put you on the right path.