So, you want to build muscle?
That's awesome...but not everyone can afford an expensive gym membership.
Luckily there's a really effective substitute to weight training:
You may be sceptical but hear me out.
The truth is, you can build an above average physique with basic programming:
And you don't have to shell out hundreds of Pounds (or dollars) to do it.
All you need are a few things:
- A pull up bar
- A dipping belt (to add weight to)
- A few weight plates
- (optional) Resistance bands
Once you've ticked these off your checklist, you need to learn the (simple) basics of bodyweight training.
Fortunately for you, I'll be covering these in today's article...
Here's what you'll learn
I've also got a FREE PDF download for you below.
It includes the 30-minute bodyweight workout as well as an *exclusive progression table and a strength goals chart!
11 bodyweight training basics (you can't ignore)
If you want to build an extraordinary physique with bodyweight training, you need to stick to the basics.
Pareto's 80/20 principle states that 20% of the tasks we do produce 80% of the results we achieve.
This applies to building muscle too, here are the 80% activities:
- Training progression
But you're probably thinking:
"It can't be that easy?"
This is where most beginners slip up...
Rather than focusing on the fundamentals, they try to over-complicate the process.
This can lead to paralysis by analysis.
Take a deep breath and focus.
Are you ready?
Let's dive in.
Number 1 | Fullbody training is key
Training splits are a hotly debated topic in the bodybuilding community.
- 'Bro splits'
- Push pull legs
- Upper/lower splits
- Fullbody splits
Let's start with the first one, 'bro splits'.
I'll come right out and say it- Bro splits are awful for building muscle as a natural lifter.
Bro splits are awful for building muscle as a natural lifters! Here's how to do it (the right way)...
The reason for this is simple:
There isn't enough training frequency!
When you train, you induce small micro tears in the muscles.
To repair and replace this damaged tissue, the body synthesises protein into muscle tissue.
This is known as protein synthesis.
For natural lifters, this takes place in a 24-48 hour window post-workout.
The problem with bro splits, is that you're only stimulating protein synthesis 2 days per week (max).
This leads to incredibly slow muscle growth in the long-term.
Higher frequency splits, such as push pull legs and upper/lower improve things:
- A classic push pull legs split provides 1.5x per week frequency
- An upper lower provides a 2x per week frequency
However, this can be taken a step further with full body training.
By training the entire body, you can increase muscle protein synthesis and reduce the time commitment.
Let's compare a upper/lower split with a fullbody approach:
- An upper/lower split requires you to train 4 days per week to get a 2x per week training frequency.
- Whereas a fullbody split only requires you to train 2 days per week to achieve the same amount.
It's clear that fullbody training is the way to go!
Number 2 | eat...then eat some more
You've probably heard (once or twice) that you need to "eat big to get big".
There is some truth to this statement...
You see, whether or not you build muscle is determined by the balance of protein synthesis and protein breakdown.
In a calorie surplus (when you eat more calories than your body burns), insulin is raised and protein synthesis rates exceed muscle breakdown.
Essentially, you're supplying the body with enough energy to do its job.
On the flip side, if you fail to eat enough calories (a calorie deficit), muscle protein breakdown will exceed protein synthesis...
And thus, you'll struggle to build muscle.
This is why I recommend lean bulking:
It maximises muscle building and minimises fat gain.
Despite this, you may be wondering:
"How the hell do I know whether I'm eating enough?"
To gain weight, you need to know your TDEE (total daily energy intake).
This is the number of calories you need to sustain your bodyweight.
Luckily for you, figuring it out is easy.
First, click here to visit an online TDEE calculator.
Next, enter your sex, age, weight, height, and activity level.
Then click the calulate button:
Ta da! You now have your estimated TDEE.
Next, you'll need to test this for 2 weeks (to make sure it's accurate).
*If you lose weight- bump up your calories by 200 per day and test for another week.
Once you have your true TDEE, all you need to do is add 200 calories per day to that number and you should gain roughly 0.5lb per week.
Number 3 | track everything
Write EVERYTHING down!
I mean it.
- Reps/set progression
- Calorie intake
- Weight on the scale
All of these metrics are invaluable as they help you gauge your progress.
