A common question among non-gym members is whether they can build muscle or attain a decent physique using only bodyweight exercises. The answer is that yes it is possible – to a certain degree, but you should ask yourself why it is you want to restrict your program to just bodyweight exercises.
It is undeniable that you would get quicker and better results if you used a proper strength training program which used both bodyweight exercises and free weights. But if you cannot afford gym membership, or you travel a lot, or there isn’t a gym near you then have no fear it is absolutely possible to build muscle using just bodyweight exercises.
How to Train With Just Your Body
One thing you need to do immediately is to stop believing that because an exercise is bodyweight only that means it is easy. Bodyweight exercises can be as difficult or as easy as you need them to be, and in some ways offer more variation than traditional free weight exercises.
For example a box squat can become a regular squat, which can become a prisoner squat, which can become a squat jump. That’s four different versions of the same exercise, each one more difficult than the last.
Jeff Nippard produces some of the best science-backed workout instructional/educational videos in the fitness vloggosphere and this one on home workouts is a gem worth watching:
The only way to increase muscle through exercise is through progressive overload, this can come from increasing the difficulty/resistance or from increasing the amount of reps. Due to the nature of bodyweight training this can easily be managed either way.
So for example with press ups, when you start out you might be able to manage 11 press ups in a row. You could then work on trying to increase the number of press ups in a row to 20. Once you have managed that you could look at performing 10 plyometric press ups in a row – a more difficult task. Then look to increase that number to 20.
This will all lead to improved size and strength for your muscles, and the addition of plyometric versions of the exercise (jumping press ups, squat jumps etc) will help increase power.
Nutrition Tips for Building Muscle
If you really want to build bigger muscles then it’s not just exercise selection that is important, you also have to look at the nutritional side of things. Trying to build muscle requires you being in a calorie surplus, this is where you are consuming more calories than you are expending.
You always want whole foods to be your #1 source of nutrition, including both calories and protein. But sometimes with busy schedules that can be a challenge and this is where protein powders, or specifically, high-calorie mass gainers come in handy. If you are unsure of how much protein you need for your bodyweight and fitness goals it’s worth reading this explainer post.
Note, this does not apply to people who are currently overweight, so long as your protein intake is high and you are eating sufficient calories for protein synthesis to occur you can still stay in a deficit.
So what is muscle protein synthesis? Whenever you perform a press up, or a bodyweight squat, or whatever you contract the muscles required. This causes damage to the muscle fibres that are activated during the contraction. The more muscle fibres activated, the more muscle damage.
Whilst muscle damage sounds bad it’s actually required for growth. The body uses protein to repair the muscle fibres leaving them bigger and stronger than before. The process is known as muscle protein synthesis and it is the reason why athletes require such high levels of protein in their diet .
So if you are trying to increase the size of your muscles then you would need to increase the amount of protein in your diet (provided your protein intake wasn’t ridiculously high anyway).
Bodyweight exercises are no different to any other exercise when it comes to increasing muscle size, perform enough reps at a challenging resistance. Eat a high protein diet, and keep pushing yourself every time you train. This will eventually lead to bigger muscles. If you are looking to build strength then this is also possible for beginners, but more experienced lifters will need to use some heavy free weight exercises too.
References Tarnopolsky, M., Atkinson, S., MacDougall, J., Chesley, A., Phillips, S., Schwarcz, H. 1992. Evaluation of protein requirements for trained strength athletes. Journal of Applied Physiology 73(5): 1986-95  Phillips, S., Tipton, K., Aarsland, A., Wolf, S., Wolfe, R. 1997. Mixed muscle protein synthesis and breakdown after resistance exercise in humans. American Journal of Physiology 273(1 pt.1): E99-107