Bodyweight exercises can certainly stimulate muscle growth. There’s a lot that can stimulate muscle growth, though, ranging in intensity from resistance bands all the way to heavy barbell strength training. In fact, there’s even research showing that simply flexing your muscles can stimulate a bit of muscle growth (study).
But the question isn’t whether bodyweight exercises can stimulate any muscle growth, the question is whether they’re any good at stimulating muscle growth.
- How do bodyweight exercises compare against lifting weights for building muscle?
- Is bodyweight training a good way for a beginner to ease into bulking?
- How do push-ups compare to the bench press for building muscle?
- What advantages are there to bodyweight training?
- What are the disadvantages of bodyweight training?
- Let’s Forget the Fitness Programs
- What Stimulates Muscle Growth?
- Do You Need to Lift Heavy in Order to Build Muscle?
- Bodyweight Workouts & Progressive Overload
- Bodyweight Exercises Versus Lifting Weights
- Why are Gymnasts So Muscular?
- Are Bodyweight Exercises Good For Beginners?
- An Easier Way to Ease Into Bulking
- Summary & Recommendations
Let’s Forget the Fitness Programs
We aren’t trying to chisel off fat to reveal the muscle buried underneath, we’re trying to build that muscle from scratch. We’re trying to bulk. And preferably, we’d like to bulk leanly, too. That means stimulating a serious amount of muscle growth, shuttling all the extra calories we’re eating towards muscle growth instead of fat storage.
If you imagine the typical bodyweight program—P90X or some such—you’ve got a program that strings together a bodyweight exercises with minimal rest times between sets in order to get your heart rate up. Those short rest times wreck muscle growth (study), transforming the workout into a cardio workout. Most of those exercises aren’t designed to stimulate muscle growth either.
To be fair, though, that’s not the point of those programs. These at-home fitness routines aren’t designed to help you bulk up, they’re designed to improve your fitness, burn some calories, and improve your general health. For that, they’re perfectly fine.
But let’s forget about those general fitness programs. Let’s use the best possible example of bodyweight training. What if you’re doing a bodyweight program that’s specifically designed to stimulate as much muscle growth as possible—a bodyweight hypertrophy routine?
What Stimulates Muscle Growth?
Before we talk about bodyweight exercises in particular, we need to talk about what stimulates muscle growth. That way when we talk about why some approaches might be better for building muscle than others, we can understand why that is.
There are three ways to stimulate muscle growth:
- Mechanical tension: If you’re doing push-ups, this is the tension that’s on your muscles. The heavier that tension is and the larger the range of motion you use, the more muscle growth you’ll stimulate (study, study, study). As a result, big heavy compound exercises tend to stimulate more muscle growth via mechanical tension. Push-ups are certainly a big compound exercise, but how heavy they are will depend on how strong you are.
- Metabolic stress: This is the “pump” that you’ll develop in your shoulders, chest, and triceps if you’re able to do more than around ten push-ups in a row. This blood that’s being pumped into your muscles contains local growth factors that will speed up muscle growth (study). Because higher rep ranges tend to build up more of a pump, lighter exercises tend to stimulate more muscle growth via metabolic stress.
- Muscle damage: Muscle damage might stimulate muscle growth, but even if it does stimulate muscle growth, it doesn’t do a very good job of it. Furthermore, excessive muscle damage can reduce muscle growth. After all, the more resources you invest in repairing muscle damage, the fewer resources you have available for building new muscle tissue.
So there are three ways to stimulate muscle growth, but we want to focus on just the first two: mechanical tension and metabolic stress. That’s where almost all of our muscle growth will come from.
Can bodyweight exercises provide enough mechanical tension and/or metabolic stress to stimulate muscle growth? Absolutely!
Do You Need to Lift Heavy in Order to Build Muscle?
Now, it’s often claimed that heavy strength training is ideal for building muscle because it puts the most mechanical tension on our muscles. For instance, if we put a heavy barbell on our backs and sink into a low-bar squat, that puts quite a lot of mechanical tension on our quads and glutes. That tension stimulates muscle growth. That can absolutely work, but it’s not the only way to put mechanical tension on our muscles.
If we turn to bodyweight training, the assumption is that it’s lighter, and with squats, that tends to be true. I mean, if we take the barbell off our backs and do air squats, yeah, they’re absolutely lighter. But does that mean less mechanical tension? Not necessarily.
