Good body weight exercises that need minimal/no equipment
March 25, 2015 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for recommendations for body weight exercises I can do at home and on my own schedule that require minimal or no equipment.

I've been doing lots of sit ups and push ups as part of my daily/weekly workout routine. I'm looking to incorporate more body weight exercises that I can do at home and on my own schedule. I've looked around online but can seem to find a selection that a) doesn't require any equipment or b) look too painful or downright impossible to do.

I'm mostly looking high-rep (10 x 3+) exercises that focus on my upper body (arms, chest, back) and core strength. I do enough on my lower body with jogging and cycling. I mostly work out in my basement (with low ceilings) or garage. I'm not looking to build huge muscles, but just get some good exercise with better muscle tone. Thanks!
posted by slogger to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 104 users marked this as a favorite
Check out the Blogilates series of videos. Most require no equipment (or just a pair of 3-5 lb weights). They are rather targeted at the teen-30 something female demographic.
posted by asphericalcow at 10:15 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Planks. Oh my gosh planks.
posted by Sassyfras at 10:29 AM on March 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

It is a bit nerdy, but I enjoy Six to Start's Superhero workout app. And yoga. Planks are also killer.
posted by awesomelyglorious at 10:33 AM on March 25, 2015

Try the videos on for ones that require no equipment and that are level 2 or 3 if you are worried about difficulty.
posted by chaiminda at 10:33 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Burpees. Lots of options for making them worse in that link. You're welcome!

If you need more legs, consider pistols.
posted by ldthomps at 10:34 AM on March 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

Okay, so there are a few things in your post to get through right up front, very common misconceptions.

Firstly: Avoid the use of the word "tone." It's absolutely meaningless really (unless clarified). There are three things a muscle can do appearance-wise: get bigger, get smaller, or stay the same size. There is no "tone."

By "tone" you may mean "make the structure more visible," which would involve shedding the fat around the muscle, which, by the way, would involve shedding fat in your entire body. "Spot reduction" except through liposuction, is a myth. If you want to reduce fat around one part of the body, it means running your body at a calorie deficit, reducing fat overall. Exercising a particular muscle does not "target" that area for fat loss.
So if you want to make your muscles more visible without making them any bigger, the best thing to do would be cardio, actually.

Another HUGE misconception is the "I don't want huge muscles" thing. It is extremely difficult, even for those who know what they're doing and specifically working towards the goal of bigger muscles, to get huge muscles. To do so, you must eat a LARGE caloric surplus involving a ton of protein and lift heavy weights in a specific routine in specific rep ranges. There is no way in heck you are going to get "huge" muscles by doing high rep body weight exercises. They might grow a bit, and you might get stronger/have better endurance, but you will not get "huge" in most cases. There are olympic athletes (like gymnasts that do the olymic rings) that get impressively muscular using mostly bodyweight training, and it is possible to construct a more "bodybuilding" focused bodyweight routine, but in all likelihood you will not get bulky doing what you plan to do.

Speaking of gymnasts and gymnastics, I would look to them for inspiration. The things they can do with their bodies are amazing, and they do a lot of bodyweight exercises to allow them to do so, many of which you can do with no equipment.

Examples include: handstand (or intermediate steps toward it in a "progression," planche (progression), L-sit (progression), etc. Search for "planche progression" etc on google.

Also, for your legs you can work toward pistol (one leg out) squats.

Also, there are tons of yoga poses that are fun and challenging, and could be incorporated into a routine easily (maybe warm up with yoga?)
posted by hypercomplexsimplicity at 10:35 AM on March 25, 2015 [19 favorites]

Nike training club is a free app with about a million work-outs, and it is surprisingly respectable. Some workouts need a medicine ball or dumbbell (or bag of rice/water bottle/some other small weight), but most don't need any equipment at all. I usually go to classes, but when I am away from home I do the Nike routines and they are pretty good.

Convict conditioning gets a lot of mentions on here - it is only six exercises so not much variety but I'm sure it works if you do it regularly.
posted by tinkletown at 10:35 AM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Hollow body progression
L-sit progression

I think (think!) you generally need pull-able equipment for standard arm/shoulder/back improvements, but you can do worse than incline pushups or handstands. If you can work a pull-up bar anywhere in your space, that'll be helpful.
posted by rhizome at 10:36 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

squats, burpees and mountain climbers are all great. There are quite a few variations of each so you can pick and choose depending on your fitness level....but honestly nothing kicked my ass quite like a $20 pull-up bar in a door frame and following a program that got me from 1 or 2 to 20. Hello upper body!

