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Best Bodyweight Exercises

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Best bodyweight exercises
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With these ten best bodyweight exercises, you’ll be able to build a body that performs as well as it looks. Bodyweight exercises – sometimes called callisthenics – can also be used to develop strength, explosive power (when performing plyometric squat jumps and clap-hand press-ups), and muscle endurance.


Also, if you apply high-intensity (HIT) or high-volume training (AMRAP or EMOM) to bodyweight exercises, they also stimulate the cardiovascular system.


In addition to possessing the capacity to promote a broad range of fitness components, callisthenics are super-versatile. Because they require little to no equipment, you can create a workout almost anywhere. Equipped with the best bodyweight exercises below, you’ll be able to keep in shape at home, at the office, or on your holidays.


Related: Try this Kit-free Bodyweight Circuit

Bodyweight exercises vs resistance machines

And don’t make the mistake of thinking that minimalistic exercises – such as air squats and burpees – are less effective than those that require kit. Many bodyweight exercises engage a wider range of muscles than machine equivalences.


For example, compare the uber-simple press-ups to the pec deck press. At most, peck deck pressing activates the chest, anterior deltoids, and triceps. That’s all you get out of a hunk of metal that costs north of a thousand pounds.


Press-ups, in contrast, stimulate a score of muscles. These include the pectorals, anterior deltoids, triceps, core, erector spinae, hip flexors, and quadriceps. That list doesn’t include the many synergist and deep stabiliser muscles that are involved to maintain correct postural alignment. And to think, to perform a press-up requires a strip of floor space.


The same outcome will be seen if we compared air squats to seated leg curls, pull-ups to lat pulldowns, and hanging leg raises to the ab curl machine.


Best bodyweight exercises

But that’s enough about the benefits of bodyweight exercises. Now let’s turn our attention to mastering the techniques. Each exercise features an outline of its purpose (what aspects of your fitness it can improve), the muscles engaged, and a brief overview of methods of applying the movement.


Below the exercise ‘bio’ is a list of the key techniques. The techniques walk you through the mechanics of the exercise while also bringing your attention to common mistakes. Some of the more complex movements feature a link to a short video demonstration.


Best bodyweight exercises quick finder

Best bodyweight exercises #1: Air squat

Best bodyweight exercises #2: Hindu squat

Best bodyweight exercises #3: Lunge

Best bodyweight exercises #4: Tuck jump

Best bodyweight exercises #5: Squat thrust

Best bodyweight exercises #6: Burpee

Best bodyweight exercises #7: Plank

Best bodyweight exercises #8: Hanging leg raise

Best bodyweight exercises #9: Reverse plank

Best bodyweight exercises #10: Triceps dip

Best bodyweight exercises #11: Pull-up


 

Best bodyweight exercises #1: Air squat

Best bodyweight exercises #1: air squat.

Purpose of exercise: Develop muscle endurance in the big muscles of the legs.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.


Michael Boyle identifies the air squat as a foundational exercise for developing the correct technique when squatting with weight. ‘Coaches,’ he maintains, ‘should always begin lower-body strength training by teaching an athlete to perform bodyweight squats,’ (Advances in Functional Training). Only when the athlete can cleanly execute an air squat should they begin adding resistance.


The air squat is loaded with extension options. For example, if you wanted to turn up the intensity, you could pop out a plyometric jump or transition into an explosive knee tuck.


Air squat key techniques

  • Your feet are spaced slightly over shoulder width. (Some people find that angling the toes out a little takes the pressure off the knees.)

  • Hold your arms either across your chest or out to your front as you would when performing a Hindu squat.

  • To execute the exercise, hinge at the knees and lower your body under control.

  • As your progress through the range of motion, focus on keeping your back flat. Also, avoid tilting forward at the hips.


Best bodyweight exercises #2: Hindu squat

Best body weight exercises #1: Hindu squat.

Purpose of exercise: Develop muscle endurance in the big muscles of the legs.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.


