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The 7 Best Bodyweight Exercises for Muscle and Mobility

Yes, bodyweight exercises can help you get jacked.

Expert Verified By: Brad Baldwin, BS, MS, CSCS

You may scoff when someone says that bodyweight training is worth your time, but we suggest rethinking your position. Repping out air squats probably won’t grant you a 500-pound back squat, but bodyweight training can build muscle, improve mobility, and be done from virtually anywhere. 

On the list below, you’ll find seven of the best bodyweight exercises that we bet you’ve probably heard of before. We’re not duping you. These moves have survived the test of time for a reason — they’ll help you achieve the muscle and mobility you strive for. They include:

The Best Bodyweight Exercises

The list that follows contains seven of the best bodyweight exercises. Are they basic? Yes, but that doesn’t mean they’re ineffective. In selecting these movements, we focused on targeting your fundamental movement patterns and ensuring that all of the exercises engage multiple muscles.

We also elaborate on the benefits of bodyweight training and how you can progress with these movements sans weights.  

Push-up

The push-up is one of the most basic and effective moves for improving upper body strength. And it really couldn’t be easier to do. You get on all fours, keep your back straight, and repeatedly lower yourself down and up working the chest, triceps, and shoulders in the process. Your core will also benefit, too, as the push-up is essentially a moving plank that forces your entire body to stabilize.

Benefits of the Push-up

  • It can be done anywhere with no equipment.
  • The push-up activates the core.
  • It strengthens the entire torso, making it a useful upper-body move. 

How to Do the Push-up

Get into a plank position with feet together and hands underneath your shoulders. Keep the abs tight and your butt just slightly up. Now, lower yourself, under control, until your chest is about an inch from the floor. Hold for a beat, and then drive yourself back up. 

Squat

You must be shocked to see the squat is in this lineup, right? Of course, we’re being sarcastic, and you already know that because the squat is highly regarded as one of the best movements loaded or unloaded for improving your mobility and taxing your legs. Some even refer to the squat as the king of all lifts (including us). If you want to sprint faster, jump higher, lift heavier, and look sexier then squat. 

Best bodyweight exercises squat
photo courtesy of LarsZ/Shutterstock

Benefits of the Squat

  • You’ll improve mobility as the squat has your body move through multiple planes of motion to complete the exercise. 
  • Youll gain more leg muscle as the squat targets your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, and hip flexors. 

How to Do the Squat

Stand tall with feet about shoulder-width apart. Bend at the knees and squat down, driving the hips back simultaneously. Keep squatting until the bottom of your thighs are at least parallel to the floor or lower, if comfortable. Drive through the heels to stand back up. 

Inverted Row

Think of an inverted row as pull-up lite. You’re pulling less of your body weight, so it’s easier to do for beginners while virtually recruiting all of the same muscles as a pull-up. The inverted row is technically a horizontal rowing movement, as your body is parallel to the floor, making it comparable to cable rows and barbell rows regarding positioning. That said, it’s lower impact than both of those moves since you’re not using weight to stress your muscles but are instead fighting gravity. Advanced trainees can bust out a lot of reps to further tax their back muscles.

Benefits of the Inverted Row

  • The inverted row is useful for both beginners, who can’t pull up their entire body weight, and advanced gym-goers, who want to perform high-rep back movements. 
  • It requires little equipment just a barbell and a rack. Or, if you’re at home, use a suspension trainer, a towel draped over a closed door, a sturdy broomstick between two chairs, or a sturdy tabletop. 
  • This exercise is low impact, as you’re not loading the joints and muscles with weights. 

How to Do the Inverted Row

Lay a barbell into the hooks of a power rack, set a few feet off the ground. Lay under the bar, so the barbell is over the chest. Extend your arms up and grab the bar. It should be set just high enough that your butt and back are hovering above the floor. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and row your chest to the bar, or as close as possible.

Chin-up (And All the Variations)

This pull-up variant has you supinate the hands (turn them inward) when pulling your chin to the bar. Like a pull-up, the chin-up recruits the back muscles  the lats, rhomboids, and traps — but with more emphasis on the biceps. Because of the extra bicep recruitment, most people are generally stronger in this position and can pump out a few extra reps. Any variation of a pull-up is an excellent way to get stronger, bigger, and learn how to control your body weight.

Benefits of the Chin-up

  • The ability to control your entire body weight.
  • You’ll build a stronger and broader back and get extra biceps work.
  • Pull-up bars are affordable, or you can rep them out at a park or anywhere there’s a bar to hang from.

How to Do the Chin-up

Hang from a pull-up bar with your palms facing towards you, set about shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull up until your chin is at or above the bar. If you can’t do a chin-up yet, try jumping up to get into the top position, hold yourself in that position for 10 seconds. Do this a few times, aiming to increase the time of your hold. 

Glute Bridge

This exercise is a popular choice among trainers to target the glutes while eliminating the potential for back and knee pain. You can also load the glute bridge to increase your glute strength, which will carry over to your deadlift and squat, or perform sets of them unweighted as a warm-up. If you don’t have access to weights at home, you can make the glute bridge more challenging by performing it one leg at a time. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Benefits of the Glute Bridge

  • Less back and knee pain as there’s no load involved, and you’re in a supine position.
  • Will carry over to your deadlift and squat strength.
  • Directly targets your glutes, while also taxing your hamstrings to some degree.

How to Do the Glute Bridge

Lie on the floor, with your heels planted firmly on the ground. Contract the core and pull the belly button and ribs into the body. Drive through your heels to lift the hips and lower back off the floor. Contract the glutes and hamstrings. Note that if pressure is felt in the lower back, tuck your pelvis into your body to decrease lumbar extension (minimize lower back arch). 

