Since writing my beginner's weight lifting routine, I've had a number of people ask me if there are any alternatives that can be done without any equipment. And here I was all proud of myself for devising a routine than only necessitates a set of dumbbells! Well, apparantly there is a demand for an all-bodyweight all-the-time workout, so here it is. You can do this workout in a tiny college dorm room without so much as a heavy soup can.
Before I give the routine, I'd like to offer a brief rundown of the pros and cons. Bodyweight exercises tend to recruit a vast array of muscle groups. This is great in terms of functional strength and learning to control your body. Additionally, bodyweight exercises tend to ensure that you work the full range of the targeted muscle. For example, barbell bench presses can allow your lower pecs to bear the bulk of the load, whereas a properly done push-up will recruit the upper pecs and pectoralis minor. But, while I still hold true to compound exercises, I think that it's good to be able to isolate certain muscle groups that just can't be fully tapped without weights, such as shoulders.
As far as building muscle, in my experience, nothing beats throwing heavy weights around. However, if you're just starting out, you'll make gains no matter what you do. Eventually, you WILL get to a point where you need to add weights, especially with lower body work. But when you're starting from nothing, you will certainly progress. This routine is also good for experienced weight lifters who are traveling or who periodize their routines to have light weight days.
Despite using no weights, this routine is NOT simple. Chances are it will kick your butt!
For lower body, I prefer one-legged exercises. Since you're not adding weight, it adds a challenge to shift all the work to a single leg. Complete newbies may opt to just do plain ol' bodyweight full squats. I do these with my hands clasped behind my head. If you can do 10-15 of these with good form, you might switch to unweighted Bulgarian split squats. Be sure that whatever you prop your foot on is low enough to accomodate doing a deep squat. This is also good if you only have one set of dumbbells which are appropriate for your upper body but you need a challenge for your quads. Just grasp the dumbbells while doing this. If you are super duper advanced, try doing pistols.
Perhaps the only equipment-free hamstring exercise is the king deadlift. If you scroll down to the first exercise in this article (mildly NSFW), the author shows a few different ways to do these, ranging from easiest to hardest. If you own a pair of dumbbells but they are too light for a challenging conventional deadlift, you can try one-legged deadlifts.
For chest, wide-arm push-ups are the longtime favorite. I recommend these to beginners in lieu of a chest press regardless of what equipment is available. I don't like modified push-ups where you put your knees on the ground because they seem to activate your abs more than your chest. If you need something easier, do them on an incline.
Dive bombers, aka stripper push-ups, are a great way to train your deltoids, and they look pretty cool too. I don't think that they're a substitute for shoulder presses or side raises, but they get the job done.
While supine rows and pull ups are my favorite bodyweight back exercise, if you don't have a low bar, do a few sets of reverse planks to failure. These are virtually a full body exercise, but they really make your back muscles scream for mercy.
I personally wouldn't bother with any additional abdominal work, as all of these exercises heavily recruit your core muscles. However, if you're one of those freaks who insists on doing some direct ab work, do a few sets of V-ups. There are a ton of extremely effective bodyweight ab exercises out there, so feel free to substitute your favorite. I selected V-ups because they're easy to maintain good form without equipment, and you can actually reach failure. I love planks but we're already doing reverse planks.
If you are a total novice, you could make one or both of the following modifications:
-Isometric towel hold instead of dive bombers
-Wall push-ups instead of regular push-ups
I don't worry so much about with sets and reps, because you can't adjust the weight to be lighter or heavier. Instead, I just focus on getting a total volume of approximately 25 reps. This could be 3 sets of 8, 5 sets of 5, 8 sets of 3, and so on. If an exercise is particularly difficult for you, for example, if you can only do 1-2 push ups, just do sets until you feel that particular body part is exhausted. With the reverse plank, simply hold until failure. The nice thing about bodyweight exercises is that you can attain full failure without injuring yourself. You don't have to worry about dropping a barbell on your head!
For cardio, running outside is free. However, if it's snowing or raining and you don't have so much as a jump rope, I'll provide a low-tech cardio ass buster: Tabata sets of mountain climbers. This article tells you how to do Tabata sets, and this link shows the scientific reasoning behind the method. Or run up and down the stairs or something; get creative!
Have a favorite bodyweight exercise that I missed? Leave it in the comments!