The Hindu squat is an effective exercise for developing muscular endurance in the quads and glutes. In addition, due to the depth of the Hindu squat – literally ass to grass – it enhances the flexibility in the major muscles of the legs. Also, this squatting variation is believed to improve joint stability in the knee and ankle. It was popularised by the legendary Indian wrestler The Great Gama, who used to perform a thousand . . . before breakfast!


Hindu squat key techniques

  • Standing with your feet shoulder-width, raise both arms to your front.

  • Draw your hands into your chest and then guide them down the side of your body.

  • As you do so simultaneously sink into the Hindu squat.

  • When you are in the crouched position, proceed to raise your hands out to your front.

  • As you do so simultaneously stand up.

  • Now repeat.


Best bodyweight exercises #3: Stepping lunge

A woman performing a lunge.

Purpose of exercise: Activate the main muscles of the leg, increase hamstring flexibility, and improve coordination and balance.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.


The stepping lunge is a terrific exercise for developing hamstring, quad and glute strength. And, unlike barbell squats, it doesn’t overload the lower back. In contrast to conventional squatting exercises, the stepping lunge requires considerably more control to perform. Consequently, it engages a broader range of muscle groups – synergists and stabilisers – and components of fitness.


Stepping lung key techniques

  • Stand in a neutral posture: feet spaced shoulder-width, and your arms at rest by your sides.

  • Initiate the exercise by taking a long step forward with your left (or right) foot.

  • To improve balance and stability, step out a little. The narrower your feet the wobblier you’ll be.

  • As the foot plants firmly on the floor, simultaneously bend the knee of the lead leg. Of course, you’ll have to allow flexion to occur in the knee of the supporting leg. Don’t make the common mistake of touching your patella (kneecap) to the floor!

  • When the hamstring of the lead leg is parallel to the floor, explosively power back to the start position.

  • Now repeat on the opposite leg.

Best bodyweight exercises #4: Tuck jump

A man performing a tuck jump bodyweight exercise.

Purpose of exercise: Develop explosive power in the main muscles of the legs.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.


The tuck jump is a tough exercise that stimulates a significant slice of your physicality. For example, tuck jumping activates all the lower limb muscles as well as those of the core. Tuck jump first-timers are often surprised that in the following days after a few sets their abs ache far more than their quads. In addition to activating every muscle south of your pectorals, tuck jumps also involve the aerobic energy system. Thus, if performed in sufficient numbers (10+), they will have your heart rate racing as though you’ve just completed a series of hill sprints.

Tuck jump key techniques

  • Tuck jumps are an explosive plyometric movement. It’s for this reason that you should warm up well before attempting to tuck!

  • Adopt a neutral stance – preferably on a soft training mat. (The softer and thicker the mat, the harder the tuck jumps.)

  • Your elbows are pinned to your sides and, with forearms held parallel to the floor, your palms are out flat.

  • To perform the exercise spring off your toes tucking your knees to your palms.

Best bodyweight exercises #5: Squat thrust

A woman performing a squat thrust.

Purpose of exercise: Activate the main muscles of the leg and aerobic system.

Muscles targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.


The squat thrust is a classic bodyweight exercise widely used in the military to promote the functional physicality of recruits and soldiers. Though deceptively simple, and requiring no equipment save a patch of ground, squat thrusts activate every muscle worth mentioning.


For example, squat thrusting engages all the muscles of the legs (as you’d expect) as well as the core, chest, deltoids, lower and upper back, and triceps. And like tuck jumps, if you perform them in high sets (10+) they also stimulate the cardio-respiratory system.


Stepping lung key techniques

  • The start position sees you in the high plank (or press-up): palms flat to the floor and arms and legs out straight.

  • Initiate the movement by springing off your toes and pulling your knees to your chest. While I’m yet to find consensus on the accepted range of motion for the squat thrust, knees to elbows is more than sufficient.

  • Conclude the exercise by thrusting your legs back out. The movement is made easier by first shifting your bodyweight forward.


