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How To Get Lean & Toned With Bodyweight Exercise

bodyweight exercise

Losing body fat and getting into great shape is a goal that many desire, yet don’t know exactly how to achieve. The process of reaching your target can be even more daunting and difficult if you have no real equipment available to you and so have to rely on using bodyweight exercise.

Fortunately, achieving weight loss, improved definition and strength is certainly still possible without the use of resistance, although there are a few key points you need to remember.

With bodyweight training, the stimulus needed to promote growth and definition is much higher than that which is required when using resistance training. In essence, in order to actually improve your definition and strength, you’ll need to work very hard.

But all is not lost. It’s only when this hard work is combined with smart workout decisions that bodyweight exercising can really shine.

In this article, I’ll touch on 4 key ways to achieve the body you desire when you have little to no equipment available to you.

Why Bodyweight Training Is Different

When you start exercising, the first suggestion is to find a gym, and begin lifting weights. Typically, this overshadows the suggestion of sticking with just bodyweight exercises, but why is that the case?

When you exercise, you’re placing your body under different amounts of stress, depending on the movement, the weight you’re using and other variables such as rest time, sets and reps.

When you provide your body with certain stresses, the body responds to that stress by adapting. This is simply a survival mechanism which happens to also favorably change our physique.

When the body adapts to any stress you provide, it alters to accommodate the stress by changing in ways such as getting bigger, stronger or potentially leaner and more defined, depending on the stress you provide.

Research suggests that the amount of effort that you’ll need to put in to stimulate progress is related to the amount of resistance you’re using. Essentially, the heavier the weight you use, the fewer repetitions you’ll need to do to actually stimulate a change.

However, when you exercise with only bodyweight exercises, you’ll need to complete many repetitions and take each set close to failure, in order to stress the muscle enough to stimulate change.

This point is why most people fail to use bodyweight exercises appropriately and therefore successfully. If you don’t take sets close to failure, the chance of stimulating any change is minimal. Certainly, you can lose fat and gain muscle definition with bodyweight exercises; you just need to know exactly how to do it effectively.

Essentials For Success With Bodyweight Exercising

Fortunately, many of the same principles that are applied to resistance training also apply to bodyweight training and are essential for progress. Here are 4 key principles you need when training with bodyweight exercises.

1. Progressive Overload

Progressive overload is easily the most important concept needed for both resistance training and bodyweight training. This theory essentially indicates that, in order to constantly progress, you need to consistently overload the muscle.

For instance, as mentioned above, in order to stimulate an adaptation, like more definition or muscle growth, you need to stress the muscle to the point that it has to adapt.

So, what happens once the muscle does respond to this stress? Well, if you keep doing the same thing over and over again, you can expect that you won’t progress any further. Since you’ve already adapted to that stress, you’ll need to do more.

This essentially means that over time, you’ll need to increase variables like sets, repetitions, reduced rest time, reps per set, etc. Essentially, you just need to constantly ensure that you’re stimulating growth by increasing stress. Otherwise, you’ll never progress.

2. Training To Failure

As mentioned, the need to go to failure when exercising depends largely on the amount of resistance you’re using.

Interestingly, a recent study actually indicated that you don’t necessarily need to use very heavy weight to actually build muscle. The catch? If you’re using very light weight or even bodyweight, in order to stimulate a change, you need to take each set very close to failure (1, 2, 3).

Essentially, if you’re using only bodyweight exercises, it’s strongly suggested that you take most, if not all sets, very close to absolute failure if you hope to improve.

3. Regularly Change Up Exercises

While changing exercises every workout isn’t a great idea, you’ll still need to ensure that you’re using a healthy amount of exercise variation.

Just as you can adapt to stress like reps and sets, so too can you adapt to specific exercises. For this reason, I suggest ensuring that you use different variations of staple exercises in your routine.

For example, when doing push-ups, you can regularly change the type of push-up you’re doing. Bodyweight squats are also another useful exercise as they include different variations such as close stance and wide stance, etc.

By mixing up exercises, you still get benefit from the exercise itself, but you’re also using variations to stimulate new progress.

