For many people, the gym is their religion. To get ripped like the people on the magazine covers, you need machines and barbells. Or so they say.
This is not my experience. The few times in my life that I got ripped, it was always from doing a minimalist bodyweight workout (while also being hungry a lot).
It was minimum effort for maximum effect. Even when life got hectic, I would be able to stick with this routine.
Learn about my minimalist bodyweight workout, why I prefer a push-pull-squat triad, and how spacing out training certain muscles further helps me to overcome plateaus.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is solely for informational purposes. Please consult with your doctor before you start any kind of exercise program.
My Own Rationale for Minimalist Bodyweight Training
I am not the most muscular person in the world. Having said that, the muscle I have is mostly from bodyweight training.
In my 20s and early 30s, I had been trying to get big at the gym. But I hated it.
Waiting for equipment. Obnoxious bros. People flexing. The terrible music.
I would get so annoyed that I would quit every couple of months but then return for lack of alternatives.
Back then, I didn’t consider bodyweight training a viable option, at least not for gaining size. I thought it was good for feats like human flags but of little importance to someone training for hypertrophy.
The switch came as a byproduct of a lifestyle change. In 2014, I sold my martial arts gym as well as most of my physical belongings. I was getting ready to start life as a minimalist digital nomad.
In that vein, I figured it would be easiest to “carry” my gym with me — i.e., to do bodyweight training. This would save me the hassle of having to find a new place to train at every time I arrived in a new city.
So, I settled. I would just have to see what muscular gains I could make with this “subpar” training method.
The results were the opposite of what I expected. Over the course of the next few years, I managed to get “ripped” several times, to the point where strangers started commenting on my fit physique and women would get touchy-feely. That had never happened before.
It dawned on me that for the vast majority of people — basically anyone not on juice — a minimalist bodyweight training routine was all that was needed. You could realistically accomplish a Brad Pitt in “Fight Club” physique without the barbells and in half the time.
In fact, by minimizing, it was more likely to happen. Doing two to three 20-minute workouts per week at home is way more manageable than driving to your local Planet Fitness every other day. By the time you arrive, I am already done with my workout.
The following is my personal take on this bare minimum needed. There is one piece of equipment that I recommend, but even that is optional. Master this routine, and in terms of building muscle, you’ll be set. No more annoying gyms.
What We Are After
I want to be clear about something. When I am talking about the ideal minimalist bodyweight workout, I am primarily interested in building muscle.
I am not trying to get stronger (even though that will be a byproduct). I am not trying to get healthier and live longer (even though that will be another byproduct).
But the true reason why the vast majority of people train is sexual attractiveness. We want to look good naked and have better options in the sexual marketplace.
To better accomplish this goal, we will stay away from free-standing handstand pushups, dragon squats, and other such feats.
We will focus on exercises that we can scale as easily as possible to induce optimal gains.
The Basic Programming
In my book, there are three movements that you can’t do without.
You need to push.
You need to pull.
You need to squat.
That covers the major muscle groups and the most important plains of movement.
There is an argument to be made to also include hip hinge movements and some core training.
I am not against that. If you have the time and the inclination, go for it. If not, stick with push, pull, and squat. That covers most bases.
The 2 Problems With Bodyweight Training
There are two fundamental problems with bodyweight training that we need to address:
- Bodyweight exercises don’t scale well
- Most people don’t execute bodyweight exercises correctly
1. The Scaling Problem
In comparison to machine training or barbell training, bodyweight training is harder to scale.
When you get stronger in the gym, you simply add more weight. You move the pin on that leg press machine or you load that barbell with two more plates. Done.
When you outgrow a certain bodyweight exercise, e.g. the regular pushup, you must now switch to a new, more challenging exercise, e.g. archer pushups.
This requires you to learn a whole new movement pattern, which will slow down your progress a little bit.
Also, it is difficult to space these “jumps” evenly. While going from regular pushups to archer push-ups might feel like a manageable progression, going from archer push-ups to strict one-arm pushups might feel almost impossible at first.
On top of that, you have individual differences. Based on body type and coordination some people will struggle with certain scaling exercises more than others.
When you are aware of this problem, you can plan for it. You can research the most incremental progressions for each major movement (push, pull, and squat). I will make some suggestions further down.
2. Bad Execution
Bodyweight exercises require you to stabilize the rest of your body while engaging a certain muscle group.
For example, when you are doing a pushup, you are supposed to flex your core and your lower back to keep your midline rigid. You are also supposed to keep your elbows in and your head in line with your spine at all times.
