Article Author: Erny Peibst
If you possess average genetics for building muscle and are like 90% of other weightlifters, you need to train smart in order to build a physique that exceeds your genetics. Bodyweight workouts can help you gain the mass you want.
There have been several scenarios where individuals have attained exceptional muscle size from bodyweight training. A few examples being: prisoners, male gymnasts, and guys in the military.
Bodyweight exercises have also been the staple of my workouts, helping me pack on 50lbs of lean, natural muscle in just 3 years.
Here are a few advantages to bodyweight training:
- Saves you money
- Can be done anywhere (improving mind-muscle connection)
- Gives you functional strength
Gym memberships might not seem like a lot of money, costing $50 or so a month. But if you pay this amount and stay at a gym for 5 years, your bank balance will be $3,000 less.
…I need to set up a gym.
The real beauty of doing bodyweight exercises is that you can do them anywhere. There’s nothing worse only being able to go to the gym at rush hour, resulting in you queuing for the bench press on international chest day.
Solution: do push-ups at home.
(Or don’t do chest on a Monday).
The fact you can work out in the ‘comfort’ of your own home is a massive advantage if you do it right. This then creates an environment where there are zero distractions.
In my experience of working out at home, this peace and quiet improves my mind-muscle connection. And the power of your mind-muscle connection should not be underestimated.
To prove how important this connection is, let’s take a look at a study which compared the strength gains of 3 groups (1).
- Did nothing
- Lifted weights (3x per week)
- Listened to an audio CD, visualizing themselves lifting weights (3x per week)
The results saw that group 2 increased their strength by 28%. But what was really fascinating was group 3 had a 24% increase. Yes, you did read that right – those who didn’t even lift a weight almost had the strength gains of those who did strength-based workouts.
This shows that the more your mind is focused on training, whether this is during your workout or not, can really speed up your progress.
When working out at home I have 100% concentration during the exercise I’m performing and nothing else enters my mind.
Whereas in the gym you’ve got to deal with:
- People curling in the squat rack (this still happens by the way)
- People potentially talking to you (apparently headphones don’t stop this)
- the gym grunter!
- Waiting for people to finish on certain pieces of equipment
- Attractive girls walking in, purposefully distracting your eyeballs.
It definitely depends on the type of person you are. Some people like being around other people because it motivates them, i.e. you like the competitiveness of looking better or lifting heavier weights, which can increase motivation.
However, others enjoy training the most when the gym’s empty and it feels like your own sanctuary. If you are one of these people, bodyweight workouts will certainly be a plus for you because you’ll thrive on the flexibility of working out at home.
Bodyweight exercises also give you functional strength that you can apply in the real world.
Functional strength can be defined as ‘strength which improves your ability to survive should you be in danger.’
Imagine you are hanging off a cliff. If you could do a bodyweight exercise such as a muscle-up; no need to panic, you can get out of this life-threatening situation easily.
And the reason you could transfer this strength from muscle-ups to being able to lift yourself up from the edge of a cliff is because when practicing muscle-ups you’re using your whole body, working all your muscles.
However, most bodybuilding exercises are restricted movements that will be of no use to you in the real world; thus serving no real function other than being strong for that specific exercise.
The main muscles being worked in a muscle up are your lats, shoulders, biceps and triceps.
So let’s say you designed a workout where you did lat pulldowns, dumbbell shoulder presses, bicep curls and tricep extensions until you developed good strength in these exercises.
Do you think you’d be able to survive in the hanging from a cliff example from being strong in those exercises?
Why? Because even though you’re working the same muscles, they aren’t functional exercises so you won’t be able to apply this strength to exercises you’re not used to doing; even if the same muscles are being worked.
Let’s flip this situation around, do you think a gymnast who has a ton of functional strength would struggle doing a bench press for the first time?
Here’s a 90kg guy, who does calisthenics, bench pressing for the very first time.
So he lifted 150kg (330 pounds) for 1 rep. And to be fair it looks like he could’ve lifted even more if he’d kept going. That’s well over 1.5x his bodyweight.
