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The Bodyweight Workout That Builds Big Muscles

People who believe that you have to wield heavy weights in order to build big muscles have simply never used their body in the right way. Get creative with your bodyweight workouts and you can lose fat, get fitter and bulk up without ever having to touch a weight plate or dumbbell.

Below you’ll find three bodyweight workouts that demonstrate the truth of those words. They’re all designed by bodyweight-training master Sean Bartram, who used to be the trainer for the Indianapolis Colts cheerleaders, helping them to develop show-stopping gymnastic power.

“Think of your body as an empty barbell,” says Bartram. “Changing the pace you move it with, holding awkward positions, adding instability and shaking up classic moves you’ve done all your life serve as the 20kg weight plates you load it up with.”

The advantages of working with just your bodyweight include being able to train anywhere without lugging equipment around, and increased body awareness. You’ll never have to worry about queues for the bench press or squat rack again either, which we reckon is reason enough to switch to bodyweight workouts.

That said, one piece of equipment you will need to complete the workouts below is a pull-up bar. The pull-up may be a bodyweight exercise but it’s not easy to do them without a dedicated bar, unless you happen to have a tree with an ideally-shaped, perfectly-positioned, weight-bearing branch in your garden. If you only have one piece of gym equipment in your home a bar is a solid choice and fortunately pull-up bars are both affordable and still widely available to buy, unlike dumbbells and other free weights. If you are in need of a bar, check out our round-up for the best options available – or, if you encounter stock issues, check Amazon UK (opens in new tab) for what’s available right now.

If you don’t have a pull-up bar and would prefer a simpler, one-off bodyweight workout rather than a series, then we have several great options for you below as well.

How it Works

Bartram’s athletes – especially cheerleaders – must be able to throw their bodyweight around with ease, but not every exercise is done at high tempo. This plan slows the pace down with pauses, increased range of motion, decreased stability and variations on classic moves to keep your muscles challenged. The result will be functional muscle you never thought you’d own.

Directions

There are three full-body workouts to spread across the week. The first four moves each day use timed reps called EMOMs (every minute on the minute) or slow tempos that force you to do high reps and keep the muscles under tension. The last two in each workout will spike your heart rate to keep you burning calories.

Bodyweight Workout 1: Range and Tempo

Shake up the pace to amplify your muscles

1 Deep squat

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Time 10min EMOM Reps 15

Hold a towel overhead with your arms straight and keep it taut. This will force you to keep your chest up and improve your form. Bend your legs to lower slowly, keeping your knees wide apart, until your hamstrings touch your calves. Then drive back up slowly. Set a timer for ten minutes. Do 15 reps at the start of each minute, and rest for the remainder of each minute. This keeps your heart rate high for more fat loss.

Bulgarian split squat

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Sets 5 Time 60sec Reps 60sec

Think of this as a lunge with your foot elevated for an extra stability challenge. Put one foot, laces down, on a bench behind you and the other in front. Bend your front leg to lower your body, then drive back up. Keep your body upright throughout and your front knee in line with your toes.

Vary the tempo with each set of these split squats so your muscles are under load for long muscle-building spells. Below is how it breaks down. The first number is the seconds the lowering part should take, then how long you pause for, then how long you take to drive up. The fifth set is max isolation, holding the deepest position for the whole minute.

SetLoweringPauseDrive up
Minute 13sec1sec1sec
Minute 21sec3sec1sec
Minute 31sec1sec3sec
Minute 42sec0sec2sec
Minute 5-60sec-

Squat jump with floor touch

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Sets 3 Reps 15

Bend your legs, keeping your knees wide apart and your heels in contact with the floor, to drop into a deep squat. Place your hands lightly on the floor and pause for two seconds, then drive up off the floor powerfully, clapping your hands together overhead. The two-second pause removes any rebounding effect to help you build greater strength in the deep squat position.

