Workout At Home – How To Build Muscle Without Weights

(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think many people will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)

QUESTION: I no longer have access to a gym, and I don’t have the space or money to make one at home. Will I still be able to build muscle without weights or any special equipment? Or am I just totally screwed?

ANSWER: Whenever someone asks me about building muscle at home without a gym (or significant equipment or even the bare minimum of free weights), my first response is a question of my own… why?

I mean, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that this isn’t exactly a great scenario for someone trying to build muscle to be in, so my first goal is always to try to solve whatever the big issue is that’s preventing things from being more ideal.

Can’t you find a way to get to a gym? Can’t you maybe cut down on iPhone app purchases and put that money towards a gym membership? Can’t you throw out some of the crap sitting in your basement or garage and get yourself some free weights?

In very rare cases, these questions strike a chord with the person and the big issue gets solved and their muscle building scenario is instantly improved. But much more often, the answer to all of the above is a big NO. And in that case, they’re stuck in this obviously less-than-ideal situation.

And that brings us back to their original question…

Can You Build Muscle At Home Without Weights? YES! But…

The good news is that the answer to this question is definitely yes. You CAN workout at home and STILL build muscle without all of the fancy equipment most gyms contain. Adding a lack of free weights on top of this certainly doesn’t help matters, but even still… it can be done.

The bad news however is that it’s going to be much more inconvenient, significantly trickier and just a whole lot harder overall. Here’s why…

How To Build Muscle: The Primary Requirements

Building muscle mostly requires 2 fundamental principles.

  1. Applying progressive overload in an environment capable of stimulating growth. (Meaning, getting stronger using an intelligently designed workout routine.)
  2. Having a diet capable of supporting growth. (Meaning, above all else, consuming a sufficient amount of calories and protein.)

As long as both principles are in place correctly, consistently and long enough for it to actually work… muscle will be built.

Great Tools vs Good Tools vs Crappy Tools

Now, you may have noticed that I didn’t mention gym memberships anywhere in those requirements, nor did I mention free weights, machines or equipment of any kind.

That’s because none of that is what builds muscle. They just tend to be the best tools for the job.

Not just in terms of actually allowing you to do the exercises that will effectively train each muscle group and provide the growth stimulus you need, but also in terms of how you’ll then increase the load on those exercises so that progressive overload can continue to happen.

That’s why gyms are filled with dumbbells from 5lbs to 100lbs+ in 5lb increments, barbells and plates from as small as 2.5lbs to as big as 45lbs (also in 5lb increments), benches that can adjust to every angle, racks that can accommodate any exercise, cable columns and various machines for every muscle group and movement pattern whose resistance can also be adjusted in small increments with as little effort as pushing a pin into a different slot.

So I’m not going to lie to you here. If you want to build muscle, all of the above is going to be the best and most efficient way of doing it. Without some of it, you may just be at a tiny disadvantage. But without all of it, you’re going to be at a huge disadvantage.

But like I said before, it can still be done. There are plenty of different tools that can be used for this job (building muscle), and even the worst tool in the toolbox can usually get the job done assuming it’s used properly.

So… What Can You Do?

For starters, you have one great piece of equipment at home whether you know it or not… your own body weight. With it (and a little ingenuity), you’ll be able to do all kinds of exercises. Off the top of my head…

  • Push-ups (and its many variations).
  • Pull-ups (and its many variations).
  • Inverted rows.
  • Dips.
  • Handstand push-ups.
  • Body weight biceps curls.
  • Body weight triceps extensions.
  • Lunges (and its many variations).
  • Squats.
  • Split squats/Bulgarian split squats.
  • Pistol squats.
  • Single leg Romanian deadlifts.
  • Body weight leg curls.
  • etc.

Now that is by no means meant to be a complete list of body weight exercises. You’ll find a bunch of others if you search around.

But, this alone is enough to get the job done. There are enough exercises on this list for you to put together an effective muscle building routine that can be done at home with no real weights or expensive gym equipment of any kind. Hooray for your own body weight!

Add in something as basic as bands on top of this, and you can now do dozens of other exercises too (band rows, band pull-downs, band presses, band front/lateral raises, band curls, band triceps extensions, etc.).

So as far as exercises go, you’re fine. That’s the good news. Now for the less-good news…

Progression Will Be Tricky, But It Can Be Done

Progressing at these exercises (the #1 requirement of muscle growth) can be tough, especially as you get stronger. After all, your body weight isn’t instantly adjustable. You can’t just add 5lbs and progress to the next weight like you can with a barbell or dumbbells.

Fortunately, this won’t be much of an issue early on, as there are 2 great ways around this.

The first is progressing from an easier exercise to a harder one (e.g. from assisted pull-ups to body weight pull-ups). That’s perfect. After that, progressing in reps is awesome. For example, if you can only do 3 sets of 5 on some exercise, you can gradually work up to 3 sets of 12.

