You don’t need to heft a barbell or use a fancy machine to generate resistance if you want to strengthen your muscles. You have all the resistance you need in your own body weight. Depending on your build and strength level, lifting your body weight can be very challenging, particularly if you’re new to exercise. You may need to progress gradually before you try to lift 100 percent of your weight.
Push Your Weight Up
Performing pushups allows you to start down the body-weight exercise path at a level that suits your abilities. If you can’t do standard pushups, for example, perform knee pushups by starting on your hands and knees, with your body straight from head to knees. When you’re ready to balance on your hands and toes, start with your hands on a bench, which makes the resistance you need to push up less. Next, put your hands on the ground for standard pushups. When standard pushups become too easy, elevate your feet on a step or sturdy bench to lift a higher percentage of your body weight. To continue the progression to the end, do handstand shoulder presses, with your hands on benches, to lift 100 percent of your weight. Standard pushups target your chest and also strengthen your upper arms and front shoulder muscles. Handstand pushups shift the emphasis to your shoulders.
Dip Your Body Weight
The chest dip is another body-weight exercise you can do in different ways, depending on where you are in your fitness program. Start with a self-assisted dip by grasping parallel bars while your feet remain on the floor. Bend your knees and hips to lower your body and then use your upper body to push yourself up to an erect position; if possible, don’t push off the floor with your legs. You can also use an assisted dip machine. When you’ve mastered assisted dips, move up to the real thing by doing the exercise with your feet off the floor, so you’re lifting all of your body weight. Standard chest dips work your pecs and the muscles of your front shoulders, back and upper arms.
Keep Your Chin Up
Pullups and chin-ups provide perhaps the ultimate body-lifting tests. In their standard forms, you grasp the bar -- with a wide, overhand grip for pullups and a shoulder-width, underhand grip for chin-ups -- and let your body hang naturally. Then, pull your chin above the bar before returning under control to the starting position. If you’re not ready for a standard version, get an assist on the way up -- you can stand on a chair or have a training partner hold your legs -- and then just hang from the bar with your arms straight. The next step is to get help getting your chin over the bar and then descending on your own. These “negative” pullups can build your strength and help you work up to the real deal. Both pullups and chin-ups target the latissimus dorsi muscles in your back and also work the muscles of your rear shoulders, chest and upper arms and a variety of other back muscles.
Warm up before doing any body-weight exercises. Perform light aerobic exercise, such as riding a stationary bike, for five to 10 minutes. The decision on when to move from one type of exercise to a more-challenging version depends on your comfort and goals, but as a rule of thumb, consider advancing when you can do 15 to 20 repetitions with the correct form. Perform body-weight exercises regularly if you wish to progress -- aim for two or three sessions per week, but allow 48 hours between workouts so your muscles can rest and recover.