Top 7 Bodyweight Exercises for Building Muscle at Home

Alexander Leslie
7 min readMar 6, 2021
Credit: Jonathan Borba, Unsplash

If we’ve collectively learned *anything* from the COVID-19 pandemic and the unpredictability of lockdowns, closures, and regulations, it’s this — we have to become increasingly flexible, open-minded, and adaptable to the changing world around us and the future demands it may bring.

I’ve been adhering to a muscle-building, cyclical workout routine and diet — for natural bodybuilding — for over six years. Supplements, unorthodox workout plans, and so on. Everything.

But guess what? I haven’t been able to get into a gym since last March. They’re all closed! So, I’ve had to make some behavioral and action-based judgements — modifying my expectations for muscle growth and cardiovascular fitness, while staying grounded in my daily accomplishments.

Being in quarantine is not the easiest thing to do. As we’ve all learned. Nor is it immediately conducive to exercising.

Sometimes logging into work, attending a remote class, or even getting out of bed in the morning is difficult. It takes a lot of energy. You should be proud of yourself — every single day — for what you’ve achieved over the past year. Seriously.

If you want to add another daily habit to your plate, like a daily workout routine — go for it. But make sure that you’re ready and you can accommodate a plan. Don’t overwhelm yourself.

I’ve surveyed a wide variety of literature, both scientific and popular, while reflecting on my own experience — and, I think I’ve found the *best* bodyweight exercises that are the *least* time-consuming, require little-to-no equipment, and are easily customizable depending on your capabilities, energy level, access to equipment, and experience.

Why only seven? Because I believe that — if you were to do four sets at 12–15 reps a piece of each — the time under tension would be more than enough to stimulate your muscles, get your heart rate going, and burn calories.

Here is the list:

1. Incline & Decline Push-Ups

Credit: MIL-TECH PHARMA LTD, Unsplash

“Leveled” (i.e. incline or decline) push-ups target your secondary muscle groups way more than normal, wide-grip floor push-ups.

Without getting technical, incline push-ups activate the muscles in your back and lower chest. Whereas decline focus on your shoulders and upper chest. Both of these exercises also put significant strain on your triceps — like normal push-ups — and are great for training your arms.

You will also notice considerable changes in your abs, as you activate those as well in order to stabilize yourself.

Too difficult? No worries! Just perform the same exercise on your knees instead — this will take a lot of pressure off your core and refocus that activation to your arms.

Recommended sets/reps:


Here’s a great video showing proper form and some possible modifications:

Credit: Athlean-X, YouTube, 27 Oct. 2019

2. Squats

Credit: Sergio Pedemonte, Unsplash

Squats activate almost all of the muscle groups which constitute your lower body — including your hamstrings, quads, calves, hip flexors, and adductors.

They also, secondarily, activate your core.

Squats have numerous health benefits and are integral to a comprehensive bodyweight workout plan.

They are also highly customizable — you can add weights, change your stance and toe angle to activate groups differently (i.e. narrow stance, elevated heel activate quads more than anything), and add compound movements — like jumps, lunges, or twists.

Recommended sets/reps:


Here’s a video demonstrating the correct form:

Credit: Jeremy Ethier, YouTube, 16 Feb. 2020

3. Planks

Credit: Sergio Pedemonte, Unsplash

Arguably the most famous core exercise, the plank is one of the best bodyweight exercises for building core strength, size, and kickstarting fat loss.

It requires nothing more than 30–60 seconds 1–3 times a day. That’s it! And it is easily modifiable to fit your level of comfort and energy. You can do it on your knees or elbows, on your side (to target your back and obliques), or with weight added to your back.

Try doing planks for 15–30 seconds until you become more comfortable and capable of increasing the time. Remember to keep your back straight!

Recommended sets/time:

3x30 sec.

Watch this video for further clarification on your form:

Credit: Calisthenicmovement, YouTube, 2 March 2018

4. Sit-Ups / Russian Twist / Leg Raises

Credit: Jonathan Borba, Unsplash

In addition to planks — sit-ups, twists, leg raises, V-ups, or any other variation of the “crunching” movement is a perfect supplement to a bodyweight routine.

They work even better with a medicine ball, if you have one!

Before moving onto complex movements and more intense variations of this exercise, I highly suggest first becoming comfortable with basic sit-ups and building core strength by combining them with planks.

Recommended sets/reps:


Here’s a video showing proper form:

Credit: Howcast, YouTube, 1 Sept. 2012

5. Dips

Credit: John Fornander, Unsplash

Dips, depending on the positioning of your arms, targets your triceps, chest, and shoulders to varying degrees.

In order to target your chest, position your chest to face the ground — having your arms parallel to your hips. To target your triceps more, have your chest face forward with your arms forming 90° angles behind you.

If you want to make the exercise more complex and intense, try adding weight! You can do this by adding a weight belt, balancing weight on your legs/midsection, or increasing the time under pressure by slowing down the speed at which you perform reps.

You can perform dips with just a chair!

Recommended sets/reps:


Watch this video to avoid making mistakes with your form:

Credit: Athlean-X, YouTube, 7 Nov. 2018

6. Lunges / Split Squat

Credit: Sergio Pedemonte, Unsplash

Lunges, split squats, and any other movement that isolates one of your legs is a perfect supplementary exercise that can be added to a lower-body bodyweight routine. They go great with squats!

Lunges are much more intense that squats, but they are just as customizable! Whether they’re forward or backward stationary lunges, split squats (where one leg is up on a bench), or walking lunges — you can make them even more intense by holding weights! Try dumbbells, grocery bags, or anything else that you can carry. This will also work your forearms!

Recommended sets/reps:


Here is a video showing proper form:

Credit: Mind Pump TV, YouTube, 19 Nov. 2018

7. Butt Bridge

Credit: FocusFitness

The glute bridge is a fantastic movement that targets your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.

It also greatly improves your range of motion, your flexibility, and your muscular endurance in your core and lower body.

Make sure that you’re activating your glutes by focusing on moving your hips, keeping your ribs parallel to your hips and extending your arms flat on the floor. If you’re moving your upper body, arms, or legs too much — you’re not activating your glutes, nor your lower back.

Recommended sets/time:

4x30 sec.

Here is a video showing proper form:

Credit: Back Intelligence, YouTube, 1 Feb. 2018

(BONUS) Wide-Grip Pull-Ups

Credit: Anastase Maragos, Unsplash

I include this as a bonus exercise, because it implies that you need a pull-up bar in your living space, access to one outside or in a gym, or that you need to purchase something extra in addition to the workouts listed.

I don’t want you to do that.

If you do have access to a pull-up bar, then I suggest wide-grip pull-ups in order to activate your biceps, back, and shoulders. They might be difficult at first! That’s okay! As you build more muscle, strength, and muscular endurance — you’ll be able to do more reps.

If you want to prioritize your biceps, which to chin-ups instead. If you’re looking for a full upper-body exercise — try muscle-ups. However, these are only recommended for those who are experienced and advanced.

Recommended sets/reps:


Watch this video to avoid making mistakes with your form:

Credit: Athlean-X, YouTube, 5 Jan. 2020

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this list and you’ll incorporate some of these movements into your current bodyweight routine! If you’re just starting a new routine for the first time — this is more than enough to begin with.

Continue to follow me on Medium for future articles about muscle-building, fat loss, dieting, bodybuilding, and more!

Alexander Leslie is a foreign policy analyst, freelance journalist, and has an M.A. in Eurasian, Russian, & East European Studies from Georgetown University. His interests include U.S.-Georgia relations, energy politics, and studies in counterterrorism policy.


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