Full disclosure: The fastest way to bulk up your muscle mass will always be by lifting really heavy stuff. Overloading your muscle fibers causes micro tears, and during the healing of those tears, your body produces bigger, tougher muscle fibers in response — hence, a bigger muscle. But size is one thing; strength is another. And if your goal is to gain muscle strength — plus a bit more mass — then the only thing you need is the body you’re living in.
“Not only are bodyweight workouts an efficient way to build muscle, but they’re a great way to strengthen the entire kinetic chain in a way that machines at the gym won’t do,” says Jayson Lee, a personal trainer in New York City. In other words, without the chair to sit in or bars to stabilize you, you are forced to work everything from your core to your glutes and calves to help you maintain balance and proper form when doing something like a single-arm push up (more on that in a minute), says Lee.
In fact, you might even need less bodyweight than you think to see muscle growth: One study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that simply contracting your arm muscles as tightly as you can while flexing and extending your elbow for 10 reps, five times a day, is enough to measurably increase your arm mass after 12 weeks. And another study from CUNY Lehman College in New York City found that performing 30-second isometric holds (contracting muscles) between sets of resistance exercises increased muscle size in men faster than resting between sets.
To get the most bang from your bodyweight workout buck, consider supersets, where you work opposing groups of muscles in a single session, Lee suggests. And practice isometric holds between each set.
Dedicate two sweat sessions a week to upper body and two to lower—you can mix and match, but you’ll see more changes, faster, by going hard on the same groups of muscles in a single session. It’s a similar concept to heavy lifting: that is, you’ll overload the muscle enough to cause minor damage, and in the repairing of that damage, your muscle will grow back bigger and stronger.
Start with these circuits for upper and lower body. For each exercise, do three sets of 15-20 reps. Between sets, perform isometric contractions of the body part you’re working on. Repeat each circuit three times.
Circuit 1: Upper Body
Pushup: Start on all fours, hands below shoulders. Extend your legs straight behind you until you form a straight line from your shoulders to your feet. Bend elbows, keeping your arms close to your body, and lower your chest to two inches above the floor. Straighten your arms back to the start.
Inverted row: Lie beneath a sturdy bar so that your shoulders are directly below it. Reach up and grab the bar with an underhand grip. Keeping your body in a straight line (shoulders to toes), bend elbows and hoist your chest toward the bar. Release.
Handstand pushup: Begin on all fours, feet against a wall. Shift your weight into your hands and slowly climb your feet up the wall until your legs are straight and body is at a steep incline. Maintaining a straight line from feet to shoulders, bend elbows and lower your shoulders toward the floor. Straighten back to the start.
Dips: Stand between two sturdy objects (or use the dips bars at the gym). Place hands on either side, and press up so that your arms are straight. Slightly bend knees and tuck your feet behind you so they do not touch the floor. Bend elbows and lower your body until arms form close to a 90-degree angle. Straighten and return to the start.
Circuit 2: Lower Body
Squats: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes slightly pointed out. Bend knees and sink your butt toward the floor. Lower yourself until quads are parallel to the floor, knees over toes. Straighten and return to the start.
Mountain climbers: Start on all fours. Get into an extended plank position (arms straight). Lift your right foot off the floor, bend your right knee, and hike that knee toward your chest. Straighten your right leg and repeat on the left side. Move your legs up and down as quickly as possible while maintaining good form for 30 seconds.
Bavarian split squats: Stand with your back to a bench, about two feet away. Lift your right foot and place it on the bench behind you, leaving your right knee bent. Bend your standing (left) leg and perform a lunge. Stop when your left knee is over your left toes and right knee hovers just above the floor. Straighten to start. Do three sets on each side, alternating legs per set.
Walking lunges: Find a long hallway. Take a giant step forward with your right leg; bend right knee and lower into a lunge, keeping your back leg slightly bent. Lower until right knee is over your right toes. Push off your back left leg and swing it through to the front. Shift your weight forward and lunge on your left leg, keeping right knee slightly bent behind you. Note: To make it harder, clasp your hands behind your head the whole time.
Circuit 3: Upper Body
Pull-up: Stand below the pull-up bar. Reach up and grab the bar with an overhand grip. Hang from the bar with straight arms, knees slightly bent to keep feet from touching floor. Keeping your gaze forward and slightly up, bend elbows and raise your chest to bar level. Relax back to the start.
Single-arm push up: Start on all fours. Stretch legs behind you into an extended plank position. Slowly shift your weight to your right side, so that your left arm is no longer bearing your weight. Adjust your feet slightly so that your right arm forms the point of a long triangle with your feet as the base. Lift your left arm and tuck it behind your back. Bend your right elbow, keep your weight centered over your right hand. Bend until you think you’ll lose your balance (these will be shallower than traditional push ups); return to start. Do 15 reps, switch arms and repeat.
Plank up: Start in an extended plank position, arms straight and body in a long line. Bend your right elbow and lower your right forearm to the floor, followed by bending your left elbow and placing your left forearm on the floor. Press through your right forearm and hand to straight your right arm again, followed by your left. Reverse direction and repeat.
Reverse crawl: Sit on the floor, knees bent, feet flat, hands pressed into the floor behind your hips. Hoist your hips off the floor and begin to crab crawl forward, then backwards. Crawl for 60 seconds for one set.
Circuit 4: Lower body
Box jumps: Stand in front of a bench. Bend knees; jump on top. Jump or step back down.
Reverse walking lunges: Stand with feet together. Take a large step backward with your right foot. Bend right knee until it is just above floor. Push through left (front) foot and swing left leg behind you. Repeat.
Step up: Stand in front of a bench. Step up with your right leg, then left; step down with your right leg, then left. Reverse direction and repeat.
Single leg sits: Stand with your back to the bench. Raise your left leg off the ground in front of you. Bend right knee and sink your butt back until it touches the bench. Immediately engage your glutes and hamstrings and stand again. Do 15 reps on right side, then switch legs and repeat.