Failing to do any of these things will make the exercise less challenging and less effective.
When you use machines at the gym, this is much less of a problem. The machine, to a large extent, dictates what you can do with the rest of your body. It allows you to focus on the core movement.
This is also the reason why many people claim that bodyweight exercises don’t do much for them. “I can do 50 pushups easily. How is that going to help with building muscle?”
The truth is, you can’t do 50 pushups. You probably can’t even do 15 — not with proper form.
But most people don’t have the experience, the coordination, or the patience to do so. They lack the ability to monitor themselves while executing the movement.
You need to be honest with yourself. If you don’t want to constantly analyze your movement patterns while working out, you are better off doing machine training at the gym.
Push, Pull, and Squat
Let’s look at some basic progressions, from easy to hard, for the different plains of motion.
The Horizontal Pushing Progression
- Incline push-ups. Place your hands on the edge of a tabletop and do push-ups.
- Kneeling push-ups. Kneel on the ground while doing push-ups.
- Regular push-ups. You know these.
- Elevated push-ups. Place your feet on a chair or a low park bench and do push-ups.
- Archer push-ups. Keep one arm extended to the side for support while doing a one-arm push-up. Then shift to the other side and repeat.
- Incline one-arm push-ups. Place one hand on the edge of a low object like a park bench and do one-arm push-ups.
- One-arm push-up. Do regular one-arm push-ups on the ground.
- Elevated one-arm push-up. Place your feet on a chair or a low park bench and do one-arm push-ups.
Always keep good form:
Utilize the full range motion, no partial reps, unless you are trying to scale up to a certain exercise.
With regular push-ups, you want to keep your body rigid and your head in line with your spine. Your elbows are in against your body, not flaring out. Your weight is forward over your hands, not back.
With one-arm push-ups, the same rules apply, but it’s okay to keep your feet wider than usual, for balance. Plus, no twisting in your upper body, in whatever direction. You aren’t a hot dog on a hot dog roller. Neither are you Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky.”
The Vertical Pushing Progression
- Headstand against a wall. Do a headstand for 30 seconds with your feet against a wall.
- Partial pike push-ups. Bend your body at the hips and do a partial push-up.
- Full-range pike push-ups. Bend your body at the hips and do a push-up.
- Elevated pike push-ups. Place your feet on an object like a low park bench, bend your body at the hip, and do a push-up.
- Partial headstand push-up against a wall. Do a headstand against a wall and halfway lower your head to the ground. Then push up again.
- Full-range headstand push-up against a wall. Do a headstand against a wall and lower your head all the way to the ground. Then push up again.
Always keep good form:
With all of these, keep your elbows in against your body, not flaring out. With handstand push-ups, try to not arch your lower back too much; a little bit of an arch is unavoidable, though. Flex your butt and your torso (abs and lower back) to mitigate this.
The Horizontal Pulling Progression
- Doorframe rows. Stand inside a door frame, facing one of the frames. Grab the frame on both sides, lean back until your arms are extended, then pull yourself close again, chest forward.
- Incline rows. For this one, you will need some kind of pulling device like a TRX. Alternatively, you can wrap a bedsheet around the branch of a tree. Start standing almost upright, grab the handles, arms extended, and pull your chest forward. Over time, increase the difficulty by bending your knees more and leaning back further but still pulling your chest forward.
- Rowing. Place yourself under a hip-height, horizontal object, like the edge of a tabletop, or some scaffolding. Grab the edge and pull your chest to it.
- Incline one-arm arrows. Again, you will need some kind of pulling device. Grabbing the handles with only one hand, pull your chest forward. Start with an easy angle, then increase the difficulty by bending your knees more and leaning back further.
- Partial one-arm rows. Again, place yourself under a hip-height, horizontal object, like the edge of a tabletop, or some scaffolding. But this time, only grab the edge with one hand. Pull your chest to the edge, but only part-way.
- Full one-arm row. Same thing as before, but this time, you pull yourself all the way.
Always keep good form:
When pulling your chest forward, keep your elbows close to your body, don’t flare them out. Also, make sure to stick your chest out and bring your shoulder blades close to each other, especially at the highest point of the pull.
The Vertical Pulling Progression
- Negative pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar or similar object (a branch, scaffolding, etc.) that is not too high. Jump up, using the explosiveness of your legs to get to the top position of the pull-up. Hold yourself there as long as you can. Once your pulling muscles start to give out, lower yourself as slowly as possible. Fight for every inch of the way down.
