The Very Best Bodyweight Exercises

9 Experts Weigh In

Nine butt-kicking bodyweight moves that lifters and athletes need, no matter how advanced they are.

The Question

What’s the best bodyweight exercise that most people DON’T use?

Thoren Bradley – Natural Bodybuilder, Strength & Conditioning Coach

Wide-grip chin-ups are rarely ever done, and they’re much harder with this extra challenge.

Yeah, we get it. The pull-up is one of the most important exercises for a good strength-to-bodyweight ratio. However, the real problem lies in the execution. Most average gym rats don’t have it down yet. Why? Maybe because they don’t dedicate enough time to it.

It never fails, people begin to ditch the traditional pull-up or chin-up when they focus on chasing the pump, chasing numbers with heavy weight, or simply becoming bored with the idea that it’s a bodyweight exercise. Maybe for you it’s just not challenging enough because you can rep out 15 in a row with strict form (although that’s rare).

No matter your reason, here’s a challenging variation that will tear your lats apart while you struggle to get more than a handful of quality reps. Even those who’ve mastered the muscle-up will struggle with a wide-grip chin-up when they slow the tempo down. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Slow down the negative, aiming for at least 4 seconds on your eccentric.
  2. On your last rep after failure, jump up and then let yourself down as slow as possible with strict, lat-stretching form.
  3. Once you find failure, keep tension on your lats at the bottom and pulse a few quarter-reps out to really damage the fibers.

Hammer out 3 sets to failure before your typical back routine and you’ll see development like never before.

TJ Kuster – Strength and Conditioning Coach

The forward and backward squat hop.

If you’re a lifter, odds are you can perform a few bodyweight squats, so this should be manageable for most (at least the forward variation).

This has the added difficulty of a small plyometric move, and teaches your body to use the stored elastic energy in the glutes and hamstrings at the bottom of the squat to “bounce” you back up. Although doing a squat hop forward is relatively natural, doing it backwards is a very unnatural movement that requires a lot of proprioception, balance, and coordination to successfully complete the movement.

Here’s how to do it:

Be sure to land on the balls of your feet before transferring your weight to your heels. Once your heels are planted, push your hips back, and drive your knees outward just as you would perform a normal bodyweight squat.

Keep your chest up and maintain a strong flat back so you’re using your legs and not relying on your lower back to get you through the movement.

The goal with this movement isn’t to jump as high as possible, but to keep every squat jump smooth so that one hop flows right into the next.

For a bodyweight leg destroyer, try completing 3 rounds of 10 yards both forward and backward with no rest.

Paul Carter – Strength and Bodybuilding Coach

The bodyweight tricep extension.

Try to get a little bit of shoulder flexion going on this one to really get a nice stretch to the triceps. I’ve seen people do these more to the nose or forehead area, but that version will be a little harder on the elbows because you’re having to stop and start mostly through the elbow joint. But when you bring more shoulder flexion into it, then the elbows won’t take up as much of the slack.

These are even better after you’ve done high-volume rope pushdowns, around 100 to 150 reps total.

Nick Tumminello – Strength Coach and Author

The one-arm push-up.

Why? Because it’s a whole-body pushing exercise that involves the force production relationship between your shoulder and opposite hip (through the torso) that’s responsible for actions like running, throwing, punching, etc.

Most lifters and athletes don’t do them because they’re simply not strong enough. That’s exactly the reason why I recommend they should. Not to mention, many who attempt them perform them very poorly. But it’s not hard to learn and there’s even a guide on it, so there’s no reason to miss out.

Corey Davis – Strength Coach

The L-sit hold.

It’s incredibly simple, doesn’t require a ton of equipment, is easily modified, and most importantly lights up your core and triceps. Don’t confuse simple for easy though; the L-sit hold is brutal and will reveal any weaknesses you have in your upper body and core.

To do it, place two parallette bars shoulder-width apart and sit in between them. Press your hands down into the parallettes to lift your hips off the ground and extend your legs out in front of you making a 90-degree angle or an L. Hold this position for as long as you can without letting your legs dip down. If you haven’t practiced this type of movement, it won’t be very long.

Don’t have access to parallettes? Try using a pair of plyo boxes or a pair of benches. Any pair of things that can hold your bodyweight should be fine as long as they won’t move out from under you.

If the L-sit hold is too tough, bring your knees in toward your chest, and build stability in that position before trying the more advanced version.

Andrew Heming – Strength Coach and Professor

Bodyweight Face-Pulls.

Initiate the movement by pulling your shoulder blades back. Let your arms externally rotate so you finish with your hands by your temples.

Keep a rhythmic feel to your reps and maintain the mind-muscle connection with your upper back. Modify this as needed by moving your feet back so your body is more vertical. The more vertical you are, the easier it’ll get.

You can do these with suspension straps (rings, TRX, etc.) or from a rope draped over bar in the squat rack or Smith machine.

Why do them?

  • Face-pulls target the smaller, weaker muscles of your upper back: mid traps, rhomboids, posterior deltoids and external rotators. When these muscles are strong, they improve your posture, your shoulder health, and your bench press performance. Remember, pulling your shoulders back makes your chest look bigger!
  • Built lats are known for creating the coveted V-taper. However, they’re also internal rotators. If they overpower your upper back, they’ll pull you into poor posture. Face-pulls reduce lat involvement so you can hammer your upper back.
  • The straps are easy to set-up.
  • Because you’re not diverting attention to standing (as you would with traditional face-pulls), you get better upper back isolation.
  • Most lifters tend to go too easy on these with bands or cables. While this is far from a max-effort exercise, you don’t want to waste your time coasting through the exercise. When you have to lift your own body, you’ll naturally work harder as your survival mechanism kicks in (i.e. you inherently want to avoid crashing to the floor).

