Most people build muscle with weight training, and that’s certainly an easy way to do it, but it’s also possible to bulk up with bodyweight workouts (aka calisthenics). If we put enough mechanical tension on our muscles, they will grow. That’s just as true with bodyweight training as it is with free weights.
The catch is that if we want to see good muscle growth, we still need to do dedicated hypertrophy training, and that can be confusing. After all, most calisthenics workouts are designed to help overweight people lose fat, improve their general fitness, and become healthier. The workouts may stimulate a bit of muscle growth as a byproduct, but it’s not enough to do a bonafide bulk. That won’t cut it for us skinny guys, ectomorphs, and hardgainers.
So in this article, we’ll go over how to do a bodyweight hypertrophy workout that’s designed specifically to help skinny guys build muscle, bulk up, and gain mass.
- Can We Gain Muscle Mass With Bodyweight Routines?
- The Principles of Muscle Growth
- Bodyweight Progressive Overload
- The Five Foundational Calisthenics Lifts
- The Push-Up
- The Vertical Push-Up
- The Chin-Up (or Inverted Row)
- The Bodyweight Squat
- The Bodyweight Deadlift
- Bodyweight Accessory & Isolation Lifts
- A Sample Bodyweight Workout Routine (For Mass)
- Upgrading to Free Weights
Can We Gain Muscle Mass With Bodyweight Routines?
The first question is whether we can build muscle with just bodyweight workouts. That depends. Not everyone can. An advanced lifter who’s near his genetic muscular potential might have trouble even just maintaining all of their muscle mass (especially in their legs and spinal erectors) with just calisthenics.
But a skinny beginner can absolutely gain muscle with bodyweight training, and the rate of progress will be almost identical to using free weights. The same holds true with most intermediate lifters. They can still make good progress with bodyweight training, it’s just that the workouts can quickly become more complicated and painful than weight training.
But I don’t mean to make it sound like bodyweight training is a lesser choice. After all, the push-up and chin-up are two of the very best muscle-building lifts of all time (study, study). Even people with access to free weights should include plenty of them in their bulking routines.
Bodyweight workouts can also be quite good for gaining general strength. Maybe not for an advanced powerlifter who measures their strength by how much they can squat, bench press, and deadlift, but for everyone else, there’s no reason to think that how many push-ups and chin-ups we can do is any less indicative of strength than how much we can deadlift.
Calisthenics are great for our general health, too. In fact, that’s what most calisthenics routines are designed for. Exercising is one of the most important things we can do to reduce our risk of sickness and death, but only 20% of people exercise, and only 10% exercise enough (study, study). Bodyweight training absolutely counts as exercise, as do cardio and lifting weights. In fact, even just walking for twenty minutes every day lowers our risk of blood sugar problems by 25%, and those benefits stack with added activity (study).
Calisthenics takes us far beyond that, though. By adding in resistance training 2–3 times per week, whether that’s weight training or bodyweight training, our all-cause mortality risk is reduced by a further 23% (study). The one caveat is that the health benefits continue to accumulate as our strength increases (study), and so eventually we might need free weights to continue growing stronger.
For aesthetics, bodyweight training can be surprisingly good. Horizontal and vertical push-ups are great for building a thick chest and broad shoulders, and chin-ups are amazing for building a wide upper back and strong biceps. It’s true that without biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises, it’s a bit harder to bulk up lanky arms, but it can be done. We’re scrappers. We can do this.
If you’re a skinny guy who wants to get bigger, stronger, healthier, and better looking, bodyweight training can be incredibly effective. In fact, especially when it comes to your chest, shoulders, upper back, and abs, you should be able to progress just as quickly as if you were training with a full barbell setup.
The Principles of Muscle Growth
The simplest way to explain muscle growth is with the story of Milo of Croton. Milo was the prototypical skinny guy who dreamt of being muscular, and so he had the idea to challenge his muscles by carrying around a calf. He was skinny (and calves can weigh as much as 500 pounds) so that was more than enough to challenge him, provoking muscle growth.
After carrying the calf, he feasted, slept, and grew bigger. Then he went back to carry the calf again. Of course, as Milo grew bigger, so too did the calf, and so his bigger muscles were always challenged by the ever-heavier calf.
Now, I realize that you’re probably more interested in bulking up your chest and arms than you are in bulking up your calves, but the same principle holds true. We need to challenge our muscles enough to stimulate growth, then recover by eating enough calories and getting good sleep, and then challenge our muscles again—doing more than last time. This idea of always doing more is called progressive overload, and it’s at the heart of both strength and hypertrophy training (aka training for muscle size).
- Lift more than last time.
It’s easy to get caught up in the magic of the hypertrophy rep range, the advantages of certain lifts, or the benefits of certain techniques, but the most important thing is to simply challenge our muscles by bringing our sets close enough to failure (or even all the way to failure). If we’re always lifting close to failure and always striving to do more, then our muscles will be forced to grow bigger.
And then, of course, once we’ve stimulated muscle growth, we need to kick back, eat big, and get a good night’s sleep. That’s what allows us to actually build muscle. That’s how we can show up to our next workout bigger and stronger than our last workout.
Bodyweight Progressive Overload
The supposed problem with calisthenics is that we can’t progressively increase the amount of weight we’re lifting. That’s not quite right. We’ll be gaining weight, so the weight we’re lifting when doing bodyweight training will be gradually increasing. When I started doing chin-ups, I weighed 130 pounds. Now I weigh 190 pounds. The chin-ups gradually got much heavier.
Even so, adding a pound of muscle to our frames allows us to lift a disproportionate amount of weight. At 130 pounds, I could barely do a single chin-up. At 190 pounds, I can do chin-ups with 100 extra pounds around my waist. So although gaining weight helps, it won’t be enough. We need a more robust progression system.
Fortunately, we don’t need to add weight to our sets to stimulate muscle growth. Instead, we can focus on gradually adding reps to our sets. After all, we just need to make sure that our workouts are getting harder. Adding reps certainly makes our workouts harder.
