Can I Build Muscle With Bodyweight Exercises?

Bodyweight exercises can get a bit of a bad rap in fitness circles. However, it is most certainly possible to build muscle with bodyweight exercises. Well, up to a point anyway. But regardless of your level of fitness, these functional movements almost always make a valuable addition to your workout regimen. 

They’re a perfect warm up or cool down. They combine cardio with strength building. They’re almost endlessly customizable. Plus, you can do them anywhere you want, anytime you want. What’s not to like?

How Does The Body Build Muscle With Bodyweight Exercises?

Muscles are mostly built by microtrauma. This is the proper name for the tiny tears your muscles get when you exercise. As the muscles grow back, they come back stronger than ever before – meaning visible gains. 

Depending on your level of fitness, bodyweight exercises may be enough to cause microtrauma to your muscle fibers. If you’re a beginner, you’re unlikely to need weighted resistance to make gains. 

Even if you’re already pretty ripped, there are many challenging bodyweight exercises that will be a great addition to your workout routine. They’ll help you get toned, get your heart rate up, and build your muscular endurance.

Which Bodyweight Exercises Will Give Me The Best Gains?

You’re spoiled for choice when you’re aiming to build muscle with bodyweight exercises. You have many options, and there are lots of great resources online to point you in the right direction. Here are some classic bodyweight exercises to use as a jumping off point.

  • Pull ups. This bodyweight movement is so challenging many people can’t even do one. They’re a great way to work your upper back – particularly the lats.
  • Planks. Even though you’re simply staying still in a prone position, this is a deceptively challenging ab exercise. When performing planks, make sure to keep your body in a super straight prone position for best results.
  • Push ups. These are a classic. From your plank position, simply bend your arms to lower yourself closer to the floor. Then, straighten your arms to raise yourself up again. If you find push ups too challenging, try doing them on your knees. If you find them too easy, there are countless modifications to make them more difficult.
  • Squats. These are a great compound exercise that works a big range of muscles in your legs, glutes and core. You can make them harder by doing jump squats, or one legged squats.
  • Dips. You can do these off of the side of a bench or chair. Dips are an excellent way to target your triceps and chest.
  • Lunges. These are a great way to work your quads, hamstrings and glutes. You can do them stepping forwards, stepping backwards, or to the side. Many people also enjoy walking lunges.
  • Calf raises. Calves are a famously forgotten muscle group, so don’t neglect them! This movement is super simple – just raise up on your toes and squeeze your calf muscles at the top, before lowering your heels back to the floor.

How To Maximize The Benefits Of Bodyweight Exercises?

There are many ways to get the most out of your bodyweight exercises. You can try:

  • Increasing tempo. Playing around with tempo is a great way to increase the benefits of your workout. Speeding up will get your heart pumping and help you break a sweat. Slowing down the movement will increase the time under tension, which will boost your muscle gains.
  • Doing more reps and sets. If you’re finding a movement is becoming a bit easy, simply doing more of them is a great way to challenge yourself.
  • Decreasing rest times. This is a particularly great technique if you want to reap maximum cardio benefits from your bodyweight exercises. Decreasing rest times is a straightforward way to increase your heart rate and maximize the cardiovascular benefits.
  • Adding holds. Try adding a pause at the highest tension point of your exercise. You’ll be surprised how much putting the muscle under tension for a longer period of time intensifies the movement.
  • Switching to single-sided movements. You know what’s harder than a plank? A plank with one arm tucked behind your back. Single side exercises are a great way to make your bodyweight exercise more challenging.
  • Try a WOD or a circuit. CrossFit WODs or circuit training are great ways to get your bodyweight exercises in. These workouts are specifically designed to maximize the burn and get great results from your workout. Join a group fitness class geared toward bodyweight exercises, or simply do some quick research and find a plan yourself.

What About When I Can’t Build Muscle With Bodyweight Exercises Anymore?