If you face a workout plateau, then come back to these and assess what might be the cause of it.
For example, has your weight stalled? Eat more.
Have you done the same reps 3 workouts in a row? Maybe you aren't pushing hard enough, or need to include more advanced variations/resistance.
This may seem obsessive, but in reality it's necessary.
After all, "what can't be measured can't be managed!".
Write everything down! What can't be measured can't be managed.
number 4 | don't skip the warm up!
As you start to get stronger, it can be tempting to think of warm ups as beneath you.
However, this is a one way ticket to snap city!
No warm-up sets= snap city!
By priming your central nervous system (CNS), you can lift heavier and avoid injury.
Depending on where your strength level is at, this will range from 1 warm up set to 4.
Obviously, if you can only do push ups with your bodyweight, then there is no need for a warm up set...
So use your head!
Here is an example of an effective warm up set for the weighted chin up:
- Bodyweight chin up 1x6
- 5kg chin up 1x5
- 10kg chin up 1x3
- -Work set-
It's also important to remember, that you shouldn't overdo it on your warm up sets.
You should be saving your energy for the main work sets.
The warm ups are always kept under 6 repetitions to avoid metabolic fatigue and preserve strength.
I'd also recommend limiting the number of warm up sets to 4.
This is plenty for injury prevention.
number 5 | don't neglect recovery
Recovery is super important for strength and muslce gains...
But nobody likes to talk about it!
Why? Because it isn't all that interesting.
It's much more exciting to read about the perfect rep range or the ultimate diet for muscle growth.
Fortunately, maximising recovery is pretty easy on a fullbody split.
After all, you're only training 2-3x per week.
However, you should still pay attention to the three main factors- sleep, diet, and rest.
- Sleep: Make sure you're getting 6-8 hours of quality sleep every single night.
- Diet: You need to be eating enough to support muscle growth (a calorie surplus).
- Rest: If you have a strenuous job, it can impact your recovery. Do your best to get as much physical rest as possible.
number 6 | progressive overload is the "secret" to muscle growth
Want to know the ultimate secret to muscle growth?
I'm serious- it's that simple.
You don't need any fancy pills or fad diets.
You should be striving for progressive overload over time.
Strength and size are largely correlated.
So if you add 40kg to your weighted chin up- your lats will be noticeably larger.
Of course, it's not a simple formula that you can apply to everyone.
There are a wide variety of factors than can skew the strength/size relationship:
- Genetics: Your individual genetics determine how fast you can gain strength and your muscle building potential.
- Muscle insertions: A muscle with good insertions will look infinitely better than a larger muscle. Period. For example, if you have high calf insertions, you'll have a hard time making them look 'bigger' even if you hypertrophy them.
This is why you'll see anomalies that seem to contradict the size/strength correlation...
Like this guy who can bench press 410 pounds at a measly 154lb bodyweight:
-Now that's incredible genetics!
This is why you should never compare yourself to others.
Make it your aim to add an exra rep or use a harder variaiton every workout.
Over time, you'll get stronger and this will result in more muscle gains.
number 7 | rep quality matters
When people hear that progressive overload is the key to muscle gains, they sometimes take it to far.
They sacrifice their range of motion and use momentum to lift more weight.
This is ego lifting...
You must build strength not test it.
Build strength don't test it!
Only add resistance when you can comfortably handle a given weight.
number 8 | add resistance to your bodyweight training
You can build a solid physique with just your bodyweight.
But there's a caveat:
You'll face plateaus sooner...and eventually it becomes tough to progress with limited equipment.
A classic example of this is push ups.
At first, you may struggle to even do one...
But as you add repetitions here and there, the rep-range will get higher.
While you can build muscle with higher reps (20+), it's quite impractical.
It's far easier to progress in the 8-12 rep range than it is to add another rep to a 50+ rep set.
Research has also shown that lower reps are more effective for building maximum strength.
This is why I recommend adding resistance to your bodyweight exercises.
Fortunately, adding resistance to exercises like pushups is dead simple:
All you need to do is load a few plates into a rucksack and perform weighted pushups.
If this gets too easy, you can then turn to harder variations such as the one arm pushup.
number 9 | set SMART goals (and don't compare yourself to others)
Having goals is crucial for staying motivated in any endeavour.
