When you’re training your muscles, you actually develop something called muscle memory.
While many people like to think this just means doing something over and over again until it becomes “muscle memory,” that isn’t actually the case.
Instead, muscle memory is when your muscles—and subsequently your brain, the biggest muscle of them all—learn certain growth behavior and patterns based on the exercise you feed it.
If you fall out of shape and get back into a rhythm in the future, your muscles already know what to do for optimal growth and fortification.
If you have that friend that neglects to go the gym, then gets back to his regimen for a week and has more muscle definition and a six-pack after almost no time at all, they have muscle memory.
So how do you achieve it?
You build muscle with bodyweight exercises. Building muscle is literally causing small explosions all across your muscles, and then nourishing your body with sleep and proper nutrition to help it rebuild in a slightly larger size. Once it’s healed, you rinse, lather, and repeat.
Bodyweight exercises are how you achieve bigger, stronger muscles with more aesthetic quality. They’re a paramount part of your workout regiment.
Let’s take a look at the top fifteen bodyweight workouts to give you a diversified workout regimen.
If you’d like to see a graphical breakdown of the bodyweight exercises, we got you covered:
You might hate me for ranking this at the top, but it’s by far the most effective full bodyweight workout. It’s got everything you need all in one workout.
Lay flat on your stomach, then pull your knees in as you bounce up, using your hands to rest on.
Then you jump up and stretch as high as you can, then recoil and try to return to the same position.
They’re a pain. They’re going to make your thighs, your abs, and your upper back burn—in the best possible way. In the way that you can feel it building muscle and strengthening your aesthetics.
Burpees will take the wind out of you for sure, so it’s important to incorporate some HIIT mindsets here. Do them in sets, and see what you can do before you get too winded.
Dips build your triceps and your chest and help out minor muscle groups in your back to better strengthen your posture.
Basically, it’s one of the most powerful bodyweight exercises where you are your own weight.
There’s a lot of power in a proper dip, but it’s also rough as hell to do. If you’re not used to doing dips, it’s going to be a rough beginning, but a strong finish.
Dips also help to work out your trapezius, which acts as a stabilizer for your muscles.
These are extremely important to maintain form for other exercises. Consider dips to be the one exercise that will improve your ability to do every other exercise.
Last but not least, I should mention that these will give you those pecs that you’ve been looking for. It really works those pectoral muscles. You can thank me later.
The classic pushup isn’t dead.
For the last few years, people have developed the right way to do a pushup without damaging your body.
Can improper pushups hurt your muscles?
Can improper forms of any exercise hurt your muscles?
People threw out pushups as a proper practice because they didn’t know how to do them properly.
Tiptoes. Full movement by extending your arm. Nose barely touching the floor/ground. That’s a proper pushup.
When you get the right form down, you can actually gauge your improvement.
They’re tougher than those half-assed push-ups that they made you do in physical education, but they’re not going to hurt your back.
You can actually count these pushups and measure your improvement by how many you can do. At the very least, incorporate a handful of these into your warmup set.
#4 Handstand Pushups
If you thought the pushups were going to be insane, now it’s time to crank it up to eleven.
Handstands alone are tough, but now you have to lift your entire body during one. That’s not exactly an easy task, but it’s ridiculously rewarding.
Handstand pushups are going to make those around shoulders that contrast with the V-shape of a man’s body, but they’re also fantastic for building upper back muscles in women at the same time.
Overall, they’re one of the most difficult calisthenic-based bodyweight workouts on this list, but you also get bragging rights with it.
Your friends can be like, “Tony can do pushups in the middle of a handstand.”
Cue impressing people, being a legend and helping the blood vessels in your legs get a workout of their own. There are separate benefits to handstands in general, and they’re pretty awesome.
#5 Chin Ups
There’s a difference between chin-ups and pull-ups, and chin-ups work a slightly different muscle group.
The outcome is pretty excellent for bodyweight workouts, but it does require you to have a chin-up bar in your home. Not something that most people have, but something you should totally have.
You’ll be working out multiple groups of back muscles while also testing your physical strength.
Just like with other bodyweight workouts, you are the weight in place that gives the resistance required to get the most out of this.
As a pro tip, you should do them on rings when you have the ability.
Whether it’s at a one-day gym when you’re traveling or you get them installed yourself, they mimic natural movement in your body to reduce the risk of injury.
#6 Rope Climbing
Do you know that cliche thing that they always make you do in gym class?
Well, personally we never did the rope climb bit, but I wish we did. It’s an intense exercise.
It’s actually one of the best strength training exercises available. It’s a stationary piece of gear; it’s not doing the work for you, it’s more like an accessory.
You’re using your body to pull your own bodyweight up. There’s no trickery with that—you can either do it, or you can’t.
If you’ve been doing these other fourteen exercises, chances are that you can pull yourself up a rope no problem.
Rope climbing works your laterals, your pecs, upper back, abdominals, forearms, and works up a sweat like nothing else. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a great full bodyweight workout regardless.
#7 Hand Walking
Do a handstand, and… just keep going. Walk it off.
Hand walking works out those muscle groups we talked about in HIIT fashion. The only mini-break that you get is when you switch from putting pressure on one arm to another.
You get that tiny bit of a break, and that’s it. The point is to see how far you can walk before you absolutely have to flip back right-side up.
Don’t worry about blood pooling in your head. You have valves in your legs that help regulate that. You might be a bit dizzy for 1-2 seconds when you first pop up, but that’s your equilibrium.
Test yourself. See how far you can make it (100 yards, AKA a football field, is usually a pretty good eventual length to strive for).
#8 Front Lever
Laterals, get ready to feel the burn on this one.