Imagine how much an Olympic gymnast could bench press (they’d be a lot stronger than this guy)…
Some people commenting on the video find it difficult to believe that he really hadn’t done a bench press before, but these people evidently don’t understand how much bodyweight workout (calisthenics) exercises can impact strength.
This dude’s strength wasn’t a freak occurrence for somebody who does calisthenics:
So we now know how effective bodyweight training (calisthenics) is for building insane strength and muscle size.
I’m now going to list the best bodyweight exercises that’ll help you possess the strength of Hercules and display muscularity like Thor himself.
This is an exercise that gymnasts learn early on and is a killer workout for your pecs, lats, deltoids and glutes. The planche puts a lot of strain on your delts, so it’s no surprise that gymnasts have boulders for shoulders.
What is a planche? It’s essentially a position where your whole body is held up in a horizontal position from the ground, by your arms. Thus, your body is parallel to the floor.
This is quite an advanced exercise and a great mass builder, especially when practiced every day. If bodybuilders see you doing this on the gym mats, expect instant respect, due to the amount of functional strength it takes to perform a planche.
Don’t expect to see Phil Heath doing one of these at BodyPower…
How to do a Planche:
Basic Planche Position
Move into a position where your knees are on the ground, with your arms down and hands on the floor in a forward body position. Your arms should be shoulder width apart with your fingers pointing forwards. If you have problems with your wrists it’d be a good idea to turn your fingers out slightly.
It’s important to lock out your arms and push down to the ground. Lean forward until your arms are at a 45-degree angle, then come back. Repeat this motion to strengthen/prepare your muscles to perform a full planche. You should arch your back during this movement.
This is the basic planche position.
Open Tuck Planche
Go into a pushup position and lock out your arms, positioning your upper body at 45-degree upward angle. Now as you lean forward you should go from the sole of your foot touching the ground to your toes touching the ground. As you progress you can lean even further forward and curl your toes under so the top of your feet are actually touching the floor.
Once you’ve got the hang of this from the floor you can elevate your legs by placing them on a stall, so when your arms lock out, instead of you being at a 45-degree angle, you’ll be exactly horizontal. With your feet on the stall, as you lean forwards, point your feet so only your toes are touching the stall (when your body is rocked forwards).
Then lean back and repeat this ‘rocking’ motion back and forth for reps.
Once you regularly practice these 2 movements you’ll soon be able to complete a full planche. Then you can work on holding this position for 30-60 seconds and eventually do planche pushups.
If you could create the perfect exercise to work the whole upper body, helping you build muscle and develop immense functional strength – it wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the planche.
If you have weak delts, incorporating the planche into your routine will make them blow up, giving you massive 3D shoulders.
Here’s a simple, yet powerful daily planche routine to help you pack on some upper body muscle.
- Planche hold for 30 seconds x 5 sets
- 10 planche push-ups x 5 sets
Push-ups will always be one of the greatest exercises for developing the triceps, chest, and shoulders. This is the exercise prisoners speak of most when undergoing impressive transformations when inside, with inmates known to be doing hundreds/thousands of pushups each day (out of boredom).
Charles Bronson revealed in his book, Solitary Fitness, that he does 2,000 push ups every day, which he says contributes to him being able to possess near superhuman strength. He has been known to be able to pick up a full-size snooker table, do over 1,700 push-ups in just 60 minutes and squat with 3 men on his shoulders (don’t ask me how 3 men even fit on someone’s shoulders).
Oh and he’s been known to bend steel cell doors with his bare hands.
Bronson is a huge fan of bodyweight exercises and said that he didn’t do any “weights” (referring to dumbbells/barbells) for 8 years; then walked into a gym and bench pressed 300 pounds for 10 reps.
This is similar to the calisthenics guy who did 330 pounds for 1 rep on his first ever bench press.
Weighing 220 pounds at 5 ft 10, Charles isn’t just a strong specimen, but is also built like a beast.
A lot of guys in the army do hundreds/thousands of pushups during basic training. CT Fletcher says many veterans he speaks to all agree that the best shape they ever got in was during basic training. Greg Plitt, who was in the US army, is another great example of the type of mass you can build when combining endless amounts of push-ups with other bodybuilding exercises.
