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Though the COVID-19 pandemic forced us fitness fanatics into the confines of our homes, the limitations also tested our creativity and determination as we adapted our routines to sustain our health goals. Maybe you picked up some dumbbells and a workout bench to mimic your favorite gym and keep your strength gains going. Perhaps you invested in some high-tech home workout options like a Peloton or smart fitness mirror. Or maybe you said screw it to any big purchases, ramped up your cardio and hit the streets for some good old-fashioned running.
The main theme here is simplification. How can you get the best workout possible without all the equipment offerings of a gym? One great solution — bodyweight exercises. That’s right. Some of the most fundamental fitness movements have serious health benefits and don’t require any weights or expensive gear, essentially a quarantine athlete’s dream.
But increased vaccination rates and updated CDC guidelines — which deems indoor exercise safe for fully vaccinated people — mark huge news for those of us itching to get back in the gym. That doesn’t mean you have to leave these bodyweight exercises at home, though. Many of them are great warm-ups for heavier lifting days or convenient exercises for staying fit while traveling.
We’ll get into the benefits of bodyweight exercises, a handful of our favorite, and a list of simple and affordable gear that can help you accomplish them at home.
The Benefits of Bodyweight Exercises
There’s no getting around it. The most obvious benefits of bodyweight exercises are convenience and affordability. You can tackle them pretty much anywhere — an ideal perk for those who’d rather sneak in a workout on their own terms — and don’t need expensive gear or pricy gym memberships to do so.
And while weights are the hallmark of any strength training routine, they can limit mobility, and sometimes lead to injury and joint damage if performed improperly. Bodyweight exercises, on the other hand, accentuate the body’s more natural motions, with a greater focus on stability and less resistance to limit the risk of injury.
The lack of weights also offers a low-stress opportunity to improve technique and form, something that any serious weightlifter will tell you often takes a backseat when shooting for personal records on the bench press. This also lends itself well to those who are just beginning their fitness journeys and want to perfect their form with bodyweight exercises before stepping up to barbells and dumbbells.
It turns out bodyweight exercises are just as effective as weight training as well, at least in the short term. One study revealed that two separate groups of men placed on calisthenic and weight training programs had similar fitness results after eight weeks.
The Best Bodyweight Exercises for Every Muscle Group
Because bodyweight exercises are so flexible and versatile, there are dozens of options for getting a great workout. We’ve covered the basics below, listing our favorite bodyweight exercises that target your upper body, legs and abs. We even tossed in a couple of cardio-focused bodyweight exercises, which should get your heart rate up if burning calories and torching fat are your main goals. Here’s a quick list for reference:
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- Jump Rope
- Jump Squats
- Ab Wheel Rollouts
Is there a more basic, fundamental and effective bodyweight exercise for strength training? Doubt it. The push-up is as classic as they come and offers a killer workout that primarily targets your chest and arms, and also engages your core and entire upper body. It’s one of the best upper body bodyweight exercises.
Instructions: There are tons of push-ups variations, but to master the classic push-up, position yourself in a high plank with your body in a straight line, arms extended and slightly wider than shoulder-distance apart. Engaging your core, lower your body to the floor by bending your elbows until they’re at a 90-degree angle. Use your chest and triceps to push your body back up to the starting position.
For an easier variation, you can keep your knees on the ground. If you’re looking for a challenge, try putting your feet up on a chair or table to really work your upper chest.
There’s a reason burpees are a staple of CrossFit workouts, which prioritize natural movements, compound lifts and bodyweight exercises. Burpees work your entire body and send your heart rate skyrocketing, making them a great choice for burning calories.
Instructions: To perform a burpee, begin in a neutral standing position. Lower yourself into a high plank position, drop so your entire body touches the floor, then kick your legs forward with your hands still touching the ground. Finish by jumping and returning to the standing position.
Planks are awesome for building core strength, and really double down on the main benefit of bodyweight exercises — you can do a plank literally anywhere, anytime.
Instructions: Begin by lying face down on the ground. Prop yourself up into a plank position with your body weight resting on your outer forearms and toes. Keep your arms parallel with one another, with your elbows in line with your shoulders and your fists balled up. The key here is to engage your abs and lower back to keep your torso and legs completely parallel with the ground. Length-wise, the choice is yours, but starting with intervals of 15 or 30 seconds will help you get a feel for the proper form.
4. Bulgarian Split Squat
No more excuses for skipping leg day. There are tons of lunge and squat variations that offer a killer leg workout with no need for weights or a gym. The Bulgarian split squat is actually more of a lunge than a squat but targets your glutes and quads all the same. It’s traditionally performed using a workout bench, but if you don’t have one, it’s easy to use a chair or coffee table in its place.
Instructions: Standing a few feet away from the bench, kick one leg back and rest your shoe on the bench so your laces face the floor. It should be hanging off slightly. Drop into a lunge position so your back knee touches the floor. At this point of the movement, your back foot should be about the same height as your front knee. Pay special attention not to let your front knee extend past your front toes, as this places a lot of stress on your front knee and prevents you from targeting your glutes as effectively. Engage your butt and push up to return to the starting position. Repeat using the other leg.