If we can sink deeper, then the extra range of motion adds mechanical tension. More importantly, if we lift in higher rep ranges, then even if we have less mechanical tension per rep, we can still have as much mechanical tension per set. In fact, lifting in moderate-to-high rep ranges tends to result in more overall mechanical tension per set, which is why 6–30 rep sets are so common in hypertrophy training.
But let’s say that you can do more than thirty bodyweight squats. At that point they’ll start to challenge your cardiovascular system more than your strength, and so they’ll start to provoke cardiovascular adaptations instead of stimulating muscle growth. That’s true. But there are many different kinds of bodyweight squats.
For instance, we could train one leg at a time and work our quads through a larger range of motion. If we look at something like a pistol squat, it can put just as much mechanical tension on our quads as a low-bar back squat. We just need to make sure that we’re being limited by our quads, not our balance or cardiovascular system.
Plus, not all bodyweight exercises are light. Consider the chin-up. A beginner might not even be able to do a single chin-up through a full range of motion. Not only is it heavy, it’s too heavy. That’s why people will often turn to weights, doing dumbbell or barbell rows, or perhaps some lat pulldowns. In that case, weight training allows us to go lighter.
If a skinny beginner doesn’t have access to weights, just a chin-up bar, no problem. He can jump up to the bar (or use a stool) and then lower himself back down, that’s going to put a tremendous amount of mechanical tension on his biceps and upper back through a massive range of motion. Much more than a barbell row would (which has a small range of motion and a bad strength curve).
The next argument is that heavy strength training builds more muscle because it keeps the rep ranges low. That’s incorrect. There’s plenty of research showing that so long as you’re getting close enough to muscular failure, both heavy and light training stimulates a similar amount of muscle growth. And strength training isn’t ideal for gaining muscle size, anyway.
Mind you, there is one key advantage to lifting fairly heavy: you don’t need to go as close to failure. Every rep is challenging, and so every rep will stimulate muscle growth. For example, if you’re doing 5-rep sets of chin-ups, you won’t need to lift to failure because every single chin-up that you do will put enough tension on your muscles to stimulate muscle growth.
But if you’re doing 30-rep sets of push-ups, only the last few reps are challenging enough to provoke muscle growth, and so you’ll need to take that set all the way to total muscular failure. There’s quite a lot of disagreement among the experts about why this is, but the research clearly shows that higher-rep sets need to be taken closer to failure.
It’s Difficult to Build Muscle in Higher Rep Ranges
Theoretically, both heavy and light training is equally good for building muscle. Dr Brad Scheonfeld’s research proves that very clearly. However, practically speaking, it’s incredibly hard to take those high-rep sets all the way to true muscular failure. To quote Dr Schoenfeld:
While people often dismiss light-loads as being for wimps, nothing could be further from the truth. Training to failure with high reps is highly demanding and the associated acidosis extremely uncomfortable. To this end, approximately half the subjects in the low-load group puked during the first week of training and several others experienced nausea and/or light-headedness.Brad Schoenfeld, PhD
Doing a 5-rep set of chin-ups or deadlifts and stopping a couple of reps shy of failure is a breeze compared to doing bodyweight push-ups or squats until your muscles give out.
So although heavy and light weights both theoretically produce the same amount of muscle growth, when we’re speaking more practically, most people don’t have the grit to get good results from light training.
Beginners Benefit from Heavier Lifting
It’s also worth pointing out that Schoenfeld has another study showing that beginners don’t respond as well to light training. He found that beginners built more muscle doing 15 or fewer reps when compared against the group doing 30 or more reps.
I think this puts a good practical upper limit for beginners at around 15 reps per set. That’s heavy enough to stimulate optimal muscle growth, and it’s also going to save you from the intense pain and nausea of lighter training.
Bodyweight Training Isn’t Always Lighter
Like I mentioned above, though, bodyweight exercises aren’t necessarily lighter. A push-up will load you with about 65% of your body weight, so for a 150lb man, that means he’s pressing around 100lbs (study, study). For a beginner, that can be quite a lot of weight. It’s only as you get stronger that bodyweight exercises drift into higher rep ranges.
Many beginners can’t do a single chin-up, let alone 15. In fact, it takes many guys over a year of training before they can do more than 15 chin-ups with a full range of motion, starting from a dead hang and bringing their chests all the way up to the bar. This is especially true if you’re gaining weight, given that you’ll be lifting a heavier body weight every workout. Going from doing 1 chin-up at 130 pounds to doing 15 chin-ups at 200 pounds can take a lot of work.
I’m not sure if you plan on using chin-ups, though. That might mean building a home gym, which may be what you’re trying to avoid. And if you do need to buy equipment, you’ve got the option of buying weights instead of a chin-up bar. But we’ll get to that in a moment.
First, let’s compare bodyweight exercises against weight training exercises.
Bodyweight Workouts & Progressive Overload
The next thing we need to consider is progressive overload. Your muscles will only adapt if they feel unable to handle what you’re presenting them with. Put another way, your muscles will only grow bigger if you truly challenge them. That means that as your muscles get stronger, you’ll need to use progressively heavier weights, add progressively more reps, or find progressively harder exercise variations.
Weight progression: if you’re lifting weights, progressive overload is simple. Whenever you’re able to lift the target amount of reps (say, eight reps), you choose a slightly heavier weight. In your first workout, you bench press 100 pounds for 8 reps. Then in your next workout, you bench press 105 pounds for 7 reps. In your third workout, you get 105 pounds for 8 reps. And so you move up to 110 in your fourth workout. (If you’re like me, that might be an empty 45lb barbell for your first workout, but you get the idea.)
Rep progression: If you’re doing a bodyweight hypertrophy workout, this starts out simple, too. Every workout, you try to get extra reps. One workout you do 8 push-ups, the next workout you try for 9. Adding that extra rep will be roughly the same as adding around 5 pounds to the bar, at least if you’re close to 150 pounds. It’s basically the same thing.
But what happens when you can do 30 push-ups, and trying for 31 push-ups makes you want to barf? Or what about when you can do 40 push-ups, and adding extra reps just improves your muscle endurance, not your muscle size? At this point, you’re too strong for that variation of push-ups. You need to find a way to make them more challenging.
Exercise progression: if you’re limited to bodyweight exercises, then progressive overload will eventually need to come from progressing the exercise itself. Instead of selecting a slightly heavier weight or trying to get slightly more repetitions, you’ll need to learn a harder exercise variation.
The problem with exercise progression is that since you’re using a different exercise, you may not even be stimulating the same muscle fibres in the same way. That’s not always a problem. It’s good to switch up your exercise variations every few weeks in order to prevent muscle growth plateaus, to build fuller muscles, and to limit the wear and tear on your joints.
Still, being forced to switch to harder bodyweight exercise variations comes with some challenges. For example, if you progress from push-ups to decline push-ups (with your feet up), you’re switching from using your chest to using your shoulders. Similarly, if you progress to one-handed push-ups, you’re switching from prioritizing your chest to prioritizing your shoulders and obliques. In these examples, even though you’re making the exercise harder, you aren’t actually progressively overloading your chest.
As we mentioned above, a better way to progress the push-up is to progress to deficit push-ups, increasing the challenge on your chest by loading it under greater stretch, and from there, perhaps loading up a backpack with R Scott Bakker novels. But the point remains: progressing with bodyweight exercises can be a bit more finicky and confusing. It’s not as simple as gradually adding weight to the bar and lifting in your preferred rep range (of, say, eight reps per set).
But it can be done. There are ways to progress bodyweight exercises. We’ve written an entire guide on bodyweight hypertrophy training. If all you don’t have access to weights, you can still build muscle.
Bodyweight Exercises Versus Lifting Weights
You’re not going to find a better exercise for your chest than the push-up. Even if we compare the push-up against the barbell bench press, both exercises stimulate virtually the same amount of muscle growth in the chest (study):
The same is true if we look at the triceps. Both the push-up and bench press stimulate virtually the same amount of growth:
Now, you might be thinking that the bench press is slightly edging out the push-up, and that’s true. The differences didn’t reach statistical significance, so that may just be due to chance, but we’ve seen similar findings in earlier research, too. The bench press does seem to stimulate slightly more chest and triceps growth than the push-up.
