How to Build Muscle with Body Weight Exercises

Delve into the best way to build muscle, even if all you have is just your own body weight.

Ben Greenfield
6-minute read
Episode #296

If you follow me on Twitter, then you may remember a study I mentioned two years ago that reported you can put on muscle just as fast with a high rep, low weight workout of 30% intensity to failure as you can with a low rep, high weight workout with 90% intensity to failure.

Then last year, in How Many Reps Should You Do To Build Muscle?, I reported on a new study showing that when comes to building muscle, it’s not about how heavy you go or how many reps you do; it’s whether or not you lift to failure. This flies in the face of the traditional assumption that lifting super heavy weights for 6-12 reps to failure is the only way to maximize muscle growth and instead shows that if you simply want to build muscle (aka hypertrophy), then grab any weight or body weight, and lift or move that weight until your muscles are fatigued. When it comes to building muscle, your body will know what to do from there.

Now a new study takes this concept of building muscle with body weight exercises to a new level. The study, entitled “The acute and chronic effects of 'NO LOAD' resistance training” shows that simply flexing your muscles (yep, the same way as you would if posing in front a mirror, flexing your abs, biceps, etc) throughout a full range of motion was just as effective as traditional weight training when it comes to building muscle. While it’s important to note that actual strength gains were greater in this study for high load condition compared to the no load condition, this research is definitely worth taking a closer look at if you don’t want to be limited to using dumbbells, kettle bells, resistance bands, barbells, or machines to build muscle and instead want a body weight only option.

The Body Weight Only Workout

The purpose of this study was to remove the influence of an external load and determine if muscle growth could be elicited by maximally contracting a non-loaded muscle through a full range of motion, for three training sessions per week for a total of six weeks. In addition, the acute physiologic and perceptual response to each stimulus (load vs no load) was also investigated. The exercise used in the research was a “unilateral elbow flexion exercise.”, which is basically a fancy name for a bicep curl or a bicep contraction. Each arm was designated to either “no load” or “high load” condition, with high load being 70% one repetition maximum and no load simply involved repeatedly contracting the arm as hard as possible through a full range of motion without the use of an external load. In both cases, EMG biofeedback was used to encourage participants to flex as hard as possible throughout the exercise.

The no load group  performed 4 sets of 20 reps of arm flexion and arm extension, with 30 seconds rest time in between sets. The high load group performed a dumbbell curl with 70% of 1RM for 4 sets of 8-12 reps with 90 seconds rest in between sets. Each week, extra weight and intensity was added as necessary.

So what did the results show? There was a significant increase in muscle thickness and size from pre-test to post-test over the course of six weeks, but no difference in this thickness or size between the no load vs. the high load condition, and researchers concluded that “these results extend previous studies that have observed muscle growth across a range of external loads and muscle actions and suggest that muscle growth can occur independent of an external load provided there are enough muscle fibers undergoing mechanotransduction.”

So basically, as long as sufficient tension is produced, contracting a muscle through the full range of motion, even with no external load or weight, increases muscle size comparable to high load training. However, high load training produces larger increases in actual muscle strength and muscle endurance compared to no load training.

How Body Weight Training Works

So how does this type of training work? It all begins with isometrics. The term "isometrics," which combines the Greek words “isos” (“equal” or “same”) and “metron” (“distance” or “measure”), refers to a muscle contraction without any visible movement in the angle of the joint.  This is in contrast to traditional moving “isotonic” contractions, in which your muscle length and joint angle change throughout the exercise.


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.