The 1977 documentary Pumping Iron is chock-full of footage of bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Franco Columbu preparing for the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition. There’s a lot of on-screen clanging and banging of weights, but very little calisthenics to be found.
Nearly five decades later, resistance training still reigns supreme for building muscle — whether you’re a professional physique athlete or a first-time gymgoer. What are you to do, then, if you’re trying to bulk up but can’t make it to the gym (or don’t have a well-furnished facility at home)?
Do you give up on your pursuit of gains? Heck no. As it turns out, you don’t need to pick up a barbell to put on muscle (though it will certainly help). Bodyweight or calisthenics-based training can, in the right climate, build comparable muscle to that of lifting weights.
Your body can be both the canvas and the paintbrush. Here are a few bodyweight-only workouts you can use to build muscle, as well as the science behind why calisthenics is surprisingly effective for hypertrophy.
Best Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workouts
- Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Chest
- Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Back
- Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Shoulders
- Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Arms
- Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Legs
Best Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Chest
International Chest Day is typically celebrated on the bench press or with a pair of heavy dumbbells. In their absence, you can still develop your pecs by taking things (way) back to basics.
Chest training without weights is easier to perform than some other muscles, but you’ll still have to make do with fewer exercises than you’d otherwise enjoy during a standard in-the-gym session.
Push-ups, dips, and their many variations will need to be the cornerstone of your approach to chest training if you want to grow.
- Single-Arm Wall Push-Up: 2 x 8
- Decline Push-Up: 3 x 15
- Chair Dip: 2 x 15
- Single-Arm Slider Flye: 2 x 15
If you don’t have access to floor sliders, a hand towel or even a folded t-shirt will do in a pinch.
Best Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Back
It is said that bodybuilding shows are won from the back. Even if you don’t compete, an underdeveloped posterior chain can negatively impact the entire appearance of your physique.
Without rows, deadlifts, or cable exercises on the menu, you’ll have to go extra-hard on your back work to ensure your upper body is proportional.
Provided you have access to a stable horizontal bar, you can get quite the back workout in through a few select exercises — some of which might surprise you.
- Close-Grip Chin-Up: 3 x 8-12
- Wide-Grip Pull-Up: 2 x 8-12
- Inverted Row: 2 x 15
- Ab Wheel Rollout: 2 x 15
If you lock your pelvis into extension and focus strongly on drawing your arm back towards your sides, the ab rollout is actually a half-decent lat exercise since it trains the motion of shoulder extension.
Best Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Shoulders
The anatomical design and function of your deltoids make them quite tricky to properly train if you don’t have weights to work with. That said, nothing is impossible if you’re committed and creative.
Unfortunately, the majority of calisthenics exercises for your shoulders will mostly stimulate the anterior, or front, deltoids. Lateral and posterior shoulder work is going to be hard to come by without using other types of equipment.
- Handstand Push-Up: 3 x 6
- Close-Grip Push-Up: 3 x 12-15
- Wide-Grip Inverted Row: 2 x 15-20
- Side Plank: 2 sets for max time.
While the side plank is a stellar oblique movement, supporting your torso is facilitated to a large degree by a strong isometric contraction at the shoulder. You should feel your lateral delts and rotator cuff start to burn if you hold it long enough.
Best Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Arms
Gym bros the world over might scoff at the prospect, but you can in fact load up your guns without ever performing a single biceps curl or cable pressdown (not that there’s anything wrong with piling on the isolation work to grow your arms).
Fortunately, two of the most reliable and effective calisthenics exercises — the push-up and chin-up — rely heavily on assistance from your triceps and biceps, respectively.
- Close-Grip Chin Up: 3 x 12-15
- Inverted Row: 3 x 12-15
- Decline Push-Up: 2 x 12-15
- Diamond Push-Up: 4 x 15
While the push-up and chin-up are pretty great at taxing your arms without weight, they won’t stimulate your biceps and triceps as directly or fully as proper isolation work will. As such, a bodyweight-only arm workout will end up stimulating your chest and back as well.
Best Bodyweight Bodybuilding Workout for Legs
Whether by seemingly-infinite sets of heavy squats or stacking every 45-pound plate in the gym onto the leg press, heavy lifting is the backbone of most bodybuilders’ leg days. Without big weights of your own, you’ll have to turn to your own bodyweight.
While your two legs have no problem carrying you around all day, standing on one foot will change the game. You’d be surprised just how hard a workout of single-leg everythings can be.
- Bodyweight Squat: 3 x 15
- Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 x 12-15
- Single-Leg Suitcase Deadlift: 2 x 8-10
- Single-Leg Glute Bridge: 2 x 12-15
- Stair Sprint: 3-4 rounds.
Can You Build Muscle With Bodyweight Training?
In short, yes. The reality of the situation is a bit more complicated, but you shouldn’t let any naysayer get into your head and convince you that your efforts are futile just because you aren’t working with the barbell.
For a real-world example, you need only look to career gymnasts for confirmation that weights aren’t the only way to gain mass. In fairness, though, professional gymnasts are usually among the genetic elite and may be more predisposed to hypertrophy than your average fitness enthusiast.
