I’m sitting here outside my garage gym thinking about how I would build muscle without weights. Is it even possible? Many people have difficult living situations that prevent them from having a gym membership or a home gym like I do.
Everybody says you NEED to lift heavy to build muscle. But is this actually necessary at all?
The major factors needed for muscle growth are as follows:
- Calorie Surplus. You need to supply your body with the proper nutrients to grow muscle tissue. If you aren’t eating enough calories, you will never build muscle regardless of the training you’re doing.
- Get Stronger. No matter what method you choose, you need to get stronger at basic movements to build muscle mass. Imagine doing 3 sets of 5 on pushups and then 5 sets of 10 over a couple of weeks, you got stronger! I guarantee you built muscle in the process as well!
- Eat enough protein. When it comes to building muscle mass, you need a calorie surplus and proper protein intake as well. Your body uses dietary protein to build new muscle mass and recover damaged muscle tissue as well. Shoot for at least 0.8-1 gram per lb of bodyweight. If you’re 200 lbs, this will be 160-200 grams of protein per day.
Nowhere in these major factors did I mention you need to use weights. They absolutely help as explained in this article, but they aren’t 100% necessary.
Let’s jump into what we need to do to build muscle mass without weights!
Calisthetics Are King
Calisthenics are athletic movements such as; running, standing, pushing, pulling, etc. The main ones people know are bodyweight exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, dips, pull-ups, back extensions and more!
These are the main focus you’ll be working on to build muscle without resorting to standard weight training. Here’s how we want to set it up.
First, you need to decide how many days a week you can realistically workout per week. I always recommend 2-4 being the sweet spot where most of the benefits are.
Since we’re using bodyweight movements, the stress to our Central Nervous System is much lower compared to standard weight training. This allows us to train more often without weights. Most people will benefit the most from training at least 4 days a week.
How To Set Up Bodyweight Workouts
We’ll be using a full-body setup where we hit multiple muscle groups per day. A standard A/B Style of training works perfectly! The number of bodyweight exercises is limited after all.
Cycling 2 different workouts per week allow us enough variation in movement while also maintaining a higher frequency.
|Workout A||Workout B|
|Superset: Push + Pull||Superset: Legs + Abs|
|Superset: Legs+ Abs||Superset: Push + Pull|
|Low Back||Low Back|
You can see I didn’t specify any exercises for these two workouts. It’s very difficult to give broad training programs out to those with different levels of fitness.
You might be able to do Push-Ups but unable to do Dips.
You could potentially do Inverted Rows, but Pull-Ups aren’t possible.
There are some grey areas to navigate when it comes to bodyweight movements. Setting it up this way allows you to experiment and see what YOU can handle.
Bodyweight Exercise Choices
Here are some examples of these categories I listed above:
- Push: Pushups, Dips, Bench Dips, Pushup Variations, Handstand Pushups, etc.
- Pull: Pullups, Inverted Rows, Negative Pullups, Wide-Grip Pullups, Neutral Grip Pullups, etc.
- Legs: Bodyweight Squats, Lunges, Pistol Squats, Jump Squats, Wall Sits, Sumo Squats, Sissy Squats, Single Leg Deadlift, Calf Raises, etc.
- Abs: Leg Raises, Hanging Leg Raises,
Ab Wheel, Planks, Pushup Planks, Side Planks, etc.
- Low Back: Back extensions, Supermans, Reverse Hypers, Banded Romanian Deadlifts
This is only a small list of exercises you can potentially use! Here’s what I would do for my first week, knowing what MY current level of fitness is.
Hanging Leg Raises
Neutral Grip Pullups
Hanging Leg Raises
Neutral Grip Pullups
|Back Extensions |
|Reverse Hypers |
|Back Extensions |
|Reverse Hypers |
Setting it up this way for myself, I have 2 days where the Push and Pull are the focus first. The other 2 days Legs and Abs take priority. This allows me to work harder on certain muscle groups at the beginning of the training session when I’m fresh.
As you can see, these exercises are all compound movements. I believe the best way to build muscle and strength is to focus on compound exercises that hit multiple muscles simultaneously.
You don’t have to set up your workouts like this at all, however. This is just an example of what you COULD do. You can pick more exercises instead of repeating them every week.
Take the framework I gave you, make it your own and assess where you’re at in 4 weeks. If you aren’t getting stronger on certain movements, switch to another similar exercise and try to get stronger at that.
We need to stick with things that work and try to get better at them. If they’re not working, switch it up. You don’t need muscle confusion to make progress.
If you have any questions on the topic of setting up your bodyweight training program definitely let me know in the comments below!
Progressive Overload For Increased Muscle Gain
I’ve already gone over the principle of Progressive Overload on this article to get stronger, as well as this one to build muscle. As you can tell, no matter the goal, progressive overload is absolutely important.