Bear Crawl

Crawling isn’t just for babies. By getting on all fours and slowly crawling forward — keeping your back straight, and your knees under your hips and an inch off the floor — you’re teaching the body how to move as one unit. Your core will burn from stabilizing the torso, your quads will engage from propelling your feet forward, and your shoulders will work hard to move your arms. Altogether, the bear crawl will improve coordination, increase core strength, and bolster mobility as crawling over time lubricates the joints. 

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Benefits of the Bear Crawl

  • Crawling forward one leg and arm at a time will improve coordination. 
  • More mobility from continually mobilizing the shoulder, hips, knees, ankles, and wrists joints
  • You’ll activate more muscles, as the quads, core, shoulders, and hip flexors are all working to move and stabilize the body simultaneously. 

How to Do the Bear Crawl

Get on all fours, with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees directly underneath your hips. Now, raise the knees an inch off of the ground. Keeping your back straight, simultaneously move your right hand and left foot forward a few inches. Then, repeat on the other side. Keep repeating to crawl forward. You can also actively squeeze your muscles and hold in this position to perform a bear plank.

The World’s Greatest Stretch

Ok, ok, so this isn’t the pump- or sweat-inducing exercise you had in mind, but mobility is essential. The world’s greatest stretch improves mobility in three key areas — the hips, the shoulders, and the thoracic spine (or T-spine). It has you get into a deep lunge position, touch your elbow to the floor, and then reach up to engage your back and shoulder. You can (and probably should be) doing this before any workout — loaded or unloaded — as it’s essentially a one-stop-warm-up-shop.

Benefits of the World’s Greatest Stretch

  • Activates the back, legs, hips, shoulders, and core up before a workout.
  • It can be worked into a circuit to improve mobility and serve as a “break” from more strenuous exercises.

How to Do the World’s Greatest Stretch

Get into a lunge position, so that your front foot is flat and your back foot is on the toes. Lower the opposite arm of your extended leg to the floor and reach your other arm to the ceiling. Hold for 10 seconds, then lower your arm to the same side as your front leg. Repeat on the other side.

The Benefits of Bodyweight Exercises

There’s a lot of upside to training with nothing but your own body. Here, we’ll breakdown all of the pros of utilizing the moves above, from the positive effects they have on your movement to the fact that they require zero equipment.

They’re Highly Accessible

Maybe you want a yoga mat to protect your knees, but other than that, bodyweight training requires no equipment. A benefit that’s seemingly more relevant today given the closing of big-box gyms everywhere due to the COVID-19 pandemic. No matter where you are, you can always bust out a circuit of push-ups, squats, and glute bridges. 

You can also get creative with how you structure a bodyweight workout at home. Try this deck of cards workout:

  • Assign one move to a suit so push-ups for spades, squats for clubs, burpees for diamonds, and inverted rows for hearts. 
  • Draw a card and perform the move associated with that suit for the number of reps on the card; or 11 reps for face cards and 15 for aces. 
  • Aim to rest as little as possible. If you’re a bit rusty, cut the deck in half. 

They Help You Move Better

Most bodyweight moves mimic movements we encounter in everyday life. We squat to get out of a chair; we lunge when we walk up the stairs; we technically perform a pull-up when closing the garage door. Most movement patterns can be broken down into six basic categories, a vertical pull, vertical push, horizontal pull, horizontal push, knee-based movement, and a hip-based movement. Here’s an example of each:

  • Horizontal push: push-up
  • Horizontal pull: inverted row
  • Vertical push: military press
  • Vertical pull: pull-up
  • Knee-based movement: squat
  • Hip-based movement: glute bridge

By performing bodyweight exercises, you’re improving your proficiency in these patterns and making yourself stronger in these positions. That’s not to say weight training won’t make you stronger at lifting boxes, but performing those moves with weight can sometimes take away from your mobility and, therefore, hinder the move’s effectiveness. 

They’re Generally Safer

What’s the major difference between a push-up and bench press? If you’re powerlifter Jen Thompson, then 330 pounds bearing down on your shoulders and chest. Loaded movements cause more mechanical stress on the muscles and therefore elicit more hypertrophy and strength gains — but that can come at a cost.

If you can’t lift with proper form or attempt too much weight too soon, then you’re putting yourself at risk of injury. Powerlifters, strongmen, and weightlifters, who all lift extremely heavy, are nearly at risk of an injury anytime they load a bar on their back or lift it overhead. Can you get hurt during a set of push-ups? Sure, but the chances are far lower. 

They’re Scaleable

You may think that squatting or doing a push-up with your bodyweight is the ground floor for all exercise, but that’s not the case. A true beginner can squat to a chair, hang from a pull-up bar to build their base, or elevate their hands for push-ups on the edge of a couch. 

And when you eventually outgrow the basic variations above, there are ways to make bodyweight moves harder. Push-ups can be performed with one arm, squats can be turned into 1-1/2-rep squats, and you can elevate your legs for inverted rows. 

How to Progress With Bodyweight Exercises 

With weights, you progress by lifting more weight or the same amount of weight for more reps. You don’t have that option for bodyweight movements, so you’ll have to rely on more reps. Start by finding how many reps you can do of a bodyweight exercise before your form breaks. Then, start by performing three sets of that move for five reps short of your max. Each week, or workout session, add one to two reps to each set. Once you reach your max reps for all three sets, drop the rep count back to your starting number and add a set. You can also alter the tempo of each movement to make the reps more challenging. 

More Bodyweight Training Tips

Now that you have a better understanding of the basics of bodyweight training and the best bodyweight exercises worth learning, read more about it by clicking on the link below.

Featured imaged courtesy of LarsZ/Shutterstock

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