20 Great Body Weight Exercises (and Why You Should Do Them)

by Tara Struyk on 25 February 2013 7 comments
Photo: www.guigo.eu

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)

Upper Body

Strengthen your arms, shoulders, chest, and upper back for lifting and pulling (and for looking great in a tanktop).

Pull Ups

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

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.

Triceps Dips

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.

Push Ups

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.

Arm Circles

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.

Lower Body

Thighs, calves, and backside all get a workout here.

Walking Lunges

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

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.

Wall Sit

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.

Pistol Squats

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 Up

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

Core exercises involve much more than just sit ups these days.

Plank

No, I'm not talking about planking — these planks take a lot more effort.

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.

Side Plank

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.

Shoulder Bridge

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

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.

Supine Twist

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.

V-Sit

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

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.

Mountain Climber

If you do enough mountain climbers, you'll feel like you've climbed a mountain. Start in a push up position and bring one knee forward under your chest. Jump and switch legs. Repeat.

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

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?

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Lars Peterson's picture

Wow! Lots of great exercises here. Can you offer some advice about how to put together a couple of workouts (30-45 minutes?) from this collection?

Guest's picture

I used to go to a gym to do the standard lifting of heavy weights. I recently joined a Crossfit gym and a lot of those workouts (WoD - Workout of the Day) use a lot of bodyweight for the routines. You could go on some gym's site to get an idea of the workouts and modify it at home, but the key is intensity for 20 minutes. You could put together a few of the different ones above and shoot for AMRAP(As Many Rounds As Possible) in a 20 minute period. For example, see how many rounds of 20 push-ups, 20 sit-ups, and 20 jumping squats you can do in 20 minutes.

Tara Struyk's picture

I would pick a few you think would work for you from each section. If you move from one exercise to the other without a lot of rest, you will get a great workout!

Guest's picture
Joe

Great list.

I've been using a few of these to strengthen my core and back. I've seen good results, but you need to be consistent. The plank is one of the best as it works more than your core and is a good fat burner. I try and do as these many in 20 minutes each day.

Guest's picture
Sarah Newman

Excellent list of exercises to choose from. Quite a few I was not aware of.

I find body weight exercises more effective than using weight machines and you can do them anywhere really.

Thanks for sharing Tara.

Tara Struyk's picture

Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for commenting:-)

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thomas

Well, I was in the army infantry and we use alot of these during our pt. I love burpees they are the best way to start or finish your workout. body weight exercises are the best way to build an tune without harming your joints or your body over all. In alot of cases if one of my guys in the army ask what I do for more weight or a challange I use a wieghted vest for push ups pull ups squats and burpees caution when running with one short distances are best well thanks again for posting this its a great way for poeple to get ACTIVE