Once your body can comfortably lift itself, you’ll stop being able to build muscle with bodyweight exercises. If you can do twenty or thirty push ups without breaking a sweat or feeling much strain, it’s time to switch up what you’re doing. Otherwise, you’ll see a stall in your gains.

A straightforward way to get back to building muscle is to add some weight. Use your increased upper body strength to move into bench presses. The added resistance will get you back on track.

Or, if you don’t have access to weights or you just don’t want to use them, you can also modify the exercise. In the case of push ups, there are many great modifications. You could try spiderman push-ups, scorpion push-ups or clapping push-ups, to name a few. Do some research and find new, challenging bodyweight exercises.


What Would Happen If I Did Pull Ups Every Day?

Pull ups are the classic back exercise. You probably learned to do them as a kid, but they’re a useful addition to a workout routine at any stage of life. They’re challenging, require minimal equipment, and are awesome for developing muscle and strength. You’ve surely seen trends of “100 Pull Ups Every Day For A Month” or similar. If you really enjoy this movement and see great results from it, you might be wondering what would happen if you tried doing pull ups every day.

There are some real pros and cons to doing, well, any movement each and every single day. This is particularly true of an exercise as intense and challenging as pull ups.

Let’s say you decided to do 50 pull ups every day for three months. Here are some results you could expect to see. Some are good. Some…not so much. 

You’ll Get (Way, Way) Better At Pull Ups

Pull ups are hard. Many people can’t even do a single one. At the start of your pull up challenge, you may only be able to complete five or so at a time. But, if you dedicate yourself to doing pull ups every day, you’ll quickly start seeing improvements. You may even get to a point where you can do all 50 in a row. That’s bound to feel good.

Your Back Will Gain Some Impressive Lean Muscle

This movement mostly targets your lats. Therefore, doing pull ups every day will have an amazing effect on these muscles. When they’re well developed, great lats make the waist look small and the shoulders look big. Lats are also crucial for keeping your back in a healthy position when you’re doing deadlifts, squats and bench presses.

Although, Your Gains May Not Be Proportional

Yes, your lats (and probably your biceps) will look awesome. But while they’ll be looking great, you can’t neglect your other muscles. You need to do other exercises to even out your legs, chest, and the rest of your arms and back. Having an underdeveloped lower back, traps and rear deltoids but massive lats is a slightly strange look, to say the least.

Doing Pull Ups Every Day Will Boost Your Grip Strength

Supporting your body weight for one pull up, let alone 50, requires some serious grip strength. It will be challenging at first, but within a week or two you’re likely to start seeing some major improvements. Many people find that their grip strength negatively impacts their pull exercises such as deadlifts, rows, and flies. So, your daily pull ups will help you in other areas of your fitness. And pretty soon, you’ll be the go-to jar opener among your friends and family.

You’ll Develop Great Muscular Endurance

When you commit to doing pull ups every day, your muscular endurance will skyrocket. This will also be helpful in other areas of your workouts, such as cardio and high intensity training. Your hard earned endurance will help you power through almost any other workout, which is super helpful.

But, You Won’t Be Resting Enough

Doing the same movement every day can take a major physical toll. If you get injured, you won’t be able to keep doing pull ups every day. As an athlete, it’s responsible to take rest days. Otherwise, you risk painful inflammation or torn and strained muscles.

Research shows that it’s best to allow muscle groups 24-48 hours to properly recover between workouts. You should absolutely not push through injury.

And You’ll Get Real Sick Of Doing Pull Ups Every Day

You won’t just be tired physically. You’ll feel some mental strain too. Most people who have committed to daily pull up challenges report really struggling with the mental side of it. Dragging yourself to the gym to do the same gruelling exercise over and over again is tough – especially when you’re overtrained and sore.

On the other hand, pushing through the pain may suit your personality type. You may find it really empowering to force yourself to get into the gym and do those pull ups every day for 3 months. At the end of those months, you’ll feel like a beast. One thing’s for certain though – doing pull ups every day is going to be tough. Consider the pros and cons carefully before diving into any daily exercise challenge.


