The 16 Best Bodyweight Exercises for Muscle Gain and Mobility

Yes, bodyweight exercises can help you get jacked.

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

If you’re an iron junkie who thinks calisthenics aren’t worth your time, you might want to rethink 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 virtually anywhere. 

Convenience isn’t the only selling point of bodyweight work either. The right movements can help you get or stay flexible, and — if performed correctly — even sharpen your technique in your favorite barbell exercise.

man doing plank
Credit: Viktor Hladchenko / Shutterstock

On the list below, you’ll find 16 of the best bodyweight exercises that don’t reinvent the wheel, but do stand on their own merit. You’re not being duped. These moves have survived the test of time for a reason — they’ll help you achieve the muscle and mobility you’re striving for.

Best Bodyweight Exercises

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, 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. 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

The squat is widely 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. If you want to sprint faster, jump higher, lift heavier, and look better, you should be squatting. 

Benefits of the Squat

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

How to Do the Squat

Stand tall with your feet in a comfortable stance. The width and toe angle is entirely individual, so take time to find out what your body feels best doing. Extend your arms out in front of your torso as a counterweight, then slowly sit your pelvis straight downwards. Sink as deep as you can while keeping a straight back before standing 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. 

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.

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 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 

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. 

Benefits of the Chin-up

  • Teaches you 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 reducing potential back or 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.

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 under 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. 

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.

World’s Greatest Stretch

Mobility is just as important as mass or strength. The world’s greatest stretch improves mobility in three key areas — the hips, the shoulders, and the thoracic 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 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.

Burpee 

You may shudder at the word, but the burpee is the ultimate calorie burner. With several different variations, the burpee can be great for beginners or challenge the fittest of athletes. This full-body exercise can be seen in gyms almost everywhere and is popular in the CrossFit Games because this high-intensity movement allows you to do more work in less time.

Benefits of the Burpee

  • Not only do burpees burn a ton of calories while performing them, but they’re also great at stimulationg excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), meaning you’re burning more calories for the rest of the day. (1
  • The burpee is truly a full-body stimulator.
  • Burpees are a high-intensity cardio and strength exercise that can help improve cardiovascular health and endurance. 

How to Do the Burpee

Stand straight up with your feet shoulder-width apart and eyes forward. Squat down with your chest up. Drop your hands to the ground and quickly snap your feet behind you so you are in a plank position. Lower your chest to the floor like you would a push-up and press back up. Snap your feet back to your squat position and lift your hands off the ground. Stand all the way back up and jump, raising your arms overhead. 

Tricep Dip

To build bigger arms, the triceps are the muscles to work. Not only can you achieve the desired aesthetic, but there are several benefits to exercising your triceps. Lifts like the bench press can benefit from strong triceps and can help improve your overall upper body strength and stability. Tricep dips in particular are great because they only require your own body weight and can be done almost anywhere.

Benefits of the Tricep Dip

  • Build strength in your arms and shoulders, which can contribute to other exercises like the bench press and overhead press
  • Closely mimics the mechanics of other upper-body pressing movements, allowing for some extra motor pattern practice.

How to Do the Tricep Dip 

Sit on the edge of an elevated surface like a chair or a bench and put your palms on the edge, fingers facing forward. Extend your legs out in front of you so that your heels are on the ground. Press through your palms and lift your body so that you are hovering above the ground. Slowly drop your torso while bending your elbows until you reach the end of your range of motion. Push yourself back up until your arms are extended.

DIps can be demanding on the shoulders at first, so take things nice and slow if you’re new to the exercise. 

Pull-Up 

The pull-up is one of the harder body weight exercises you can do because of the required upper body strength. Even though this exercise targets a big muscle like the lats, weak arms and shoulders can seriously debilitate your ability to perform even one rep. Plenty of progressions are available to master the pull-up, making it possible for anyone to get their game up.

Benefits of the Pull-Up

  • Performing a compound exercise allows you to get more bang for your buck. Studies suggest compound exercises may be more beneficial for your VO2 max and general fitness. (2)
  • Help improve grip strength.
  • Pull-ups can improve your overall upper body strength, which can contribute to better lifts, stability, and posture

How to Do the Pull-Up 

Find a pull-up bar that is high enough up so that your feet don’t touch the ground when you hang on it. Grab the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull your shoulders down and away from your ears to engage your lats. Squeeze your core and use your back, arms, and shoulders to pull your body up until the bar is at chest level. 

Plank

One of the more popular core exercises is the plank, but it doesn’t only work the core. Holding a plank can also target other major muscle groups in your body. If done properly, the plank can produce many benefits, including improved strength, stability, and posture in the trunk and hips. 

Benefits of the Plank 

  • The plank helps strengthen your core and your spine, which both contribute to better posture.
  • A strong core is essential for better lifts and can help prevent injury. 
  • Planks are easily modifiable and can be performed anywhere, so it’s a great exercise for beginners.

How to Do the Plank

Lie prone on the floor. With your elbows bent, raise yourself off the ground such that you’re suspended by your forearms and feet only. Squeeze your shoulder blades, tuck your hips slightly, and lock your knees out. There should be a perfectly straight line from the base of your neck down to your ankles. Hold for time.

Wall Walk 

Climbing up walls isn’t just for Spider-Man. Wall walks recruit your back, arms, shoulders, and core and can help improve balance and stability. Often seen in CrossFit gyms and at the Games, wall walks are a high intensity way to build strength and get your heart rate up. Performing wall walks can both expose and remedy weaknesses in your movement integrity, especially in the core or shoulder. 

Benefits of the Wall Walk

  • Develops overall upper body strength. 
  • Wall walks can be a progression exercise to handstands, handstand walks and push-ups.
  • Improves core and shoulder strength and stability, which can help with lifts and everyday activities. 

