Physical Activity

The Best Way to Build Muscle Without Weights

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  • Calisthenics provide a way to build muscle with little to no equipment
  • Considering your body as a lever will help you understand scaling movements
  • Use HIIT or Tabatas to mix up your training


Imagine this: You want to work out but don’t have any access to equipment or weights.

I know. It upsets me too.

Fret not. There is a solution, and an excellent one at that. You can continue to train  — and build muscle — without using any weight, something many refer to as “calisthenics.” And while it may not seem like you’re doing much work, rest assured you can sweat up a storm and work on your bikini bod without ever picking up a weighted object.

How Muscle Building Without Equipment is Different

You might be wondering, “How the heck can I build any muscle without using weight?!” Simple. When you’re squatting with the bar on your back, what is the purpose of the bar? To create resistance. It’s pushing down as you’re pushing up. Weight training comes down to resistance.

So, training without weight merely means that you’re using your own body to create resistance.

This is a great method for beginners, or anyone not quite ready to pick up the super heavy stuff yet. It’s safer and allows you to master the movements and range of motion. This also means that you never have an excuse not to train. (Sorry!) If you’re stuck at home, if you’re on the road, at a hotel, whatever, you can always get your flex on.

Like training with weight, weightless muscle-building can mean short bursts of intense exercise, or a longer duration of slow and steady effort.

Modifying Your Movements for Ultimate Muscle-Building

One day, my coach added glute hamstring raises into my programming. I got on the GHD machine, attempted one, and told him, “Haha. No.” Those muscles were so weak that I couldn’t get halfway through a single rep without feeling like my poor little hammies were going to snap in two.

He showed me a way to scale it so that I could get through my reps, and it was suddenly much more manageable. I did this by sticking my butt out one way and my chest out the other. And then he said something that blew my mind:

“Your body is a lever.”

A lever. It makes so much sense. My life was changed.

Another example: Awhile back, I was doing GHD sit-ups while hugging a 25-pound plate, and it was so easy. Wow. I must be really strong, I thought. No…That can’t be it. So I asked one of the knowledgable coaches at the gym why this wasn’t challenging at all. He took the  25-pounder from me and handed me a 2.5-pound change plate. I was all, “Lol. This won’t do anything.”

“Hold it behind your head,” he suggested.

I could hardly do one.

Your body is a lever! Alright, so what does that even mean? Check out this straightforward YouTube video for a better idea.

Essentially, it comes down to this: Where is the load and where is the root?

In the example with the GHD sit-ups, the 25-pound weight (the load) was closer to the root (the “fulcrum,” as explained in the video), which would be my feet and legs anchoring me to the machine. By shifting where the load was – moving it further from the fulcrum – the exercise became ten times harder for me, with just a fraction of the weight I was initially using.

It is this idea exactly that you can use to make bodyweight movements harder. Consider push-ups on your knees versus push-ups on your toes, full sit-ups instead of crunches. Why is one harder than the other? Because you’re changing the relationship between the load and the fulcrum.

Adding Variety to Your Weightless Muscle-Building

Push-ups and sit-ups will get boring for most of us; so what are some other ways to build muscle using only your own body?

HIIT (high-intensity interval training) and tabatas are great examples. They involve short periods of intense movement followed by short periods of rest. You can incorporate as many different movements as you want, and you’re never doing them long enough to get bored. Try this tabata:

20 seconds of burpees

10-second break

20 seconds of mountain climbers

10-second break

You can do this with all sorts of exercises – jumping jacks, air squats, jumping squats, walking lunges, jumping lunges, broad jumps, pistols, etc.

And there are plenty of other ways to build muscle without weights. What are you doing during yoga, pilates, martial arts and kickboxing? Well, I’ll be. You’re engaging in weight-free muscle-building. Variety: the spice of life!

Limits to this Route

A simple solution when something starts to feel easy? Do more. Do 50 push-ups instead of 20. 100 squats instead of 50. You’ll continue improving on your fitness, but we’ve discussed before that the road to serious buffness is paved with heavy loads for fewer reps.

There is no way to mimic a 200-pound back squat using only your bodyweight and therein lies the limit to calisthenics. That’s not to say that you should toss it aside once it gets easy; it’s always a smart idea to program bodyweight movements into your training. In fact, I think a lot of us don’t give this concept the attention it deserves. It’s easy to see why. No one is going to throw you a party for doing 50 air squats. Hitting two front squats at 300 pounds, however…that’ll have all the Instagrammers drooling.

So, just keep in mind that fitness professionals widely believe that they key to enhanced muscle composition involves more than what calisthenics can provide. Eventually, you’ll want to be working with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc. You can still hang on to a lot of the same movements you used to do — weighted pistols, weighted jumping squats, weighted everything. All the weights!

What are some of your favorite ways to build muscle without weights? Leave a comment and tell us how you hit your goals in the gym.