The catch to adding reps to our sets is that we need to keep our sets within the oft-debated hypertrophy rep range. If our reps drift too low, our strength will improve but our muscles won’t grow very much. And if our reps fly too high, our endurance will improve, but again, our muscles won’t grow very much. So the idea is to keep our reps within that magical zone that stimulates maximal muscle growth.
- A systematic review of fourteen studies found that our muscles grow best with anywhere from 6–20 reps.
- Greg Nuckols, MA, did an informal review of an even wider array of research and found that sets anywhere from 4–40 reps are great for stimulating muscle growth, but recommends doing most lifts somewhere in the 5–15 rep range.
- Dr James Krieger’s research shows that our muscles grow best when we do eight or more reps per set.
- Mike Israetel, PhD, argues that sets ranging from 5–30 reps are ideal for building muscle, aiming at the low side for big compound lifts, the high side for smaller isolation lifts.
So although it’s unclear exactly where the cutoff is, anywhere from 8–20 reps is certainly within the magical zone, and I think that Greg is correct to blow that range even bigger. This gives us a lot of flexibility with our training. If you can only do four push-ups, you can stick with that same exercise variation until you hit forty reps, and every bit of that progress will translate perfectly to muscle growth. For most guys who are still fairly skinny, this makes bodyweight not just viable, but also pleasantly simple.
Personally, I let my reps drift between 4–40 reps when needed, but I try to keep most of my sets between 4–20 reps. The reason I prefer to cap my sets at twenty reps is that the higher the rep ranges get, the more tiring the sets become, the more pain we feel in our muscles, and the closer to failure we need to go (within a rep of failure, usually).
Because higher rep ranges demand that we push our sets close to failure, that means that for bodyweight training to work, we need to get very good at estimating how close to failure we are. The only way to do that is to practice. We need to experiment with taking some (or even all) of our sets to failure.
This idea of always adding reps and always going close to failure makes bodyweight training effective but also hard. Hard enough that many of us will give up before our muscles have been challenged enough to stimulate muscle growth. So we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Or, I suppose, you could blunt the pain by having a ton of caffeine thirty minutes before working out.
So with bodyweight training, instead of gradually adding weight to the barbell, we gradually add reps to our sets, fighting our way ever deeper into the pits of Hell. That gives us the steady progressive overload we need to consistently stimulate muscle growth.
Now, adding reps won’t always be smooth or easy. If you can only do four chin-ups, adding a fifth rep is roughly the equivalent of adding around ten pounds to the barbell—that’s a big jump. Plus, with every set that we do, we grow more tired, and so we tend to bleed reps from set to set. As a result, especially when working in lower rep ranges, our fight to add reps might look more like this:
- Workout One: 4 reps, 4 reps, 3 reps (11 total reps)
- Workout Two: 4 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps (12 total reps)
- Workout Three: 5 reps, 4 reps, 4 reps (13 total reps)
- Workout Four: 5 reps, 5 reps, 4 reps (14 total reps)
That way, even if we aren’t able to add reps to every single set, we’re still adding reps to every single workout. All we need to do is fight for progress. That’s enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Adding reps is our main method of progression, but there are other ways that we can increase the challenge from workout to workout, too:
- Increase the number of sets. Another way to increase the challenge for our muscles is to add more total sets per workout. So instead of doing three sets of push-ups, we could do four, and then five. This not only increases the number of challenging sets we’re doing each workout, but it also increases the total number of reps we’re doing. This increases our training volume over time.
- Shorten the rest times between sets. As we go from set to set, we’ll probably lose some reps. Maybe we get twenty in our first set, fifteen in our second, twelve in our third. Normally, that’s bad. But when we’re lifting in higher rep ranges, that can actually become a benefit. If we match the number of reps to our previous workout with shorter rest times, that’s a great way to increase the challenge on our muscles while making our workouts shorter. (Using advanced techniques like drop sets and cluster sets can work for this, too.)
- Move to a more challenging variation. When you can do a few sets of 20–40 repetitions, it’s time to find a more challenging variation. For example, when you can do twenty split squats, maybe you want to switch to doing Bulgarian split squats. And when you can do twenty of those, maybe try pistol squats.
The trick to progressively overloading our muscles with bodyweight training is to eat enough to gain weight, always be striving for extra reps, and to use a periodized workout program that gradually adds sets over time. Then, whenever we can do more than 20–40 reps on a given exercise (depending on your preference and pain tolerance), we can advance to a more difficult variation, which we’ll discuss in the following section.
The Five Foundational Calisthenics Lifts
When I’m doing a bulking routine, I don’t just want to follow a bunch of exercises haphazardly strung together. That can stimulate muscle growth, sure, but it can get confusing, and people often find themselves wandering off the path to growth. I’d much rather have my routine organized into a hierarchy and laid out clearly so that I know what my priorities are, how everything fits together, and what I need to improve at every workout.
When training for muscle size, we like to organize our workouts around five main free-weight lifts. There are other good ways of doing this, but after coaching thousands of skinny guys over the past nine years, we’ve found that these five lifts are best for gaining size and strength, for ameliorating our general health, and for improving our appearance:
- The Front-loaded Squat: starting with goblet squats and working our way towards front squats.
- The Bench Press: starting with raised push-ups and working our way towards the dumbbell or barbell bench press.
- The Deadlift: starting with Romanian deadlifts and working our way to conventional deadlifts.
- The Overhead Press: starting with lateral raises and kneeling dumbbell presses and working our way towards standing overhead presses.
- The Chin-Up: starting with lowered chin-ups, lat pulldowns (or at-home alternative), or underhand rows and working our ways towards weighted chin-ups.
With those five lifts, we can stimulate all of the major muscle groups in our bodies with overlapping lifts. Our shoulders are worked by both the bench press and overhead press, our backs are worked by both the deadlift and the chin-up, and so on. As we grow stronger at these lifts, adding repetitions, and adding sets, and adding weight, we build muscle.
