The name of the game is to max out muscle mass and reach superhuman levels of shred. But can you build muscle without weights? Or is the iron game the only way to carve out slabs of insane mass?
You might be on the road so much that regular gym visits are getting difficult. Maybe you want to etch out a physique like a gymnast or calisthenic wizard, or you just haven’t built up that confidence to swagger into the local iron house and mix it with the big guys yet.
Either way, you’re here because you want to know if you can build muscle without weights. And that’s where we come in.
Get ready to be taken on a journey of science, gains and building muscle without weights….
Muscle Building Science
To truly understand whether you can build muscle without weights you have to go hard on the science of muscle hypertrophy.
You don’t need to get so balls deep into the research that you risk having a stroke from the weight of physiology bombs on your brain.
But what you do need is a good understanding of the process of muscle growth. Then you can apply the principles of getting jacked to any type of training – whether it’s to build muscle without weights, or with them.
The stimulus adaptation cycle of training
Building muscle is pretty simple. Okay, it’s complicated as f*ck on a cellular level, but the actual act of stimulating muscle growth is pretty straightforward.
Your body likes to hover around a zone it calls homeostasis. The human body is pretty lazy and doesn’t like to adapt from what it considers to be a nice, comfortable body composition unless you force it to.
In order to make your body pack on sheets of lean muscle, you have to give it a wake up call. And that’s where resistance training comes in.
When you present your body with an overload (a resistance that the muscle isn’t accustomed to) it creates a stimulus.
If that stimulus occurs on a regular enough basis, your body adapts to protect itself. This adaptation process is relative to the type of stimulus.
So if you run loads, your body adapts by becoming more efficient with its heart and lungs. If you stretch frequently you get more flexible. And if you take part in resistance training you get stronger and grow more muscle.
Mechanical tension is key to muscle growth
We’ve spoken about the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy is detail before. But here’s a slightly condensed version of what happens.
In order to spark of the stimulus for muscle growth, you have to give your body the right trigger.
No stimulus, no adaptation.
When you take part in resistance training your muscles use in-built mechanosensors to register mechanical tension.
It’s not so much what type of equipment you use to provide this tension, it’s more about how much you present it with.
If tension hits a certain threshold, these sensors tell your body to begin a signalling process that causes various anabolic hormones and enzymes to rush to the muscle and begin a growth process. Train frequently enough and this signalling process will lead to some decent amount of muscle gain.
If tension doesn’t reach that threshold, the signalling process doesn’t begin and no new muscle is built.
Bro Point: Muscle growth begins when muscle fibers detect mechanical loading and trigger anabolic signalling pathways that result in the growth of new muscle cells.
Progressive overload is important
Remember we said earlier that your body is lazy? Well it is. It’s like an unemployed stoner teenager living in his mom’s basement looking at porn all day.
You want it to do something, you have to force it.
If you provide your muscles with the same level of mechanical tension over and over for weeks and weeks it’ll eventually adapt to it. You’ll get stronger and you’ll grow a bit of muscle too.
But once your body has adapted, it will just maintain. That mechanical stimulus is no longer challenging, and therefore your mechanosensors aren’t as forthright in signalling muscle growth.
This is why dudes that do the same workout day-in, day-out never make true gains.
That’s where progressive overload comes in.
In order to keep forcing your body to grow muscle you have to present it with a stimulus that it’s unaccustomed to – you have to keep triggering those mechanosensors.
Progressive overload is one of the fundamental principles of exercise. it simply refers to adding more weight, reps or sets to an exercise to make it more challenging than it’s current tolerance levels.
It all comes down to maintaining a challenging volume load. And it’s essential for muscle growth.
Bro Point: if you aren’t progressively overloading a muscle it’ll not continue to hypertrophy. You need to add load, reps or sets to continue triggering anabolic growth processes.
So, Can You Build Muscle Without Weights?
Like most things in the glorious world of bodybuilding, the answer is ‘it depends’.
Yes, you can get jacked without iron forgings of dumbbells and barbells. But you have to apply the rules of muscle growth to your workouts.
Presuming you reach a level of tension in the muscle and you’re progressively overloading, yes you can build muscle without weights. But if you choose to take part in workouts that don’t challenge your muscular system, you’ll end up with flatter mass than a malnourished, low-carb ultra-runner.
