20 Great Body Weight Exercises (and Why You Should Do Them)
Maybe you'll never find yourself in a "Cliffhanger" kind of moment, but I'd venture to say that being able to lift your own body weight — whether with your arms, your legs, or your core — is an important life skill. What better, more basic measure of fitness could there be? The best part of it is that most body weight exercises require little or no equipment of any kind, which means you can practice them anytime, anywhere. That also means most of these exercises come free of charge.
Here are 20 great body weight exercises to try — and some beginner ways to get into them if you aren't quite ready to go full Stalone. Combine a few from each category for a great full-body workout. And if you aren't sure how to do these, click through the links for demos and explanations. (See also: 15 Ways to Exercise in Under 5 Minutes)
Strengthen your arms, shoulders, chest, and upper back for lifting and pulling (and for looking great in a tanktop).
Pull ups involve hanging from a bar with an overhand grip and pulling yourself on up. It sounds (and looks) intimidating, but pull ups are one of the best upper-body exercises out there. If you can't do even one pull up now, you may assume you'll never get your head over the bar. Not true. Just about anyone can learn to do pull ups if they're willing to take the time to develop all that strength. Ladies, I'm looking at you too.
Beginner Tips: It's easy to get an inexpensive chin-up bar for your door frame at any fitness shop. Or, you can just walk to your local park, nudge a few kids out of the way, and get going. If you can do one (or even just part of) a pull up, you can start there and do a few sets of one. You can also get a rubber strap like those used in Crossfit classes. It'll help give you a boost by taking some weight off.
Chin ups are just like pull ups only you reverse your grip so that your palms are facing toward you, rather than away from you. It's worth doing both pull ups and chin ups because they work different muscles. Many people will find chin ups a little easier because they rely on the biceps, which tend to be stronger.
Beginner Tips: Same as chin ups. You can use the rubber strap here as well if you need to.
Dips work the triceps (the back of the upper arms), and while there are fancy dip machines at the gym, they're easy to do on the edge of a kitchen chair, or even your coffee table while you're watching TV. To perform this exercise, sit with your back to the edge of a chair, lift your arms behind you and place your arms on the chair. Then bend and straighten your arms to lift and lower yourself.
Beginner Tips: You can make this easier by bending your knees at a 90-degree angle. As you improve, you can straighten your legs and rest on your heels, or even lift one leg up, increasing the weight on your arms. If you can't go down all the way, do what you can and work to improve.
You're probably familiar with push ups from gym class. They're a great way to work your triceps and chest, as well as your core (after all, you're holding it all up!).
Beginner Tips: If you can't do a full push up with your legs extended, start with your knees on the ground. Need to start even easier? Bend your knees to a 90-degree angle (a table-top position), then bend and straighten you arms from there.
Medicine Ball Push Ups
Medicine ball push ups work the triceps a little more than regular push ups and require more core stability, which makes them more difficult, but definitely worthwhile if you're looking for a challenge (and toned arms). You don't need a medicine ball to do these; your kid's soccer ball, volleyball, or even basketball will do just fine. To do this type of push up, get into a push up position and place your hands on the ball with your thumbs touching. Then, start pushing.
Beginner Tips: As with push ups, you can start this one on your knees as well.
Here's another one you probably remember from gym class. Stand with your arms extended out to your sides and then rotate them slowly in a counter-clockwise direction. When you're feeling the burn, change directions and do the same number of rotations on the other side.
Beginner Tips: This one's pretty accessible for everyone. If you find it too easy, make the sets in each direction longer, or hold a weight (or water bottle) in each hand while you do it.
Thighs, calves, and backside all get a workout here.
Lunges provide a great leg workout, and you can do them anywhere. To perform this exercise, take a step forward with your right foot and bend it to 90 degrees so that the left knee is close to or touching the floor. Straighten and then step forward with your left leg. Take several steps on each leg, building up the number of lunges you do on each leg as you get stronger.
Beginner Tips: Most people will be able to do some approximation of this exercise, although you may not be able to bend your front knee to 90 degrees until you get stronger. Just do what you can. If you have poor balance, you may want to do this beside a wall or have a friend close by — it can be tippy!
Calf raises are as simple as it gets. To work the calves, just hold on to the back of a chair or counter, then stand up your tip-toes. Lower and repeat.
Beginner Tips: This exercise is very accessible for beginners, but if you want to make it harder, do one leg at a time, or add a barbell, as shown in the link.
Because a wall sit is a static exercise, it can be torture, but you can make a lot of progress in a short time by fitting this exercise in to your day somewhere.
To do this, stand a couple of feet from a wall and lean back to allow your back to touch. Then, bend your knees, allowing your back to slide down the wall, until you're "sitting" with your back to wall with your legs bent at a 90-degree angle. Start by holding it for 10-30 seconds and build up from there. If you have a medicine ball, it will make getting into and holding this position easier and more comfortable.
Beginner Tips: If you're just starting out, you can hold this for a shorter amount of time, or bend your knees at less than a 90-degree angle and work toward bending them more over time.