Best bodyweight exercises #6: Burpee

A woman performing a burpee bodyweight exercise.

Purpose of exercise: To promote whole-body fitness conditioning.

Muscles targeted: Heart, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, core, lower and upper back, deltoids, and triceps.


Because the burpee is an amalgamation of three exercises (squat jump, squat thrust, and high plank), it engages many muscle groups. Thus, when performing burpees, you get far more bang for your buck than you do with other bodyweight exercises. (The bang is even bigger if you pop out a press-up at the mid-point.)


It’s these qualities that make the burpee a must-have exercise in your training routine. You can sprinkle them anywhere in your workouts; either as a standalone exercise or merged with others (such as the clean and press followed by a barbell jump into a burpee). But they are best integrated into circuits or completed as part of an AMRAP.

Burpee key techniques

  • Standing as you would when queuing patiently at the Post Office.

  • Squat all the way down until both palms are flat on the floor. Ensure that the knees do the bend and not the hips hinging.

  • Now in the crouched position, shift your weight over your hands before shooting back your legs.

  • At the halfway point, you should be in the high-plank position. (It’s here that you can perform a press-up.)

  • To conclude the exercise, spring the feet forward until the knees are tucked into your chest.

  • Stand up and cap your burpee with an explosive plyometric jump!


Best bodyweight exercises #7: Plank

A woman performing the best bodyweight exercises.

Purpose of exercise: To forge a robust core.

Muscles targeted: Those of the core but also the quads, hip flexors, pectorals, anterior deltoids, and triceps.


Planking first-timers can be forgiven for underestimating the effectiveness of this exercise. After all, it does involve imitating a piece of wood. Also, because you’re holding an isometric contraction, which means no movement is taking place, it doesn’t look like you’re doing an awful lot.


Yet, anyone that’s tried holding the plank for more than a minute, knows how challenging it is. Your body soon starts to shiver and shake as you try to endure the searing burn in your core, chest, and shoulders.


Plank key techniques

  • Kneeling down on a soft training mat, organise your arm position before initiating the contraction.

  • Still on your knees, rest your forearms on the mat. To improve stability, splay the elbows out. (The arms form a triangle; the tip being the hands.)

  • Once your arms are firmly fixed into position, a 90-degree angle at the elbow joint, lift your knees up.

  • Those performing the plank for the first time would be wise to do so in view of a mirror. This will enable you to correct your position. Possibly the most common mistake is to allow the back to sag. It’s important to avoid this as causes the compression of intervertebral discs.


Best bodyweight exercises #8: Hanging leg raise

A man completing hanging leg raises.

Purpose of exercise: Increase strength and muscle endurance in the abdominals and forearms.

Muscles targeted: Hip flexors and rectus abdominus.


Hanging leg raises are an effective abdominal exercise. In addition to sculpting a lean defined torso, they also increase functional fitness. Unlike crunches and sit-ups, hanging leg raises require constant muscle engagement to stabilise your body on the bar. Also, they engage many more muscles than conventional abdominal exercises. For example, in addition to the muscles listed above, hanging leg raises activate the transverse abdominous, obliques, latissimus dorsi, and forearms.


Hanging leg raise key techniques

  • First, find a chin-up bar that provides sufficient clearance so that your feet don’t touch the floor when you’re hanging from it.

  • Taking a secure grip, hang from the bar. Your arms and legs are straight and there should be no swinging or swaying of your body.

  • To execute the movement, raise your knees to your chest or until your quads from a 90-degree angle to your torso.

  • You can increase the intensity of the exercise by keeping your legs straight as you raise them.

Best bodyweight exercises #9: Reverse plank

A woman performing a plank.

Purpose of exercise: Improve postural alignment and balance anterior/posterior strength.

Muscles targeted: Hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, traps, deltoids.


The reverse plank offers a reduced resistance exercise to engage the muscles of the posterior chain. Though seemingly simplistic, you’ll be surprised at just how challenging this exercise is.