But at a certain point, you’re going to run out of harder exercise variations to move on to, and you can only add reps for so long before you end up training more for muscle endurance rather than muscle growth.

So what do you do then? Well, you either keep doing what you’re doing and never get stronger or build any more muscle, or you come up with a way to add some resistance. For example…

  • There are weighted vests.
  • There are pull-up/dip belts.
  • There are progressively ‘heavier’ bands.
  • There are rings, TRX, Jungle Gym XT and other similar products.
  • There’s Never Gymless.
  • There are semi-affordable and easily adjustable dumbbell sets designed for saving space.

Depending on the specific exercise, there is almost always going to be some way to make it harder, add some weight to it or just increase the tension in some way so progressive overload can continue to take place and muscle can continue to be built.

You just need to make an effort to figure that way out for each exercise you’re doing and actually put it into action. This is key.

If you don’t, you’ll end up like most of the people who work out at home without much in the way of free weights or special equipment… forever stuck in the same spot doing the same stuff with nothing new to show for it for the rest of their lives.

Fun!

What About The Workouts I Design? Can They Be Done At Home?

Between The Muscle Building Workout Routine, The Beginner Routine, and the collection of programs that make up The Best Workout Routines, I’ve probably gotten around 30-40 emails in the last year or so from people who work out at home with varying degrees of equipment.

Some have a full size rack, adjustable bench, hundreds of pounds of free weights and even a gym-quality leg press (lucky bastard!). Others have a few dumbbells and a pull-up bar. And others have nothing whatsoever.

And they all ask the same thing… can these workouts still be done effectively?

The answer obviously depends on exactly what the person has to work with. But if I had to guess, I’d say 99% of the time, every single thing that needs to be done can either be done at home with whatever the person has OR it can be easily substituted with another similar exercise.

Why Are You Looking For “At-Home Workouts” Anyway?

And this is why I don’t really design “home workouts.” I design effective workouts.

If you happen to train at home with limited equipment, then it’s really just a matter of adapting things to your needs and making whatever exercise adjustments you need to make (this is significantly easier than you may think) to end up doing your own closest version.

And this, technically speaking, makes EVERY workout a potential “home workout.”

(P.S. If you’re using any of the workouts in The Best Workout Routines and think there are exercises you might be unable to do, just send me an email and tell me what equipment you have and what exercises you can’t do. I’ll gladly recommend perfectly suitable and equally effective replacements like I’ve done for others already.)

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42 Comments

  1. Rod says

    I was actually thinking about how you can almost endlessly add difficulty to bodyweight exercises i think it is possible if we look at gymnasts and the stuff they do eg the rings or on the other hand one handed chin ups as examples those would take a while to accomplish

    • says

      Agreed. Although, it’s pretty safe to assume the average person will never progress to doing 1 arm chins. But there are plenty of slightly more realistic examples like this with body weight exercises.

  2. Dreas says

    I never thought about building muscle exercising at home only to stay in shape.
    Although, I weighed 155lb. at 6’0″, I was in the best shape of life.

    • says

      There’s a surprising amount of progress that can be made at home with the absolute bare minimum of space/equipment. People sometimes seem to prefer to use this as an excuse rather than push it to its limits.

  3. Mohamad Atef says

    I think the p90x is beneficial with soemone trying to workout at home with no equipment. I do not mean the routine itself (because it sucks, IMO), but the exercises.

  4. Tom McDipp says

    Hi, your website is truly amazing and I feel enlightened having read sound advice on all your articles. Just one quick question: You say that bodyweight exercises are hard to implement progressive overload even with variations and I agree but could you decrease your leverage from the ground once you have mastered things like pushups and if so, how effective would it be in makin you work harder? Thanks in advance

  5. Amit says

    Hi,

    I read the articles and advise in the site and I found your advise very sound and practical. I am doing on and off exercise from last few years. I was doing few mistakes .I will follow your advise given by you. I have a query. If taking whey protein supplement for longer period say 1 year or more is harmful for the body. My height is 6.2 feet and weight is 85.Really amazed to read this wonderful website:)

    • says

      As long as your overall protein intake isn’t insanely high and you have no issues digesting whey, then there’s nothing wrong with taking whey for however long you want. It’s like asking if drinking milk for longer than a year is harmful.

  6. Gerardo says

    Do you think that taking a break from weight training and doing a program such as P90X, Insanity, or Rushfit (bodyweigth and a lot of cardio) to increase stamina or to cut would have a negative impact on muscle? in other words, do you think you would actually lose some muscle if you run one of these programs at slight caloric deficit?

    • says

      If you were previously training with a typical intelligently designed weight training program where you were lifting heavy (for you) amounts of weight… and you then take away that heavy training stimulus and replace it with p90x… and create a deficit… yeah, you’re probably gonna lose some muscle.

