How to Build Strength Through Bodyweight Training at Home

Like me, you are probably looking at a long period of time maintaining social distancing due to the worldwide Coronavirus pandemic. You are wondering how you will stay in shape, stay strong, and stay sane.

Maintaining your cardio is one thing. Many of us can go for jogs, jump rope, follow John Danaher’s new solo drills set, or find something to keep our hearts pumping.

But what can you do about strength training? Especially at home without a squat rack, a bench, or a sled?

The answer is simple: use your body!

Sure, it’s not quite the same as hitting the squat rack and throwing up a few plates. But you can actually do a shocking amount of resistance training with very little equipment.

How do I know this? Up until a year ago, I used exclusively bodyweight training exercises. (I recently got access to my corporate gym and started to mix that in for strength training.)

Inverted rows can be done with tables at home.
The inverted row: a great bodyweight training exercise to do at home.

I actually got fairly strong doing bodyweight training exercises. I constantly heard the back-handed “you are strong” comment from my training partners. I increased my pull-up reps, hand stand pushup reps, dip reps, and so on. In fact, I still will go through this routine regularly.

Another massive benefit to strength training is injury prevention. I’ve been lucky to have few injuries that have kept me off the mat. Of course it’s a combination of many factors, but strength training does really help.

Disclaimer: I am not a certified trainer, just a guy who has been working out for over 20 years.

Bodyweight Training Beginnings

About 4 years ago, I was an engineer at a manufacturing facility, hooked on Jiu-Jitsu and wanting to work out to improve my performance on the mat. The problem was fitting my workouts in.

With 3 kids in multiple activities, a busy work schedule, and trying to fit BJJ training in 3+ times a week, I just couldn’t carve out the time to hit another gym. Plus, I didn’t want to pay another gym membership!

So, my solution was to delve into bodyweight training. In the middle of the day during my lunch break, I would sneak down to the utility room of my building and “get after it”.

My source of bodyweight knowledge was Anthony Arvanitakis, writer of the book Homemade Muscle and owner of the site bodyweightmuscle.com. I was inspired by Anthony’s story and wanted to incorporate his experience into my training. So I bought his book.

What’s Needed

Really, you don’t need anything. If you were to purchase one thing, it would be a pull up bar. You can find door frame pull up bars fairly cheap. I bought mine for around $30 over 6 years ago and it’s worked great for me.

Even if you don’t have a pull-up bar, you can still do a version on a door with towels, like BJJ black belt Steve Maxwell shows here:

One note with the door hang pullups: you could potentially damage the hinges with putting on too much weight. Do these at your own risk! I will do them in a hotel room on a steel door with reinforced hinges without much worry, but I would be careful with an old door at my house.

Another potential piece of equipment to consider is a set of rings. I would recommend the bar first, and then graduate to the rings (my rings require a bar to be hung on anyway – so I needed the bar first).

Next, you just need to find a spot to do handstand pushups (basically a clear area of wall), and a spot to do dips. Dips can be done on two chair backs, a corner piece of countertop, between two tables, etc. Finally, a table to do inverted rows on, and something heavy to hold onto (like a couch leg) if you are doing dragon flags.

A Sample Routine

I don’t want to steal all of Anthony’s thunder, so I won’t post all of his workouts. But here is an example (with some of my modifications):

  • 3 sets pullups
  • 2 sets chinups
  • 4 sets handstand pushups -or- pike pushups
  • 4 sets weighted lunges -or- pistol squats (try to find something heavy for lunges – at least 40 lb / 20 kg) Note: Arvanitakis advises against pistol squats. Be careful and so some research on the knee movement if you choose to do them.
  • 4 sets dips
  • 3 sets pushups (one-armed if possible)
  • 2 sets inverted rows
  • 3 sets leg raises, or something more difficult like dragon flags
  • 3 sets prone cobra

A workout like that should take about 45 minutes to an hour.

There are different theories on rest time between sets. Arvanitakis advocates a one minute rest, then a two minute rest before a new exercise. However, this method may lead to more muscle growth than you may want. If you increase the time between sets, then the training favors your nervous system and can give you a better strength-to-weight ratio. I’m not an expert here – play around with it, do some research, and see what works for you.

Bodyweight Training Progressions

If you are doing strength training to get stronger, you don’t want to be hitting more than ~15 reps cleanly. The goal is low, difficult reps. As you progress and get stronger, you don’t have the luxury of adding more weight on the bar. Instead, you have to increase the difficulty of your exercises.

There are countless examples and I won’t delve into them all, but one example is push ups. You can go from pushups, to feet raised pushups, to wide armed pushups, to one-armed pushups on a raised surface (like stairs), to one armed pushups on the knees, and finally to one armed pushups. Below is a very detailed video:

There are tons of great videos like this – go find them for each major exercise as you find yourself getting stronger.

Use a notebook or app to keep track of your repetitions. This way it’s easy to see how you are progressing.

Workout Schedule

For the people new to strength training: do not train every day. You need to have rest days for your body to recover and get stronger. I’d advocate for 3 workouts a week, with off days doing cardio work. You (hopefully) aren’t hitting the mats, so you should have time to do this.

Hypothetically, if you were doing BJJ often, I would reduce to two times a week. Remember, the ultimate goal is to augment your Jiu-Jitsu, not to be the World’s Strongest Man (or woman).

When I am in peak training this is a “best case” week:

  • Monday: 5 mile run, BJJ evening class
  • Tuesday: Bodyweight strength training
  • Wednesday: 5 mile run, BJJ evening class
  • Thursday: Bodyweight strength training
  • Friday: 5 mile run, BJJ evening class
  • Saturday: BJJ open mat
  • Sunday: Rest day

Life often gets in the way and I have to either scrap or reduce/change these typically, but that was the goal.

And for those who think this in only for young people on PEDs – I am doing this in my late 30s, and definitely not on anything other than protein powder and chicken breasts. Just like anything else, you have to build up to this type of routine. You will have to eat and sleep well of course.

Get Started

If you are thinking this could work for you, a great resource to start is Arvanitakis’ Kindle book, which will cost you only $6 at Amazon (Note: GI is not affiliated with Anthony and do not receive any benefits from his sales).

Other excellent resources are Steve Maxwell, Al Kavadlo, and Frank Medrano. And there are definitely more.

I’ve just scratched the surface of this topic. There are multiple books that I have read and I’ve still so much to learn. Hopefully though, I gave some of you some things to think about while you are sitting at home.

Matt Peters

Matt is a day-time engineer who enjoys writing about Jiu Jitsu and MMA. He has written for YouJiuJitsu and Grappling Insider. Matt is a BJJ blue belt who has mastered the art of skipping warmups. He has been training for 5 years in the Minneapolis area. He has never officially tapped to a wristlock.

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