“The progressive overload principle basically states: In order for a muscle to grow, strength to be gained, performance to increase, or for any similar improvement to occur, the human body will be forced to adapt to a tension that is above and beyond what it has previously experienced. Go back and read that again.” This is a quote from Jay at aworkoutroutine.com.
As Jay states, progressive overload is NECESSARY to build muscle, gain strength, and increase your performance. You have to apply more stress over time to build any adaptations in the body.
Here are a couple of examples of proper progressive overload for bodyweight training. I’ll be using pushups for this example so pay attention to this next part!
If you did 5×10 in your pushup workout, you could add a set next time for 6×10. We changed 1 variable and increased the stimulus your body needs to grow.
This is probably the easiest way to increase your volume and your potential muscle growth. It’s much easier to do another set than it is to add more reps to the same number of sets.
An issue we don’t want to run into, however, is Junk Volume. Here’s a quote from Dr. Mike Israetel from Renaissance Periodization on the topic of Junk Volume!
“Does your training contain JUNK VOLUME?
Click here to find out more!
But on a serious note, what’s “junk volume?”
-Dr. Mike Israetel from Renaissance Periodization
If you’re training for muscle size or strength, junk volume is all the training you do that’s too low in intensity (weight on the bar) to stimulate either much muscle size or strength improvement. Because all training causes fatigue even if it doesn’t cause any benefit, it’s a good idea to make sure the most of your training possible actually causes a benefit and is worth it to perform.”
This quote on Junk Volume is incredibly important! Even though you’re doing tons of reps and getting sore doesn’t mean it’s helping you build muscle. It just means you’re wasting time and energy for no real benefit.
As you can see, Dr. Mike walks the walk and talks the talk! As big as he is, he’s still using bodyweight exercises. Sure he’s adding a little weight to his pushups but on things like dips he’s busting them out for high reps!
I recommend no more than 20-30 sets per body part per week. Since you’re doing pushups, dips, and other pushing exercises 4 times per week, don’t do more than 8 sets on average per day.
This is a very simple guideline that allows you to progress for a long time without doing too much work that you aren’t benefiting from.
The second way we can apply Progressive Overload to our training is by adding reps. This is very simple and something most people forget they can do instead of adding weight. For our goal of using bodyweight movements, this is perfect!
As you can see above, I started with 25-50 reps for most of my movements. I can increase the total reps when I hit that goal every week. If I do 50 reps this time, I can go to 55 or 60 total reps instead.
We shouldn’t do this indefinitely though due to the principle of Junk Volume we just explained above!
I recommend no more than 100 total reps per workout per exercise. As an example, as soon as you’re capable of bodyweight squats for 2 sets of 50 reps it’s time to switch. Either make the exercise harder or pick another leg movement you suck at, like pistol squats.
The last way we can apply Progressive Overload is by increasing your intensity. The normal way to do this is by adding weight to your exercises. Since we don’t have access to weights or a gym in this scenario this doesn’t work.
The number one way I’ve found that works wonders is by working on an RPE Scale. RPE stands for the rate of perceived exertion. If your set was rated as an RPE 9, you could only do 1 more rep without going to failure.
Let’s say I’m doing pullups for my pull movement today. The first set I keep doing the movement until the next rep will push me to failure. This keeps the fatigue from being unmanageable and allows you to do high-quality reps afterward.
If you push too close to failure you will feel the fatigue build up quickly.
The other way we can increase intensity is simply by making the exercise harder! Pause pushups instead of pushups, pistol squats instead of squats, standing
Use these 3 examples of Progressive Overload to do progressively more work than your previous workout. 1 set here, 5 reps there, and using harder movements all add up. Take your time, progress slowly and you can build muscle without any weights whatsoever!
When it comes to building muscle and strength without weight training, it’s not easy, but IT WILL work!
Focus on being in a calorie surplus, use progressive overload to get stronger at bodyweight movements, and make sure you’re recovering properly.
Do these 3 things and you won’t only build muscle, you’ll be very athletic and build some real functional strength along the way.
In an ideal world, doing the Big 4 Barbell lifts (Bench, Squat, Overhead Press, and Deadlift) along with bodyweight movements is the best way to train in my opinion.
You build brute strength with the Barbell movements and use the bodyweight movements to stay athletic and build muscle.
If your long-term goal is to get as big and strong as possible, you absolutely need to do at least the barbell movements. If your goal is simply to build muscle, get strong, and stay athletic; you can’t go wrong with bodyweight movements.
They work well and keep you in great shape so definitely incorporate them regardless of how you train.
If you have any questions from reading this article definitely leave a comment below! This was a fun article to write and something I definitely loved doing research for.
Until next time,