This is no different for bodyweight training!
I recommend using the SMART principle for goal setting:
Your goals need to be laser-targeted and easy to breakdown.
You need to determine exactly what you want and how you can achieve it.
In this case, your goal is to build muscle and the best way to do this is to get stronger at a select few bodyweight exercises (pushups, chinups etc)
The secret to staying on track is to measure everything.
If you're not hitting your targets, then you need to assess why, and change something.
Is your goal realistic? If it isn't, then consider dialling in your expectations.
Research has shown that unrealistic goals are less motivating and can adversely affect performance.
Your goals need to be relevant, if they're not then you risk wasting your efforts on the wrong activities (remember Pareto's principle).
For example, if your goal is to build muscle, you should focus on getting stronger, and hitting your daily calorie targets.
A deadline creates a sense of urgency and keeps you motivated to act.
An example of a SMART goal:
I want to gain 10lbs of muscle in 6 months. I'll achieve this by achieving a 40kg weighted chin up for 3 repetitions.
number 10 | stop hopping on new trends
Stop chasing the next best thing!
By constantly switching back and forth between programs, you'll never achieve your goals.
If you've decided to try a bodyweight routine for 6 months, then see it through.
If you're not getting the results you want, then ask yourself if you're to blame.
number 11 | stick to the damn program!
Don't think you're smarter than the program...
If it says to do x and you do y (because you think you know better) then expect mediocre results at best.
You're a beginner and as such, you shouldn't be trying to mess with good programming.
The best bodyweight exercises (The 'big 4')
Push ups are a classic upper body exercise that can be performed almost anywhere. They primarily work the chest, shoulders, and triceps.
How to do the perfect push up
- The kneeling pushup: 3x20
- The standard pushup: 3x20
- The decline pushup: 3x20
- Assisted one-arm pushup: 3x15
- Weighted push ups: 3x12
- Lats/ upper back
- Upper chest
Chin ups are the best lat building exercise you'll find. Due to the stretch reflex at the bottom they're also excellent for building big biceps.
How to do the perfect chin up
- Negatives: 3x5
- Band assisted chin ups: 3x8
- Bodyweight chin ups: 3x10
- Weighted chin ups: Reverse pyramid (3-5, 5-8, 8-10)
- Upper back
- Anterior delts
Rows are incredibly important for shoulder health and prevent kyphotic posture.
How to do the perfect inverted row
- Bodyweight inverted row: 3x30
- Weighted inverted row: 3x12
Pistol squats are an extremely challenging exercise that work the entire posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes). You'll have to work up to them by doing assisted variations.
How to do the perfect pistol squat
- Pistol squats off a high box/bench
- Assisted pistol squats
- Elevated pistol squats
- Counter-weighted pistol squat
- Bodyweight pistol squats: 3x10
- Weighted pistol squats
The 'big 4' are your bread and butter exercises.
However, adding in some isolation exercises can help even out your physique and prevent muscular imbalances.
Here are my top picks.
Band face pulls
- Rear delts
Band face pulls are an excellent exercise for developing the rear delts and improving posture.
Band curls give you constant tension on the biceps.
The beauty of the exercise, is that you can do it anywhere!
Band pushdowns develop the connective tissue surrounding the elbows, preventing elbow pain in the future.
They can be done almost anywhere!
weighted ab crunch
- Rectus abdominis (six pack)
If you want thick abs with good separation, then weighted crunches are the way to go.
5 awesome bodyweight training techniques
If you want to get the most out of your workouts, you can use special training techniques to make them harder.
Straight sets should be your go to rep/set scheme for the big compound lifts.
They involve keeping the weight the same across sets.
E.g. 5x5, 3x10.
Super sets are a great time saver, if you live busy life.
They involve grouping 3 or more exercises together back to back (with no rest in-between).
E.g. Pushups 1x20, chin ups 1x20, assisted pistol squats 1x10.
Drop sets allow you to add extra volume at the end of your working sets.
The high amount of reps in a short space of time will create metabolic fatigue- a secondary driver of muscle growth.
This is an effective way to bust plateaus as you get more advanced with bodyweight training.