Different types of pushups:
- Standard pushup
- Clap push-ups
- One-arm pushup
- Diamond pushup
- Handstand pushup
Clap pushups are great for developing power, one-arm pushups are a real test of strength, and diamond push-ups place more emphasis on your triceps, working your chest less.
When attempting the handstand push-up, if you haven’t quite got the balance of a tight-rope walker, take up a push-up position with your feet positioned next to a wall. Then from there slowly move your feet up the wall until you are in a handstand position – using the wall for balance.
Forget leg curls, extensions and presses; the king of all leg exercises will always be squats. And fortunately you don’t need a squat rack to perform them.
Mike Tyson was sent to Indiana’s correctional facility in 1992 and after serving 3 years he came out with tree-trunks for legs! He had done endless amounts of squats, with the following the same routine:
He’d start by placing 10 cards on the floor, with a few inches in-between each of them. Then he’d squat down to pick up the first card, then place it on top of the second card. To pick up the next 2 cards, he’d have to do 2 squats. Then after picking up those 2 cards and placing them on the 3rd card, to pick up those cards he’d have to do 3 squats – and so on.
Thus how many squats he’d do would be determined by how many cards there were in the pile. Doing this with 10 cards will mean you’ll complete 100 squats.
Evidence th-uggests that Mike Tyson liked this game – a lot.
Tom Platz was also known to be a fan of doing lots of bodyweight squats before leaving his home to go to the gym on leg day.
You can often argue who had the greatest biceps or back in bodybuilding, but when it comes to legs, there’s only one. Tom had by far the biggest and most aesthetic set of wheels bodybuilding’s ever seen.
Gymnasts are doing pull-up motions when on the rings and prisoners also perform these in their cells; hanging onto objects such as pipes and bars. And if there are stairs in their cell they’ll often hang onto the steps underneath.
Pull-ups are great for you back, biceps and shoulders.
A chin-up is also a great bodyweight exercise, where your hands are positioned closer together than a pull up, holding the bar in a supinated grip (palms facing you).
A chin up will work your biceps more and your lats a little less, because of the narrower grip.
Once you become super-strong at pull-ups, you can move on to doing one-armed pull-ups and eventually muscle-ups.
If you’re ever seen someone doing muscle ups in a gym, this is the definition of showing off (in a good way of course).
The strongest my lats have ever been was when I was doing pull-ups on the crossbar of my football goal (in my dad’s garden). I was 18 years old at the time and was doing about 30 mins of pull-ups on this bar every day. I ached for the first couple of days but then my body adapted and my recovery levels dramatically improved.
My record for consecutive pull-ups during this time was 36.
When you think about it, it’s quite logical how pull-ups are so beneficial for adding mass. My weight was around 11 stone (154 pounds) at the time and I did 36 bodyweight pull-ups. So I was lifting a combined total of 396 stone (5,554 pounds) within the space of 45 seconds or so.
You might not have a football goal in your back garden that you can swing on like a monkey (guilty), but you can get a pull up bar that can be easily fixed in your house for a cheap price.
My back is genetically my strongest muscle group. I rarely ever prioritise my back workouts, yet it always remains BIG.
I say ‘genetically’ it’s my biggest muscle group, but genetics actually have nothing to do with it.
The size can be attributed to all the swimming I did in my teenage years. With swimming being a sport that requires you to pull yourself through the water, swimmers often develop great lats and V-tapers.
Just look at Michael Phelps’ wings.
Swimmer’s lats aren’t quite up to Mr Olympia size; but for an endurance sport, to develop big muscles like this is practically unheard of. Imagine what long-distance runners look like…skinny and frail.
This is because the body’s main objective when training for endurance is to be as light as possible, making it easier to propel your body through the water.
Even though I stopped swimming at around 13, when I began training for bodybuilding (and muscle memory kicked in), my lats ballooned up in size.
Rock climbing is another great bodyweight exercise for developing strength/mass for your lats. Just google ‘rock climber’s backs‘ and click on images.
A lot of guys who compete in rock climbing have skinny, ectomorph frames; but their backs are JACKED.
Dips are a great exercise for developing big triceps and a chest any silverback would be envious of. You can get a dip station to do these or you can use the sides of your bed to grip onto, with your feet on the floor.
