Can You Build Muscle Without Weights? Yes — Here's How
With at-home workouts becoming more popular and practical, many are wondering how to build muscles without weights? Well, we've got your back. Or, in this case, your entire physique.
Intuitively, most people figure weightlifting is the only way to bulk up and pack on lean body mass, but you don’t need barbell bench presses just to build a bigger chest or barbell squats to build muscular legs.
In fact, lifting weights isn’t a necessity for building muscles. You can build plenty of muscle through other types of training (and proper nutrition, of course).
This article will explain how muscle growth works and how to design a full-body workout to build muscle without weights. We will also share what to include in your diet to develop bigger muscles over time.
How Do Muscles Grow?
Muscle-building, or “skeletal muscle hypertrophy” in scientific circles, occurs when protein synthesis is greater than protein breakdown in the tissue of muscle groups. This leads to a positive net protein turnover that translates into additional muscle mass.
But, what are the exact mechanisms behind muscle growth? A 2010 review published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research outlines three requisites for muscle-building:
1. Mechanical Tension
Mechanical tension is imperative for muscle growth. When you're performing a calisthenics exercise, like a bodyweight squat, your muscles lengthen in the eccentric phase (e.g., the downward movement of the squat), which produces passive mechanical tension.
When paired with the active tension in the concentric phase of the same exercise (e.g., the upward movement of the squat), the overall mechanical tension contributes to a greater muscle-building effect.
As long as sufficient mechanical tension is placed on muscle tissue, equipment-free strength training, resistance training, and calisthenics exercises can build muscles. Hence, weights are not a requirement for mechanical tension.
2. Muscle Damage
Another key factor in building muscles is causing microscopic tears (“microtears”) in the tissues of your body muscles, releasing more growth factors for damage repair.
The area at the neuromuscular junction (where the neuron intersects with the muscle fiber to create muscular contractions) is rich in satellite cells, which are stem cells of skeletal muscle. Since satellite cells regulate muscle growth and repair, any damage that occurs at the neuromuscular junction will invariably activate satellite cells and promote muscle growth.
3. Metabolic Stress
In high-intensity exercises like plyometrics, fast-twitch muscle fibers use anaerobic metabolism to create quick, explosive moves. One benefit of anaerobic respiration is it gives rise to high levels of metabolic stress and lactate accumulation to stimulate muscle-building.
While anaerobic training is emphasized here, it's also prudent to incorporate aerobic exercises in your workout routine, so you get the synergistic benefits of concurrent training.
For instance, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) leverages short bursts of intense cardio to push your heart rate to at least 80-90% of its maximum capacity for more than four minutes. With these intense adaptations, aerobic exercises essentially become anaerobic to help you build muscles more efficiently.
Can You Build Muscle Without Weights Through Exercise?
Yes, it's possible to build muscles without weights through your workouts.
That's because bodyweight training, a form of resistance training and strength training, is well-known to increase muscle mass.
A 2010 study published in PLOS One highlighted that low-load, high-volume resistance training (ex., high-rep bodyweight exercises) is actually more effective for muscle-building than high-load, low-volume resistance training (ex., heavy weight-lifting).
Using your body weight as a source of “resistance” is a great substitute for free weights like a barbell or dumbbell. Plus, bodyweight exercises induce all three muscle-building mechanisms — mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress.
However, muscle-building through bodyweight training isn't as simple as performing the exercises. It's also about progressive overload: Gradually increasing the intensity and difficulty of each bodyweight exercise to exert greater demands on your muscles over time.
This prevents your muscle groups from becoming too comfortable with the training routine. By continually challenging your body muscles to do more, you provide them with the perfect stimulus to overcome the plateau towards greater muscle growth.
To get the most out of your bodyweight workouts for increased muscle mass, we've put together a list of tips:
1. Increase Your Training Volume
Increasing your training volume is an effective way to progressively overload your muscle groups. A 2019 study in The Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise supports this theory — subjects that did more resistance training (five sets per exercise in each session) had greater muscle growth than those who trained at a low or moderate volume.
You can easily do the same by performing more sets of calisthenics in one session or increasing the number of resistance training sessions per week. Note: It's best to increase your training frequency at a moderate pace to prevent overtraining.
2. Slow Down for the Eccentric Movement
Slowing down is highly recommended for the eccentric phase of an exercise. A 2005 study in The American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism explained that eccentric movements are linked to a faster rise in protein synthesis than concentric movements in resistance training.
In other words, slowing down when you lower into a split squat or from a pull-up bar boosts your chances for greater muscle growth. Adding a hold to the eccentric movement will also place more metabolic stress on your body muscles, a key factor for bulking.
3. Try Different Variations
It's normal for your body to get used to the exercises over time. Maybe the bodyweight squat no longer feels as challenging as before, and pull-ups are just routine movements now.
