Barbells, dumbbells, cables and kettlebells are great, but technically speaking, they’re not necessary for sculpting a lean, strong physique. (Helpful? Yes. Imperative? No.) The phrase “I can’t get to the gym” is not a viable excuse for skipping a workout because some of the most challenging muscle- and strength-building moves known to womankind are bodyweight exercises.
There are endless moves you can do with your bod as equipment, so to boil it down to the best of the best, we asked a handful of our favorite trainers and strength coaches their opinions on the moves that reign supreme. Using their nominations, we devised this top 10 list — the ultimate collection of exercises to add muscle, increase strength, improve flexibility and beef up endurance. These moves are infinitely scalable, and for each, we offer both easier and harder variants to accommodate individuals of all fitness levels.
There is one thing these exercises don’t accommodate, however: excuses.
Muscles Targeted: Full body
Coach’s Commentary: “Burpees strengthen your whole body, help with coordination and stability, and can be used effectively for conditioning,” says Jenna Torres, CF-L1, head coach at CrossFit James Island in Charleston, South Carolina (crossfitjamesisland.com).
How-To: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, then crouch and place your hands flat on the floor in front of you. Jump your feet behind you into a push-up position, then do one push-up. Jump your feet back underneath you, then quickly extend your legs and hips to explode upward, reaching your hands overhead as you jump vertically off the ground as high as you can.
Make It Harder: See the “Combine & Conquer” sidebar for an advanced variation.
Make It Easier: Nix either the push-up or the jump (or both), depending on your level.
Muscles Targeted: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, core
Coach’s Commentary: “Air squats build strength and power in the hamstrings, quads, hips and glutes while stabilizing the core,” Torres says.
How-To: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, legs turned slightly outward and arms extended in front of you at shoulder height. Kick your hips back and bend your knees to squat toward the floor, weight in
your heels, chest lifted, focus forward. Descend until your hips drop below your knees, then stand back to the start.
Make It Harder: Try pistol squats — the one-legged version of the air squat.
Make It Easier: Place a chair behind you and touch your glutes to the chair with each rep.
Muscles Targeted: Core, shoulders, quads, hip flexors
Coach’s Commentary: “Bear crawls improve core and upper-body strength, scapular stability and overall shoulder health,” says Molly Galbraith, CSCS, owner of Girls Gone Strong (girlsgonestrong.com).
How-To: Get on all fours with your feet and hands both slightly wider than shoulder width. Pick your knees up a few inches off the floor while keeping your back straight and your head neutral. Crawl forward by taking small, controlled steps using the opposite hand and foot while keeping your butt down and your knees close to the floor. Crawl for total reps, distance or time.
Make It Harder: Take your crawls on the move laterally, in reverse or in patterns.
Make It Easier: Hold stationary, in the start position, for time (five to 30 seconds).
Muscles Targeted: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, inner/outer thigh
Coach’s Commentary: “Working unilaterally with lunges is a great way to train similar muscles as squats without loading the spine,” says Julia Ladewski, CSCS, a sports-performance coach in Highland, Indiana (julialadewski.com). “You also get some added core and adductor/stability work by using one leg at a time.”
How-To: Stand tall in an open area with your feet together. Take a large step forward with one leg and bend both knees, dropping the back one toward the floor while keeping your front knee over your toes. When your front thigh comes parallel with the floor (or slightly beyond), push off the front heel and pull with the glute and hamstring of the back leg to return to standing. Continue, alternating legs.
Make It Harder: See the “Combine & Conquer” sidebar for an advanced variation.
Make It Easier: Do stationary lunges, in which your feet remain fixed in the staggered stance throughout.
Muscles Targeted: Chest, shoulders, triceps, core
Coach’s Commentary: “Push-ups are not only a great muscle and strength builder for the upper body ‘push’ muscles, but they also develop core stability,” says Jim Smith, CPPS, owner of Diesel Strength & Conditioning (dieselsc.com).
How-To: Place your hands shoulder-width apart on the floor, then extend your legs behind you so your head, hips and heels are aligned, body rigid, head neutral. Keeping your elbows pointed backward (not out to the sides), bend your arms to lower your body toward the floor, maintaining a tight core. When your elbows break 90 degrees, press back up to the start.
Make It Harder: Elevate your feet on a bench, chair or step, hands on the floor (decline).
Make It Easier: Put your hands up on a bench, feet on the floor (incline).
