With the right selection of bodyweight exercises you can hit each and every fitness goal you might have without so much as looking at a dumbbell. In particular, bodyweight exercises are the perfect pick for a lung-busting HIIT workout designed to build lean muscle, and because they typically involve training several muscle groups and joints at the same time, you’ll feel the benefit of bodyweight workouts in your everyday movements and be less likely to pick up injuries.
To ensure your well of bodyweight moves never runs dry, we asked Anya Drozdova, personal trainer at The Fitting Rooms gym, to pick and explain her favourite bodyweight exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced gym-goers.
Beginner Bodyweight Exercises
The plank is a simple but effective exercise. You have to learn to keep your entire body under tension while maintaining correct alignment. Not only does it strengthen your core, it works your shoulders, arms and glutes, and is a foundational skill for learning how to control your body.
Place your hands on the ground directly beneath your shoulders with your legs extending straight behind you, creating a straight line from your ankles to your head. Look straight down at the floor and squeeze your glutes to tuck your tailbone under. Hold the position for 30 seconds to one minute, or simply for as long as you can while maintaining good form – there’s no point carrying on if you’re sagging in the middle. Look to improve your time by a few seconds each time you do the plank.
The unweighted squat is not only a great stepping stone to more advanced exercises but also a great strength and mobility exercise. A young child can easily drop down into a deep squat but over time our mobility is compromised by tightness caused by our sedentary lifestyle. This stiffness can contribute to problems like lower back and knee pain.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keeping your back straight, descend by bending your knees and bringing your hips down towards the floor. How deep you are able to squat will vary from person to person depending on their mobility and strength, but the aim is to get your thighs at least parallel to the floor while maintaining good form.
Ring rows can play a big role in maintaining shoulder health. For beginners, they help to develop shoulder, back, grip and core strength.
Set the rings to an appropriate height, then grip them and lower your body so your arms are fully extended and your feet are out in front of you with your body forming a straight line, keeping tension throughout your entire midsection. Start the pull by retracting your shoulder blades and bending your arms, and keep pulling until your elbows are behind you. Keep your legs together, knees locked out and core tight.
Intermediate Bodyweight Exercises
As well as being an upper-body exercise, press-ups work your glutes, core and legs. It is an easy exercise to do anywhere, any time, and once you’ve nailed the basic movement there are many variations to experiment with.
Place your hands on the directly beneath your shoulders with your legs extending straight behind you. Keep your core, glutes and legs tight, maintaining a straight line from your head to your ankles. Bending at the elbows, lower your body until your chest comes to within 2cm of the floor, with your elbows staying close to your sides. Press up explosively, fully extending your arms.
Building solid core strength and learning how to use your entire body as one unit is the foundation for all advanced movements. An exercise like the hollow-body hold is often overlooked at the gym but not only will it allow you to progress to fancier exercises like handstands, it can also fix poor posture and build the kind of strength that transfers to squats, push or pull exercises and even sprints.
Lie on your back and bring your arms overhead. Raise your shoulders, hands and feet off the floor to create a shallow bowl shape with your entire body. Make sure your lower back stays firmly planted on the floor. Create tension from your toes all the way to your fingers. Hold the position for 30 seconds to one minute, or as long as you can while maintaining good form. Try to hold it for a few seconds longer each time.
Pull-ups work your back, arms, core and grip and can be a great stretch when done with the full range of motion. Achieving your first pull-up can be particularly challenging and all the steps leading up to it can be a great goal to keep you motivated. Remember that the difficulty of all bodyweight exercises depends on what your bodyweight is and heavier people might find pull-ups too challenging at first. It is also important to have no pain in your shoulders, elbows or wrists when doing pull-ups.
Get into a dead hang on the bar using an overhand grip with your arms fully extended. Start by engaging your shoulder blades into a shrug. From there, pull with your back and bend your elbows until your neck reaches the bar. Keep your body in line and your legs straight.
Advanced Bodyweight Exercises
Handstand wall walk
This is an advanced move that will activate your whole posterior chain. The key is to hold a straight line by maintaining tension through your entire body. I think this is great fun – it requires co-ordination and control, and always challenges your body in a slightly different way depending on your hand placement.
Get into a handstand facing the wall with your feet resting on it. Tense your core, glutes and legs, and walk your hands away from the wall into a wall plank and then all the way back up the wall.
Hanging leg raise
This requires total-body strength and flexibility. It works your abdominals and hip flexors, and increases your overhead mobility and grip strength. Additionally, the skill of learning to compress your body is one not often practised but it forms the basis for more advanced movements like the pike to press handstand. Many assume this exercise is easy, but if you try it with someone keeping your shoulders from leaning back and your legs completely locked out as you raise your feet to the bar, I promise it is far more challenging than you think.
Hang from a bar or from wall bars. Without swinging, contract your abs to lift your legs as high as you can while keeping your arms and legs straight. Keep the movement slow and controlled.
This requires tremendous mobility, balance and strength. Even lifters with impressive barbell squat numbers struggle with this movement because it requires a lot of time and consistent training to get the range of motion and control needed. It is a fun skill-based addition to your training, and keeps your muscles flexible and your body mobile and healthy.
Stand with one leg raised, keeping it straight in front of you. Bring your arms out in front of your chest and descend on your standing leg while keeping the lifted leg parallel to the floor. Lower until your hamstring is resting on your calf muscle and then push back up.