There’s a common misconception among people looking to get stronger and fitter that you need to lift heavy weights to build strength.
I’ve been a personal trainer for over ten years, and I can tell you that this just isn’t true. Although weights can be one way to get stronger, you don’t need to be constantly adding plates to the barbell to build strength and power.
If you want a high-level example of this, just look at gymnasts. Gymnasts have some of the highest strength-to-weight ratios of any athletes, and they rely mostly on their own bodyweight to build their Herculean levels of strength.
In my own training, I rarely use weights. When I do, I never lift heavy. For years, my workouts have consisted of variations of pull-ups, push-ups, single-leg squats, sprints, and plyometrics — and I’m pretty strong, especially as someone who never identified as an athlete growing up. My clients’ workouts are similar. The main reason I’ll add weights to their workouts is for variety, not because they need weights to build strength and fitness.
Bodyweight exercises have several notable benefits:
- They’re functional, better mimicking real-life movements than machine exercises
- They help prevent injuries and are easier on your body over a lifetime of workouts
- They’re portable — you can do bodyweight exercises whether you’re in a hotel room, nearby park, or your tiny apartment
For those of us who like to keep life simple, bodyweight workouts also act as the perfect minimalist workout.
There’s so much you can do using your own bodyweight, and if you have access to a pull-up bar and a couple of resistance bands, you have enough to challenge yourself for a lifetime of workouts.
The Minimalist Bodyweight Strength Workout
This is a time-efficient full-body workout that will help you build functional strength. To do it, you’ll need access to a pull-up bar and ideally a couple of resistance bands. You really can do a similar workout a few times a week for the rest of your life and get pretty dang strong.
To do it, perform three rounds as a circuit:
10 squat jumps
10 split squats
10 glute bridges
10 hanging knee raises
These are just starting rep counts so you’ll need to adjust based on your current fitness level. Aim for a number that’s challenging but doesn’t leave your form falling apart by the last rep.
As you get stronger, you can increase the reps or add resistance bands or weight to any of the exercises.
Do this workout two to four times a week with at least one day in between. Try to be active outside of your workouts, as well — go for walks, engage in your favorite sport or activity, or go play at the park with your kids, nieces, or dogs. All daily movement adds up to help you create an active, healthy lifestyle.
Some notable benefits of this workout:
- Because it’s mainly bodyweight-based, it travels well. All you need is access to a pull-up bar.
- Each exercise can easily be modified to decrease or increase the challenge level.
- The combination of exercises effectively works your entire body.
- It gets your heart rate up while also building strength.
Variations and Modifications
Directions: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your core engaged and chest facing forward as you squat down then explode up. Naturally swing your arms to help you gain momentum.
When performing a squat jump, really focus on the explosive jump up.
Make it easier: Remove the jump and do bodyweight squats instead. As you get stronger, you can also add a mini jump at the top position of the squat.
Make it more challenging: The magical quality of plyometric exercises like squat jumps is that you can always make them more difficult by working to increase your explosiveness. Another way to add challenge is to hold a pair of dumbbells or loop a resistance band around your feet and shoulders while you jump.
Directions: Grip a pull-up bar with your hands facing either away from you or toward you (the chin-up grip with your hands facing toward you will be easier for most people). From the hanging position, engage your core, squeeze your lats, and pull yourself up so that your chest is touching the bar. Extend all the way down until your arms are straight and your elbows are locked, fighting against momentum.
Pull-ups are a foundational pulling exercise that work all the muscles in your back, upper, body, and core.
Make it easier: There are several effective ways of building up to a pull-up:
- Horizontal rows: You can do these using a horizontal bar or TRX.
- Bent over rows: Use a resistance band or weights for this.
- Eccentric pull-ups: Start at the top hold position, then lower yourself as slowly as you can, fighting gravity the entire way. Aim for at least a ten-second negative.
Make it more challenging: Do more reps. Alternatively, you can squeeze a weight between your legs or wear a weight vest. Explosive pull-ups or muscle ups are another way to increase the challenge.
Directions: Stand roughly two feet in front of a bench or sturdy chair with your feet hip-width apart. Pick up one foot and rest it on the bench behind you. Keep your chest high and engage your core as you lower down. Squeeze your glute on your standing leg as you stand back up and keep your core tight.
Split squats are an essential lower body exercise that help build unilateral strength while also working your balance.
Make it easier: Skip the feet elevated option and do split squats with both feet on the floor instead.
Make it more challenging: Hold a pair of dumbbells or loop a resistance band under your standing foot, holding it at your shoulders. Alternatively, you can do jump lunges or feet elevated jump lunges.
Directions: Lie down with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground. Your arms can rest by your side. Lift your hips off of the ground as you thrust into the air. Really squeeze at the top to get the most out of the exercise. You can pause briefly before lowering back down.
Glute bridges help build stability and strength in your glutes. They’ll also result in a stronger back, better posture, less injuries, and better overall performance.
Make it more challenging: There are endless ways to increase the challenge with these. It’s currently the trend to do heavy hip thrusts with a barbell, but you really don’t need to add hundreds of extra pounds to this exercise to get benefits from it. Some ways to increase the challenge are:
- Do single leg hip thrusts. You can also add a mini band to these.
- Hold a medicine ball, kettlebell, or weight of any sort on your hips as you do them.
- Elevate your feet.
- March. Keep your hips high as you slowly march one foot after the other.
Hanging Knee Raises
Directions: Grip a pull-up bar with your hands about shoulder-width apart. From hanging, bend your knees and slowly tuck them up toward your chest. You should really feel your lower abs engaging as you curl up as far as you can. Squeeze at the top before lowering back to hanging with control.
Hanging knee raises are an effective way to strengthen your abs and hip flexors.
Make it easier: To make these easier, skip the bar and lie on the ground instead. Perform slow curl up crunches or bent knee v-up variations to build up strength.
Make it more challenging: If you do them correctly (meaning you avoid using momentum and just focus on the slow curl up), hanging knee raises should be challenging to even those with a super strong core. However, you can add even more of a challenge by straightening your legs and doing hanging leg raises (ending in an L-sit) or toes to bar (reaching your feet all the way up to the pull-up bar) instead. Windshield wipers are another challenging variation.
For more workouts like this one, check out the 12 Minute Athlete app.