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Building Muscle: Bodyweight Exercises for Mass

Reading Time: 6 minutes


DATE: 2023-05-02

Do you have personal training clients who can't make it to the gym? Sometimes clients can only train with you once or twice per week. For most, this is not enough to build muscle. You may work with clients who have a busy schedule, can't afford additional training, or lack motivation. These are not excuses, but they can deter clients from their training program.

You can help clients stay on track without a gym through bodyweight training. Let's look at bodyweight exercises that help build muscle mass.

What are Bodyweight Exercises?

Bodyweight training is commonly referred to as calisthenics. This type of exercise targets large muscle groups using minimal equipment. Running, push-ups, chin-ups, and lunges are a few examples of calisthenic exercises.

Bodyweight strength training can increase strength and muscle mass. Resistance is required to break down muscle so it can repair bigger and stronger. But you do not need weights to break down muscle tissue.

Benefits of Bodyweight Exercises for Building Muscle

Strength training or resistance training can be achieved using only body weight and gravity. Many factors influence muscle growth besides just lifting heavier weights.

Targets Stabilizer Muscles

Weight training workouts don't always target stabilizer muscles. Stabilizers are smaller muscles that support the primary muscles during an exercise. For example, when performing a pull-up, the triceps serve as a stabilizer.

Bodyweight training always recruits stabilizer muscles. The amount of total body balance and control demands stabilizer muscles to be stimulated. Both the bench press and push-up target the chest, shoulders, and triceps. But the bench press is stabilized more from laying on a bench. Whereas the push-up involves more joint motion and core stabilization.

Easy Accessibility and Modification

Bodyweight workouts can be done anywhere. You can prescribe clients with modifications or advanced bodyweight exercises. When clients have a bodyweight workout to follow, they have better compliance when they aren't training with you.

To make bodyweight exercises more challenging you can,

  • Slow down or speed up the tempo

  • Add pause reps

  • Increase the reps or duration

  • Rest less

  • Adjust the angle by elevating the feet

  • Combine different exercises

Better Mobility

Gaining strength does not improve mobility. But improving mobility increases strength. Bodyweight workouts require more control over how the body moves. This is because the body is not in a fixed position. The body can move freely leading to improved mobility.

Better mobility allows clients’ bodies to undergo the stress that training applies. This improves technique and muscle growth.

Injury Prevention

Clients are less likely to get injured compared to other types of training. Bodyweight exercises are mostly functional movements. They stress muscles without overloading joints. Whereas lifting heavy weights puts a lot of stress on joints. Improper technique and overexertion are two popular factors that lead to injury.

Functional movements mimic daily living activities. The movement patterns in calisthenics are similar to how the body normally functions. While lifting weights, the body is often fixed in a certain position by equipment. Prescribing bodyweight workouts allows you to push your clients without the same risk of overreaching as weightlifting.

Effective Bodyweight Exercises for Building Muscle

There are many effective bodyweight exercises for both the upper body and the lower body. Let's look at the best bodyweight exercises for muscle growth.


Using a dip bar or two parallel bars, jump up and extend the arms. Bend the arms to lower the body down. Lean forward to emphasize both the triceps and chest. Once the shoulders are in line with the elbow, push back up by straightening the arms.

Dips are a compound bodyweight exercise. Compound exercises target multiple large muscle groups. Dips target the chest, shoulders, and arms.

To modify this exercise, you can prescribe clients bench or floor dips.


Start with the chest and stomach on the floor. Lift the body off the floor in a pushup position. Hands and arms are placed directly under the shoulders for support. On the toes, feet should be hip-shoulder width apart.

From this position, bend at the arms, lowering down to the ground. As you approach the ground, push back up extending the arms. Be sure to keep the back straight and core engaged.

Push-ups are great for upper body strength. They engage the chest, triceps, and shoulder. Along with the core and lower back. To modify push-ups, you can adjust the grip to close, wide or diamond positions. You can also elevate the feet to make them even more challenging.


Start by hanging from a straight bar or pull up bar with an overhand grip. Initiate the exercise movement by pulling the body up towards the bar. Aim to get the chest to the bar and pull the elbows down and back.

This will help target your lats, rhomboids, shoulder, and arm muscles. Because of this vertical position, you fight gravity more. This movement engages the back, which is a large muscle group in the upper body.

To make pull-ups easier for clients, you can have them perform inverted rows or banded pull-ups. The band assists a client's weight and the inverted rows can be adjusted based on the position or angle.


Start by stepping out in front with one leg and drop the back knee down to the ground. Aim to keep the front knee in line with the ankle. Stand back up and rotate legs.

Lunges are a great lower body exercise that targets every area of the upper leg. This includes the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Being a unilateral exercise, it can help correct muscle imbalances.

To make this easier on the knees, have clients perform reverse lunges or stationary lunges. For your personal training client with a more advanced fitness level, have them elevate the back leg and do a Bulgarian split squat.


With feet shoulder- or hip-width apart, bend at the knees to squat down. Keep the back straight and upright. Once the thighs are parallel to the ground stand back up. Instruct clients to push through the heels and extend the hips forward.

The squat position targets the larger leg muscles. Glutes, hamstring, and quads work together to execute this movement.

To make the bodyweight squat easier, you can have them perform a box or chair squat. To increase the difficulty, switch to a jump squat or increase squat depth.

Pistol Squat

Instruct your client to stand on one leg and descend into a squat. Bend at the knee and hip, keeping the back upright. Keep the leg off the ground straight out in front of the body. Return to the standing position by driving through the heel.

This is an advanced bodyweight exercise. The benefits of this exercise include unilateral balance and strength. You will see improvements in flexibility and mobility as well.

You can regress this exercise by using TRX straps for support or something to hold onto for balance. Adjust the depth using a bench to sit on. If your client is more advanced, you can increase the squat depth.

Here are some other forms of pistol squat modifications.

How to Incorporate Bodyweight Exercise into a Routine

Prescribing a bodyweight workout program can be effective in building mass. You can even use bodyweight exercises to incorporate weight training into a client's regular program. Start with a bodyweight workout first then progress to weight training workouts if necessary.

Bodyweight workouts can also be paired with corrective exercise.

If your client is only doing bodyweight workouts, aim for 3-5 workouts per week. Start with total body training each workout. Prescribe 2-3 exercises for each upper and lower body. Since your client is using their body weight, you can increase training frequency. Aim to perform a set amount of repetitions in a certain timeframe. To build mass, you must train muscles to volitional fatigue.

Check out this example for a beginner's program.

Total "Bodyweight" Training

  • Jump Squats: 15 reps x 1

  • Pullups: 15 reps x 1

  • Burpees: 15 reps x 1

  • Pushups: 15 reps x 1

  • Lunges: 15 reps x 1

  • Dips: 15 reps x 1

Perform 3 rounds total. Take breaks as needed. Advance the workout by increasing repetitions or changing to timed sets. You can also decrease rest intervals.

Education is Key

Remember, to build muscle with bodyweight exercises, it's important to challenge clients by progressively increasing the difficulty of the exercises over time. This can be done by adding more repetitions, increasing the amount of time you hold a position, or trying more advanced variations of the exercises.

It's also important to fuel the body with proper nutrition, including adequate protein and carbohydrates, to support muscle growth. And don't forget to give muscles time to recover between workouts—this is when they actually grow and get stronger!

If you are looking to improve your knowledge of fundamental movement patterns, check out ISSA's Personal Trainer course.

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