4. Use Your Environment

Lastly, consider also trying to use your environment to increase the effectiveness of your bodyweight exercises.

For example, you can fill milk jugs with water, which can be used for almost any exercise that allows you to hold onto objects. Doing so is a great way to add resistance, and even include different exercises, which would be pointless with no weight.

Exercises like biceps curls, side raises, weighted lunges, goblet squats, etc. can all now be incorporated into your bodyweight routine, just by filling up some milk jugs.

Additionally, using stairs is a great way to increase metabolic demands, and even complete exercises like calf raises. Even a tree branch could be used for movements like pull-ups.

While progress can be made with no objects, using your environment can certainly expedite the process.

Example Workouts

Now that you understand the basic requirements, here are a few workouts you can use to successfully change your physique using bodyweight only and some using bodyweight and environment.

Full Body Bodyweight Only

  1. Bodyweight Squats: 1 x 30 reps
  2. Burpees: 1 x 30 seconds
  3. Close Handed Push-ups: 1 x AMRAP
  4. Pike Push-ups: 1 x AMRAP
  5. Squat Jumps: 1 x 15
  6. Bodyweight Lunges: 1 x 12 each
  7. Bodyweight Side Lunges: 1 x 10 each

Repeat this circuit as able or until you fail on exercises. Keep rest periods short and ensure progress each time you repeat. 

Full Body With Environment

  1. Milk Jug Front Squats
  2. Milk Jug Goblet Squats
  3. Milk Jugs in Hands Alternate Lunges
  4. Milk Jug Side Raises
  5. Milk Jug Biceps Curls
  6. Walk Stairs Holding Milk Jugs
  7. Calf Raises on Stair Holding Milk Jug
  8. Hands On Chair Dips
  9. Hands On Chair Push-up

Complete all exercises to failure. Repeat circuit as desired. 

Density Training

For this technique, pick an exercise and a time limit such as 1 minute. For the duration of each set, attempt to complete as many repetitions as possible, taking sets to failure. Each time you repeat, attempt to beat your previous score. 

  1. Bodyweight Squats Density: 3 x 1 Minute
  2. Push-ups Density: 3 x 1 Minute

 Repeat as desired. 

bodyweight exercise

How To Get Lean & Toned With Bodyweight Exercise 

Building a more defined and lean physique can sometimes be a daunting task. Trying to achieve it with only bodyweight exercises can feel downright discouraging.

Fortunately, many of the same principles of resistance training also apply to bodyweight training, allowing this style of exercise to actually be effective. You just need to understand those principles and, of course, how to apply them.

Using these techniques should allow you to make significant progress, even if you can’t make it to the gym.


  1. Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of low-vs. high-load resistance training on muscle strength and hypertrophy in well-trained men. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 29(10), 2954-2963.
  2. Burd, N. A., West, D. W., Staples, A. W., Atherton, P. J., Baker, J. M., Moore, D. R., … & Phillips, S. M. (2010). Low-load high volume resistance exercise stimulates muscle protein synthesis more than high-load low volume resistance exercise in young men. PloS one, 5(8), e12033.
  3. Holm, L., Reitelseder, S., Pedersen, T. G., Doessing, S., Petersen, S. G., Flyvbjerg, A., … & Kjaer, M. (2008). Changes in muscle size and MHC composition in response to resistance exercise with heavy and light loading intensity. Journal of applied physiology, 105(5), 1454-1461.

About the author

Rudy Mawer, MSc, CISSN

Rudy has a 1st class BSc in Exercise, Nutrition & Health and a Masters in Exercise & Nutrition Science from the University of Tampa. Rudy currently works as a Human Performance Researcher, Sports Nutritionist and Physique Coach. Over 7 years he has helped over 500 people around the world achieve long last physique transformations.

He now works closely with a variety of professional athletes and teams, including the NBA, USA Athletics, World Triathlon Gold Medalists, Hollywood Celebrities and IFBB Pro Bodybuilders. If you would like to get in contact or work with Rudy please contact him on social media.

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