Building "huge muscles" is near impossible with pure body weight exercises, as you plateau eventually. You are really only lifting 70% of your body weight with each push-up, so while great (really great) for getting fit, you aren't going to see huge muscle gains.

The secret to body weight routines is to go HARD for 40 minutes, 3 or 4 times a week (1 day on, 1 day rest). Don't dilly dally, set a program and do it. Short periods of rest between each set.
posted by remlapm at 10:46 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I've seen a few bodyweight exercise questions like this on the green, and I'm still in love with the Sworkit app.
posted by atlantica at 10:47 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the fast responses!

Yes, to clarify on "tone," I guess I do want to build up a some muscle mass, but I am not looking to get ripped. And I'm definitely not looking to bulk up. In fact it's the opposite, I'm looking to shed fat. In fact, I'm down about 40 lbs since I started this a year ago.

Regarding difficult, I do want to get a somewhat strenuous workout, just nothing crazy like one-handed pushups or whatever. And I want to stay away from straining my knees; the jogging already does enough of that.

I have been doing planks, and can get up to about two minutes. But they just seem so stationary that I wonder what effect they're having. I'm not sure about yoga given the confined workout space I have in my basement.

I probably should've added, I'm 42 year old male, 6'2", (now) 225 lbs. Overall I'm in decent shape, except for the sore knees and too much flab.
posted by slogger at 10:54 AM on March 25, 2015

I think most of her stuff is pay, but check out Betty Rocker's free 30-Day Challenge. I did it in January with friends and I'm a little too much of a newbie but I liked them even though they were too hard.

I don't remember needing anything other than a chair and a towel.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:01 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

It is extremely difficult, even for those who know what they're doing and specifically working towards the goal of bigger muscles, to get huge muscles.

I am so glad that someone said this and wish I had more favorites to give it. It is much more common for people to "bulk up" from their diet than their exercise program.

You want /r/bodyweightfitness. It is a very friendly group and a great resource for beginners.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:05 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Seconding Fitness Blender. They have a lot of body weight videos, their search function is great, and most of the content is free.
posted by treachery, faith, and the great river at 11:42 AM on March 25, 2015

Get the Daily Workouts app. You can select upper, lower, full body or cardio programs. I'm not in great shape but I do run and lift and it's a challenge for me.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 11:52 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

If your knees are sore and you're a jogger/runner, then I'd suggest looking at your hips. I went to PT for some acute knee pain, and was "diagnosed" with a generally weak off-hand side along with weak hips. The exercises that she's given me have all been targeting hip/leg/glute, and it's only after 5 appointments that I've been given any exercises which involved any motion of the knee during the exercises.

Google "hip strengthening for runners" and you'll find a bunch of collections of exercises. I started with one-legged standing calf extensions (extend to tip toe, and over a count of 10 slowly and continually descend your heel to the groun) and clam shells, later had front and side leg lifts added. Now the most recent ones are one-legged bridges (which involves some motion of the knee) and a modified front leg lift, where I have a foam roller under my knee, first straighten the leg, and then perform a leg lift (as a given option, I have ankle weights for this one; it hasn't aggravated my knee). All of the exercises involve holding at the high point (generally 3-5 seconds), and then a slow release (3-5 seconds (except the mentioned calf extentions)).

My knee feels better, but I'm currently at 3/5 the weekly mileage that I was at before the pain started. I do find that it's much easier for me to maintain good running form since I've started the exercises. The only times that my knee has started to get sore lately have been when I realize my form is slipping, but for some dumb psych reason keep going as-is rather than locking my brain back on to concentrating on form.
posted by nobeagle at 12:11 PM on March 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I have more complicated suggestions, but the number one priority, by far, is to find yourself a place to do pull-ups. Maybe it's a pull-up bar or swing set at a park down the road that you run to. Maybe you build one from steel pipe and mount it in your garage. Maybe you buy a pull-up bar that mounts on a sturdy doorway. Maybe you make or buy a set of adjustable-strap gymnastics rings so you can do dips and push-ups on it too. But the return on investment is so huge that even when you say you want minimal equipment I feel compelled to recommend pull-ups. If you're not up to full pull-ups then pull-up negatives, assisted pull-ups using a band or some push from your legs on a chair are still awesome.

Other than that: burpees or squat thrusts, dips (with a chair behind you is OK, between two sturdy chairs is better), air squats, lunges, and variations on what you're already doing like one-arm planks and clapping push-ups. Don't shy away from lower-body exercises just because you run—strength training can protect against injuries and help develop you in ways that running can't.

