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Building muscle and losing fat makes you look great! It’s hard to argue with that. But there are those that will decry this as vanity work, and say that it’s only about looking good. Frankly, they are wrong.

Muscles are good for you

Working out to change your body by gaining more muscle and burning fat has benefits beyond looking better.

For one thing, you will be stronger. True, you don’t necessarily need to gain much muscle weight to be stronger; there are many examples of strong people with small frames. But the simple fact is that in training to gain muscle you will become stronger than if you didn’t. And being stronger has been absolutely correlated with improved longevity and quality of living.

It’s proven that more muscle mass is associated with a multitude of health benefits:

There are, of course, extremes, where too much bodyweight for your frame (your Body Mass Index) in general is not good for you. But this is very much an extreme case, and most of us will never get to the point where we have too much muscle.

How to get more muscles

When you think of how to build muscle, most people think about barbells and lifting heavier and heavier weights—and that’s not wrong! Resistance training with barbells, dumbbells and machines with progressively increasing weights absolutely builds muscle. It’s a proven and efficient way, and should be a part of your training regimen.

But it’s not the only way to gain muscle, as long as you follow a few fundamental concepts.


Even if a movement is very hard for you the first time you do it, you will get used to it and your body will adapt. And when this happens you need to make it more difficult if you want to get more benefit out of it. You can do this by increasing the weight on a machine or barbell movement, adding more repetitions or, as we’ll discuss further, you can change the way you perform bodyweight movements to make the leverages and forces more difficult.

Our bodies adapt well to situations and our environment. Building muscle takes a lot of our energy and bodily resources, so unless the stimulus warrants that response, our system won’t change.

This doesn’t mean you have to make things very hard at every session. That’s a recipe for burnout. But it does mean that over time you’ll need to be doing more (resistance, repetitions, etc.) than you did before to improve and gain muscle.

Time under tension

This concept refers to how long you are exerting your muscles within a particular movement. We usually count this by how many repetitions of the movement you are doing, with the hypertrophy sweet spot at eight to 12 repetitions. But you can also think of this as how much time (in seconds/minutes) your muscles are under contraction. Say a typical repetition takes you three to five seconds to do. Eight to 12 repetitions of that would be around 30 seconds to a minute.

This is helpful because some movements you hold for a period of time (wall sits, planks, gripping holds), which is necessary to build muscle.

For most people, each set of a movement (or movement combination) should be about 30 to 60 seconds to stimulate muscle growth. Less than that and it isn’t as much of a stimulus, and more than that makes it more like endurance training. Yes, there is much more detail to this and I’m sure many people will debate these details, but for practical purposes, this general guideline works for the majority of people.


The need for consistent training makes intuitive sense. You can’t expect to do one session and suddenly gain 10 pounds of muscle! This is related to the concept of progression. If your muscles aren’t experiencing a regular pattern of stress, then there is no need to build or maintain muscular growth.

Our bodies build and adapt to stimulus as needed, but this also includes reducing when there is lessened need. Just like we lose fat stores when we eat less or expend more energy than we take in, we lose muscle when the stimulus is gone. Thankfully, it takes much longer than just a few days to lose it, but it does require us to workout more than once every couple of weeks to build muscle.

Two to three times of resistance training per week is necessary to optimally build muscle, and once every week or so to maintain it.

Bodyweight muscle building workout

As we’ve talked about above, you don’t necessarily need to use weights and machines to do a muscle building routine. The following is a bodyweight sequence that doesn’t require any equipment (other than a couple of stools or chairs).

We’ll take advantage of this and combine some movements into one repetition, or perform the movements back to back without any rest in what’s called a “superset.” This increases your muscles’ time under tension and stimulates muscle growth.

Step-Back Lunge to Side-to-Side Squats

Here you’ll work on your legs, with an emphasis on your glutes and hamstrings.