E.g. 3x10 weighted chinups (10kg) + 1x12 (5kg) + 1x20 bodyweight.
the rest-pause method
The rest-pause method helps you increase the intensity of your workout.
If you're limited by how much resistance you can add to your bodyweight exercises, then use the RP method to make it more challenging.
To do this, you need to take your first set to all out muscle failure (i.e. you can't do anymore).
Then with only 10-20 seconds rest, you perform another set for as many reps as you can.
Repeat this for another 2-3 sets.
E.g. 1x20 pushups> 1x5> 1x4> 1x3 (15 seconds rest in-between each mini set)
If you're a complete beginner to bodyweight training, then you might not be able to do enough reps per set (if any).
Negative reps build both eccentric and concentric strength, which will allow you to work up to full range repetitions.
If you were to apply this to pistol squats, you could add a high box behind you and slowly lower down by resisting gravity.
For chin ups it would look similar, all you need to do is use momentum to lift yourself up and slowly resist on the way down.
Free Beginner Bodyweight Workout Plan (PDF)
Beginner bodyweight workout
Frequency: 3x per week
Progression style: Linear
(see progressions above)
1) Push up variation 3x
2) Chin up variation 3x
3) Pistol squat variation 3x
4) Inverted row 3x
5) Band face pulls 3x30
6) Tricep pushdowns 3x20
7) Weighted crunch 3x15
For most people, supplements can provide a small edge for muscle building and strength.
My top 2 recommended supplements for bodyweight workouts are creatine and caffeine.
Creatine is a naturally occuring substance in the body.
It's used to create the energy molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which provides stored energy for muscle contractions.
The higher your creatine stores, the higher your energy reserves for strength training.
Research has shown that creatine supplementation results in a 5-15% strength boost...
And can help you build more muscle.
Fortunately, creatine monohydrate is incredibly cheap and won't break the bank!
How to take it
Step #1 the loading phase: In order to saturate your muscles with creatine, you need a period of 3-4 weeks to build up your stores. You speed this up by loading 20g of creatine for 5-7 days then maintaining (make sure you drink LOTS of water).
Step #2 the maintain phase: Once you've ended the loading phase, you only need to maintain with 5g of creatine per day.
Caffeine can be found naturally (in coffee) and synthetically (in pills).
This makes it a great pre-workout!
You need to cycle your intake to prevent the effects form wearing off.
How to take it
You need to divide your caffeine intake into three days:
High caffeine, low caffeine, and zero caffeine days:
- On your high caffeine days consume 300mg
- On your low caffeine days consume 100-150mg
- On your zero caffeine days you need to consume less than 50mg
Eating a lot isn't enough, you also need to eat the right foods.
This will maximise performance and accelerate muscle building.
A good macro composition is 50% carb/30% protein /20% fat.
When should I train?
You can work out whenever is convenient for you! However, if you want to build a habit, you should pick a time and stick with it. Research has shown that our willpower is highest in the morning, so this is a great time to do your bodyweight workouts when you're first starting out.
Do I need to do cardio?
Cardio isn't necessary for this program, but it is still beneficial for increasing fitness.
Why have I plateaued?
It could be a number of different reasons:
- You aren't eating enough to support muscle growth
- You aren't achieving progressive overload in your workouts
- You're an intermediate and need to periodize your training
You can build an amazing physique with minimal equipment!
Just make sure you pay attention to the fundamentals:
- Is your nutrition in check?: As a novice to bodyweight training, you can make fast progression if you eat at a small surplus of calories.
- Progress a little every workout: Remember- progressive overload is the foundation of muscle growth. Try to add a rep or use a harder variation every workout.
- Don't 'over-train': It's tempting to get overzealous as a beginner, but this is a mistake. Over-training is REAL and you should be optimising recovery as a natural lifter.
- Invest in some extra equipment: Bodyweight training is great, but eventually you'll need to invest in some extra equipment such as resistance bands and a dipping belt.
It's important to follow the program as written.
Don't try to make altercations if you have no experience with training or programming.
If you have any questions about the program, you can refer to the F.A.Q section above, or use the contact form to get in touch with me directly.
Now, it's over to you!
Do you plan on using the program? And what are your goals for this year? Let me know in the comments below: