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?
- How do Push-ups Compare to the Bench Press?
- Bodyweight Workouts and Progressive Overload
- Bodyweight Exercises Versus Lifting Weights
- Why are Gymnasts So Muscular?
- Are Bodyweight Exercises Good For Beginners?
- A Better Way to Ease Into Bulking
- Key Takeaways
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 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 the exercises you’ll be doing won’t be good for stimulating 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 what if you’re trying to gain an appreciable amount of muscle mass? Can bodyweight exercises be good for gaining muscle size?
Yes and no.
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 into 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. That’s technically true, but it’s missing some incredibly important nuance.
For example, a beginner might not even be able to do a single chin-up. If he jumps up to the bar and lowers himself back down, that’s going to put way more mechanical tension on his muscles than lifting heavy weights would. After all, he’s putting more tension on his muscles than he can even lift for a single rep.
Similarly, if you can only do a few push-ups, those push-ups are going to generate a ton of mechanical tension. How much mechanical tension? That will depend on how strong you are. As you get better at bodyweight exercises, you’ll be able to do more repetitions before reaching muscular failure, and so you’ll stimulate less muscle growth via mechanical tension.
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.
However, if you’re doing 30-rep sets of push-ups, only the last few reps are going to be challenging, and so you might need to take that set all the way to total muscular failure in order to stimulate muscle growth. There’s quite a lot of disagreement among the experts about why this is, but there’s a consensus 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 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.
How do Push-ups Compare to the Bench Press?
Okay, now that we’ve talked about stimulating muscle growth via heavy and light lifting, let’s talk about the exercises themselves. What if we compare a push-up against a bench press? Both train the chest, shoulders, and triceps via a horizontal pushing movement, making them equivalent exercises. Which one is better for building muscle?
A 2015 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research measured muscle growth from doing either push-ups or the bench press over the course of a 5-week bulk.
To start, the researchers hooked the study participants up to an electromyography (EMG) machine while they did push-ups and the bench press. They found that both exercises activated the muscle fibres in the pecs and triceps to the same degree.
Then they had the participants do a 5-week muscle-building program featuring either the push-up or the bench press. Here are the results:
The push-up and the bench press both produced the same amount of muscle growth in the chest. The bench press may have been leaning towards stimulating slightly more growth, but the results were statistically the same. This is not a meaningful difference, either.
With the triceps, we see the same thing. Both the push-up and the bench press produced the same amount of muscle growth.
Overall, the researchers concluded that both push-ups and the bench press “are similarly effective for increasing muscle thickness and strength gain.”
However, there’s a bit more to these two exercises. Push-ups don’t require you to pin your shoulder blades down and back, allowing you to use a larger range of motion. That’s going to stimulate a bit of extra growth in your serratus anterior muscles (the muscles underneath your armpits).
Working your shoulders through a larger range of motion is also going to have a better impact on your posture and shoulder health than bench pressing will.
Push-ups also involve holding a plank position, making them great for bulking up your abs and improving your core strength.
It’s common for beginners to have poor posture and unstable shoulder joints, so, if anything, I’d say this makes the push-up the all-around better exercise for beginners.
As you get stronger, though, your posture will improve, your shoulder joints will strengthen, and your abs will become more than strong enough to effortlessly hold a front plank position. Those benefits fade. Furthermore, there’s a key advantage to the bench press that explains why it’s such a popular exercise for stronger guys: progressive overload.
Bodyweight Workouts and 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 8 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 bodyweight workouts, 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 push-ups.
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 problems. 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.
A better push-up progression for your chest would be to use a weight vest, put a weight plate on your back, or use a resistance band. That allows you to work the same muscles with the same leverage, just with a more challenging amount of resistance (study). Of course, once you do that, the push-up is no longer a bodyweight exercise.
Another great push-up progression is the dip, which will also keep the emphasis on your chest. But you’ll soon get too strong for bodyweight dips, too, and the problem will begin anew. You’ll need to buy a dip belt and some weight plates. At that point, once you’ve invested in the equipment to do weighted dips, you’ve again moved beyond bodyweight exercises.
And therein lies the problem with using bodyweight exercises for bulking: you outgrow them.
Now, you might say: great! As you outgrow them, you’ll gradually invest in equipment. The problem with that plan is that you’re likely already too strong for most bodyweight bulking exercises.
Muscle is best built with sturdy exercises that place most of the stress on the prime movers. You aren’t just trying to improve your balance and coordination, you’re trying to gain size and strength. That means using push-ups for your chest and shoulders, chin-ups for your back and biceps, squats for your quads, and deadlifts for your posterior chain.
You’re already too strong for air squats and bodyweight deadlifts. And chin-ups require investing in a chin-up bar.
But let’s put that point aside for a second.
Bodyweight Exercises Versus Lifting Weights
You’re not going to find a better exercise for your chest than the push-up. In fact, the only way that we can make bodyweight push-ups better for building muscle is by removing the word bodyweight. After all, if you have the option of adding weight to your back every workout, you can stick to your target rep range, making it much easier to progressively overload your muscles.
Similarly, chin-ups are the best exercise for building up your biceps, forearms, and upper back. They’re also great for your core, working your abs in a similar way to hanging leg raises (which are another great bodyweight exercise).