- Assisted pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar or a similar object. Place one of your feet on a smaller object like a chair. Do a full-range pull-up, supporting part of your weight with that one foot on the chair. Make it sufficiently challenging; don’t cheat yourself.
- Supported L-pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar or a similar object. Place both of your feet on a chair in front of you. Now, with your bodyweight partially supported, execute a pull-up.
- Partial pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar or a similar object. Pull yourself halfway up to the bar, then lower yourself again.
- Full-range pull-ups. Do a regular pull-up (chin above the bar).
Always keep good form:
Keep your elbows tucked in against your body, don’t flare them out. Execute your pulls in a slow and controlled manner, both up and down. No swinging of your body. Don’t use your legs for momentum.
Use the full range of motion (unless you are doing partial pull-ups). Start from a dead hang, “load your shoulders,” i.e., pull them back into the scapula, then pull yourself all the way up.
You can either pull your chest to the bar (arched pull-ups) or focus on getting your chin over the bar while keeping your abs flexed (hollow body pull-ups). I prefer the hollow body version, as I am already arching my back for my rowing sequence.
The Squat Progression
- Regular squats. Start standing up, feet parallel. Squat down below your knee line (“ass to the grass”). Keep your back straight, don’t round it. Keep your arms out in front of you for balance. Come up again.
- Bulgarian split squats. Place the instep of one foot behind you on an object like a chair or park bench. Keeping the majority of your weight over your front leg, squat down. Come up again.
- Box pistol squats. Stand in front of a chair, balancing on one leg. Squat down, until your butt lightly touches the seat of the chair. While doing so, keep your arms out in front of you for balance. Come up again.
- Assisted pistol squats. Stand inside a door frame, balancing on one leg. Rest your hands on the frame to either side of you; this is for balance. Lower yourself down into the pistol squat. Coming up, support yourself as much as you need to with your hands pushing off the frame.
Always keep good form:
Utilize the full range motion, no partial reps (unless you are doing box squats).
When you squat down, try to move your knee(s) out to your side, not forward over your toes.
With the pistol variations, try to keep your back as straight as you can. However, some rounding is hard to avoid.
With the push-pull-squat triad, the pushing part and the squatting part can be pretty much performed anywhere. No equipment needed.
However, with the pulling part, you will need an object to hold onto.
One option is to get a pull-up bar for your doorframe on Amazon. They are cheap enough, usually around $30–$40.
These work fine for the vertical pulling, but won’t do for the horizontal pulling. For that, you will need a TRX-style sling trainer. The cost is about the same as for the pull-up bar.
To mount it, you can either use a door anchor or wrap the sling trainer around your pull-up bar.
Personally, I prefer to only get the sling trainer. It saves me one piece of equipment and it’s way easier to travel with, as I live a nomadic lifestyle.
It’s a bit trickier to incorporate the vertical pulls, but it can be done. Mount the sling trainer using a door anchor. Then place your feet against both sides of the door frame, legs extended. Bend at your hips. Leaning slightly forward in your upper body, pull yourself up.
This video shows what I mean.
Alternatively, you can take your sling trainer outside and throw it over the branch of a tree and just perform a regular pull-up.
Because I like to use the sling trainer for my vertical pulling, I always get a version with two separate slings. This is different from the “Y” design of the traditional TRX. However, the two slings can still be connected using a third sling.
The two separate slings allow for a broader grip since you can space them apart. They feel more like a set of rings in this way. With a traditional TRX, I can’t get that wide of a grip.
A Few Notes on Implementation
Here are a few ideas for implementing these progressions.
How often should you train?
There are two basic approaches that I recommend:
- Training the whole body during a training session, twice a week. For example, you could be training your different push, pull, and squat moves on Mondays and Thursdays.
- Training the push, pull, and squat components separately for a total of three sessions per week. For example, you could be training your pushes on Monday, your pulls on Wednesday, and your squats on Friday.
I find that when you are starting out, you are best off going with the full-body protocol.
The earlier along in the process you are, the less recovery time you will need. Your body hasn’t come close to its genetic max yet. Therefore, it will easily adapt to new training stimuli, even if you train each major muscle group relatively often, like twice a week.
But the closer you are getting to your genetic limit, the more recovery time your body will need. That’s why I like to use a split approach later on and space out the training sessions further in this way.