A front lever is often considered one of the hardest bodyweight exercises out there. There is a similar exercise in calisthenics, and it’s a bit of a doozy.
A front lever means that you hold yourself perfectly horizontal while your arms stick straight up and hold onto a pull-up bar.
Then, you pull your entire body up without losing that perfect alignment and stillness.
It’s freakin’ hard, but it’s wildly beneficial at the same time. The amount of muscle you work by doing this is intense.
While it doesn’t look like you’re engaging a lot, this is a leg raise, an ab crunch, and pull up all in one, not to mention the numerous other muscle groups that need to work together to support your weight.
#9. Muscle Up
Think of a pull-up, except double the intensity.
That’s probably not the most endearing way to introduce you to the muscle-up, but it is true.
You pull yourself all the way up during a pull-up, and I mean all the way up.
Your arms should be perfectly straight, and then you should be able to lean your torso over the bar in front of you without touching it.
Then, like a dip, you lower yourself back down to the start. Doing this right and getting proper form is everything. It takes a lot out of you, so don’t go crazy on this one.
Five at a time is a good goal. Only graduate incrementally, like go up to seven, then ten, then twelve, and so on. It’s not exactly easy on your body, you know?
You don’t need a rowing machine to pull this one off, trust me.
You will need a set of resistance bands to help you out, but that’s not going to be a killer.
Put the base of the resistance bands around your feet, and get ready to pull back. Hold as tight as you can, and lean back slowly. Engage those abs.
This is a bodyweight exercise because, without your body weight, you wouldn’t have any resistance.
You’re pulling back and testing how tight you can keep that core, and how much you can support your own weight.
Rowing machines are obviously helpful, but you can also do this in a non-traditional way.
Just do the act of rowing without a band or a machine. Do the motions like really high ab crunches, and don’t let your back touch the floor/seat you’re on.
Hold it there, and pull right back up. Long-term, high-intensity work right there.
#11 Leg Raises
The weight of your legs and the power of your core versus gravity—seems like a fair fight, right?
On your first leg raise, you feel like it’s nothing. On your fifth, it starts to burn a bit.
By the time you hit your twentieth leg raise without giving it any rest, you’re going to reach for the extinguisher to put out the fire in your muscles.
Leg raises are paramount to calisthenics because it uses your body as the only instrument you need. They’re not complicated, which is what’s beautiful about them. You can just keep going.
Perform as many legs raise in a row as you can on one leg before dropping it and switching to the other. Keep a tally, and see if you can beat your old records.
#12 Pistol Squats
You’re going to hate me for this one, I can already tell.
Do a normal squat, but on one leg… with your other leg straight out in front of you, only bending it at the hip as you descend in your squat.
Stick your arms straight out like you’re about to catch something heavy with two hands. These are going to help with your balance.
I’d say that’s it, but after the first one, you might be wondering how you’ll continue.
It’s an intense maneuver for sure, so don’t push yourself.
Pistol squats aren’t something you can just do in high-speed sets of ten at a time; they’re intended to be highly engaging and taken slowly so you don’t hurt yourself.
This works out your glutes, helps with your core, your thighs, and so much more.
#13 Jump Squat
Think of a slightly less intense burpee. I sometimes do these when I’m not feeling 100%, but I still want to get a good workout in.
Just like it sounds, you’re going to jump up like a jumping jack, but come down into a deep squat.
Make that squat as deep as you can before you even think about coming back up. That’s when the magic happens.
The burning tingles aren’t going to set in yet because you’re going to jump up, which will stretch those leg muscles in one swift motion.
From there, you’re going to have to figure out how many you can do in a single rep. A good first goal to aim for is about ten or fifteen before you call it quits.
Eventually, you should be able to work your way up to getting about thirty or forty of these in before stopping.
#14 Walking Lunges
Keeping your back straight during a walking lunge is controlling your body weight, and using it as resistance for your legs.
Your quads, hamstrings, glutes and even your lower abdominal is all helped by walking lunges.
Standard lunges help as well, but there’s that quick hand-off of engagement and immediate disengagement.
Walking lunges will keep your muscles engaged the entire way through.
If you do any form of cardio, you have a dominant leg. I know that sounds nuts since you need both to run, but you have a dominant one.
You naturally lean on one more than the other. Walking lunges help you target the weaker leg, and build muscle within it.
You’ll immediately know which side takes more out of you, and you can compensate by doing more walking lunges on that side than the other.
#15 Back Bridge
Do you want something that’s going to use your body weight against you? Some real resistance training?
Turn into a table. By that, I mean to do a back bridge.
You don’t have to go crazy yoga instructor with this (yet); just a simple back bridge will engage all the necessary muscle groups in the beginning.
Keep your feet planted firmly, but lean back and lean on your forearms. Make it nice and level.
That’s good. Hold it tight, then recoil (slowly and carefully) to get out of the back bridge.
Work your way up to using your hands instead of your forearms. If you’re thinking, “Aren’t I going to bend like a pretzel?” the answer would be yes, yes you will.
This greatly improves flexibility, which will help you out in other exercises as well. Hold it for as long as you can, keep that core as tight as you can, and release slowly with tact.
Working Out Without Paying for a Gym
You can do all of these at home, and most require no equipment at all.
Get started with these right away, and you’ll be able to see that muscle definition you’ve been dying for.
Bodyweight exercises are some of the most beneficial, and they’re a core of calisthenics.
You can also check out our detailed bodyweight workout plan and guides here and our full, detailed guide to calisthenics to get started with one of the lowest impact workout types available.
Since it doesn’t require much equipment (or any at all, if you find the right information), you can get the perfect blend of strength and lean aesthetics without bulking up too much.