This exercise sounds like serious business — and it is. It's a more difficult exercise, so if you can't do lunges or a wall sit, you probably aren't ready for this one (yet!). To do a pistol squat, stand holding your arms straight out in front of you, raise one leg, flexing your foot back, and then lower your body while keeping one leg lifted and extended in front of you. Lift back up and repeat. You can see this exercise in action here.
Beginner Tips: This exercise isn't for true beginners, but if you think you're ready to give it a try, you can use a ballet bar, banister, or counter for support and balance. Working on the flexibility of your calves and Achilles tendon will also make this exercise easier to manage.
Step ups can be done on stairs, a wooden box, or an aerobics step-up bench. Just make sure that whatever you use is solid and stable. Then, step up on to it with one leg until that leg is straight, lower, and repeat on the other leg.
Beginner Tips: If the step is lower, it will be easier. To make the exercise harder, increase the height of the step, or hold a dumbbell in each hand.
Core exercises involve much more than just sit ups these days.
To do a plank, get into a push up position, then bend your arms so that your forearms (rather than your hands) are resting on the ground. Use your stomach muscles to hold yourself up and prevent your back from sagging. This is called a plank because your back should be as strong and straight as one when you're in it.
Beginner Tips: If you can hold this even for a few seconds, that's a start! Do a couple of sets and work your way up from there.
A side plank is similar to a plank, but it works the sides of your abdominals and core, a part of the body that often gets neglected at the gym. To do this exercise, roll to your side and come up on the outside edge of one foot and your elbow. Make sure your hips are lifted off the ground so that you feel your core working. Hold for as long as you can manage!
Beginner Tips: Just as with plank, if you can hold this for a second or two, don't worry. Start there, do a couple of sets and work your way up to holding for 30 seconds to a minute on each side. You can also try this modified version.
Your core isn't just your stomach; it includes your back too, and shoulder bridge is designed to work just that. Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet hip-width apart. Place your arms down at your sides, then lift your hips and back off the ground. Hold and repeat.
Beginner Tips: This is pretty accessible for beginners, although you may have to work on how long you can hold this, how high you can lift yourself, and how many repetitions you can do.
Supermans don't feel like flying, but they'll help you build super-hero strength in your lower back. Lie face down with your legs extended and arms out in front of you. Raise your arms and legs off the ground. You'll look like Superman soaring through the sky, but you'll feel a serious burn in your back.
Beginner Tips: Lack of strength and flexibility can make it hard from some people to get any height here — or even get their limbs off the ground. That's OK. Make the attempt to lift them and it will come with time. You can also lift your arms and then lower, followed by your legs.
This supine twist provides a good abdominal workout — and a nice stretch for your sides and lower back. To do this exercise, lie on your back with your knees bent into your chest and your arms extended in a "T" shape. Then, gradually roll your knees over to the right, allowing them to drop as far they'll go on one side (they may or may not touch the ground). Lift back to center and repeat on the other side.
Beginner Tips: This will be difficult for those who have limited flexibility in their backs and chest. If you're struggling to roll your legs over, try making small circles over your body first, and then progress to rolling your knees from side to side over time.
In yoga, this is called boat pose, and it is very hard to keep a placid face while holding it. To do this pose, sit on the ground and balance on the space behind your tailbone. Extend your legs out in front you so that your body forms a V shape. Then extend your arms forward at a 90 degree angle from your body.
Beginner Tips: In order to do this properly, you have to be strong enough in your core to keep your back from rounding out behind you. If you can't do this with straight legs, bend your knees until you can. If you still can't do it, try it with one or both feet on the floor first.
Full Body Bonus
Put it all together for a serious aerobic burn.
Burpees sound cute, but they are a killer full body exercise. Start in a low squat position with your hands on the floor, then hop your feet back into push up position. Complete a full push up, then hop your feet back into a squat position and jump into the air as high as you can, landing in a squat position. Like this. Repeat.
Beginner Tips: This is a tough exercise, but if you're really struggling, you can skip the push up. And remember, it's fine to start with just one. Everyone starts somewhere.
Beginner Tips: The goal here is to smoothly switch legs quite quickly. If you can't, do it more slowly, or step instead of hop.
Crab walk looks kinda funny, but it's a great workout for your back and a great stretch for your chest and the front of your shoulders. To do this, sit on the floor and bend your knees at a 90-degree angle. Put your hands on the ground behind you with your hands pointing toward your feet. Straighten your arms to lift your body off the ground, making a table-top of the front of your body. Now, try to walk along like a crab (I said it would look funny).
Beginner Tips: If you aren't ready to scamper along the length of your living room, just work on lifting yourself up and getting some height. Once you're comfortable with that, you'll be ready to take a few steps.
Body weight exercises can be very hard, but they're all the tools you need to stay very fit. And they're so simple and inexpensive, it's easy to fit a few in every day. If you can't lift your body weight yet, don't get discouraged. Muscles grow with stimulation and over time. You just have to ask them to.
Are body weight exercise part of your workout routine?