Like push-ups, pull-ups are an incredible upper body bodyweight exercise. They primarily target your lats (the sides of your back) and biceps, but engage your forearms, wrists and entire upper back along the way, making them one of the best bodyweight back exercises. Pull-ups are tough, but many gyms have an assisted pull-up machine that offers extra weighted support under your knees so you’re not pulling your entire body weight (which is a challenge for anyone). If all you’ve got is a standard pull-up bar, you can enlist the help of a friend to guide you through the movement and decrease some of the resistance.
Instructions: There are many grip and width variations for pull-ups, but to perform the standard pull-up, grab the bar a bit wider than shoulder-width with your palms facing away from you. Begin at a neutral hanging position, then pull yourself up until your chin reaches the bar. It’s key to keep this movement controlled and to keep tension in your arms and back the whole time. Avoid the urge to kick your legs out for momentum, and make sure you return to the hanging position slowly, without easing up on the resistance.
6. Jump Rope
An iconic calisthenic bodyweight exercise, jumping rope is guaranteed to get a serious sweat going, and helps with burning calories and increasing your body’s agility. They’re a great warm-up to any workout, and a favorite to mix in during HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts.
Instructions: This is a workout better demonstrated than explained, so we recommend the video below, which also has some great tips for finding the right rope size for you, which is critical. In general, though, you should hold the rope at your waist with your thumbs facing away from your body. Keep your knees bent and stay on the balls of your feet as you jump a few inches off the ground, using your wrists (not your arms) to rotate the rope around your body.
7. Jump Squat
As you’ve probably gathered by now, many of the best bodyweight leg exercises employ a jumping motion, which both engages your legs and gets your heart rate up. You can always opt for a standard bodyweight squat, mimicking your favorite barbell squat, but the jump squat kills two birds with one stone, so we love incorporating it into a high-intensity bodyweight workout.
Instructions: Start by standing with a wide stance, then lower yourself into a squatting position, sending your butt down and back so your knees almost create a 90-degree angle. Using your arms for momentum, drive your entire body upwards and push off the ground.
8. Ab Wheel Rollouts
Though it does require a small piece of equipment, ab wheel rollouts are one of the most effective ab workouts you can get. We’ve sourced our favorite ab wheel in the section below, and we also recommend using an exercise mat (or soft towel) to keep pressure off of your knees. You’ll definitely feel this one the next day, in your abs, but potentially also in your upper back and traps.
Instructions: Start on your knees, grab the ab wheel and place it in front of you so your extended arms are perpendicular to the floor. Keep your arms straight and core engaged, roll the ab wheel forward and over your head so your entire body is extended and parallel to the ground. Roll back to the starting position. You might see some folks starting the ab wheel at their knees, but this actually removes resistance from the exercise and doesn’t engage your core as effectively.
The Best Gear for Bodyweight Exercises
Though a major perk of bodyweight exercises is the lack of gear required, there are a few pieces of gear that can really elevate your bodyweight workouts and help you accomplish some of the exercises we listed above. Most of these are small enough to store out of sight at home, or even pack in a suitcase if you’re looking to stay active during a trip.
1. Amazon Basics Extra Thick Exercise Mat
This is probably the most important piece of gear to snag for your bodyweight workouts. Especially if you’re tackling bodyweight exercises outside or at a gym, it’s helpful to create a barrier between you and the dirty ground. Use it for stretching or yoga, or to soften your contact with the floor in exercises like the ab wheel rollout, split squat or plank.
2. Iron Gym Total Upper Body Workout Bar
Though you certainly could get creative when it comes to pull-up bars — sturdy tree branches and playground structures come in handy every now and then — there’s nothing quite like a classic pull-up bar. This option from Iron Gym gets the job done, and fits right into a doorway, making it a great choice for home workouts. However, any home pull-up bar comes with risks. First, check Iron Gym’s size guide to make sure it will fit in your doorway. Second, some reviewers recommend placing a barrier in spots where the pull-up bar touches the wall, is it can discolor your walls.
3. DEGOL Jump Rope Cable
As we said, the length of your jump rope is critical for using it effectively. This jump rope from DEGOL has an adjustable feature to ensure you can find a comfortable length for your height. With more than 40,000 reviews, it’s Amazon’s best-selling jump rope, and for $10 offers an incredible calisthenic workout, one you could knock out on the road with this jump rope stashed in your backpack or suitcase.
4. Vinsguir Ab Roller
Improper knee padding can doom an ab wheel roller workout from the start, as a lack of cushioning will wreck your knees and prevent you from comfortably completing the entire motion. Thankfully this ab roller from Vinsguir comes with a free knee pad, though some reviewers acknowledge it’s a bit too narrow to be effective, so you might be better of snagging the bigger exercise mat we reviewed above. Still, this ab wheel alone is worth it. The soft rubber wheel ensures a smooth motion while the foam handle ensures a comfortable grip.