There are thousands of Bodyweight Exercises, incredibly difficult strength and muscle building moves that are going unused, sitting on shelf collecting dust. And the thing is that you can build big, strong, functional muscle without even touching a dumbbell, barbell or weight machine.
You can get ripped in your living room or basement or the park and it doesn’t have to cost you a dime. By mastering your own bodyweight you can build the body you want long term with the added benefit of not just looking strong, but actually being strong. The key is that you keep challenging yourself and challenging your body. Again, that doesn’t just mean that you load a couple more 45-pound plates the bar.
Closed Chain Exercises
Closed chain exercises are exercise where one part of your body is fixed to stationary surface. Pull-ups, where your hands are fixed to the bar; squats, where your feet remain on the floor and push-ups (hands), are all closed chain exercises. A movement like an overhead dumbbell press is an example of an open chain exercise, because you’re moving your body — in this case your arms — through space.
Closed chain exercises are generally superior because of their ability to recruit more muscle fibers, but are often overlooked because they are “too easy”. If a guy can bench press 185 pounds for 10 reps, chances are he’ll be able to do more than 25 pushups. That same guy, when trying to build his chest, will then always go to the bench press. A) because it’s harder and B) because it looks awesome.
However, bodyweight movements are numerous and variable, and can be easily made harder or easier. For example, a standard pushup can be made harder by adding a weight vest, doing a single arm variation like an archer pushup, or adding a power element, like a clapping pushup.
A friend of mine worked as a strength and conditioning coach at a Division II college. He pulled a male gymnast out of practice one day and brought him into the weight room. This gymnast had never lifted before but topped out at a 605-pound deadlift and managed to do a pull-up with 115lbs hanging from a weight belt.
You might not want a 600-pound deadlift, but the point is the same. By becoming so strong and efficient at moving his own body around, this gymnast was able to move extremely heavy weights and make it look easy without having ever lifted weights before.
This is a result having an incredibly high strength-to-weight ratio. Why is this is important to you? It means the better you get at bodyweight movements, the less body fat you’ll have.
Read that again, but slower this time.
The fact that these closed chain movements require less body fat in order to be efficient, without sacrificing functional muscle is the perfect set up for building a strong physique long term. That means that you don’t have to spend as much time watching the scale. How many pull-ups, pike-ups and pistol squats you can do is a much better predictor of how close you are to your ideal body.
So let’s start adding to your routine. Here are a few overlooked bodyweight movements that you can add to your workout today.
Thai Crunch: This exercise is a sneaky full body move that works the glutes, core, and shoulders like crazy while working on full-body coordination. They look simple until you try to get a set of 20. These also hit-the-hard to work serratus muscle — the muscle that runs from your pecs to your shoulder blades. Also known as the “Do you have abs on your sides?” beach muscle.
How it’s done: Get into a side plank position with your top hand behind your head. With your bottom leg and arm pressed firmly into the ground, bring your top knee and elbow together. You get the benefit of the oblique isometric on the lower part of the body, and the oblique contraction on the top.
Advance this by adding a weight vest.
Single Leg Front Lever: You might not have time to swim 40 laps of the butterfly stroke in your gym’s pool, but you can definitely add these moves to your arsenal if you’re looking to grow your lats, keep your shoulders healthy, and build a bulletproof core.
How it’s done: Grab a bar (or a branch like I did here) and raise one knee to your chest. Keeping the entire front of your body tight, think about “pulling down” with your arms, while pressing your hips up towards the ceiling to lift the whole body as a single unit.
To make these harder, you can extend both legs. To make it easier, bring the other knee to the chest.
You can hold the single leg front lever for time, or you can do it for reps. Both ways should be utilized to make it easier to learn and practice this difficult move. Start with sets from 2-5 reps, and holding for sets of 3-5 seconds. You can add in a couple sets of these 3-5 times per week, as it’s very hard to get a lot of volume in this exercise. Try to work up to a 15 second hold on each side.
Hollow Body Hold: Have you ever thought “I really wish planks were harder”? OK fine, maybe not. But if so, then check these bad boys out. This is a foundational movement in gymnastics, and holding a hollow body position is integral to handstands, ring and bar work, and even having a big overhead press.
How it’s done: Lay on the ground on your back. Press the low back into the ground to engage the abs, lock your knees so your legs are straight and the muscles engaged, then lift the legs and torso off the ground so all that’s touching is the low back and high glutes. Every muscle in the front side of your body should be activated and shaking, especially the first time you try.
Manipulate the arms to make this easier or harder. Arms at your side is easier, but lifting those arms straight overhead will make this challenging even for strong dudes.
Work on holding a full hollow body for 45 seconds. If you can get 60 seconds, you’re a monster. These can be done up to five times per week.
Neck Bridge: As a rule, you can tell a guy is strong if he has a thick back, neck, and traps. All of which serve to help protect the spine, bulletproof the upper body, and increases your chance of being called ‘sir’ by 78%.
Neck bridges aren’t for everyone, especially if you have limited shoulder mobility (read: spend most of your time sitting at a desk). But this is the opposite of the hollow body, because it stimulates and builds every posterior muscle, from your heels to your head.
How it’s done: Start by laying on your back, bending your knees up and digging your heels into the ground. Reach back with both arms and place your palms on the ground next to your ears, with the elbows pointing at the ceiling.
Press yourself up, then lower down onto the crown of your head, with the arms still supporting most of the weight. Make sure every muscle is activated, starting with the glutes and hamstrings up into the low back, upper back, and neck. As you get stronger, you can reduce the amount of pressure your hands are taking, until you’re resting entirely on your head. Take this process slow, a sore neck can be a real bummer.
Start with sets of 20 seconds, trying to work up to 60 seconds over time. Add these in 2-4 times per week on back or leg day.
Bench Triceps Extension: If barbell skull crusher and a pushup had a baby, and that baby was amazing at building your upper arms, it would be this exercise.
By taking your triceps through a full range of motion with your upper arms in an overhead position we are working the long head of the triceps – the back area, where most of the mass is.
This is great for simultaneously getting bigger arms and protecting the elbow, which can have flare ups if you’re working the short head too much through standard rope press-downs, skull crushers, and diamond pushups.
How it’s done: Start in a kneeling position with your ribs tucked and arms extended at about 115 degrees from your shoulders. Put your hands on a bench, barbell, or another surface that’s not gonna move on you.
Keeping your body straight, bend the elbows and control your bodies decent between your arms. At the bottom of this move you should feel a good stretch through the lats and triceps. When you hit that point, extend your arms forcefully and squeeze the triceps at lockout.
To make this more difficult, add in a 4 second negative portion, or lift your knees and go from your toes.
Add in some of these exercises and gradually work on harder and harder variations. Even though chin ups might not look as sweet as repping the entire stack on lat-pulldowns, you’ll be making progress playing the long game of looking and feeling good for life.