Drew Murphy – Personal Trainer and Gym Owner

Low rep pull-ups.

The pull-up is one of the most popular bodyweight exercises in existence. Everyone wants to be able to do one, and once they can, most are inclined to progress by attempting to do more and more consecutively.

While this isn’t always a bad progression model, there’s one considerable risk associated with this approach. Chasing a higher number of reps often leads to sloppy form and lousy mechanics… done repeatedly.

If your priority is always rep quantity, you’ll never devote the time that’s necessary to properly master the exercise, and therefore you’ll never extract all of the benefits it has to offer. Rep quality should always be prioritized, which is why I often recommend doing fewer pull-ups per set, not more.

Before attempting a set of multiple pull-ups, first demonstrate the ability to perform one single strict pull-up on a consistent basis. Once you’ve mastered a single strict pull-up, make sure that each successive rep you add is exactly like the one that preceded it. If at any point during a set you notice your form beginning to waver, you’ve gone too far.

After you’ve developed the strength to do a clean set of double digit pull-ups, there are still reasons for doing pull-ups at lower rep ranges. My two favorite ways to make low rep pull-ups challenging is with pauses and tempo. When utilized correctly, these two methods are great for subjecting your muscles to new stimuli.

Here are four pull-up variations that work well for sets of 1-5 reps:

Pauses are great for:

  • Familiarizing positions
  • Strengthening sticking points
  • Building acceleration and deceleration strength at varying points
  • Keeping the working muscles under tension for extra time (TUT)

Slower tempo is great for:

  • Familiarizing proper movement
  • Body control
  • Motor unit recruitment
  • TUT

Tom MacCormick – Personal Trainer, Online Coach

Swiss ball leg curls, also known as supine hip extension with leg curls – SHELC for short.

You probably don’t do these because you think they look easy. You’re in for a shock when you try them!

This exercise has been invaluable for a large number of my online clients. Most of them train in their home gyms and we need to build workouts around the equipment they have available. This is generally limited to barbells, dumbbells, and bodyweight exercises. They just can’t fill up their garages with all the machines you see at Globo-gym.

While barbells and dumbbells do a phenomenal job training the body in almost every movement pattern, they aren’t ideal for complete hamstring training. The hamstrings have two functions:

  1. Hip extension
  2. Knee flexion

Barbells and dumbbells are perfect for training hip extension with movements like Romanian deadlifts and good mornings. However, they don’t provide a good choice for knee flexion (leg curls). The ball allows you to train this function of the hamstring without needing a ton of space or having to spend thousands of dollars.

This exercise is excellent because it works the hamstrings in knee flexion, but if done properly, requires you to maintain hip extension (the other function of the hamstrings). This allows you to get the hamstrings into a shortened position and challenge them in this range.

When doing these think, “Heels in and hips up.” Hold the peak contraction, squeezing your glutes hard for a two count and lower under control. I most often program these for 3 or 4 sets of 12-15 reps, with 60 seconds of rest in between. The hammy pump this delivers is incredible!

Once you’ve gotten really good at these, you can progress to doing one leg at a time. The single leg version certainly isn’t too easy!

Eric Buratty – Health & Fitness Coordinator

Hinge Push-Ups.

Everyone loves conventional push-ups, but there are only a handful of people that can harness the power of the hinge variation. This involves rocking back and forth from a lower forearm plank position at the bottom of your standard push-up before returning to full lockout. You’ll build total body power, a superhero core, and get a wicked triceps pump when practicing these.

To optimize the benefits of this exercise, you have a few options when it comes to placing them in your workout program:

  • If you’re a beginner or you have any pre-existing shoulder issues, do these toward the end of your workout for lower reps, preferably after overhead pressing and pulling.
  • If you’re advanced or have better than average shoulder health, you have more leeway. Try turning this move into an activation tool at the beginning of your workout – or as a hypertrophy move or core endurance tool when performing them as a superset with any other pulling movement.

Once you’ve got these mastered, think of them as a gateway to bigger and better bodyweight exercises, such as hinge dips and the ultimate expression of fluid pressing power, the muscle-up.

Jason Brown – Box Programming Director, Strength Coach

Not enough people do the pull-up consistently.

Sure, not EVERYONE can do a chin-over-bar pull-up, but those who can simply don’t include them enough in their programming.

It’s easy to scroll through social media and see lots of people performing direct bicep work, but the pull-up for the upper-body is what the squat is for the legs; your direct bicep work is NOT a stand-alone and replacing the former with the latter just doesn’t make sense.

The pull-up should be a non-negotiable movement in your programming if you’re able to do them without pain.

Here are a few things to consider:

  • Use different grip variations (pronated, neutral, supinated) and widths in order to do them multiple times a week. This will change the joint angle and primary movers and prevent joint problems caused by overuse. Once your pull-up strength improves you can throw the chest-to-bar variation into the mix.
  • If pull-ups aren’t your strong suit, start by aiming for 20-25 total reps. Vary your rep-ranges and stay away from complete failure. You can slowly start to increase volume as they improve. This can also be done as cluster sets where you use intra-set rest to increase neural drive, volume, and efficiency of your sets.
  • Use a dip belt for added resistance. This will allow you to do max effort strength-speed work. In this case, you’ll want to have at least 12 strict reps in the tank before adding additional load.
  • If you’re coming from doing zero total pull-ups a week, start with one session a week and then increasing your frequency slowly. Increase your frequency after the first 3 weeks. Then when you’re doing multiple pull-up sessions a week, aim to have at least 48 hours between them.

The pull-up is the king of upper-body pulling exercises so expect to see some new arm development when you start to include it regularly. Additionally, the pump you’ll experience is nothing short of awesome!