By Joe Wuebben
The most time-tested piece of exercise equipment (using the term “equipment” loosely) can be found by simply looking in the mirror: your own body.
There’s a misconception that you need to have a gym membership, or at the very least a decent home gym setup, to get in great shape and increase your strength for recreational sports and everyday life. Wrong. Some of the fittest people on the planet – think military men and women, mixed martial artists, and boxers – got that way without a single dumbbell, barbell, or machine.
If you’re ready to take a page from their exercise playbook, without having to leave your home, below are 6 phenomenal bodyweight exercises you can start doing today for greater strength, more lean muscle mass, and a faster metabolism (read: fat loss).
1) SIDE PLANK
This is one of the best isolation exercises you can do to increase core strength and stability. Most people just stick to standard planks, where you hold only the facedown position. With side planks, you’re hitting the core muscles unilaterally, which is useful in everyday life when you’re forced to lift or carry an unbalanced load (weighted more on one side than the other, like when carrying a suitcase).
Target Muscles: Core/Abs
Setup: Assume a side plank position on the floor – facing sideways with one forearm on the floor below your shoulder, the sides of your feet on the floor,and your body in a straight line. Do the exercise on a padded mat or place a towel or pad under your arm for comfort.
Movement: Hold the side plank position for time, focusing on keeping your hips up (not drooping down to the floor) and contracting your core muscles.
When the time is up, repeat on the opposite side.
Sets/Reps: Do 2-3 sets, holding the side plank position for 20-30 seconds per side. As you gain strength and endurance, increase the hold time to 45-60 seconds.
Scaling Options: To make the side plank less difficult, keep your downside knee on the floor (other knee on top of it) with your legs bent; to make it more difficult, extend your downside arm with your hand on the floor.
Video Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2VljzCC16g
2) BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
The split squat is one of those exercises that’s recommended for pretty much everyone, from beginners to elite-level athletes. It’s basically a cross between a one-legged squat and a lunge, and it’s a fantastic move for the entire lower body as well as the core.
The Bulgarian split squat calls for the rear leg to be elevated on a chair, bench, or step. Make no mistake, this is not an easy exercise; the front leg takes on most of your bodyweight, plus there’s a challenging balance element involved. That said, one simple fix – dropping the back foot to the floor – makes the move less daunting while still delivering comparable leg-strengthening benefits.
Target Muscles: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, core. Setup: From a standing position, place one foot on a stable chair, bench, or box behind you with that knee bent and the other foot flat on the floor in front of you. Keep your torso upright and hands on your hips or out to the sides for balance.
Bend your front knee to lower yourself straight down toward the floor. When your front thigh reaches parallel with the floor, press up through the ball of your foot to the start position. Complete all reps, then switch legs and repeat.
Sets/Reps: Start with 1-2 sets of 5-10 reps per leg, and work your way up to 3 sets of 15-20 reps per.
Scaling Options: As mentioned above, if having the rear foot elevated is too difficult, simply keep the back foot on the floor behind you throughout.
Video Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QD4P9Di7L20
3) KNEE PUSH-UP
The push-up is a classic calisthenic exercise that strengthens the upper body “pushing” muscles – chest, shoulders, and triceps (back of the upper arm). Not only are these muscles aesthetically pleasing when developed, but they’ll also help with a number of activities, including racket sports and self-defense.
However, not everyone can do standard push-ups. That’s where the scaled-down knee push-up comes in. It provides all the same benefits as the military push-up, but it’s accessible to more individuals and will allow you todo more reps in a given set.
Target Muscles: Chest, shoulders, triceps
Setup: Assume a push-up position, except with your knees on the floor and feet in the air. Start with your arms extended directly below your shoulders and your body rigid from your knees to your head.
Movement: Bend your elbows to slowly your body down to the floor. When your chest lightly touches the floor, extend your arms to press yourself back to the top position. Repeat for reps.
Sets/Reps: Start with 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps; as you get stronger, work up to 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
Scaling Options: Once you can do more than 15 reps per set of knee push-ups, progress to standard push-ups and work up from 5-10 reps.