If you start to hit a wall with the split approach, consider training the same muscle even more infrequently. A good way to do so is to add a fourth training session dedicated to core exercises and/or hinge exercises. Now you are training every major muscle group only every 10 days or so, which will provide even more time for recovery.
2. Exercise Choice & Rep Range
With each progression, I like to pick an exercise that I can currently do for 15-20 repetitions. You can choose a lower or a higher number, I don’t think it matters much.
What matters is that the intensity is there. Assuming that you will do 2–3 sets per exercise, you should at least max out the final set, aka train to muscle failure. When you do the split routine, I like to do it in every set.
With my own minimalist bodyweight workout, I also like to use a more difficult exercise for the first set and then slightly less challenging exercises from the same progression for the second and the third set.
It allows me to stick with my higher rep range for every set and adds some variety. You are also targeting slightly different angles and muscle fibers in this way.
3. Progressing From One Stage to the Next
The progressions I mentioned above are what worked for me. But there are many ways to skin a cat. Every calisthenic person will have their own progression that they swear by. You must find what works for you. YouTube is great for that.
Also, don’t rush it.
With each of these progressions, you will be stuck at a certain level for a while before you move on to the next level.
The goal is not so much to reach the final level as it is to exhaust the muscle optimally. Remember, we want growth, not to compete in gymnastics.
If you can max out the muscle safely with a less difficult exercise, that is preferable to injuring yourself by doing one-arm handstand push-ups.
4. Making Things More Difficult
These progressions should provide enough resistance for even exceptionally fit individuals (provided you pay attention to form).
But if you are in the one percent of the population that can do 20+ strict pull-ups or handstand push-ups, there are two more options you have to make things more challenging:
- You can alter the speed of execution
- You can do super sets
Most people rush through the movement, e.g., pumping out push-ups in rapid succession. They use momentum to make the exercise easier, bouncing up and down like a yoyo.
But the more you take speed out of the equation, the more difficult the exercise becomes. It leads to more time under tension.
A good place to start is a 2-1-2 interval. 2 seconds for the concentric part of the movement, 1 second for holding, and 2 seconds for the eccentric part of the movement.
If that starts to feel easy, try 3 seconds up and down. Then 4 seconds. Then 5 seconds.
Even if you should really be able to do 20+ strict pull-ups, this will take the number down significantly.
You can also play around with super sets. Here, you perform different exercises for the same muscle group in a row, without taking breaks in between.
The idea is to pre-exhaust the muscle, so by the time you get to your target exercise, you won’t be able to perform as many reps as you normally would.
Combine this with a slow speed of execution, and our initial progressions will be sufficiently challenging even to pro athletes.
5. Diet & Recovery
Even though this is an article about my minimalist bodyweight workout, I need to at least mention diet and recovery.
There is little point in training hard several times per week if you don’t have your diet and recovery in check.
In fact, I would argue that of the three, working out is the least important.
Recovery must come first, as without sufficient rest you will stop functioning soon. Diet is next. If you eat crap all the time, no exercise regimen in the world will make up for that.
Both diet and recovery are extensive topics in themselves but I at least want to give some pointers:
- Go to bed at the same time every night, even on the weekends.
- At least an hour before you go to bed, don’t look at any screens anymore.
- To reduce stress, don’t look at any screens unless it’s work-related.
- Walk a lot. It is the best antidote to anxiety.
- Spend a lot of time in nature.
- Learn to meditate.
- Eat a paleo diet or something close to it. If it has legs or fins, eat it. If it grows in your garden, eat it. If not, don’t eat it.
- Have a baseline meal. For me, that’s grilled salmon with steamed broccoli. Before you eat any meal, ask yourself, “How close is this to my baseline meal?” If it’s too far off, don’t eat it.
- Build yourself a social circle of other people who also eat healthily. For example, in all my major relationships for the last 10 years, my partners were health nuts themselves. It helps with adherence like nothing else.
6. Mix It Up
As I explained in the introduction, for me, a minimalist bodyweight workout is the optimal way to train. You are not dependent on equipment, you don’t need to commute to the gym, and you can easily keep it up while traveling.
I have always seen the greatest gains while training like that.
However, sometimes it can be nice to mix things up. Every couple of years I will join a gym again, especially if it’s close by, knowing full well that I will only enjoy it for a couple of months before I quit again.
That is fine. Ultimately, the most important thing is to keep training. Or, as they say, “The best exercise is the one you keep doing.”
If that means taking a break from the “optimal” way to train and screwing around with the fancy gym equipment for a while, so be it.