How to Do the Wall Walk

Lie on your stomach with your hands close to your sides and feet touching the wall behind you. Press your body off the ground and start to climb your feet up the wall by stepping one foot at a time. Your hands should also move one at a time as they support your movement up the wall. “Walk” all the way until your arms are fully extended and your belly button is as close to the wall as possible. Walk back down the same way as you came. 

Broad Jump 

Plyometric training can produce benefits pertaining to physical fitness, overall health, and muscle strength. Research suggests that regular plyometrics can have positive effects on agility, speed, jumping, and overall performance. (3

Broad jumps involve jumping and absorbing force, which can increase your heart rate and teach your body how to land properly and effectively. 

Benefits of the Broad Jump

  • Trains your body to mitigate ground forces, which can be helpful in exercises like the clean or snatch
  • Implementing cardio is important for improving overall performance and may reduce risks of heart disease.
  • Recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are used for sprinting, jumping, and other short explosive movements. Studies suggest these muscles are more responsible for producing more power and may aid in heavy lifting. (4)

How to Do the Broad Jump 

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Push your hips back while loading the weight in your heels and swing your arms back to help prime for forward momentum. Drive your hips forward as your feet leave the ground and jump as far forward as you can. Land with a soft bend in your knees and absorb the weight in your heels. 

Lunge

The lunge may not get as much love as the squat, but it is an effective way to target the legs and glutes. This unilateral exercise can improve your balance and stability and requires core activation. With plenty of different lunge variationswalking, static, forward, reverse, lateral, curtsy, jumping — you can recruit different muscles, improve function, and add more variety to your workout.

Benefits of the Lunge

  • Helps develop balance and coordination, which translates into everyday activities. 
  • Provides some great glute activation and stimulation.
  • Unilateral exercises like the lunge can help improve muscle imbalances. 

How to Do the Lunge 

Stand with your feet hip width apart — this will help you keep a strong and stable base when you step. Keep your chest up and core tight as you step straight forward, bending both knees to 90 degrees or to your range of motion. Press through the heel you stepped with to reset in your starting position. 

Step-Up

The step-up might seem self-explanatory, but don’t let the simplicity of this exercise fool you. It requires strength and balance and is easily modifiable to accommodate any fitness level. The step-up recruits the muscles in the lower body — quads, hamstrings, and glutes — responsible for walking, running, bending your knees, hinging at your hips, and squatting. Doing this exercise regularly can help improve your lifts and your life.

Benefits of the Step-Up

  • Recruits some of the same muscle used to squat and deadlift, so it can improve these lifts. 
  • Unilateral exercises can promote balance and stability and improve muscle imbalances. 
  • Improved general fitness like running or jumping. 

How to Do the Step-Up 

Stand in front of a stable surface like a bench or a box. Place your working leg on the elevated surface, brace your core, and push yourself up. Keep almost all of your weight on the elevated leg — think of your other leg as a kickstand, its only purpose is to help you keep your balance. 

Box Jump 

The box jump is a plyometric exercise that uses your quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and explosive power to do exactly what the name calls for. Jumping high enough requires strength in the lower body, so you can use a shorter box if needed. However, a great aspect of the box jump is you can continue to challenge yourself by heightening the surface of which you jump onto.

Benefits of the Box Jump

  • Works as a warm-up for leg day or as a main movement in a workout. 
  • Strengthens the muscles in the lower body. 
  • Can help your athletic performance with explosive movements like jumping or sprinting. 

How to Do the Box Jump 

Stand in front of a shin-to-knee height box with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and push your hips back to get ready to jump. Push down through the floor with the quads to jump up onto the box. Swing your arms forward as you leave the ground to create momentum. Land on the box with your heels planted and a soft bend in your knees. Dismount from the box and set up for another rep.

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 nearly zero equipment.

Easy and Accessible

You might want a yoga mat to protect your knees or elbows, but other than that, bodyweight training requires basically no equipment. 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. 

Improved Mobility

Most bodyweight moves mimic everyday life. You squat to get out of a chair; you lunge when you walk up the stairs; you 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. Barbell work accomplishes this as well, of course, but with the obvious caveat that you must have access to weights in the first place. 

Unparalleled Convenience

Unlike powerlifters or strongman competitors who need specialized equipment for their training, bodyweight aficionados can go hard just about anywhere. Since you’re forgoing the barbell for your own body weight, calisthenics-based routines can be performed wherever you have enough physical space.

woman doing decline push-up
Credit: BLACKDAY / Shutterstock

This makes bodyweight training convenient in a way that other activities can’t match. If you spend a lot of time traveling or don’t have access to a commercial gym, a good bodyweight routine can help you stay strong and gain muscle

Scalable for All Levels

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 absolute load 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 additional volume above all. Start by finding how many reps you can do of a bodyweight exercise before your form really breaks down. 

Once you’ve established your limit, perform multiple sets of 3 – 5 reps shy of that limit. If you can do 12 pull-ups, hit three sets of eight. 

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 how to turn your body into the ultimate performance machine.

References 

  1. Podstawski, Robert, Markowski, Piotr, & Clark, Cain C. T. International Standards for the 3‐Minute Burpee Test: High‐ Intensity Motor Performance. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2019; 69 doi: 10.2478/hukin-2019-0021
  2. Paoli, Antonio, Gentil, Paulo, & Moro, Tatiana. Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength. Frontiers in Physiology. 2017;8 doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.01105
  3. Slimani, Maamer, Chamari, Karim, & Miarka, Bianca. Effects of Plyometric Training on Physical Fitness in Team Sport Athletes: A Systematic Review. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2016; 53. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2016-0026
  4. Karp, Jason R. MS. Muscle Fiber Types and Training. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2001; 23(5). 

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