4 Bridge kick

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Time 10min EMOM Reps 10 each leg

Sit on the floor with one leg bent, one straight and your fingers pointing towards your feet. Push into the floor and squeeze your glutes to slowly raise your hips until they’re level with your stabilising knee while raising your straight leg until it’s at 90° to your torso. Slowly lower to the start. Complete all the reps on one side, then switch.

5A Press-up burpee

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Sets 10-1 ladder

From standing, drop down and place your hands on the floor outside your feet. Jump your feet back and do a press-up, then hop your feet back to between your hands. Jump up, clapping your hands overhead. Do ten reps of 5A, then go straight into ten each side of 5B. Then nine, eight and so on, resting as needed.

5B Jump lunge

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Sets 10-1 ladder

Start in a forwards lunge position with your arms out for balance. Jump off the ground by driving up with your front leg. Swap your legs over in mid-air so you land with the other leg forward. Alternate legs for each rep.

Bodyweight Workout 2: Points of contact

Shift your grip and stance on classic moves for upgraded gains

1A Spider-Man press-up

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Sets 4 Reps 20/10/5/1

Start in the top of a press-up position. Bend your arms to lower your chest until it’s just off the floor and simultaneously bring one knee up to your elbow, then return to the start. Alternate knees. When you’ve completed the reps, go straight to 1B without resting. On the final single rep, make this super-slow – do it over a ten count.

1B Wide-grip pull-up

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Sets 4 Reps 15/10/5/1

Grasp a bar with an overhand grip so your palms are facing away from you and your hands are double shoulder-width apart. Contract your upper back muscles and pull your sternum towards the bar. Then lower under control. Rest for 5sec per rep. Same drill on the final rep: take ten seconds.

2 Pike press-up

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Sets 5 Time 60sec Rest 60sec

Adopt a press-up position with your feet on a bench and your back and arms in a straight line. Keep your head tucked in and bend your arms to lower your head until it’s just off the floor. Push up. Use the same tempo as for the Bulgarian split squat in Workout 1. Once you can maintain a perfect L-shape with your body throughout, handstand press-ups are in your sights.

SetLoweringPauseDrive up
Minute 13sec1sec1sec
Minute 21sec3sec1sec
Minute 31sec1sec3sec
Minute 42sec0sec2sec
Minute 5-60sec-

3 L-Sit chin-up

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Time 10min EMOM Reps 2

Hang from a pull-up bar with an underhand grip. Contract your core and bring your legs up together until they’re parallel with the floor. From here contract your upper back and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Lower to a dead hang between each rep.

4A Burpee tuck jump

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Sets 4 Time 20sec Rest 10sec

Lower your hands to the floor and jump your feet back into the top of a press-up position. Hop your feet back, then drive up to jump explosively. At the same time tuck your knees towards your chest. Bend your knees to cushion your landing and continue into the next rep.

4B Hanging leg raise

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Sets 4 Time 20sec Rest 10sec

Hang from a pull-up bar with an overhand grip and contract your upper back muscles. Contract your core and bring your legs up together until they’re parallel with the floor, then lower them back down to the start. Keep your core contracted throughout to avoid swinging.

Bodyweight Workout 3: Range, Tempo and Stability

Stretch, pause and power up for size and strength

1A Shrimp squat

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Sets 4 Reps 10/5/3/1

Stand tall and grab one foot with the hand on the same side, pulling it towards your glutes. Put your other hand out for balance and bend your standing leg to lower your other knee until it just touches the floor, then drive back up. Go super-slow on the final rep. This is very tough. Make it easier by releasing your foot – or harder by holding your foot with both hands.

1B Dead hang

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Sets 5 Time 1min

Grab the bar with an overhand grip, palms facing forwards, and let yourself hang fully. This decompresses your spine for improved posture while challenging your grip strength. Add in a gentle swing from side to side or change up the grip – narrow, wide, underhand or single arm – to expand the benefit.

Forcing the body to hold a position under tension reveals any chinks in your armour. Just as the plank exposes any weaknesses in your shoulders, core, glutes and thighs, the dead hang uncovers problems with your lats and your grip. Holding that position for longer is a low-impact strength fix.

