What Is the Best Minimalist Bodyweight Workout?

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 think.

This is not my experience. The few times in my life that I got ripped, it was always from doing a minimalist bodyweight workout.

It was the most sustainable option. Even when life got hectic, I would be able to stick with this routine.

Learn about my minimalist bodyweight workout, why I recommend a push-pull-squat triad, and how 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 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. The terrible music.

I would get so annoyed that I would quit every couple of months but then return for a 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 acrobatic feats but not for hypertrophy.

My conversion came as a byproduct of a lifestyle change. In 2014, I sold my business as well as most of my physical belongings. I was about to start life as a minimalist digital nomad.

I figured it would be easiest to carry my gym with me — i.e., do bodyweight training. This would save me the hassle of searching for a fitness studio every time I arrived in a new city.

So, I compromised. I would just have to see what muscular gains I could make with this “subpar” training method.

The results were almost shocking. Over 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 started to dawn on me that for most people — anyone not on steroids — a minimalist bodyweight training routine was all that was needed. You could look like Brad Pitt in “Fight Club” without wasting hours at the gym.

In fact, by minimizing, it is more likely to happen. Doing a 20-minute workout at home is way more sustainable than driving to your local Planet Fitness every day. By the time you arrive, I am already done with my workout.

Okay, let’s talk specifics.

What We Are After

I want to be clear about something. When I am talking about the ideal minimalist bodyweight workout, I am primarily concerned with building muscle.

I am not trying to get stronger (even though that will certainly happen). I am not trying to get healthier and live longer (even though that will also happen).

But the true reason why most people train is physical attractiveness. We want to have better options in the sexual marketplace.

To accomplish this goal, we will stay away from free-standing handstand push-ups, dragon squats, and other circus skills. We will focus on exercises that we can easily scale for optimal gains.

The Basic Programming

In my book, there are three movements that you can’t do without.

You need to push (horizontally and vertically).

You need to pull (horizontally and vertically).

You need to squat.

That covers both 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 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. This triad offers the most bang for your buck.

The 2 Problems With Bodyweight Training

There are two fundamental problems with bodyweight training that we need to address:

  1. Bodyweight exercises generally don’t scale so well
  2. Most trainees don’t execute bodyweight exercises correctly

1. The Scaling Problem

In comparison to machine training or barbell training, bodyweight training is trickier to scale.

When you get stronger in the gym, you simply add more weight. You reset the pin on that leg press machine or you load that barbell with more plates. Done.

When you outgrow a certain bodyweight exercise, e.g. regular push-ups, you must now switch to a new, more challenging exercise, e.g. archer push-ups.

This requires you to learn a whole new movement pattern, which will slow down your progress somewhat.

Also, it is difficult to space these “jumps” evenly. Some transitions will feel more manageable than others.

On top of that, you have individual differences. Depending on their body type, some people will struggle with certain exercises more than others.

This is something we need to plan for. We need to come up with sensible, incremental progressions for each major movement (push, pull, and squat).

2. Bad Execution

Bodyweight exercises require you to control all of your body while targeting a certain muscle group.

For example, when you are doing push-ups, you should flex your core to keep your midline rigid. Your head should be in line with your spine. You are also supposed to keep your elbows in.

Failing to do any of these things will make the exercise less challenging and thus less effective.

When you use machines at the gym, this is less of a problem. The machine, to a large extent, dictates what you must do with the rest of your body. This allows you to focus on the core movement.

This is also the reason why many people think that bodyweight exercises are ineffective. “I can do 50 push-ups easily. How is that going to help with building muscle?”

The truth is, you can’t do 50 push-ups. You probably can’t even do 15 — not with proper form. But most people don’t know what proper form looks like and/or struggle with monitoring themselves throughout the movement.

This is another thing we need to plan for. We need to spend some time on skill development.

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

  1. Incline push-ups. Place your hands on the edge of a tabletop and do push-ups.
  2. Kneeling push-ups. Kneel on the ground while doing push-ups.
  3. Regular push-ups. You know these from PE.
  4. Elevated push-ups. Place your feet on a chair and do push-ups.
  5. 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.
  6. Incline one-arm push-ups. Place one hand on the edge of an object like a park bench and do one-arm push-ups. The lower the object, the more difficult the exercise.
  7. One-arm push-ups. Do regular one-arm push-ups.
  8. Elevated one-arm push-ups. Place your feet on a chair and do one-arm push-ups.

Always keep good form:

Utilize the full range of motion — no partial reps, unless you are working your way up to a new exercise.

With all the regular push-up variations, 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. Keep your upper body in line with your legs. Your chest is always facing the ground.