With bodyweight training, we want to find a similar set of main lifts that allow us to bulk up all of the muscles in our bodies. Except with bodyweight training, we’re adding repetitions, sets, and progressing to more difficult variations. That way, even if we aren’t adding weight to our lifts, we can still be adding weight to our muscles.
There a number of different lifts we could choose and many different ways to organize our training, but just as with free weights, we can work all of our major muscle groups with just a few compound movements:
- The Push-Up: the push-up is the foundation of bodyweight hypertrophy training, so we put it first. It’s responsible for bulking up our chests, but also our shoulders, triceps, and abs. We can start with easier variations (like raised push-ups) and work our way towards harder ones (such as deficit push-ups).
- The Vertical Push-Up: instead of the overhead press, we have the vertical push-up. It’s responsible for bulking up our shoulders and traps, but also our upper chests and upper backs (such as our traps). We can start with easy variations (like pike push-ups) and work our way towards harder ones (such as deficit handstand push-ups).
- The Bodyweight Squat: our quads and glutes are the two biggest muscles in our bodies. The squat, then, is the best lift for gaining lean mass and reaping the health benefits of resistance training. We can start with easy variations (like air squats) and work our way towards more challenging ones (such as pistol squats).
- The Chin-Up: unfortunately, even bodyweight routines require a bit of equipment. Without a chin-up bar or gymnastics rings, it’s extremely difficult to build a big upper back and big biceps. Even so, there’s nothing wrong with starting with inverted rows (using just a table) and working our way towards chin-ups.
- The Bodyweight Deadlift: by this point, we’ve stimulated most of the major muscle groups in our bodies. Our hamstrings could use a bit of extra stimulation, but the main thing is making sure that we’re giving our spines some heavy loading to bulk up our spinal erectors. That’s what will give us thicker, stronger torsos. That’s where lifts like the towel deadlift come in.
These five lifts aren’t a full routine. They could be, but they don’t have to be. Rather, they just give us the main lift to focus on for every major muscle group. To build a bigger chest, our main goal is to gradually improve at the push-up, but that doesn’t stop us from doing a variety of other chest exercises. In fact, adding in other chest exercises might be a great way to accelerate our push-up progress and chest growth. These lifts are a foundation to build on.
With these five lifts, though, our mission becomes clear—to improve at these five lifts. That gives every workout a precise goal—to do a little bit more than the last workout on some (or all) of these five lifts.
Instead of doing push-ups until we get tired, we’re doing 31+ push-ups this workout because the last workout we got 30. If we fight for progress on all five main lifts, then we’re fighting for growth in all the muscles throughout our bodies.
This system can also help us figure out what we need to adjust. If your push-up progress has stalled, is it because your chest is too fried or too fresh? We can then raise or lower the volume accordingly.
We can use a wide variety of bodyweight exercises while bulking, but we’re going to build our foundation on top of just five: the push-up, vertical push-up, squat, chin-up, and deadlift. These five lifts work every major muscle group in our bodies. If we can make progress on each of them, we can ensure overall muscle growth. Other lifts can then be stacked on top.
Muscles Worked by the Push-Up
The lift that makes bodyweight training so good for improving our general strength and appearance is the classic push-up. In many ways, it’s comparable to the bench press. Both train the chest, shoulders, and triceps. But the push-up does a bit more than that:
To do a push-up, we need to hold our torsos in a rigid “plank” position, making it a good lift for bulking up our abs. Plus, because our shoulder blades aren’t pinned back, the push-up is also a good lift for bulking up our serratus anterior muscles.
The Push-Up Versus The Bench Press
What’s neat is that if we look at studies comparing muscle growth from doing push-ups versus the bench press, the differences are negligible. If we look at chest growth in this study, for instance, the difference is barely detectable (if it even exists at all):
The same is true when we look at triceps growth (although neither the push-up nor the bench press is particularly great for building bigger triceps).
Now, you might look at these and note that the bench press has a slight advantage. It’s not necessarily an artifact of just this one study, either. We see this same slight disparity in earlier research. But then once we consider that the push-up is also working the serratus and abs, I’d wager on the push-up coming out ahead in terms of overall muscle growth. It’s less specific to the chest, perhaps, but it’s also more of a compound lift.
Push-ups have another interesting advantage, too. When the load on our muscles is matched, we’re able to do 62% more reps of push-ups than the bench press (study). So if the push-up is the equivalent of lifting 100 pounds, and you can bench press 100 pounds for 10 reps, then we’d expect you to be able to do 16 push-ups. Maybe that’s because having our hands in contact with the ground—a closed-chain exercise—makes us sturdier, who knows. But whatever the reason, when we’re doing push-ups, we’re doing more overall work per set. That can make push-ups more tiring than the bench press, but it also makes them great for building muscle and improving our cardiovascular fitness.
Push-ups have a few other key advantages over the bench press:
- They require almost no setup time.
- They’re fairly easy on our joints.
- They don’t require much warming up.
- They double as an ab exercise.
- They’re great for our posture.
This means that push-ups aren’t just effective, they’re also efficient. And there’s nothing stopping us from doing extra sets per workout, or extra push-up workouts per week, raising our training volume higher. This makes push-ups great for building muscle in a hurry.
Min-Maxing the Push-Up for Muscle Mass
When doing push-ups for muscle growth, we want to put our hands slightly wider than your shoulders (to ensure good chest activation), with our fingers facing roughly forwards, and with our elbows tucked to around 45 degrees. There’s some flexibility here. You can go a little closer or wider, angle your hands a few degrees—no problem. But the idea is to mimic the position of a standard-grip bench press, like so:
By using this moderate grip, we’re putting fairly equal emphasis on the chest, upper chest, shoulders, and triceps. It’s a great compound lift that works a ton of different muscles at once. If we go much wider, it becomes more of a chest-isolation lift. Much closer, and it becomes more of a triceps isolation lift.