Muscles Targeted: Upper back, rear delts, forearms, grip
Coach’s Commentary: “Using a TRX for rows and inverted rows minimizes the stress on the wrists, elbows and shoulders that is often associated with fixed bar work,” Smith says. “A pull-up bar doesn’t allow for small adjustments as you perform the movement, thus causing inflammation and irritation due to common immobility issues like tight lats, internally rotated shoulders and a weak back.”
How-To: Grasp a set of TRX handles with your palms facing inward, arms extended. Walk your feet forward until your body is at about a 45-degree angle to the floor and your head, hips and heels are aligned. Keep your body rigid as you drive your elbows back and draw your shoulder blades together to pull your chest up to the handles. Pause briefly, then slowly lower to the start.
Make It Harder: Place your heels on a box so your body is horizontal, parallel with the floor.
Make It Easier: Walk your feet back under you so you’re more vertical.
Muscles Targeted: Glutes, quads, hamstrings, core
Coach’s Commentary: “This dynamic movement helps strengthen the lower body while building explosive power and engaging the core,” Torres says.
How-To: Stand in an open area in an athletic “ready” position — feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, ready to explode. Quickly bend your knees and hips to load up your glutes and quads, then jump vertically as high as possible. While in the air, lift your knees to your chest in a tuck and then extend your legs and land softly, absorbing the impact. Collect yourself, then repeat.
Make It Harder: Add a lateral element — jumping a few feet to the side while tucking the knees up.
Make It Easier: Eliminate the knee tuck; do vertical jumps only.
Muscles Targeted: Core, hip flexors
Coach’s Commentary: “This deceptively challenging exercise targets the anterior core (abs) and can even out asymmetries from side to side,” Galbraith says.
How-To: Lie faceup with your knees and hips bent 90 degrees and your arms extended over your shoulders, perpendicular to the floor, palms facing inward. Press your lower back into the floor as hard as you can, then hold that position as you slowly extend one leg toward the floor, simultaneously lowering the opposite arm behind your head. Stop when your leg and arm are a few inches from touching down, then return to the start.
Make It Harder: Hold the extended position for longer time increments, or do all reps on one side before switching.
Make It Easier: Hold the start position for time (10 to 30 seconds), or eliminate the arms and only extend the legs one at a time
Muscles Targeted: Chest, shoulders, triceps
Coach’s Commentary: “These develop overall upper-body strength and will improve your bench and overhead press,” Ladewski says.
How-To: Sit on the edge of a box or bench with your hands on either side of your hips, fingers forward. Extend your arms to lift your glutes up and forward, then bend your elbows, lowering until they break 90 degrees. Forcefully press back to the start.
Make It Harder: Lift one leg, or dip on parallel bars for a greater challenge.
Make It Easier: Bend your knees and use your legs to assist on the upward drive.
Single-Legged Romanian Deadlift
Muscles Targeted: Hamstrings, glutes, outer thigh, lower back, core
Coach’s Commentary: “RDLs are a great strength builder, warm-up/activation exercise or a glute/ham tie-in move,” Ladewski says. “Factor in the unilateral element and your hamstrings really have to work hard.”
How-To: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent, arms reaching toward the floor. Straighten one leg behind you so all your weight is in your standing leg, then hinge at the hips and lower your torso down as you raise your extended leg up at the same rate, keeping your back flat and your hips square. When your torso and leg come parallel with the floor, reverse the motion and return to the standing position. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Make It Harder: Hold a small weight in one hand.
Make It Easier: Keep your rear toes in contact with the floor instead of lifting your leg for more stability.
Combine & Conquer
As we said, there are endless variations and combinations of bodyweight moves you can devise. Here are two kick-ass combos designed by Los Angeles–based celebrity fitness and wellness coach Leslie Maltz, NASM, to maximize your work capacity and boost your burn.
Perform a forward lunge, then push off the front foot and immediately step behind you in a reverse lunge with that same foot. Push off again and come to standing as you do a kick to the front. Put your foot down and do an air squat to complete one rep. Continue, alternating sides.
Burpee Plus (Overhead Squat + Side-Plank Reach + Push-Up)
Reach your arms overhead and lower into an air squat. Stop at the bottom, place your hands on the floor and walk them out into a push-up position. Perform a push-up, then turn into a side plank, reaching your top arm toward the sky, shoulders and hips stacked. Return to the start, do another push-up, then repeat the side plank and reach to the opposite side. Return to the start, walk your hands back to your feet, sink your hips into the squat, reach your arms overhead and stand back up. Feeling badass? Add a jump.
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