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TOP 5 MUSCLE-BUILDING BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES

Updated: Nov 13, 2023

5. HANDSTAND PUSH UP

If this was a top five list of hardest bodyweight exercises, then handstand pushups would be found very close to the top. But don’t be fooled by its place on this list, handstand pushups will still pack slabs of muscle on your upper body – particularly the shoulders. In fact, handstand pushups are superior to the ever-popular military presses when it comes to building ‘superhero’ shoulders.


Pressing overhead is a very challenging movement pattern. More times than not, you will see lifters’ technique begin to deteriorate - especially when heavier weights get involved or sets are pushed close to failure. You will see the spine dangerously begin to reach into excessive extension and/or you will see the legs begin to try and contribute to getting the bar moving. This is where the handstand pushup gets a leg-up on other pressing variations.


pushing to failure bad example workout

When you have 100% of your weight on your hands and are completely inverted upside down, then your legs have nothing to push off to give you any kind of cheating boost. Not to mention, even if you could push off your legs, they would push you into the ground and make the movement harder. Secondly, unless you are a high-level gymnast or calisthenics all-star, then you will be doing handstand pushups off a wall. This keeps you from being able to get into excessive extension. In addition, it is the weight of your legs which are supported by a wall that gravity is acting upon, not a 100 plus pound barbell. Thus, outside of the risk of completely falling on your head and cracking your skull or breaking your neck, handstand pushups are a much safer alternative as well.


girl doing handstand

The reason handstand pushups find themselves at the bottom of this list are for a lot of the same reasons. Handstand pushups are incredibly difficult, and one must already possess tremendous strength to be able to complete handstand pushups with enough volume to act as a muscle building exercise. There is also the ability to complete them within your environment. While it usually isn’t a problem to find an open wall, I have been in situations where I was unable to do so, and thus, unable to do handstand pushups.


At the end of the day, just make sure you’re strong enough to do them safely! Use them to build strength before you try to use them to build muscle. Start with easier variations and progress them appropriately.



4. PLANK PULL

The back muscles are an afterthought most of the time when it comes to building muscle. The pretenders out there are overly concerned with the mirror muscles. But REAL savages know that you cannot be jacked without building the back.


Insert the Plank Pull. AKA the Inverted Row.


Horizontal pulling, or row variations, are a staple in any regimen that builds a thick, strong back. More importantly, they are a necessity in keeping our shoulders healthy, so we can complete the all the other exercises on this list. When lifters get overly focused on their mirror muscles and get ‘press happy’, it is very easy for the shoulders to become imbalanced. The great thing about inverted rows is that you can change the angle at which you are pulling yourself, which means not only can you change the angle at which you are hitting your back, but you can adjust the difficulty, work many different rep ranges, AND easily switch your grips to hit many different variations to keep that back chiseled.


3. PUSH UPS

A list of the best muscle building bodyweight exercises wouldn’t be complete without the old, tried and true pushup. The classic pushup is one of the most, if not the most, frequently performed and commonly known exercises of all time – and for good reason! They can be performed just about anywhere and be performed at high volumes. Both are great aspects for building muscle.


Pushups check a lot of boxes as to the number of muscles worked as well. A lot of people only think about the pecs as it pertains to the target muscle group during a pushup – but the front delts, triceps, forearms and core musculature get a tremendous amount of stimulus during a properly performed pushup.


Unfortunately, because pushups have the notoriety they have, they are also one of the most butchered exercises you will ever see. Consequently, this takes most, if not all, of the muscle building benefit out of them.


The most common ‘gains – killing’ mistakes I constantly see are:


1. Loose Core. This one is CRUCIAL. Keeping the core properly engaged is what will initiate the tension needed throughout the rest of the body. Tension is the most important ingredient when it comes to building muscle. The hips should never sag below the shoulders, and you should never ‘worm-up’ during the press portion of the pushup. The hips stay in-line with the shoulders and the body moves as one unit. Pushups are essentially a dynamic plank exercise.


bodyweight pushup poor form


bodyweight pushup correct form

2. Shallow Reps. The hardest part of the pushup is at the bottom of the range. Most people completely bypass this part and perform half reps. Unfortunately for them, this is the part of the pushup that provides the most muscle building effect. It is at the bottom of the range that the muscle is stretched and under tension. The most common fault here is letting the head droop low. Subconsciously, this gives them the illusion that they are getting lower and closer to the ground than they think. When in reality, it just makes their technique total garbage.