If you want a hand mixing those exercises up in a well-designed circuit and you have an iPhone, maybe check out my app, make tired. It's intended as a supplement to barbell strength training but it'll do the trick.
posted by daveliepmann at 12:17 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Speaking of gymnasts and gymnastics, I would look to them for inspiration.

A good source for well-designed all-around bodyweight exercises (and full workout programs, which are one-time pay but include an incredible amount of textual and video material for designing your own program around your needs) for people who are not bodybuilders or pro athletes is Gold Medal Bodies, designed around the concept of bodyweight training through gymnastic-influenced exercises. The website has tons and tons of free articles and videos; if you like their training philosophy then you can buy a package, which contains enough material that you could work just based on those exercises for years. I've used the Floor One program, which explicitly requires no equipment and assumes you don't have access to a full gym-sized room or a big mat (or any mat at all). Honestly, if you look at the exercises without reading the guides first it might fall into your category of "looks really painful and impossible!" but they really emphasize different ways to work up to things at your own pace and without injury.
posted by C. K. Dexter Haven at 2:44 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

And I want to stay away from straining my knees; the jogging already does enough of that.

I can't speak for you specifically, but it's common for knee pain when running/jumping to be due to weak quads. Running doesn't really strengthen your legs in the way proper leg exercises do. Personally my patella-femoral pain went away when I started working legs at the gym, but obviously YMMV.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 5:11 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I asked a health coach at my university the exact same question recently, and she recommended the 7 minute workout. The only equipment you need is a chair and a wall.
posted by a car full of lions at 7:18 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Pull ups
pull ups pull ups pull ups pull ups.
Seriously, pull ups.

I think they're the single best bodyweight exercise anybody can do. The fact that people who can bench huge amounts of weight still do pull ups just shows what a tough exercise they are. It's easy for people to do ridiculously high reps of pushups, but it's rare for people to be able to do much more than 15-20 pullups (full ROM, dead-hang pullups, not kipping). In fact, a large portion of the population probably can't do a single one.

Yes, it requires a pullup bar, but you can buy one for $30 from Amazon that hangs over your door. I use one in my small NYC apartment.

I like this book Convict Conditioning. Yeah, people hate on it and it is cheesy - the author really hams up the prison stories and makes all sorts of wild claims about bodyweight fitness being better than weights - but ignore all that stuff. The progressions are well-defined and easy to follow.
posted by pravit at 7:58 PM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think they're the single best bodyweight exercise anybody can do.

Arnold agrees.
posted by rhizome at 8:49 PM on March 25, 2015

I have been doing planks, and can get up to about two minutes. But they just seem so stationary that I wonder what effect they're having.

Well, that's the thing with any strength-building exercise: if it starts getting easy, you're no longer building strength. I'd second r/bodyweightfitness --- at least take a look at their FAQ if nothing else. Most body weight routines are built around progression --- if you can easily do three sets of 8 reps of a given exercise, then you need to go up a level and find a way to make it harder, in order to stimulate the muscles to grow. Fortunately, relatively minor changes in body position and leverage can create big differences in difficulty --- like, if you're knocking out push-ups no problem, have you tried diamond push ups? All you do is move you hands in and center the under your chest, making a diamond shape with your thumb and forefingers. Should make the push-ups about 10x harder.

Also, are you doing the other plank variations as well as just planks? Planks are great, but you'll want to add in some side planks and hollow body holds to strengthen the other core muscles.
posted by maggiepolitt at 1:54 PM on March 26, 2015

Foundation 1 from
posted by flutable at 4:48 AM on March 27, 2015

From Stumptuous: Pulling Without Pull-Ups? How to Train Your No Tech Pull
How can you perform upper-body pulling movements without equipment? Let’s break it down into a logical progression.

Two-arm drag (short-arm)
Staggered drag (short-arm)
Two-arm drag (long-arm)
Staggered drag (long-arm)
posted by heatherann at 5:17 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fitness Blender is pretty great--you should check it out. Their workouts are really designed for no equipment and little space. Otherwise, I've been doing weights at a gym, not helpful to you. 38 pounds lost for me, mostly through walking/hiking, diet and some swimming.

We need to catch up in person sometime soon!
posted by fyrebelley at 10:32 PM on March 28, 2015 [1 favorite]

DareBee has it all!
posted by 9000condiments at 11:16 AM on March 29, 2015

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