As well as engaging multiple links of the posterior chain, reverse planking will also test the flexibility in your forearms and deltoids. The exercise can be performed in one of two ways.


First, similarly to the standard plank, hold the position isometrically for time. The time that you hold it for – 10 to 60 seconds – constitutes a set. So, you could do five sets of 20 seconds.


The second way is demonstrated in the video. Instead of holding one continuous contraction, you can perform reps. Raising your buttocks from the floor until your body forms a straight line is one rep.


Reverse plank key techniques

  • Take a seat on a soft training mat.

  • Extend your legs out straight, feet together.

  • Your palms are placed on the mat, fingers pointing to your buttocks.

  • Keeping the heels dug into the floor, initiate the exercise by forcing your hips to the ceiling.

  • Once your body takes on the shape of a plank, pause momentarily before lowering your buttocks back to the floor.

  • Note, you don’t have to perform the full range of movement. If you currently lack strength in the muscles of your lower back, stop at 45-degrees.


Best bodyweight exercises #10: Triceps dip

A guy performing a triceps dip.

Purpose of exercise: Develop upper body strength.

Muscles targeted: Triceps and pectorals.


If you want to increase the strength and definition of your triceps, do more dips. But dipping doesn’t just activate the triceps. This exercise also engages the pectorals, anterior deltoids, and forearms. Dips are typically performed on a dip bar. This is the full body variation and thus is the most challenging. However, if you are not yet strong enough to support your full body weight, you can instead try the reduced resistance variations. These involve dipping from the side of a stable object – such as a weights bench – with the feet planted on the floor or suspend on another bench to your front.


Dipping key techniques

  • Dipping places a lot of stress on the shoulder joint. Thus, it is important to warm-up well before practising this exercise.

  • Take a firm grip on the dipping bar and spring up into position. Prior to executing the exercise, ensure that your hands are in line. Remember, to keep those elbows slightly bent.

  • Under control, lower your body until a 90-degree angle forms at the elbows. There’s no need to go lower than this.

  • Pause momentarily before pressing your body back. Focus on applying equal force through both triceps.


Best bodyweight exercises #11: Pull up

A man performing pull ups.

Purpose of exercise: To enhance back and arm strength as well as body control.

Muscles targeted: Latissimus dorsi, teres major and minor, infraspinatus, rhomboids, trapezius, biceps and forearms.


Of all the bodyweight exercises covered so far, pull-ups are by far the most challenging. Many exercisers – even ones with considerable experience – struggle to perform pull-ups. However, if you crack this tough cookie, you’ll reap many rewards. In addition to engaging a score of upper body muscles, pull-ups also build superior back strength while forging physical functionality.


But what if like most people you can’t budge your body an inch when hanging from the bar? As with triceps dips, there are a few modification options. For example, the inverted pull-up significantly reduces the resistance as part of your body weight is supported by the floor. Alternatively, you can perform lat pulldowns to build up the requisite upper body strength to perform pull-ups.


Pull up key techniques

  • Take a firm grip on the power tower. (The position of the hands shifts the emphasis to different muscle groups. For example, when the palms face inwards, the biceps do most of the work. Palms facing away involves more lats and forearms – as well as the outer head of the brachii. Taking a wide arm, palms-facing-out grip diverts most of the workload to the lats.)

  • Hanging from a bar, ensure that your arms and legs are perfectly straight and that your body is still.

  • Look up to the bar.

  • Under control, pull evenly with both arms until your chin clears the bar.

  • Pause momentarily before lowering back down.


 

Conclusion

In this feature-length article, we’ve covered a comprehensive range of bodyweight exercises. As well as covering the key techniques, we’ve also reviewed the targeted muscles and alternative variations.


Now that you’re on your way to mastering the bodyweight exercises, you will want to integrate them into your training. To help you get started, I’ve included links to workouts and circuits that involve the exercises outlined above.



 

Need training inspiration?

Best bodyweight exercises blog concludes with the Hungry4Fitness Book of Workouts.

 

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