The next thing is to brace your core as if you’re doing a front plank. The idea is to keep your torso rigid and solid throughout the entire set. Never let your hips sag, even as you approach failure. This makes it much easier to stimulate your upper-body muscles, but it’s also good for stimulating your abs and improving your posture.
Finally, we need to standardize the range of motion. For a push-up rep to count, your chest—not your stomach or nose—need to touch the floor (or the bench, if you’re doing raised push-ups). You can tuck your chin and look down or raise your chin and look ahead—either is fine. Then, when you push back up, lock your arms out (for your triceps) and push your body all the way up, fully contracting your chest and serratus muscles. Unlike the bench press, you don’t keep your shoulder blades tucked. Push the ground as far away as you can.
On that note, it’s not a bad idea to keep constant tension on your muscles throughout the entire range of motion. You don’t need to pause at the top or rest any of your weight on the floor at the bottom. But we still recommend going through the entire range of motion. The full range of motion standardizes technique, makes the push-up better for building muscle, and best of all, it makes the push-up harder, reducing the number of reps you’ll be able to do before hitting failure.
How to Progressively Overload the Push-Up
The downside to the push-up is that it’s tiring in higher rep ranges. And because it’s hard to load with progressively heavier weights, it can be hard to escape those higher rep ranges. Some people solve that problem by shifting weight to one hand, gradually working their way towards one-handed push-ups. But one-handed push-ups aren’t a chest exercise—they’re a shoulder and oblique exercise. So what most people do is gradually raise their feet instead (study):
- The Knee Push-Up: if we do push-ups from our knees instead of from our toes, we’re lifting around 49% of our body weight.
- The Hands-Elevated Push-Up: if we raise our hands on a tall bench (60cm), the push-up loads us with around 40% of our body weight. If we use a shorter bench (30cm), the push-up loads us with 55% of our body weight.
- The Regular Push-Up: if we have both our hands and feet on the floor, then the push-up loads us with around 65% of our body weight.
- The Feet-Elevated Push-Up: if we raise our feet up on a short bench (30cm), the load is around 70% of our body weight. If we raise our feet higher (61cm), the load increases to 75% of our body weight.
This means that if we want to progressively increase the load, we could start by doing push-ups with our hands raised on a tall bench, gradually work our hands down to the floor, and then start gradually raising our feet higher. But that’s not how I’d do it.
As we change the angle of the push-up, we’re also changing the dynamics of the lift. When our hands are raised, our chest is prioritized, but the range of motion is fairly small. As we work our way down to the floor, the range of motion increases and our shoulders start to contribute more to the lift. That’s great. That’s exactly what we want.
But if we start raising our feet up, the range of motion starts to shrink again, our chest becomes less dominant, and our shoulders (and upper chest) start to take over. The lift is not only getting heavier, but it’s also engaging less muscle mass through a shorter range of motion. That can reduce the overall muscle growth stimulus.
Now consider that the hypertrophy rep range is really rather large. As we covered above, we can build muscle equally well with anywhere from 4–40 reps. Instead of raising our feet higher, it’s often wiser to raise our reps higher. At least until we’re able to do four sets of forty reps with our chests touching the floor.
The next thing to consider is that our muscles grow best when we challenge them in a stretched position. It’s not a minor detail, either. A meta-analysis looking at isometric lifts found that challenging our muscles in a stretched position stimulated nearly three times as much muscle growth as challenging our muscles in a more contracted position.
So instead of raising our feet up, which would reduce the stretch on our chests and shoulders, we could instead raise our hands with weight plates, push-up handles, or speculative fiction novels. That way our torsos can sink deeper, giving us a deeper stretch on our chests and shoulders:
Yes, elevating our hands shifts more of the load to our feet, but we only need to raise our hands by a few inches (say 6″), meaning that we shouldn’t lose more than a percent or two of the load. More importantly, we’re increasing the range of motion of the most important part of the lift, making it much better for stimulating muscle growth.
So if your goal is to build muscle, you may want to progress your push-ups like so:
- Hands-Elevated Push-Ups: start with a high bench and stay there until you can confidently do 3–4 sets of twenty push-ups through a full range of motion. Then either gradually use shorter benches or switch to doing push-ups from the floor (if you can do 6+ reps).
- Regular Push-Ups: keep doing regular push-ups until you can do 3–4 sets of twenty with your chest touching the floor.
- Deficit Push-Ups: raise your hands up a few inches using handles, plates, or books to increase the stretch on your chest and shoulders, increasing the muscle growth stimulus. When you can do more than thirty reps, consider wearing a backpack and gradually adding speculative fiction novels to it.
The other nice thing is that if you’re bulking, then presumably you’re gaining a bit of weight every week. For every pound you gain on the scale, that’s another 0.65 pounds added to your push-ups. That’s another form of progressive overload.
By the time you can do forty deficit push-ups through a full range of motion while wearing a backpack with a few novels in it, you’ll have built a big, thick, and truly powerful chest. The push-up may seem humble compared to benching 200–300 pounds, but it’s one of the best bulking exercises of all time.
The Vertical Push-Up
Muscles Worked by the Vertical Push-Up
The next lift we want in our bulking routines is some sort of vertical push-up. The fronts of our shoulders (front delts) are worked quite hard by regular push-ups, which will certainly help us build bigger shoulders, but we want to make sure that we’re also working the sides of our shoulders (side delts) to build broader shoulders.
Perhaps even more importantly, though, we want to make sure that we’re working our upper traps. Not only are our upper traps important for our general strength, but they’re also one of the most important muscle groups for making us look strong. Barbell deadlifts are great for that, but since we aren’t doing barbell deadlifts, all the more reason to include a lift that bulks up our entire shoulder girdle. The vertical push-up is that lift.
Progressing the Vertical Push-Up
In the push-up section, we talked about how raising our feet higher shifts emphasis away from our chests to our shoulders while also shortening the range of motion. That makes vertical push-ups quite bad for bulking up the chest, yes, but it also makes them quite good for building bigger shoulders. That’s why we want to include both variations and progress them separately.