This is the perfect time to introduce different variations of the same exercises. The increased difficulty of your workout will act as a form of progressive overload, so you continue to challenge your muscle groups. It will also increase mechanical tension and microtrauma in the tissue of your body muscles to stimulate further growth.
To add different variations to your body workout routine, you can:
- Change the angle of the exercise: Doing the same exercise from a different angle is a great way to target underdeveloped muscle groups for a balanced physique and improved strength. For instance, try a decline push-up (place your feet on an elevated surface, so your body points downward) instead of a standard push-up.
- Include single-side exercises: To really engage your muscles, single-side exercises are the way to go. The pistol squat (placing all your weight on one leg) is a popular alternative to the bodyweight squat. Or, skip the regular push-up and challenge yourself to a one-arm push-up.
4. Use Bodyweight Exercises Strategically
If you want to bulk up your upper body, it makes sense to group upper-body exercises together so you can achieve progressive overload in the same session. Combine regular push-ups with diamond push-ups or pull-ups with chin-ups to target your upper body muscle groups, such as the triceps, biceps, chest, and upper back.
Similarly, the best exercises for your lower body include bodyweight squats, split squats, step-ups, and lunges to work your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. By pushing your lower body muscle groups to exhaustion, the resulting muscle fatigue produces metabolic stress that's needed for muscle-building.
5. Make Your Exercises Plyometric
Plyometrics are some of the best bodyweight exercises for building muscle mass. You can easily turn regular exercises into plyometric ones. For instance:
- Transition from a squat to a squat jump: Lower into the bodyweight squat position, then push your feet off the ground in an upward, explosive movement. Land in the same pose as your starting position.
- Change from a lunge to a lunge jump: Lower into the standard lunge position with your left foot in front. Jump up and switch your legs, so you land softly with your right foot in front.
Or, include a few sets of plyometric exercises to get your heart rate pumping. Some examples include jumping jacks, high-knees, and burpees. If you aren't sure how to redesign your body workout routine, consult a personal trainer.
6. Take Shorter Rest Times
According to a recent study featured in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, taking shorter breaks between sets creates greater metabolic stress, which is essential for muscle growth.
Shorter rest intervals of 60 seconds give your muscles just enough time to recover, ensuring your performance doesn't decline in the next set.
Can You Build Muscle Without Weights Through Your Diet?
Besides bodyweight training, your diet can help accelerate muscle growth too. All you need is a balanced diet of proteins, carbs, and fats — a 2012 study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine suggests the ideal diet for increased muscle mass should include "55-60% carbohydrate, 25-30% protein and 15-20% of fat."
That's because dietary protein provides the amino acids your body needs for muscle growth after an intense body workout. Complex carbohydrate and healthy fat sources like sweet potato and avocado ensure your muscles have enough energy to push through demanding resistance training.
While you can get your recommended daily intake of nutrients through whole foods, adding the right supplement can further maximize your muscle growth. Below, we share the best ingredients that are scientifically proven for boosting muscle mass.
1. Whey Protein
Whey protein is the cornerstone of any muscle-building regimen — it's easily digestible for faster absorption and provides all the necessary amino acids for protein synthesis in your body muscles.
That's why we recommend Transparent Labs ProteinSeries 100% Grass-Fed Whey Protein Isolate. Containing one of the industry’s highest protein-by-weight ratios at 88% (28 grams of protein per 32-gram scoop), our whey protein is free from hormones, steroids, artificial sweeteners, food dyes, gluten, and preservatives. Take it before and after your workout for maximum muscle growth.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) are another popular supplement for building muscle mass. Containing the three essential amino acids — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — BCAAs promote muscle growth by activating muscle protein synthesis.
This amino acid supplement also reduces muscle breakdown and hastens muscle recovery, which allows for more intense body workouts and quicker muscle-building.
There are several Transparent Labs products with BCAAs, such as the PreSeries BULK Pre-Workout (4 grams of BCAAs) and the CoreSeries BCAA Glutamine, which contains 8 grams of 2:1:1 BCAAs in each serving. BCAAs are best taken about 20-30 minutes before your workout, during exercise, and after training.
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance present in your body muscles. Creatine monohydrate, in particular, is arguably the most thoroughly studied sports supplement.
A 2017 meta-analysis published in the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine says creatine supplementation in conjunction with resistance training may enhance energy (ATP) reserves and amplify muscle-building pathways, resulting in greater increases in muscle mass and strength.
To reap these benefits, consider using a creatine supplement after your resistance training workouts. The StrengthSeries Creatine HMB is made with 5 grams of Creapure® creatine monohydrate for supporting muscle mass, strength, and endurance.
It's Easy to Build Muscles Without Weights
In summary, building muscles without weights isn't just possible — it's pretty easy to achieve.The trick is to focus on bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups for resistance training or strength training. Your workout routine should also follow a progressive overload structure. Lastly, consuming the right foods and supplements is crucial for building muscles without weights, no matter how hard you train.