Guess what, dips are another exercise prisoners do repeatedly to build a well-proportioned upper body.
To place more emphasis on your chest during this movement, lean your body forwards.
After bodyweight dips become too easy and you’re hitting 3 digits for reps, you can add more resistance by getting a belt and adding plates. Or you can order a weighted vest/jacket which can weigh up to 30kg (66 pounds).
Dips also work the lower head of your traps, which act as a stabilizing muscle during this exercise. This can explain the mystery of why your traps can ache so much after a hard workout involving dips.
Time Under Tension
There’s a correlation with every jacked guy/athlete mentioned in this article. Yes, they all do bodyweight training, but they also do ridiculous amounts of volume.
Some of you may already do some bodyweight exercises, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to automatically pack on mass like a male gymnast, unless you have exceptional genetics. The reason why gymnasts have abnormal muscularity for natural athletes is because of the extraordinary amount of volume and time under tension their muscles are under on a daily basis.
Gymnasts at Olympic level train for up to 30 hours a week, according to Gina Paulhus, who participated in the US Olympic gymnast program.
Let’s say you go to the gym for 1 hour a day and 5 times a week. This equals 5 hours a week. Gymnasts’ muscles will effectively be under tension for 6 times longer than this.
“But surely that’s overtraining?”
If you read my post: “Is Overtraining a Myth” on JackedNatural.com, you’ll learn that it’s impossible to overtrain a muscle. There are too many real-life examples of people stimulating a muscle for hours every day and developing huge muscles as a result.
Note: They stimulated their muscles, they didn’t annihilate them.
I also put this time under tension theory to the test, doing 25 hours of arms in the space of 5 days (in the gym). I did 5 hours a day Monday to Friday, pretty much replicating the same hours a gymnast would train in a week.
I can confirm that if you do this, expect to get some weird-ass looks from the gym staff from the 3rd hour onwards…
The results? I gained half an inch of solid muscle to each of my arms, which has stayed with me ever since.
This isn’t to say you should absolutely smash a muscle group with heavy weights for 25 hours, because that’s not what I did and that’s not what these other guys have done to gain their mass.
Instead I performed this experiment diligently. I made sure I was lifting really light weights and I never EVER went anywhere near failure. Stopping well before failure enables a person to keep their adrenaline levels low and prevents them from frying their central nervous system.
Once your CNS becomes too stimulated, you’ll go from anabolic to catabolic.
Hence how I say: “You can’t overtrain a muscle, but you can overtrain your nervous system”.
This is exactly how gymnasts and prisoners avoid overtraining. They aren’t lifting extremely heavy weights (for them), thus they’re preventing their adrenaline levels from spiking significantly.
Instead they lift weights at a lower intensity so their muscles can work for 40 seconds or more at a time. This is the time gymnasts spend on the rings when competing.
This is the equivalent of doing 20 reps on an exercise, assuming you spend 1 second for the concentric part of the movement and 1 second for the eccentric.
And you won’t be able to lift a really heavy weight for 20 reps, hence how I always lift light.
The Ultimate Bodyweight Workout
- Dips – 100 reps
- pull-ups – 50 reps
- Planche – hold for 60 seconds x 5 sets, 15 planche push ups
- Push ups – 100 reps
- Bodyweight Squats – 100 reps
Note: I haven’t specified the amount of sets, because it doesn’t matter if you do 3 sets or 10 to complete the reps. As long you do the amount of reps stated in this workout, you’ll be doing a good amount of volume – forcing your muscles to grow.
You can also throw sit ups in with these exercises to work your core, but I don’t personally do direct ab work as your abs will be contracting during all bodyweight exercises (especially squats).
The above workout should take you approximately 40 minutes to do. If you can do this workout 5 times a week you will notice good strength and size gains.
If ‘good’ gains aren’t enough because you refuse to settle for anything less than amazing gains…snap that kid curling in the squat rack, go to prison, train all day long and come out an absolute beast. Or just take up gymnastics full time.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, it’s been a long one so if you’re still reading this – thank you for your patience/perseverance! I hope these tips will help you build a better physique and potentially save you money if you don’t want a gym membership.
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About The Author
You can read more about Erny’s transformation here.