The most common vertical push-up is the “pike” push-up, which is done by bending at the waist and driving our butts up. That’s a perfectly fine place to start, but the real magic happens when we raise our feet up, making the lift more vertical, and thus shifting more of the load to our shoulders and traps, like so:
The technique for these can vary. Some experts recommend using a wider grip and keeping the elbows wide, whereas others recommend keeping the grip narrower and tucking the elbows, like so:
You can use whichever variation you prefer. Give them both a try, see which one feels better and works your shoulders harder. Both of them are correct, and both of them work our shoulders and traps through a nice range of motion.
When these pike push-ups become too easy, you can rest your feet against the wall instead, doing handstand push-ups. That puts your entire bodyweight on your hands and shifts even more weight towards the shoulders and traps.
Finally, as with regular push-ups, our muscles grow best if we challenge them at longer muscle lengths. That’s hard when training our shoulders and traps. The overhead press doesn’t even do that. But even so, if you can raise your hands on handles or blocks to increase the range of motion, all the better.
That gives us a progression that looks something like this:
- The Pike Push-Up: if we start by keeping our feet on the ground, it makes the load quite a bit lighter on our shoulders, and it also requires quite a bit less shoulder mobility. If your shoulders aren’t stable and strong yet, this is a great place to start. You can do these until you can do sets of 20–30 reps.
- The Feet-Elevated Pike Push-Up: by raising our feet up, we transfer more load to our shoulders, making the exercise quite a bit heavier. It also makes the push-up far more vertical, shifting more of the load to our side delts and traps, which is great. These are a good variation until you can do 20–30 reps.
- Handstand Push-Ups: the final variation is handstand push-ups. When we go fully vertical, our entire body weight is resting on our hands. (It’s not a balance exercise, so make sure to rest your feet against a wall.) By the time you can do twenty handstand push-ups, especially if your hands are raised on handles, you’ll have massive shoulders.
The nice thing with vertical push-ups is that they naturally shift more of our weight onto our hands, and our powerful chest muscles aren’t contributing very much to the lift. This makes vertical push-ups quite heavy, and so we can often get away with lifting in lower rep ranges (which tends to hurt less).
The other good news is that since our shoulders and triceps are worked quite hard by both horizontal and vertical push-ups, this bodyweight bulking routine should help you build impressive shoulders and arms fairly quickly. (That’s a strength of bodyweight training in general—lots of shoulder and arm work.)
The Chin-Up (or Inverted Row)
The chin-up is another of the great bodyweight bulking lifts, working a ton of muscle mass through a huge range of motion. In fact, the chin-up is better than barbell and dumbbell rows and better than lat pulldowns. In fact, they’re the best exercise for bulking up our backs, bar none.
Or, actually, maybe not bar none. You do need a bar. And that might be a problem. Chin-ups are the lift that separates the true bodyweight enthusiasts from the people who just don’t want to buy anything. The bodyweight enthusiasts buy a chin-up bar (or gymnastics rings) along with push-up handles, and they wind up spending most of their workouts in the air working their upper-body muscles through a massive range of motion. The people who don’t want to buy anything are in a rather different boat.
If you don’t want to buy anything, maybe you can use monkey bars at a local park, or maybe you have a pipe or door that’s sturdy enough to do chin-ups from. If none of that floats your boat, though, you can do inverted rows from the underside of a table:
Now, inverted rows aren’t quite as good as chin-ups. The range of motion is cut in half, and to make matters worse, it’s the more important part of the range of motion (when our muscles are stretched) that’s been guillotined. The overhand grip also prevents our biceps from getting a good stimulus. But even so, they allow us to work our back and forearm muscles hard enough to stimulate muscle growth. They will get the job done!
Muscles Worked by the Chin-Up
The chin-up (or inverted row) works most of the muscles in our upper backs (with the exception of our upper traps and spinal erectors). Chin-ups are also great for bulking up our biceps, forearms, and improving our grip strength.
Progressing the Bodyweight Chin-Up
If you have access to gymnastics rings or a chin-up bar, progressing the chin-up is quite easy. Most men aren’t able to do a single one, let alone ten, and let alone forty chin-ups. So it’s unlikely that you’ll ever grow too strong for them. And even if you prefer to train in lower rep ranges, you can just shift more weight to one side (archer chin-ups) to train one side at a time.
So the tricky part of chin-ups isn’t making them harder, it’s making them easier. Most beginners aren’t able to do four reps, which puts them underneath the ideal hypertrophy range. If that’s the case, I’d recommend putting a stool underneath the barbell and doing lowered chin-ups. You may even want to rest some of your weight on the stool and do partially-supported chin-ups.
Another trick to doing chin-ups is to get assistance from resistance bands, and that can certainly work—that’s how my wife learned how to do chin-ups—but just be warned that their strength curve isn’t very good. They make the bottom of the chin-up easier, but that’s already the easiest part. If you don’t already have resistance bands, you may wish to use a stool instead. And that’s fine. It may even be better.
Now, once you’re strong enough to do a bunch of chin-ups, one way to make them harder is to switch from using an underhand grip to an overhand grip (pull-ups). What this does is it removes our biceps from the lift. This shifts proportionally more emphasis to our upper backs and forearms, but since our upper backs are already a limiting factor, it just serves to make pull-ups feel heavier. It reduces the range of motion, too. This makes pull-ups more of an isolation lift for our lats and lower traps, less of a big compound lift.
What we recommend is using chin-ups as your main bulking lift, but then if you want to add in some extra lat work or exercise variation, add in some pull-ups. Your biceps will thank you.
That gives us a chin-up progression system that looks like this:
- Lowered or supported chin-ups until you’re strong enough to do at least a couple of reps from a dead hang (hanging limp underneath the bar).
- Regular chin-ups until the rep range starts to get uncomfortably high (usually around twelve reps, but you can push them as high as forty).
- Archer chin-ups.