Quality Over Quantity For CrossFit

A phrase I love is quality over quantity. Yes, I know CrossFit is filled with AMRAPs and all about completing movements in the shortest amount of time. And for a metcon, speed and quantity is definitely important. But is it better than solid repetitions that reach full ranges of motion?

At the end of the day, we do CrossFit for fitness, not to impress other people by winning. And when it comes to fitness, we can’t cut corners.

Why quality over quantity matters

Spend more than 3 seconds watching any group metcon at any CrossFit box and you will see people who would receive a ‘no rep’ in competition. 

I get it, most CrossFitters have a type A personality. To an extent we are all competitive, and we want to push ourselves, we want to win. So of course when a coach yells ‘3, 2, 1, GO’ we are going to try to move as quickly as we can. Is every single rep going to be absolutely perfect? No, of course not. But, you should always strive for quality over quantity.

Today at Buffalo Nickel CrossFit we are doing box jumps. So as our example we’ll use box jumps. The most common ‘no rep’ on box jumps is failing to fully extend your hips and knees when you land on the box. 

Now, I don’t think the large majority of CrossFitters intentionally don’t lock out their hips. They are simply trying to make better time or get more reps in. But does your time or rep count really matter if you aren’t doing the movement to the standard everyone else is?

It’s like saying you ran a mile in under 4 minutes, but you really just ran 1200 meters (¾ mile) and rounded up the distance. Sorry buddy, not a mile, and not a true mile time.

Cheater cheater, pumpkin eater

As large as CrossFit is, it is still a small and tight knit community. Your city or town might have tons of boxes, but your reputation will follow you even if you move boxes. As a coach and box owner, I don’t want members who purposely shave reps, or don’t complete movements.

Why I want box members who prioritize quality over quantity

  • One bad apple can spoil a bunch.
  • You are telling everyone your ego is more important to you than your reputation.
  • If you ever do compete you will have to relearn all the movements you cheat on, or go through the embarrassment of being ‘no repped’ in a public setting.
  • And I don’t want a box I attend or own to be known for being cheaters.

If your ego is so fragile that you need to cheat on reps to “win” and that makes you feel better, by all means go right ahead. Just know your reputation of a cheater will carry from one box to another. If your CrossFit life and personal life meet, it will follow you there too. Everyone will know you as a person who doesn’t prioritize quality over quantity, and is likely to cut corners in other areas of life too.

Rx ain’t Rx if it ain’t Rx

My personal favorite…people who mark they did a workout Rx, when it wasn’t Rx. 

For those who don’t know CrossFit slang for doing something exactly like it is written is ‘Rx’. It basically means ‘as prescribed’ hence the ‘Rx’ abbreviation. 

Now, if a new athlete checks Rx, there is a good chance they just haven’t been informed what that means. But, once again, let’s take the WOD we did at Buffalo Nickel CrossFit today.

Kelly Rx:

  • 5 RFT
  • 400m Run
  • 30 Box jumps 24”/20”
  • 30 Wallballs 20lbs/14lbs

So if a person modified any part of this, like did 4 instead of 5 rounds, used a shorter box, or a lighter wall ball, any of these would be a reason that the WOD would not have been done Rx. To be Rx you must do the work EXACTLY as it is written: quality over quantity.

By setting a high standard and then holding yourself to it, you will become better. If you can’t do Kelly Rx and modify it by using a lighter medball weight, it should drive you to get stronger, and do it Rx.  

Personally, I love when I get into a WOD and it slaps me across the face. It acts as a motivator! Remember, the chase is the fun part for me. 

You better pack a lunch

I used to work with an amazing human being, Russell Miller. I was in my early 20s and Russell was in his 50s. We worked at an equine farm together doing general maintenance and grounds-keeping. Russell was one of those people who could make anyone laugh. He was constantly messing with people in a fun and joking way, and he would take as good as he gave.