2 Wide-grip press-up

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Sets 5 Time 60sec Rest 60sec

Perform a standard press-up but with your arms double shoulder-width apart. Lower your chest until it’s just off the floor, then press back up until your arms are straight. Use the same tempo method that you used for the Bulgarian split squat in Workout 1.

SetLoweringPauseDrive up
Minute 13sec1sec1sec
Minute 21sec3sec1sec
Minute 31sec1sec3sec
Minute 42sec0sec2sec
Minute 5-60sec-

3 Straight-arm super plank

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Sets 5 Time 30sec Rest 30sec

Get into a plank with your arms straight and your weight on your hands and toes. Keep your body in line, feet together and upper arms straight down from shoulders. Squeeze every muscle, from your chest and abs to your glutes and calves. You should be shaking at the end of each set.

This is a classic plank with a double twist. Doing it with straight arms works your chest harder, while full tension keeps your heart pumping fast for a fat-loss bonus. Focusing on squeezing every muscle during a move will engage more muscle fibres than just those targeted with the exercise, transforming a low-energy move into a full-body shock to melt away fat.

4A Incline clap press-up

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Sets 1-10 ladder

Start in a press-up position with hands elevated. Lower towards the bench, then explode up until you’re almost standing. Clap your hands, put them back out to break your fall and go into the next rep. This reverses the descending ladder in Workout 1 – start with low reps and climb to the top.

4B Burpee to chin-up

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Sets 1-10 ladder

Position yourself under a pull-up bar. Lower your hands to the floor and jump your feet back into the top of a press-up position. Hop your feet back, then drive up to jump up explosively and grab the bar with palms facing you while pulling yourself up into a chin-up. Lower slowly under control, then drop to the floor for the next rep.

Sean Bartram is the author of Bodyweight Workouts For Men (opens in new tab) and has trained athletes from sports as diverse as IndyCar and American football. 

Model: Lee McLaughlin @WAthletic

More Bodyweight Workouts

10-Minute Bodyweight Workout

This quickfire, energy-boosting workout involves doing two rounds of three exercises, keeping the pace high and your rest breaks short.

  1. Jump squat hold (Reps 10)
  2. Squat kick (Reps 10 each side)
  3. Plank punch (Reps 10 each side)

See the workout

Beginner Bodyweight HIIT Workout

Get started with HIIT using this accessible five-move full-body workout. Work for 50 seconds, then rest for 10 seconds before moving on to the next exercises. One round is five minutes, and you can do as many as you like to fit the time you have available.

  1. Squat (Time 50sec Rest 10sec)
  2. Press-up (Time 50sec Rest 10sec)
  3. Lunge (Time 50sec Rest 10sec)
  4. Jumping jack (Time 50sec Rest 10sec)
  5. Crunch (Time 50sec Rest 10sec)

See the workout

Bodyweight Back Workout

If you’re worried about the state of your back, this short bodyweight session will begin to address those concerns, helping to improve your posture and strengthen the key muscles in your back.

  1. Cat-cow (Sets 1 Reps 10-15)
  2. Standing T (Sets 1 Reps 15-20)
  3. Standing Y (Sets 1 Reps 15-20)
  4. Seated banded row (Sets 1 Reps 15-20)
  5. Wall angel (Sets 3 Reps 10)
  6. Alternating superman (Sets 1 Reps 3 each side)
  7. High plank (Sets 1 Time 15sec)

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Bodyweight Posture Workout

Whether it’s at home or in an office, spending most of your work day hunched over a desk can play havoc with your posture. This workout combines stretches and strength exercises to help you combat the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.

  1. Cat-cow (Sets 1 Reps 20)
  2. Bird dog (Sets 1 Reps 10 each side)
  3. Glute bridge (Sets 1 Reps 20)
  4. High plank (Sets 4 Time 20sec)
  5. Superman (Sets 1 Reps 15)
  6. Half cobra (Sets 1 Reps 15)

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