The Vertical Pushing Progression

  1. Wall-assisted handstand. Do a handstand with your feet against a wall. Hold for 30 seconds.
  2. Partial pike push-ups. Take a push-up position, but stick your butt up in the air, feet wide. Lower your head partially down to the ground and come up again.
  3. Full-range pike push-ups. Same thing as before but now go all the way down.
  4. Elevated pike push-ups. Place your feet on an object like a park bench, bend your body at the hips, and do push-ups.
  5. Partial, wall-assisted handstand push-ups. Do a wall-assisted handstand and halfway lower your head to the ground. Then push up again.
  6. Full-range, wall-assisted handstand push-ups. Same as before but lower your head all the way to the ground.

Always keep good form:

With all of these variations, keep your elbows in against your body, not flaring out. With handstand push-ups, try to not arch your lower back too much. Flex your butt and your abs to mitigate this.

The Horizontal Pulling Progression

  1. Doorframe rows. Stand inside a door frame, facing to one side. Grab the frame, lean back until your arms are extended, then pull yourself forward.
  2. Incline rows. For this one, you will need a TRX. Alternatively, you can wrap a bedsheet around the branch of a tree. Grab the handles, lean back, and pull your chest forward. Increase the difficulty by leaning back further.
  3. Rowing. Place yourself under a horizontal object, like the edge of a tabletop. Grab the edge and pull your chest up.
  4. Incline one-arm arrows. Again, you will need some kind of pulling device. Grab the handles with one hand, lean back, and pull your chest forward. Increase the difficulty by leaning back further.
  5. Partial one-arm rows. Again, place yourself under a horizontal object, like the edge of a tabletop. This time, only grab the edge with one hand. Pull your chest to the edge, but only halfway.
  6. Full one-arm row. Same thing as before, but this time, you pull your chest all the way to the edge.

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 together, as if they were to touch.

The Vertical Pulling Progression

  1. Negative pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar or similar object (a tree branch, scaffolding). Jump up, using the explosiveness of your legs to get to the top position of the pull-up. Hold yourself up there as long as you can. Once your muscles start to give out, lower yourself as slowly as possible. Fight for every inch of the way down.
  2. Assisted pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar. Place one of your feet on a chair. Do a pull-up, supporting yourself with that one foot on the chair. Make sure to keep the pull sufficiently challenging.
  3. L-pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar. Place your heels on a chair in front of you, legs extended. Now keep that L-shape, and do pull-ups.
  4. Partial pull-ups. Grab a pull-up bar. Pull yourself halfway up to the bar, then lower yourself again.
  5. Full-range pull-ups. Do regular pull-ups (chin above the bar).

Always keep good form:

Execute your pulls in a slow and controlled manner, both up and down. No swinging of your body. Keep your elbows tucked in against your body; don’t flare them out.

Use the full range of motion (unless doing partial pull-ups). Start from a dead hang. “Load your shoulders,” i.e., pull them back into the scapula; this will reduce the stress on the joints and tendons. Only then do you pull yourself up.

You can either pull your chest to the bar while arching your back (arched pull-ups) or you can bring 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 horizontal rowing progression.

The Squat Progression

  1. Regular squats. Start standing up, feet parallel. Squat down below your knee line (“ass to the grass”). Keep your arms out in front of you for balance. Come up again.
  2. Bulgarian split squats. Place the instep of your rear leg on a chair. Keeping the majority of your weight over your front leg, squat down. Come up again.
  3. Box pistol squats. Stand in front of a chair, balancing on one leg. Squat down, until your butt touches the seat. Keep your arms out in front of you for balance. Come up again.
  4. Assisted pistol squats. Stand inside a door frame, balancing on one leg. Lightly place your hands on the frame to either side of you. Lower yourself down into the pistol squat. Coming up, support yourself as much as you need to with your hands.

Always keep good form:

Utilize the full range of motion; no partial reps (unless you are doing box squats).

Try to keep your back straight when squatting down, i.e., fight the “butt wink.” However, with pistols, some rounding in the lower back is acceptable.

When you go down, try to move your knee(s) out to your side, not forward over your toes.

Pulling Equipment

The pushing exercises and the squat variations can be performed pretty much anywhere; you practically always have a chair and a door frame around.

However, for the pulling exercises, you will have to invest in some equipment.

One option is to get a pull-up bar for your doorframe on Amazon. They are cheap enough, 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. If you get a cheap knock-off, the cost is about the same as for the pull-up bar.

You can also get away with just buying the sling trainer. I prefer that. As I live a nomadic lifestyle, it’s easier to travel with.

To incorporate the vertical pulls, though, you have to get a bit creative. Mount the sling trainer on a closed door. Then place your feet against both sides of the door frame, legs extended. Bend at your hips for an L-shape. Now, keeping that L-shape, pull yourself up. This video shows what I mean.