After we worked together for a while we both would mess with each other, and I would tease him about being so old, he would say something like, “Boy if you want a piece of me you better pack a lunch”.  He was telling me if I wanted to fight him and win, I better be ready to work for it.

When there is a tough WOD I still think to myself, this is going to be long….you better have packed a lunch. It makes me smile to this day and helps motivate me to push myself. The fight isn’t going to be easy, but you just might beat the old man. 


How To Do Burpees: The Buffalo Nickel Guide

Raise your hand if you love burpees! What? Nobody?! I agree. Even though I don’t love burpees, I also can’t say that I hate them. I actually don’t mind them at all. They’re not too bad, if you know how to do burpees.

I used to hate burpees. Yes, hate is a very strong word. In this case, it’s completely accurate. I considered burpees to be equal to the devil. They are one of the most challenging CrossFit core exercises.

If I’m being honest, I hated them because I wasn’t good at them and I just couldn’t ever get comfortable with the suck. If you know me, you know I don’t like it when things are hard for me. So, I set out to embrace them.

I embraced them by doing them. More specifically, I did a 100 burpee challenge

The challenge was set up to do one burpee on day one, two burpees on day two, etc.

If you miss a day or days, you have to make up ALL of the missed burpees plus the current day’s burpees to continue. For example, if you miss days 10, 11 and 12, then on day 13 you have to do 46 burpees. 

One day, I did over 300. One day I did over 400. One day I did over 600.

I completed the challenge, though, and today I don’t hate burpees. How could I possibly hate them when I’ve never again had to do 600+ burpees in a single day?!  

Here are a few things I learned about how to do burpees

1. They really aren’t that hard

Let’s be honest, they are nothing more than getting on the ground and then getting back up. When you’re up, get down. When you’re down, get up.

That day I had to do over 600, really made me see them differently. As soon as I stood up, all I had to do was get down. Once I was down, I just had to get up. 

Of course there is always technique, which I’ll address shortly, but the basics of a burpee aren’t hard. Get down and get back up.

2. You have to pace yourself 

That pace is going to be different for everyone. Things like fitness level, volume of burpees, whether you are combining them with other movements, etc, will determine your pace from workout to workout. 

Your pace should be the rate at which you can move as quickly as possible, without stopping. Burpees will get your heart rate up and your lungs burning so you have to find that point that you can continue to manage both without stopping.

Sprinting and stopping and sprinting and stopping is going to take you much longer to accomplish the same amount of work. Find that breaking point of moving as fast as you can, but not so fast that you have to stop…and then stay there.  

3. Technique is a key part of how to do burpees

There are many tips out there for how to do burpees. Here are some of my favorites.

When you get down, don’t stop in the middle, at the top of the plank, and then lower yourself. Rather, try to kick your feet back as you’re coming down and “catch” yourself in the bottom of the push up position. This is because it takes longer when you stop, it takes more effort to stop there, and you then have to do the decline of your push up, which is harder than just falling. 

When you get up, jump your feet wider than your hands and throw your hips up as you bring those feet up. When you go to stand up, go straight into your jump. Don’t stop at the stand, and then jump. Let your stand and jump be one fluid movement. 

Move as little as possible. I am all about efficiency and accomplishing a task with as little effort as possible. Flow as many movements together as possible. Step up and step down if you have to. 

4. Burpees are mentally taxing

It can be a real mental game for a lot of people.  There were far more people who started the 100 day challenge than people who completed it.

The burpee is very repetitive and it takes a lot of effort to complete just one, and they never go as fast as you want them to go so it can be frustrating. When you accept them for the challenge that they are, you can just get after it. 

Final thoughts

If you think burpees suck, embrace them. 

Embrace that you’re burning calories and getting a full body workout every time you do them. 

Embrace them because you’ll never need the Life Alert, if you’ll just do them. You’ll be able to get on the floor and play with your kids, your grandkids, your dogs, or whatever, and not have to worry about not being able to get up. 

So, the next time you see burpees programmed, embrace them. After all, you’re just getting down and then getting back up. 

By Kari Reed