However, the bench press has our bodies supported on a bench. And that’s fine. We brace, maybe we arch a little, and maybe we stimulate a bit of growth in our spinal erectors from holding that tight arch. But the push-up is done in a plank position, with both our abs and glutes firing fairly hard. Plus, since the push-up doesn’t have our shoulder blades pinned behind our backs, it works our shoulder blades through a larger range of motion, bulking up our serratus anterior muscles:
So when we compare the push-up against the bench press, it’s true that the bench press might be slightly better at stimulating growth in our chest and triceps, but the push-up is the bigger compound lift. And it’s also quite quick to set up and easy on our joints. There’s nothing stopping us from sneaking in an extra set, giving it the advantage over the bench press.
In fact, the only way that we can make bodyweight push-ups better for building muscle is to raise your hands up a little bit, turning them into deficit push-ups:
With deficit push-ups, we’re not just extending the range of motion at the top (bringing in our serratus muscles), we’re also extending it at the bottom, putting our chests under a greater stretch, and thus stimulating even more muscle growth:
If we’re able to challenge our chests under a great stretch with the push-up, I suspect it might become an even better exercise for building the chest than the bench press.
Now, that doesn’t mean that bodyweight training is better than weight training. Ideally, we’d do a mix of both. Maybe we follow up a heavy set of the bench press with some lighter deficit push-ups. Maybe toss in some chest flyes if your chest is lagging behind, some overhead extensions for your triceps, or some lateral raises to help you build broader shoulders. Weights aren’t required, but they do make hypertrophy training easier.
Similarly, chin-ups are the best exercise for building up our biceps and upper backs. They’re also great for your cores, working our abs in a similar way to hanging leg raises (which are another great bodyweight exercise). But even so, beginners will have an easier time learning chin-ups if they can do accessory lifts such as rows, lat pulldowns, and biceps curls. More advanced lifters are going to get more benefit out of the chin-up by wearing a weight belt, allowing them to progressively overload the movement. (They’ll also speed up biceps growth by adding in curls.)
So it’s not that bodyweight exercises are worse for building muscle, it’s just that it’s just nice to have the freedom to use weights when weights provide an advantage. Yes, you could do handstand push-ups for your shoulders, but it’s much easier to grab a dumbbell or barbell and do some overhead pressing and lateral raises, using gradually heavier weights as your shoulders grow bigger and stronger.
Moreover, some muscles are harder to develop with bodyweight training. The muscles that are developed by lifting heavy things—our spinal erectors, traps, and biceps—are a huge part of our general strength, and thus a huge part of making us look strong and attractive. After all, looking strong isn’t just about looking like you can control your own body weight, it’s also about looking like you can lift heavy things.
Especially for us naturally skinny guys, deadlifts can really help. Not only is grip strength closely linked to longevity (study), but ectomorphs also tend to have long curving spines that need to be strengthened. That’s what the deadlift is for. Front-loaded squats (such as front squats and goblet squats) can be amazing for that, too, bulking up the spinal erectors in our upper backs and improving our posture. Similar to the deadlift, it thickens us up, straightens us out, hardens our bones, and lengthens our lives.
It’s not impossible to develop those muscles. Vertical push-ups are great for our traps and towel deadlifts are great for our spinal erectors. But it’s harder to develop them. People who only do bodyweight training tend to have proportionally thinner torsos and smaller traps. It’s a somewhat different look.
Why are Gymnasts So Muscular?
First, all of the best gymnasts use a strategic combination of bodyweight training and weight training, which is exactly what we recommend for skinny guys who are trying to bulk up. Serious gymnasts have no problem using weights to help them accomplish their goals. After all, they’re trying to excel at gymnastics, not trying to build their physiques with pure bodyweight training.
To be sure, there are plenty of exceptions. I’m sure there are some great gymnasts who never touch weights. And I’m certainly not trying to say that you can’t build a muscular physique with pure bodyweight training. I’m just saying that if you have access to weights, it can make building muscle easier than being restricted to just bodyweight training.
Are Bodyweight Exercises Good For Beginners?
Easing into bulking with bodyweight workouts is like easing into the summer heat by being airdropped into the Sahara desert with a mouth full of scorpion peppers. Bodyweight workouts can definitely help you build muscle, but they’re more complicated, more painful, and less efficient than using a mix of bodyweight and weight training.