  • For the lunge, stand with feet shoulder-width apart and step backwards to drop a knee to the ground. Most of your weight should be on the front foot’s heel to work on your glutes and hamstrings on that leg.
  • Then rise up, turn to the side and drop down to bend that front leg knee as much as you can for a side-to-side squat.
  • Rise up again and bring the back leg to the front to return to your starting position, and repeat for another repetition.
  • You won’t alternate legs until you are done with the desired amount of repetitions—eight to 12 is the range you want.
  • Finish the eight to 12 repetitions then switch to the other leg, stepping backwards. One set is over when you’ve completed both legs stepping back.

Sissy Squats with Squats Superset

In this superset, you’ll do a set of sissy squats, then without rest go right into squats. Sissy squats work your quadriceps hard.

  • Grab a stable object for balance, rock forward onto the balls of your feet and push your hips forward as you lean your shoulders back.
  • The more you bend your knees, the more difficult it is. So only bend as much as you can in order to complete the eight to 12 repetitions.
  • Then after you are done, immediately perform regular squats. With your feet shoulder-width apart, simply drop your upper body down between your legs as deep as you can go for eight to 12 repetitions. That’s one set.

Tuck Sit to Elbow Plank 

This is a core workout combination.

  • A tuck sit is when your arms are straight (on two chairs/stools/boxes/push-up bars) and you lift your butt up with your knees bent in front of you.
  • You’ll hold for five seconds then go to the ground and do an elbow plank.
  • Support yourself on your elbows and forearms, and the balls of your feet. Tuck your butt under you and squeeze your abdominals, glutes and quads for a count of 20 seconds.
  • Then go back to the tuck sit again immediately and repeat the same holds two more times. This is one set of the movement combination.
  • This is different from the other movements in this sequence in that you aren’t doing eight to 12 repetitions, but you’ll notice the time adds up to 75 seconds total for the workout duration.

Archer Push-Ups with Push-Ups Superset

This superset start with Archer push-ups. It can be helpful to have a hand towel (or furniture slider) to use to help your hands slide, but you don’t necessarily need that.

  • Start in the top of a push-up position and as you lower down, bring one hand out to the side. The other elbow should stay close in to your side.
  • Push back up to the top and for the next one slide the other hand out. This is one repetition.
  • Repeat eight to 12 times, then immediately go into eight to 12 regular push-ups. That’s one set.

Elbow Plank Side Roll with Inverted Press Superset

This last superset works your shoulders intensely.

  • Start in the elbow plank position, lower your body to the floor and roll to one side slowly with control, then roll up again to get back to elbow plank. Focus on pushing on the side of your elbow and forearm using your shoulder muscles.
  • Roll down to the other side and back up again to complete the repetition. Do this eight to 12 times.
  • Then immediately go into the inverted press. For this you will form an “A” with your body. Your butt is up in the air with your back and legs straight. Bend your elbows and drop your head to the ground. G
  • Go as deep as you can while still being able to do eight to 12 repetitions. And that’s one set of that.

How to follow this routine 

You’ll see that your goal is to keep in that eight to 12 repetition range. If you can’t do at least eight then you’ll have to decrease your range of motion (not bend your knees or elbows as deeply) or use a support to decrease the weight on your limbs. If you can do more than 12 easily then you’ll want to increase the range of motion, or use less support, or shift your weight to make it more difficult. You can adjust the resistance applied to your muscles as needed.

There are two ways to do this sequence.

  1. You can do a movement combination for its set, then rest for two minutes and repeat for three to five sets.
  2. You can do this as a “circuit” where you perform a movement combination, rest 30 seconds to a minute (or no rest at all if you like), then move on to the next movement combination, do that set and so on until you are done. I’d recommend a two-minute rest after the whole circuit if you chose not to do any rests between the movements. Then repeat this circuit three to five times.

As for frequency, if done on its own you can perform this routine two to three times a week with at least one day of rest in between sessions. If you are doing this in addition to your other workouts, you should only add on a movement day for a maximum of four muscle building sessions a week.

Cardiovascular work is important, but don’t neglect muscle building work! Two sessions per week of this bodyweight routine is a great investment of your time to improve not only your appearance, but your overall health as well.

Photo credit: mel-nik, Thinkstock