Can You Build Muscle with Body Weight Only Exercises?

Get-Fit Guy takes a look at these three new resources. Discover whether you can build muscle with body weight only exercises or if you need to actually lift heavy weight to build muscle.

Ben Greenfield
6-minute read
Episode #322

Earlier this summer in How to Build Muscle with Body Weight Exercises, I reported on the results of a new study which showed that simply flexing your muscles the same way as you would if posing in front a mirror, flexing your abs, doing a “front double biceps post,” doing a body weight squat throughout a full range of motion was just as effective as traditional weight training when it came to building muscle.

While I noted that actual strength gains were greater in this study for a loaded weight training scenario versus a non-loaded condition, the research was worth taking a closer look at for anybody not wanting to be limited to using dumbbells, kettle bells, resistance bands, barbells, or machines to build muscle and for folks who instead want a body weight only option.

Now a new “low load, high rep” study has hit the streets, along with a 2017 workout strategy presented by yours truly and an intriguing article from a friend of mine about his own quite positive experience maintaining muscle with body weight only training. In this episode, we’ll take a look at these three new resources, discover whether you can build muscle with body weight only exercises, and find out if you need to actually lift heavy weight to build muscle.

The Newest Study on High Rep, Low Load Training

Let’s first take a look at the study Effects of rest intervals and training loads on metabolic stress and muscle hypertrophy, which was published quite recently. In the study, 20 young athletes who were part of a university gymnastics club volunteered to participate. These athletes had at least a couple years of experience with weight training, and were randomly assigned to a short-rest, low load group that performed 20 repetitions of their exercises with 30 seconds of rest between exercises or a high load, long-rest group that performed 8 repetitions of their exercises with a three minute rest between exercises. Both groups performed the same number of sets and same exercises (for their arm muscles) three times per week for 8 weeks.

They performed each exercise set to failure and used three biceps and three triceps exercises, specifically:

-barbell curl

-preacher curl

-hammer curl

-close grip bench press

-French press

-dumbbell extension

Over the course of the eight weeks, the researchers increased the weight by 10%, whenever the participants could perform more than 20 repetitions (for the low load group) or more than eight repetitions (for the high load group). If you actually do the math, the volume (# of reps x load lifted) was close to identical for each group.

So what did the researchers discover?

First, the high rep, low load protocol produced significantly greater increases in growth hormone. Second, there were long-term extra gains in the muscle cross-sectional areas and muscle thickness in the group that did the light load, high rep training, which was especially surprising when taking into account the fact that muscle size did not increase significantly in the high load training group! So it appears that, when it comes to hypertrophy (increases in muscle size), the low-load, high-rep group with the very short rest period won out.

Now granted, as I noted in my last article on this topic, as you would have expected, only the group that lifted the heavier loads and used the longer rest periods actually showed a significant increase in strength. Nonetheless, this study certainly suggests that training with more reps and lower weight and less rest builds more muscle compared to training with longer rest and more weight (although the latter will boost strength gains more significantly).

Finally, while the participants were not using body weight only exercises, there is a definite physiological crossover here in terms of the highlighting of the fact that you don’t necessarily need to “lift heavy stuff” to build or maintain muscle. You just need to exhaust the muscle.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.