By the time you can do moderate-rep sets of archer pull-ups through a full range of motion, you’ll have a fearsomely muscular back that will rival that of the very best lifters (not counting upper traps and spinal erectors).
The Bodyweight Squat
Muscles Worked by Bodyweight Squats
Our quads, adductors, spinal erectors, and calves. These are by far the biggest muscles in our bodies:
- The Quads: 1800 cm³
- The Glutes: 1200 cm³
- The calves: 700 cm³
- Chest: 250 cm³
- Lats: 250 cm³
The sheer amount of muscle being worked by squats is insane. No wonder they have such a profound impact on our health … and no wonder they’re so tiring. If we aren’t careful, bodyweight squats will test our grit instead of our strength, and we can fail to challenge our quads enough to provoke muscle growth.
Now, it’s true that having bigger legs won’t do that much to improve our appearance, but the squat is still one of the most important bulking lifts. Consider that our quads and glutes are the two biggest muscles in our bodies, and so of all the corollary health benefits that resistance training provides, squats may be the most important. They’re absolutely brilliant for improving our general strength, cardiovascular fitness, hormones, and nutrient partitioning.
That last point is worth looking at a little bit deeper. When we gain weight, our bodies need to decide whether to store that extra weight as body fat or invest it into muscle growth. This is called nutrient partitioning. What’s neat is that the muscles in our legs are so damn big that they soak up an absurd amount of calories and clear a ton of sugar out of our blood (study), helping us build more muscle and gain less fat while bulking. So squats not only make our lower bodies stronger and more athletic, but they also make us healthier, and they allow us to bulk up at a quicker pace with less risk of getting fat.
Progressing Bodyweight Squats
The first and easiest bodyweight squat progression is the air squat. Hold your hands in front of your body and sit down (not back). You can keep your hands close (as pictured below) or hold them out in front like a zombie—whatever helps you keep your balance.
The problem with air squats is that they quickly become too easy. Even for a total novice, you may already be able to do 20+ reps before hitting failure. And as we mentioned above, as the rep ranges climb higher, squats can become quite metabolically taxing. We need to make them harder.
One way to progress the air squat is to load up a bag with books and hold it in front of you. If you can read quickly enough, every week you can add a new speculative fiction novel to the backpack, making it gradually heavier. But even if you have a big backpack and read fairly heavy books, you’ll quickly grow too strong for them.
When air squats become too easy, you can make them harder by jumping—jump squats. Your muscles will need to work harder to launch you into the air, but the time under tension will go down, so there’s a bit of a trade-off there. If you aren’t concerned with totally maximizing quad growth, they’re a good option.
When you grow too strong to train both legs at once, you can switch to doing split squats. Split squats are great because they don’t just drop the range lower, they also cut the amount of muscle mass we’re working in half, making the lift much easier on our cardiovascular system.
Most people start by doing split squats with both legs on the ground, but those are still fairly light, and so the rep ranges will remain quite high. You can make them more difficult by raising your back leg up, though—the Bulgarian split squat. It’s a bit harder to balance at first, but it’ll drop the rep ranges down quite a bit, making your sets quite a bit less painful.
As with air squats, if you want to drop the rep ranges even lower, feel free to load up a bag with books. Since each added book is being lifted by half as many legs, you’ll get much better mileage out of loading the Bulgarian split squat.
The pistol squat or, if you’re on the taller side of skinny, the rifle squat, is a true godsend. It puts all of our weight onto a single leg and works it through a massive range of motion, making it quite hard. This means that instead of killing ourselves with forty-rep sets of split squats, we can do, say, five-rep sets of pistol squats. Challenging variations like this make bodyweight training more bearable.
However, pistol squats can introduce some balance and mobility challenges. If you’re having trouble balancing, don’t be afraid to hold onto something for support. The point is to work your quads, not to win a balance competition.
That gives us a bodyweight squat progression that looks like this:
- Air squats until you can do 10–30 reps and need something that’s less painful and easier on your cardiovascular system. You can get some extra mileage out of these by loading up a bag with books and holding it in front of you. You can also do jump squats, trying to jump as high as you can with every rep.
- Bulgarian split squats until, again, the rep range starts to get uncomfortably high. As with air squats, you can hold a heavy bag in front of you to make them harder.
- Pistol squats are the final progression. Just remember that you can grab something for balance if you need to.
By the time you’ve gained 20+ pounds of bodyweight and progressed to doing 12-rep sets of pistol squats, your legs won’t be skinny anymore.
The Bodyweight Deadlift
Muscles Worked by Bodyweight Deadlifts
Finding good bodyweight alternatives to the deadlift is tricky because the whole point of the deadlift is to put a heavy load on our spines, traps, and spinal erectors. There are plenty of bodyweight deadlift variations that work our hips to some degree or another, but hardly any of them work the muscles in our posterior chains (such as our spinal erectors).
If we were doing a barbell muscle-building program, our spinal erectors would get plenty of work from front squats, barbell rows, and a variety of other lfits. The problem is that with bodyweight training, we aren’t lifting any weights, let alone heavy ones, and so our spinal erectors don’t see much work. That’s where the towel deadlift comes in.
The towel deadlift is done by standing on a towel and pulling on it, just like we’d pull on a barbell. The difference is that this is an isometric lift—there’s no range of motion. No matter how hard you pull on the towel, it will not move. We’re locked in the bottom position. And that’s more or less okay.
Now, are isometrics ideal for building muscle? No. But that’s how most people bulk up their spinal erectors anyway. The barbell deadlift has plenty of movement in the hips, and that’s great, but the spinal erectors are kept at their natural resting length throughout. We’re not missing out by locking ourselves into this bottom position.
And for our hips, as we covered above, isometrics that challenge our muscles in a stretched position are actually quite good at stimulating muscle growth. The towel deadlift is done with a deep hip angle, challenging our glutes and hamstrings in a stretched position, and making it fairly good for building muscle. In fact, since we can grip the towel at any height, we can intentionally set up with a maximal stretch on our hamstrings (without letting our lower backs round). It’s an easy lift to customize to best suit our own bodies.