Using body weight exercise to build muscle without weights
Most people think that body weight training is about slaying your way through as many reps as possible, using easy exercises such as body weight squats and push-ups on your knees.
To build muscle without weights you have to stick to the game plan… progressive overload and sufficient mechanical tension.
The great thing about body weight training is there are literally millions of different exercises. You just have to find the ones that are challenging for you.
If you stick to easy exercises you’ll soon max out your potential to grow slabs of muscle.
You can actually build muscle at any rep range. You don’t have to fail within 10 or 12 reps or whatever. But if you can crank out 30 or 40 reps of an exercise without fatigue, chances are there’s zero mechanical tension.
There are a huge number of benefits to body weight training:
- Skill, co-ordination and stability
- Full body workouts with limited space
- Increased calorie burning and energy expenditure
- Endless ways to progress difficulty
- Transition from one exercise to the next can be short, sharp and seamless
How to Optimize Body Weight Workouts for Muscle Building
In order to build muscle without weights you’ll need to make your workouts tight and productive. If you don’t have a grind and rise attitude your workout will soon resemble something out of a 1980’s aerobics workout video.
Use progressively more difficult exercise variations
There’re body weight exercises for every major muscle group. And with the right variations and planning you’ll never find yourself in a position where you ‘run out’ of challenging exercises to build muscle without weights.
In the table below we’ve given you some examples of exercise progressions for some of the bigger muscle groups.
You can play around with the actual reps and such, but our experience tells us that as soon as you can hit a max of 20 reps of one exercise it’s time to progress to the next, more advanced variation.
|Exercise||Beginner Variation||Intermediate Variation||Advanced Variation||Hard-ass MF Variation|
|Squats||Prisoner squats||Squat jumps||Single-leg box pistol squats||Full pistol Squats|
|Pull-ups||Jump pull-ups||Eccentric only pull-ups||Full pull-ups||Muscle-ups|
|Lunges||Static lunges||Dynamic alternate lunges||Jumping Lunges||Bulgarian split squat lunge|
|Press-ups||Hal position push-ups||Full push-ups||Elevated feet push-up||One arm push-ups|
Focus on high volume workout systems
Because you can’t add weight to these exercises, the next best way to elevate overall volume load is to crank out more reps and sets in a given time period (what’s known as workout density).
There are a number of workout systems that utilize blood-pumping high-volume that’ll have you screaming in a wash of acidity and lactate.
These are our favorites:
- High intensity resistance training
- Peripheral heart action training
You don’t have to use weights for these brutal workouts either, You just need your body, bulletproof motivation, a stop watch and a sick bucket.
Is there anything else you can do to maximize muscle mass?
Training hard, with or without weights, is only the starting point for getting jacked. It’s just as much about the lifestyle as it is the workouts.
Rest and recovery
When motivation is high you might want to train every day, maybe even twice per day.
To an extent that’s cool, but eventually you’ll burn out. Making sure you have sufficient rest and recovery (24-48 hours) between workouts helps your body build new muscle tissue.
To optimize muscle tissue development you have to feed your muscles with enough energy. If you don’t it just won’t prioritize moving away from homeostasis.
Eating in a calorie surplus gives your body the necessary building blocks to lay down some muscle growth.
If you’re unsure how to calculate your daily energy needs check out this nutrition for mass article with built-in calorie calculator.
Without enough protein in your diet you won’t build savage slabs of brute muscle. It’s the nutrient that muscle is made of.
Shooting for ~0.8-1g of protein per pound of body weight helps to ramp up amino acid content in the muscle which leads to growth.
Train like a man, sleep like a baby. That’s our motto in the SpotMeBro office.
Sleep is an anabolic process that helps restore tissue, build muscle and aid recovery. There’s numerous studies and evidence reports showing 8 hours of sleep per night or more is optimal for athletic performance and lean mass gains.
Summary – Can You Build muscle Without Weights?
Yes you can.
Building muscle isn’t about the type of stimulus you hit your body with, it’s the fact that it challenges the body past the point it’s used to.
Body weight training can trigger mechanosensors to lay down the signalling processes responsible for muscle hypertrophy, as long as progressive overload and mechanical tension are sufficient.
High-volume body weight circuits are effective, time-efficient ways to build muscle without weights. Give them a try.