top of page
  • Clem Duranseaud

can you build muscle without weights?

An exercise like the piked push up can help you make traditional push ups tougher, and help you build muscle without weights
Piked push up are a great progression to regular push ups

Building muscle and getting the physique you want is achievable with or without any equipment. We only need to remember how gymnasts look in order to appreciate the potential of this training method.

In this article:

Gymnasts have some of the best developed physiques, without using traditional weightlifting equipment
Gymnasts have some of the best developed physiques in the athletic realm

How we build muscle

To build muscle and get stronger you need to put tension on them. Pick up a dumbbell, do a chest press and that puts your pec muscle under tension. The greater the tension, the more adaptation and the more muscle we build.

Muscle damage and metabolic stress are also two factors that contribute to muscle growth, but since the research seems turbid at best, let's just focus on mechanical tension.

You can quickly see the big advantage of traditional weight lifting equipment for this purpose: lifting heavier objects create more tension. This equipment offers us a very simple progression system. All we have to do to create more tension is to add a little bit more weight.

When we take a look at traditional body weight exercises, the options for progression are more limited.

The main progression people often think about is more reps. If I can do more push ups, I'll build more muscles in my pecs and triceps.

This is true up to a point. Past a certain rep threshold, the stimulus of the exercise will not make your muscles grow. The tension created isn't strong enough to illicit new muscle gains.

It's like thinking that doing more and more chest presses at the same weight will make you stronger.

To create enough mechanical tension, the exercises has to be challenging enough.

Doing 100 body weight squats may create a burning sensation in your legs, but it will not make your quads grow very much.

The trick with body weight training is to find ways to make easy exercises, like a body weight squat, tough enough to make us struggle during less reps.

We just need to get creative.

How to create more tension without weights

It's all about finding new angles.

Understanding how to set up classic body weight moves differently is the best way to regulate the tension you place on your muscles.

Let's take the push up, a quintessential element to any body weight program.

For some of us, doing a full push up is not possible yet, we cannot handle all the tension.

How can we set up differently to place less tension?

Putting our knees down or having a partner assist us on the way up are two possible solution.

How about the reverse? You can easily do 10 full push ups and feel like it's not a challenge anymore. How can you set up the movement to create more tension?

Elevating you feet, using only one arm, putting your hands on books so your chest can go lower and controlling the eccentric part of the movement are ways you can make push ups harder and build more muscle

Challenging muscle groups

Some muscle groups are tougher than others to target, such as you back muscles. For the best results, having access to a pull up bar, or TRX bands will go a long way.

Your hamstrings are also difficult to target. Using a slider or dish clothes to do hamstring curls remains one of the most effective ways to train hamstrings at home.

The ultimate hamstring exercise in my opinion requires no equipment: the dreaded Nordic curls. However they do require a specific set up which is rarely doable at home.

A slider can help us a lot creating more tension in our home workouts
A slider can help us a lot creating more tension in our home workouts. I'm doing a hamstring curl here.

Progression ideas to build muscle without weights

As we have seen, the trick is to find ways to progress not necessarily by doing more and more reps, but by creating more challenging exercises that place more tension on the targeted muscles.

Before progressing to a more challenging exercise variation, make sure:

  1. You can do the current variation very well.

  2. The new variation does not cause any pain. Often time we will set up slightly differently which will place new demands on your joints, so take the time to evaluate if your body is ready for these new demands.

Once you can easily do 15 reps or more of a certain body weight exercise, move on to a more challenging variation.

Keep in mind that jumping from one variation to the next may feel like a huge jump, and that's ok. In the gym, when we want to progress to a heavier weight, we can add 2%-5% more weight by adding the small plates. This gently increase is simply not possible with body weight fitness.

You may only be able to do 2-3 reps of the new exercise, which again, is completely normal. Take your time getting better at it.

Example of progression with from lunges to pistol squats

Power lunge is a great body weight exercise for your home HIIT workouts
Power lunge

Let's say you can comfortably do 20 power lunges on each leg.

The next step could be box pistol squats, where you sit down (on a chair/couch/box) using only one leg.

You notice that is is considerably tougher and can only do 3 sets of 6 reps.

Practice this move until you can do 3 sets of 15.

Then you can move on to full pistol squats.

Pistol squat is a more challenging body weight exercise that you can use to build leg muscle without weights
Pistol squat

You notice again that these are harder than the box one and are back to only doing 3 sets of 5 this time.

Once again, keep practicing those until you can easily do 3 sets of 20.

More ideas

Pre fatigue

Before moving onto a new exercise variation, you could use a pre fatigue protocol to make your current exercise more challenging.

Pre fatigue means that you work you targeted muscle using an easy exercise first and then immediately do your main exercise.

If you can do 15 box pistol squats but don't feel ready for full ones yet, add 20 power lunges before you do your box pistol squats. This will fatigue your leg muscles more and make the box pistol squat more challenging.

Drop sets

A drop set is essentially the reverse of pre fatigue, going from toughest exercise to the easiest.

In this protocol, you could do a set of pistol squat, immediately after do a set of power lunges and finish with a static lunge hold for 30 seconds. Good luck walking after that one.

Super sets

A super is when you do two exercises back to back that target opposite muscle groups.

After doing your pistol squats, go on your back and do hip raises and hamstring curls.

Slowing down the tempo

Performing an exercise slowly will increase it's difficulties and place more tension on your muscles.

If you can do ten normal push ups, try doing ten reps in which you go down for 4 seconds and then come back up for 4 seconds.

There are many different tempo combinations you can try:

  • Going slower on the way down and then quick on the way up

  • Adding pauses in the middle of your reps

  • Going super slow


Creating enough meaningful tension in your muscles using body weight exercises is possible without using weights. You can build a phenomenal muscle and physique without any weights or equipment, we just need to think a little bit differently.

You can use different strategies to make a specific exercise tougher. Pair it with other exercises, add some static holds, slow down your tempo, do pulsing reps, get creative.

Once you can easily do that exercise, find ways to set it up differently in order to make it more challenging.

Happy training,





bottom of page