The other great thing about the towel deadlift is that our entire posterior chain is engaged. As we pull on the towel, our spinal erectors and mid-back muscles need to work just as hard as if we were pulling on a too-heavy barbell. And because we need to grip the towel, our forearm muscles are worked, too. It’s a true full-body lift.
Progressing Towel Deadlifts
The nice thing about pulling against a stationary object is that the bigger and stronger you get, the harder you’ll be able to pull. If you give each set your all, then progressive overload is built right into the lift.
When doing towel deadlifts, we recommend using burst reps. Pull as hard as you can for a few seconds and then release the tension. That’s your first rep. Then pull as hard as you can for another few seconds. That’s your second rep. You can progress how many seconds you pull for, and you can adjust how many reps you do per set. For example:
- Week One: 3 sets of 3 reps (3×3), and each rep lasts five seconds.
- Week Two: 4 sets of 3 reps (4×3), and each rep lasts six seconds.
- Week Three: 4 sets of 4 reps (4×4), and each reps lasts seven seconds.
Depending on your hip mobility, you can also try to grip the towel a little lower. The idea is to get a nice stretch on your hamstrings while keeping your lower back from rounding. You may find that you’re able to go deeper as you get stronger.
Adding in Hip Thrusts
The problem with the towel deadlift is that the range of motion is zero. And as a general rule, we want to gain strength through a large range of motion. That’s a crucial aspect of being generally strong, and it’s also the best way to build muscle. It doesn’t matter much with our spinal erectors since their purpose is to hold our backs rigid, but it does matter with our hips, which are designed to move. So in addition to doing deadlift isometrics, we also recommend including some other hip hinges, such as the hip thrust.
For the hip thrust, there are a few progressions:
- Glute Bridge: start with regular glute bridges until you can do at least twenty reps, but feel free to stick with it until you can get as many as forty.
- One-Legged Glute Bridge: once you can do 20–40 reps with both legs on the ground, switch to single-leg variations and work your way back up to 20–40 reps.
- Hip Thrust: when you can do 20–40 reps of one-legged glute bridges, switch to doing hip thrusts with your back on a bench. Feel free to put a backpack loaded with books in your lap to make the lift harder.
- One-Legged Hip Thrust: When you can do 20–40 reps, switch to using a single leg at a time, and work your way back up to forty reps.
Bodyweight Accessory & Isolation Lifts
After you’ve done a couple of the main movements, you can move to the smaller movements. With the main movements, we recommend training pretty seriously. With the accessory and isolation lifts, you can approach it much more casually. Pick a few exercises that interest you for the muscle groups you’re most eager to grow and try to improve at them a little bit every workout.
There are a ton of different accessory and isolation lifts that you can add to your bodyweight muscle-building routine. Here are some of our favourites.
Abs & Obliques
- Hanging leg raises
- Planks and side planks
- Sit-ups and crunches
- Offset push-ups
- Dead bugs (I love these as a warm-up drill)
Biceps, Triceps & Shoulders
- Dips using parallel bars or rings (chest, triceps, upper back)
- Close-grip chin-ups (biceps & rear delts)
- Bench dips (triceps)
Chest & Back
- Wide-grip push-ups
- Muscle-ups (advanced)
Legs & Glutes
- Single-legged Romanian deadlift
- Hip thrusts (and single-leg hip thrusts)
- Glute bridges (and single-leg glute bridges)
- Straight-leg bridges
- Sissy squats
A Sample Bodyweight Workout Routine (For Mass)
Okay, so we’ve gone over the Big Five bodyweight lifts for gaining muscle mass, and we’ve talked about how to progress them:
- The push-up, starting with raised push-ups and working towards deficit push-ups.
- The vertical push-up, starting with pike push-ups and working towards handstand push-ups.
- The squat, starting with air squats and working towards pistol squats.
- The chin-up, starting with lowered chin-ups (or table rows) and working towards full chin-ups, perhaps even emphasizing one arm at a time.
- The deadlift, doing heavy towel deadlifts for progressively more time, and then maybe also working in some hip thrusts for hip development.
That gives us the foundation of our program, and if you’re a beginner, that may be all you need. You could simply do those five movements three times per week. You can do that with three full-body workouts per week, but you could also split it up as desired, perhaps doing lower-body lifts one day and upper-body lifts the next.
Three-Day Full-Body Routine
- Monday: big five.
- Tuesday: rest.
- Wednesday: big five.
- Thursday: rest.
- Friday: big five.
- Saturday: rest
- Sunday: rest
Six-Day Upper/Lower Routine
- Monday: push-ups, vertical push-ups, and chin-ups.
- Tuesday: squats, towel deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
- Wednesday: push-ups, vertical push-ups, and chin-ups.
- Thursday: squats, towel deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
- Friday: push-ups, vertical push-ups, and chin-ups.
- Saturday: squats, towel deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
- Sunday: rest.
I would start with a low volume and work your way up. Something like this:
- Week One: two sets of each lift to ease into the routine (and prevent crippling muscle damage).
- Week Two: three sets of each lift to step up the training volume.
- Week Three: 3–4 sets of each lift, doing more sets for your favourite lifts.
From there, you can increase training volume as needed or desired. If you’re failing to make progress on your lifts, consider doing more total sets. Or if you’re struggling with crippling soreness or fatigue, consider doing less sets. Everyone responds best to slightly different training volumes.
As you gain more experience, feel free to experiment:
- Add in assistance and accessory lifts.
- Experiment with short rest times, circuits, and drop sets.
- Raise the volume higher for the lifts you’re most eager to get better at.
And, of course, this is just a loose recommendation. Feel free to customize your routine as you see fit. As you get deeper into bodyweight training, you’ll be able to see which muscles are getting stimulated during your workouts, which muscles get sore afterwards, which lifts you get better at, and which muscles see the most growth.
Upgrading to Free Weights
Bodyweight training can be a bit finicky, and as you get stronger, the pain of doing compound lifts in higher rep ranges can make it downright brutal. As a result, at some point, most people realize that it’s worth it to invest in some free weights.