Luckily for the layperson, the scientific community has some words of encouragement as well. Research reviews on the subject have mostly concluded that calisthenics training can grow significant amounts of muscle, even in trained subjects. (1)(2)
Furthermore, studies on specific exercise comparisons have yielded some interesting results. Namely, that bodyweight movements like the pull-up and push-up are comparable in stimulation and muscle activity to the lat pulldown and bench press, respectively. (3)(4)
Critics of calisthenics for muscle growth tend to remark that your body’s weight is not enough to induce the right amount of tensile force on muscle.
However, modern literature on the mechanisms of hypertrophy do acknowledge that you can facilitate muscle growth even in low-load scenarios, (2)(5) and that high external resistance isn’t the only path forward.
Strictly speaking, though, calisthenics does fall short in the arena of strength gain. There’s little scientific evidence to support the idea that bodyweight training will increase your strength potential to a significant degree, at least in comparison with resistance training.
Fortunately, strength isn’t the main priority of a bodybuilder (but it deserves your attention regardless).
Benefits of Bodyweight Training for Bodybuilding
Don’t let time away from the weight room dissuade you. Bodyweight-only training may not be the golden chalice of muscle growth, but it can provide some unique benefits to your overall fitness, athleticism, and fulfillment.
For first-timers or those just starting their self-improvement journeys, bodyweight training is a fantastic option. While the gym may be familiar territory for seasoned veterans, newcomers may not know the lay of the land.
Furthermore, you can perform bodyweight-only movements in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Calisthenics also teaches you awareness about your own body in space, as well as how to control your limbs as they bend and straighten.
Even a well-designed resistance training program for muscle growth can be cumbersome or frustrating to finish if your gym is packed to the brim every time you go. Rude patrons, a lack of sufficient equipment, and the general neurological stress of heavy lifting — all things that dock points from weight lifting.
On the other hand, bodyweight training earns major points for convenience. You’re never short on plates, and you never have to fight for a barbell. Everything you need for your workout is quite literally with you from the jump.
Supplements Resistance Training
If your weight room hiatus comes to an end, you should still consider keeping some bodyweight movements in your workout plan. Bodybuilding is certainly easier if you make weights the centerpiece of your programming, but calisthenics have their place as well.
Namely, as stellar workout finishers. It’s easy, convenient, and especially safe to bang out a set of push-ups or inverted rows to absolute muscular failure at the end of a chest or back session.
You can certainly push your limits with weights or cables as well, but you’d generally want a spotter in such situations to avoid any potential mishaps.
Bodyweight training can be quick, dirty, and effective. The limited number of exercises at your disposal for a given muscle group has a silver lining — you’re not likely to suffer from paralysis by analysis debating which two curl variations belong in your arm day.
Moreover, heavy barbell work in particular demands a thorough warm-up and extensive ramping scheme. Deadlifting 500 pounds is impressive, but you can’t get there in two sets; warming up for big compound lifts can take as long as 15 to 30 minutes all on its own.
Calisthenics training requires much less preparation and ramp-up time, allowing you to jump right into the work itself.
How to Progress With Bodyweight Training
No matter your modality of choice, you need to apply some form of progressive overload to encourage muscle growth (and strength gains) over time. Unfortunately, this is an area in which resistance training has the edge. It is straightforward and convenient to add another 5 pounds to a barbell.
For most bodyweight movements, altering the difficulty comes in the form of adjustments to your technique or posture that result in significantly more challenge (think performing a single-arm push-up instead of on two arms). Since you can’t delicately tune the difficulty dial, you may have to look to other avenues.
Increase Your Rep Count
The most straightforward way of overloading bodyweight exercises is by simply turning up the number of repetitions you perform.
However, this method tends to work best on exercises that are already challenging — if you can comfortably bang out 30 reps of chair dips already, aiming for 35 reps instead probably isn’t that much harder.
Reduce Your Rest
You can make your workouts harder by increasing the density of your training — the amount of time it takes you to complete the work itself. If you normally rest a full minute between sets of pull-ups, for instance, set a timer and only break for 50 seconds next time. Then, rest for 45 seconds the week after.
Use Intensity Techniques
Most intensification techniques like drop sets or cluster work will translate just fine from resistance training to calisthenics.
For example, you can create a makeshift drop set by performing a set of push-ups to near failure, and then extending the set by resting on your knees instead of in the plank position.
Rest-pause and cluster training works especially well with calisthenics too. If you’re doing clustered pull-ups, simply let go of the bar for a few moments to catch your breath before continuing on. No need to rack a bar or let go of a pair of dumbbells along the way.
No Weights? No Problem
Bodybuilders live and die by the quality of their workouts. When a plan goes awry, such as your gym temporarily closing or your daily schedule is thrown into chaos, you have two options; feel sorry for yourself, or improvise and adapt.
If you choose action, don’t be afraid to look beyond the dumbbell rack for a satisfying workout. Bodyweight-only training isn’t ideal for hypertrophy, but in a pinch, training your muscles with just your own weight works surprisingly well.
- Iversen, V.M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B.J. et al. No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports Med 51, 2079–2095 (2021).
- Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 4;16(24):4897.
- Kotarsky, C. J., Christensen, B. K., Miller, J. S., & Hackney, K. J. (2018). Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 32(3), 651–659.
- Doma, K., Deakin, G. B., & Ness, K. F. (2013). Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises. Sports biomechanics, 12(3), 302–313.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 29(10), 2954–2963.
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