shallow repetition pushup

3. Hand Placement. A lot of times, hands are put too far out in front of the body, too far apart causing the elbows to excessively flare out, or a combination of the two. Placing the hands out in front is seen a lot in those who have a weak core. Placing the hands out in front helps shift tension off the core and more into the arms as the butt will be lifted up into the air. As a result, we miss the full body tension we’re looking for and lose the ability to get full depth. In most cases, the hands are also placed too far apart, shortening the range of motion and putting the shoulder in a very awkward position. This can cause shoulder issues over time, and is a bad habit to get in.


incorrect hand placement pushup example

While playing with different hand placements is an effective way to work different variations of the pushup, it is important to do them with proper technique. The standard pushup should be performed with the hands directly under the shoulder joint, so the arms are perpendicular to the ground.


2. DIPS

These last two exercises are absolute all-stars when it comes to building upper body mass. They are more like 1A and 1B. Dips are the squat of the upper body. Dips are not only one of the best bodyweight exercises for building mass, but one of the best exercises PERIOD. When it comes to building mass in the chest, shoulders and triceps, there is not a better exercise than Dips. That’s right – I’m taking Dips over bench press, shoulder press or any other kind of press you want to throw in there.


In order to get the maximum muscle building potential from your Dips, it is important they be performed with maximum range of motion – ‘Thumbs to Pits’ is the goal. This kind of range of motion puts a deep stretch on all our prime pressing muscles – the pecs, the delts and the triceps. However, what separates the Dip from other pressing exercises is the type of stretch that’s placed on the shoulders and pecs specifically.


dip exercise correct form

Dips are one of the few exercises that take the shoulders through a full range of motion in shoulder extension. This is when the shoulder is extended behind the body as opposed to out in front of it. This allows for a maximal stretch on the front delts, parts of the pecs and triceps, that just isn’t seen on other exercises. However, this extended shoulder position that makes them so effective is what also makes them difficult. Because this is a position that isn’t seen a lot, it is often a weak position for most. Progress the range of motion slowly. Don’t jump right into ‘Thumbs to Pits’ range of motion right away if you are not proficient in Dips. Over time, progress the range of motion as well as the load you use with them.

Once you’re completing full ‘Pits to Thumbs’ Dips with additional weight, your upper body will be noticeably larger.


1. PULL UPS

Here it is! The king of bodyweight muscle builders. The Pull Up. If Dips are the squat of the upper body, then Pull Ups are the deadlift of the upper body. And just like the deadlift, there isn’t much Pull Ups don’t work. The entire back from top to bottom, the lats, the entirety of your arms along with the hands and grip as well as your core. A properly performed Pull Up requires complete, full body tension and upper body strength.


Here’s the catch – Pull Ups are hard. Very few people can complete a true Pull Up. They are a tough, gritty, and taxing exercise and people will do whatever they can to get that chin above the bar. Unfortunately, theres more to it than that. Much like that Pushup, core tension is of the utmost importance when it comes to a maximally effective Pullup. In fact, it is not uncommon for your core to be sore when you perform Pull Ups correctly for the first time.


When performing a Pull Up, it is a natural tendency to excessively arch the back. This shortens the range of motion on the lats (the prime movers), making the exercise easier. This arched back position means the anterior core musculature is lengthened and holding almost zero tension. Correcting this mistake will lengthen the lats, stretching them and taking them through a longer range of motion which lends itself to building more muscle.


Another error of the Pull Up game is thinking the rep is over when the chin reaches the bar. To me, this is right up there with the 90-degree elbow angle being accepted as a sufficient Pushup. If you are looking to maximize the muscle building potential of the Pull Up, then get your chest to the bar. Nothing will separate your back, and your physique, quicker then performing strict, chest to bar Pull Ups.


man performing pull up form

GET TO WORK


There you have it! The best of the best in bodyweight muscle building exercises. The effectiveness of bodyweight exercises gets lost in all the noise online these days. This is extremely disappointing because these classic exercises can be secret weapons in your training regimen.


If you are interested in learning how to incorporate bodyweight exercises into your training and learning to maximize their positive effects, then lets train! We also have a free coaching call if you want to first discuss your options with what you’re looking to do.

If you start incorporating our Top 5 into your training, be sure to tag us on social media!

Time to grind,

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C-Roy

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