Lifting weights for 5–12 reps on the compound lifts and 8–20 reps on the isolation lifts is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s hard, absolutely, but in a pleasantly strenuous way. Plus, if you’re concerned about training in a way that’s more efficient, or if your arms are lagging behind from bodyweight training, or if you want even more profound general health benefits, then free weights can really help. They’re popular for a reason.
I started with a rickety dumbbell home gym and gained twenty pounds with it. Then I got a gym membership and bought some kettlebells to keep in my apartment. I loved the kettlebell training so much that I’d go months between gym visits sometimes. Then when I moved into my own home, I bought a simple barbell home gym and stopped going to the gym entirely.
The Barbell Home Gym
Building a barbell home gym is a good default option. Barbell training is the most efficient and enjoyable, and although there’s a bit of an upfront investment, it’s cheaper than having a gym membership for even just a couple of years. The only catch is that you need a few square feet of space.
Here’s our guide for how to build a barbell home.
The Dumbbell Home Gym
If you don’t have much extra space, you’ll want to build a dumbbell home gym instead. To do that, all you need to do is buy a couple of heavy adjustable dumbbells.
The quality varies based on price:
- Fixed-weight dumbbells (left): most commercial gyms have an assortment of fixed-weight rubber dumbbells, which are incredibly sturdy, don’t rust, and can be tossed around without breaking. These are overkill.
- Premium adjustable dumbbells (middle): brands like BowFlex and IronMaster made sturdy adjustable dumbbells with flat sides, making them quite convenient to use. These are expensive, yes, but they are indeed better.
- Cheap adjustable dumbbells (right): a number of different brands make cheap adjustable dumbbells that can be loaded with little metal plates. These are fine. They’re a bit more awkward than the premium ones, sure, but they get the job done.
We often recommend that people get a pair of adjustable dumbbells that go up to at least sixty pounds, but to be honest, even a single light dumbbell can revolutionize bodyweight training. If you have a twenty-pound dumbbell, all of a sudden you can do biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, reverse flyes, and a myriad of other lifts that can be added into your bodyweight routine.
The Kettlebell Home Gym
Kettlebells aren’t as versatile as barbells or dumbbells, but good quality ones are quite affordable, they’re comfortable to hold, and they combine great with bodyweight training.
Kettlebells allow you to do the lifts that bodyweight training is bad for: biceps drag curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, loaded carries, goblet squats, and Romanian deadlifts. And because of how sturdy and easy to hold they are, they’re a blast to use.
If you get heavy kettlebells, they can also double as push-up handles. I have a pair of 50-pound kettlebells, and they’re great for doing deficit and handstand push-ups. I can then follow those push-ups with some rows, goblet squats, and Romanian deadlifts, making for a really easy and effective home workout. Just keep in mind that you won’t be able to gradually increase the weights that you’re using, as you would with dumbbell or barbell training.
If you want to add some kettlebells to your bodyweight training, I’d recommend getting a light kettlebell (for curls, extensions, and lateral raises) a moderate kettlebell (for rows and overhead pressing), and a heavy kettlebell (for deadlifts, squats, and carries). Maybe 25, 50, and 75 pounds.
Bodyweight training can be painful, but if you don’t have access to free weights, you can absolutely bulk with just your bodyweight. Also keep in mind that some bodyweight lifts, such as the push-up and chin-up, easily rival the big free-weight lifts, making bodyweight training great for building a big chest and upper back.
We recommend splitting up your bodyweight training into five foundational movements:
- The push-up, to train your chest, shoulders, triceps and abs. You can start with raised push-ups and work towards deficit push-ups.
- The vertical push-up, to train your shoulders, upper traps, and triceps. You can start with pike push-ups and work towards handstand push-ups.
- The squat, to train your quads and glutes, and to improve your general health. You can start with air squats and work towards pistol squats.
- The chin-up, to train the upper back, biceps, and abs. You can start with lowered chin-ups (or table rows) and work towards full chin-ups.
- The deadlift, to train the spinal erectors, upper traps, hips, and forearms. You can combine heavy towel deadlifts with hip thrusts to develop both your posterior chain and hips.
There are a few ways that we can progressively overload these lifts:
- Gaining weight: as you bulk up, you’ll be gradually gaining weight, which will make your bodyweight training heavier over time. This helps quite a bit, but the progression is too slow. Your growing strength will outpace your growing body.
- Choosing more difficult variations: as you get better at the bodyweight lifts, you can gradually progress to more difficult variations. However, this doesn’t happen from workout to workout, it happens from month to month. This progression is too fast. We need something more gradual.
- Adding reps: because we can’t gradually add weight to our lifts, the heart of bodyweight training is gradually adding reps from workout to workout. If you do 50 total push-ups one workout, your goal for the next workout is to get at least 51. This works incredibly well for stimulating muscle growth.
- Adding sets: as you grow stronger and fitter, you’ll be able to tolerate more sets per workout. In your first week, two sets per exercise are plenty. In your second week, three sets per exercise are better. And from there you can progress to four, five, or even more sets per exercise per workout.
Our muscles grow best when we train them 2–4 times per week, so as a good default, we recommend doing each of the movements three times per week. You can do that with three full-body workouts per week, or you can split them up over more days. For example, you could just as easily do a six-day routine, doing the upper-body lifts one day, the lower-body lifts the next.
Feel free to customize the workouts as you see fit, including adding isolation and accessory exercises, adjusting your training volume, and adjusting your training frequency. This article is less about building a specific program, more about building a foundation for bodyweight hypertrophy training in general.
At a certain point, bodyweight training might become too brutally painful. It might become hard to continue making overall progress. You may notice that your arms start to lag behind. At that point, you might want to buy some weights. A barbell home gym is a great way to train at home, but even just a couple of adjustable dumbbells or kettlebells will do the trick.
I really hope this helps, and feel free to ask questions below!
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