      • Gerardo says

        That’s what I thought. And that is why I will try your lose fat + keep muscle routine instead. I bought your book about a year ago and it is my Bible when it comes to training.

        I am planning on cutting calories by 20% from maintenance. Do you recommend doing some cardio on my off days? I am thinking 30 min of LISS or something like that.

        • says

          Cardio for fat loss mostly depends on how you’re setting that 20% deficit. If you’re doing it just fine through diet alone (and you like it that way), then really no cardio is needed. However, if you need or would prefer to use cardio to help set that deficit, then feel free. Just don’t do tons of it, especially at a high intensity. Tends to cut into weight training recovery.

        • says

          Not really relevant. Higher rep ranges being beneficial for growth (which is something bodybuilders have known decades) is different than replacing a really heavy strength training stimulus with a really light strength training stimulus and expecting it to work equally well for maintaining muscle in a deficit.

          Not gonna happen.

  7. Anthony Noto says

    I have a pinched nerve in my neck and lifting weights is what aggravates it so I need help. I still want to train and build muscle but I think weights are out of the question so what do I do now?

  8. RhythmicProgression says

    Could I create progression by gradually increasing speed?

    For example, have a metronome at BPS x first and then do pull-ups in that rhythm. Then, when I need to increase the load, I would use BPS >x.

    It sounds feasible to me, because you do need more force to move the same mass faster, don’t you? Hence, the increased load.

  9. Zack says

    Hi there,

    For my situation I have followed your routine for a month but now due to some reason I will be at a place that is very far from a gym (more than 40km)

    My goal is looks related btw

    At home I have two dumbells (10kg)

    How can I substitute exercises workout A and B version 2 beginner routine?

    Thank you

  10. Fatso says

    Just wanted to give you a perspective of someone who will not go anywhere near a gym within a ten mile radius:

    The reason why I would want to do a workout at home is primarily because I feel extremely uncomfortable in a gym. It repels me to the point of just wanting to pack everything and go back home. I have two expired gym memberships to prove it… each time, I only went there once.

    I don’t want people to look at me while I work out. It breaks all the courage I would have mustered to get myself to exercise. I’m obese and female, so it makes it ten times worse that there are usually very fit muscular men and/or very athletic attractive women. Also I’m very very awkward when it comes to learning new exercises, and it doesn’t help that everyone else is doing their thing with no probs.

    • says

      This is a very common perspective. The only real advice I can offer is that once you’re there doing things regularly for a bit, it all becomes less and less of an issue.

  11. Anoop Shukla says

    @AWorkoutRoutine
    hi,i have been recently diagnosed with CERVICAL SPONDYLOSIS.Actually i had injured my neck a few years back and had a few problems like stiffness and a slight pain at some particular angles,which i kept on ignoring….BUT the problem recently surfaced after MY upper back routine…It was perfectly o.k. and i had finished my workout on the lat pull down machine,went back from the gym and was planning my SUNDAY,however the next day i started feeling a pressure on the back of my neck and i knew that the old injury had come back.
    However i am feeling much better now, as i do my neck and upper back physio therapy exercises every morning ,as suggested by the Doc.
    However the Doc. suggested me to carry on with weight training, but i think, i need to first develop and strengthen my upper back ,shoulders and arms [Without weights,so as not to put undue load on my injury] and then think of returning to gym, say after an year.

    In the process of searching workouts that could be performed without weights,i came across this forum.
    I would like your opinion on what i am planning to do ie. [workout without weights at home for an year,build suitable upper back and shoulder strength,which would help in SHARING THE LAOD on my spine,thus fatiguing it lesser And then try to return to the gym]

    Please do suggest the links where i could get the detailed version of Working out upper back and shoulders without weights,if possible with videos.
    Regards,
    Anoop Shukla

  12. Kevin says

    I am 5 foot 9 at 140 pounds and an athlete. I started pushups, pull ups, and crunches recently for the first time. For the first week, the soreness I felt was so bad I thought I had injured myself. That was 2-3 weeks ago. Now, even after doing more reps and sets and improving form, I don’t even feel remotely sore. I like to think that feeling sore is a sign of progress and effectiveness. What can I do?

      • Kevin says

        I understand the pump and soreness now. Now I want weight progression. I do about 5 sets of 15 pushups (with slow, controlled motion), and I don’t think it is hard enough for me anymore. I don’t have a weight vest, but I do have two 10lb dumbells. Is there any way (not necessarily using dumbbells) that I can begin weight progression?

  13. Yumen says

    will training to failure on body weight exercises affect my ability to increase my endurance on exercises like dips push ups pullups? for weights i know training till failure will cut into your recovery and strength gains but how does it differ when training in 30+ reps

    • says

      Failure will have similar effects on your body regardless of whether it’s on a body weight exercise or a free weight exercise.

      Exactly how that ties into endurance specific training is honestly not an area I have much experience with.

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