Again, the only way that we can make bodyweight chin-ups better is by removing the bodyweight requirement. Beginners are going to have an easier time learning chin-ups if they’re allowed to do accessory exercises such as rows, lat pulldowns, biceps curls, or at least tossing a resistance band up on the chin-up bar.
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.)
It’s not that bodyweight exercises are bad, it’s just that it’s better to have the option of adding weight to them.
It’s also better to have the freedom to use weights when weights clearly provide an advantage. For example, yes, you could do handstand push-ups for your shoulders, but you’re going to waste a lot of time getting used to the rising blood pressure in your head, you’re going to waste a lot of energy trying to get your balance right, and when you do finally master the lift, you’ll be too strong for it anyway. It’s much easier to grab a dumbbell or barbell and do some overhead pressing, using progressively heavier weights as your shoulders grow bigger and stronger. (Speaking of which, here’s how to build broader shoulders.)
Even with push-ups, which are one of the best bulking exercises of all time, there’s going to come a point where you’ll benefit from switching to the bench press. If you can do 30 push-ups in a row, you’re too strong from them. Grab some dumbbells or a barbell and start going heavier. (Speaking of which, here’s how to build a bigger chest.)
If we’re talking about the lower body, the problem gets even worse. Even if you’ve never touched a weight in your life, you’re probably already too strong for goblet squats and jump squats. You could do one-legged bodyweight variations, such as pistol squats, but that’s going to challenge your balance more than your muscles.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s say that you aren’t trying to build big legs. Let’s say that you only care about bulking up your upper body. In that case, does it matter that you aren’t squatting or deadlifting? Yah, it still matters. You’re still missing out.
The squat, deadlift, and bent-over row, all of which require weights, are the best exercises for bulking up your spinal erectors, which is what’s going to make your back not only wide but also thick. Moreover, heavy deadlifts and rows, as well as just holding onto heavy weights in general, is what’s going to bulk up your traps, which is going to make you look quite a bit stronger and more masculine.
If you think about it, the muscles that are built by lifting heavy things—spinal erectors, forearms, and traps—are the muscles you’d expect to be good visual indicators of overall strength. You’d expect those muscles to have a disproportionate influence on how strong someone looks. If we look at attractiveness and aesthetics research, we see that how attractive someone looks is directly related to how strong they look, and how strong they look is directly related to how much weight they can actually carry.
The spinal erectors and traps are arguably the most important muscle groups for aesthetics and general strength, and guys who only do bodyweight training are going to have a much harder time developing them.
Finally, for naturally skinny guys, deadlifts are life. 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. It thickens us up, straightens us out, hardens our bones, and lengthens our lives.
Why are Gymnasts So Muscular?
First, all of the best gymnasts lift weights. 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 not trying to say that you can’t build a great (upper) body with pure bodyweight training. I’m just saying that unless you have world-class genetics, it’s going to take several years of belaboured effort to accomplish what a lifter could get done in a few months. And it’s going to be confusing. And it’s going to hurt. And you’re going to barf.
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 a complicated, painful, and incredibly inefficient way to bulk.
Given how much you’re going to suffering, you might even start to think that you hate working out. But you don’t hate working out, you just hate this Hell that you’ve thrown yourself into.
As a beginner, I think it’s important to choose a type of training that allows you to build muscle simply, easily, and quickly. The easier the learning curve is, the less overwhelming it will be to get started. The easier the workouts are, the less willpower you’ll need to train consistently. And the quicker 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 they make it harder to get quick results. Furthermore, some of the best bodyweight exercises for bulking up—chin-ups, dips, hanging leg raises, and inverted rows—require equipment anyway.
A Better 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 dumbbells are the Ferrari of adjustable dumbbells, but cheaper ones will work too.
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. After all, gymnasts spend all day every day doing bodyweight exercises and they build legendary upper bodies as a result. It doesn’t compare favourably against lifting weights, but it certainly gets the job done. (At least the upper half, anyway.)
I’m not one of those guys, though. Most of the beginners who gravitate towards bodyweight training aren’t that way either. I’d rather do 2–4 workouts per week. I’d rather finish those workouts in an hour. And besides, building muscle is important enough to me that I actually want to do a good job of it.
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, I also started to look forward to training. Psyching yourself up to lift a massive weight for a few reps is fun. Steadily pushing yourself through the pain until you vomit is not. At least not for me.
Bodyweight exercises can be good for building muscle. With enough grit and creativity, you can build quite a bit of (upper-body) muscle (not counting your spinal erectors) with bodyweight workouts. But it’s going to be a long and hard road.
Weights exist for a reason: because they make it much easier to build muscle. I wish I could recommend bodyweight workouts. It would make my job so much easier. Our members wouldn’t need equipment. But they just aren’t as good.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not hating on bodyweight exercises. 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 push-ups, chin-ups, dips, and planks.
The best way to build muscle is to simply choose the best bulking exercises, bodyweight or not.
The best way for a beginner to ease into bulking is with heavy adjustable dumbbells. They don’t require much of an investment, they don’t take up much space, they’re incredible for building muscle, and you can mix bodyweight exercises into your routine to get the best of both worlds. If you’ve got a spare room and a thousand dollars, you might even want to invest in a barbell home gym. Dumbbells are enough to get absolutely killer results, though.
Like I mentioned above, some of our best bulking transformations are from guys doing our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program with a simple pair of heavy adjustable dumbbells. It’s a simple setup that builds muscle very well.