Alternatively, you can take your sling trainer outside, 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 model 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, which is typically included.

These two separate slings allow for a broader grip, as you can space them apart. In this way, they feel more like a set of rings. With a traditional TRX, I can’t get that nice, wide grip.

A Few Notes on Implementation

Here are a few pointers for implementing these training progressions.

1. Frequency

How often should you train?

Two approaches make sense:

  1. You can train your whole body during each session, for example twice a week on Mondays and Thursdays.
  2. You can train the push, pull, and squat components separately for a total of three sessions per week, e.g., pushing on Monday, pulling on Wednesday, and squatting on Friday.

I find that as a beginner, 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 several times per week.

But the closer you are getting to your genetic limit, the more recovery time your body will need. That’s why I recommend transitioning to the split approach later on, as you space out the training sessions for each muscle group further.

If you eventually plateau with the split approach, consider training even more infrequently. A good option is to add a fourth training session dedicated to core training and/or hinge exercises. Now you are training every major muscle group every 10 days or so, which will provide even more time for recovery.

2. Exercise Choice & Rep Range

Which exercises should you start with?

For each progression, pick an exercise that you can currently do for 15–20 repetitions. You can choose a slightly lower or higher number, it doesn’t matter too much; people get way too hung up on rep range.

What matters is intensity. Assuming that you do three sets per exercise, you should at least max out the final set, aka, go to muscle failure. When you use a split routine, you should max out in every set, as you have more time to recover the muscle.

For my own minimalist bodyweight workout, I like to use a more difficult exercise for the first set and then slightly less challenging exercises for subsequent sets. It allows me to stick with a higher rep range for every set (which I prefer) and it adds some variety. Also, I can target slightly different angles and muscle fibers in this way.

3. Progressing From One Stage to the Next

The progressions I outlined above are what worked for me. But there is more than one way to skin a cat. Every calisthenic trainee will have their own progression of exercises that they swear by. You must find what works for you. YouTube is a great source of inspiration for that.

Another important point — 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.

Understand — the goal is not so much to reach the final level of the progression as it is to exhaust the muscle completely. Remember, we want to elicit hypertrophy, not compete in gymnastics.

If you can max out the muscle safely with a less difficult exercise, that is much preferable to injuring yourself with some more impressive-looking exercise.

4. Making Things More Difficult

The progression I outlined should provide enough resistance for even exceptionally fit individuals (assuming you pay attention to proper 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 more options to keep things challenging:

  1. You can slow down the speed of execution
  2. You can do super sets

Most people tend to rush through the movement, for example, pump 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 results in 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.

This will make each exercise substantially more difficult. Before you might have been able to do 20 pull-ups. Now you can only do five or six.

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. So, for horizontal pushing, you might start with regular push-ups, then immediately switch to elevated push-ups, and then finish with one-arm push-ups.

The idea is to pre-exhaust the muscle so that by the time you get to your target exercise, you won’t be able to perform as many reps as you normally would.

Combine super sets with slow execution, and our push-pull-squat progressions will be sufficiently challenging even for pro athletes.

5. Diet & Recovery

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning recovery and diet.

There is little point in training hard if you don’t pay attention to recovery and diet. In fact, I would argue that of the three, working out is the least important one.

Recovery must always come first. Without sufficient rest, you will soon stop functioning well. Just try to go a couple of days without sleep. It doesn’t work.

Diet is next. If you eat crap all the time, no exercise regimen in the world will make up for that. You can’t outtrain a bad diet.

Both recovery and diet are complex topics in themselves but I at least want to give some pointers.

Best practices for recovery:

  • 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.
  • Take a long walk every day. It is the best antidote to stress.
  • Spend a lot of time in nature. The weekends are great for that.
  • Meditate for 5–10 minutes each day.

Best practices for diet:

  • Eat a paleo diet (or something close to it). The short version — if it has legs or fins, eat it. If it grows in your garden, eat it. Stay away from all processed foods.
  • Have a “baseline meal” for reference. For me, that’s grilled salmon with steamed broccoli. Before you eat any other meal, ask yourself, “In terms of healthiness, how close is this meal to my baseline meal?” If it’s too far off, don’t eat it.
  • Build a social circle of people who also eat healthily. For example, all my romantic partners for the last 10 years were health nuts. Adherence becomes a lot easier if you are surrounded by people who are on the same path.

6. Mix It Up

In my opinion, 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, you can easily maintain your fitness while traveling, and the time investment is minimal. I have always seen the greatest gains while training like that.

However, it can be nice to mix things up. Every couple of years I will join a gym (especially if it’s close by), knowing full well that I will only be able to enjoy this environment for a couple of months before I quit again.

That is fine. Ultimately, the most important thing is to keep training. 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 playing around with fancy gym equipment for a while, so be it.

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