Video Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWxvty2KROs
4) DEAD BUG
This exercise may look simple, but it’s deceptively tough and is a great stabilizing move for the core. Like the side plank, dead bugs will help you address side-to-side imbalances, as the limbs move independent of each other. Keep the motion slow and controlled here to fully engage the midsection muscles.
Target Muscles: Core
Setup: Lie faceup on the floor with your knees and hips bent 90 degrees, your arms extended vertically toward the ceiling (palms facing each other), and your lower back pressed into the floor.
Movement: Slowly extend one leg and lower it toward the floor, stopping when your heel is a few inches from touching down. Bring the leg back to the start position, then repeat with the other leg. Alternate legs in this fashion for reps, focusing on pressing your lower back into the floor throughout.
Sets/Reps: Do 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps per side.
Scaling Options: Want to increase the difficult? On each rep, as you lower your leg, also move one arm down and behind your head (either same- or opposite-side arm), keeping the elbow extended.
Video Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g_BYB0R-4Ws (scaled version – lower both arm and leg)
5) WALL SIT
One of the most effective ways to strengthen the lower body is with isometrics, where you hold a position with the muscles full contracted – similar to a plank, but targeting the legs, not the core. The wall sit is essentially an isometric squat hold, using a wall to help stabilize and balance. Hold it for 30+ seconds and you’ll definitely feel the muscles burning... and getting stronger.
Target Muscles: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings
Movement: Slowly slide your back down the wall until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Hold this position for time, keeping your head against the wall for a neutral spine. When the time is up, return to a standing position and rest before the next set.
Sets/Reps: Do 2-3 sets, holding the down position for 20-30 seconds. As you gain strength and endurance, work up to 3-4 sets of 45-60-second holds.
Scaling Options: If wall sits are too difficult, only go halfway down and hold that position for as long as you can (even if only for 15 seconds or less).If you find the exercise too easy, even at 60 seconds, hold a dumbbell for resistance to make it more challenging.
Video Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XULOKw4E4P4
This bodyweight move may not always be fun, but it sure offers a great full-body bang for the buck. Not only are several major muscle groups worked (legs, chest, shoulders, and core, among them), but burpees also make for a great conditioning workout to burn calories and improve cardiovascular endurance.
Target Muscles: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, abs/core, chest, shoulders, triceps.
Setup: From a standing position, perform the below sequence at a brisk tempo yet under control.
Movement: (1) lean forward and squat all the way down until your hands are flat on the floor around shoulder-width apart and in front of your feet; (2) kick your feet back behind you to assume a push-up position; (3) do one push-up; (4) pull your knees back underneath you; (5) stand back up and go immediately into a vertical jump with your hands overhead. That’s one burpee.
Sets/Reps: Start with 2-3 sets of 10 reps. As your conditioning improves, increase the number of sets and/or reps per set – up to 4-5 sets of 20-25 burpees.
Scaling Options: If burpees are too challenging to hit the above rep counts, decrease difficulty by not doing a push-up at the bottom or jumping at the top of each rep. Try and work your way up to adding these elements back in if possible.
Video Demonstration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=auBLPXO8Fww
BODYWEIGHT-ONLY WORKOUT YOU CAN DO ANYWHERE
Wondering how to incorporate these 6 exercises into a complete bodyweight-only workout? Simple: Do them in the order listed using the prescribed sets and reps for each move. You can either perform all sets of one exercise before moving onto the next, or perform them as a circuit – one set of each exercise, rest, then repeat the circuit.
If you choose the circuit route, here’s what the routine would look like:
|Side Plank||30 sec.|
|Bulgarian Split Squat||10 per leg|
|Wall Sit||30 sec.|
>>Repeat the circuit 2-3 times, depending on your fitness level.
>>To focus more on muscle strength, rest one minute between each exercise before moving to the next. Rest 1-2 minutes between circuits (after burpees).
>>To focus more on cardiovascular conditioning and fat loss, move from one exercise to the next with little to no rest, then rest 1-2 minute between circuits.
>>Feel free to use any “harder” or “easier” scaling or rep count options listed above.
>>Do this workout anywhere from 1-3 times per week, in addition to other physical activities like aerobic training and stretching.