It’s possible for a beginner to build muscle with bodyweight training. Of course it is. But it’s not easier. I would hate for you to “ease” into hypertrophy training with a bodyweight workout routine, find it incredibly difficult and painful, and assume that working out is akin to torture. That’s not the case. Bodyweight training just so happens to be a particularly Hellish kind of training. It can be fun in a challenging grit your teeth kind of way, but it’s no walk on the beach.
If you’re a beginner and you’re having trouble with your workout consistency, it can be wise to choose a type of training that allows you to build muscle simply, easily, and fast. The easier the learning curve is, the less overwhelming it is to get started. The easier the workouts are, the less willpower you’ll need to build your habits. And the faster you can build muscle, the more encouraged you’ll be to keep training.
The problem with bodyweight workouts is that they’re complicated, difficult, and it’s harder to get fast results. Furthermore, some of the best bodyweight exercises for bulking up—chin-ups, dips, hanging leg raises, and inverted rows—require a little bit of equipment anyway. If you’re buying a chin-up bar, you may as well buy some adjustable dumbbells as well.
An Easier Way to Ease Into Bulking
If your goal is to ease into bulking up, I’d recommend getting a couple of heavy adjustable dumbbells instead. IronMaster and BowFlex dumbbells are the Ferraris of adjustable dumbbells, but cheaper ones will work too. You don’t need fancy weights, you just need something that you can make progressively heavier as you grow gradually stronger.
If you plan on becoming seriously big and strong in the long term, I’d recommend building a simple barbell home gym. But I understand why that might be a bit much for someone who’s brand new to lifting, especially if you don’t have space to set up a rack. That’s why a pair of heavy adjustable dumbbells can make for a great first step.
With a pair of adjustable dumbbells, you can still do push-ups, but you can also do rows, curls, overhead presses, goblet squats, loaded carries, and Romanian deadlifts. Now you’ve got a simple and easy workout routine that’s going to produce quick and consistent muscle growth.
- Instead of having to spend weeks practicing your balance before stimulating muscle growth, you can start building muscle from day one.
- Instead of having to learn new exercise variations every time you get stronger, you can simply add a little bit of weight to your dumbbells.
- Instead of drifting into painfully high rep ranges and barfing every other workout, you can stay in the 5–15 rep range.
- You’ll have at least one perfect exercise for every muscle group.
- All you need are two dumbbells.
You’ll also be able to follow a bonafide bulking routine. Some of our best bulking transformations are from guys doing our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program with a simple pair of heavy adjustable dumbbells. With free weights, the sky’s the limit in terms of muscle growth.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some people are loaded full of grit. They love the “no pain, no gain” approach, and they want to be training every day anyway. In that case, efficiency doesn’t matter, pain doesn’t matter. If you’re one of those guys, bodyweight training might suit you quite well.
I’m not one of those guys, though. Most of the beginners who gravitate towards bodyweight training aren’t that way either. I like to build muscle the easy way. I’m all for push-ups and chin-ups, planks and hanging leg raises, but I also enjoy my curls, goblet squats, deadlifts, overhead extensions, and lateral raises. Plus, free weights make it so easy to bring up lagging body parts, such as building bigger forearms or a thicker neck.
I tried bodyweight training several times before I tried lifting weights. It made me think that I hated exercise. Once I started learning the dumbbell and barbell lifts, though, not only did I start building muscle, but I also started to look forward to training. Psyching yourself up to lift a massive weight for a few reps is fun. Grinding out thirty-rep sets of bodyweight squats to failure isn’t.
Summary & Recommendations
Bodyweight exercises can be good for building muscle. With enough grit and creativity, you can build an impressive physique with just bodyweight training. But it’s a longer and harder road, and most people prefer building muscle with free weights, especially if they’ll be doing it a few hours every week for pretty much their entire lives. Weights are popular for a reason: because they make it easier and more enjoyable to build muscle, and because they allow us to do some things that can’t be done with just bodyweight training.
Now, don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean that free weights are always better, or that bodyweight training doesn’t have its advantages. In fact, some bodyweight exercises are better than some weight training exercises. Even if you have access to a fully stocked gym, you’ll still benefit from doing plenty of deficit push-ups, chin-ups, dips, hanging leg raises, and planks.
The best way to build muscle is to simply choose the best bulking exercises, bodyweight or not. Some of our best bulking transformations are from guys doing our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program with a simple pair of adjustable dumbbells and a chin-up bar. They use the free weights for some exercises, bodyweight for others. A mix is best.