The ‘Big 5’ Basic Bodyweight Moves Are All You Need To Hit Every Muscle

Photo: Getty Images/ PixelsEffect
If you've ever taken any sort of bodyweight training class, you know that there are a few simple moves you just can't escape: planks, push-ups, burpees, mountain climbers, and squats. Or, as we like to call them, the "Big 5” bodyweight exercises.

These exercises are trainer favorites because they target multiple muscles at a time in both your upper and lower body, which means that all you really need to get an efficient workout is to put them all together. And no matter where you are in your fitness journey—whether you're a first-timer or an old pro—these types of basic bodyweight moves can help you get stronger.

"These moves are the foundation [of fitness], and when you start with bodyweight moves, you're less likely injure yourself, and you'll get an increased awareness of your body, which is so key to climbing the ladder toward your fitness goals," trainer Ashley Joi said during a past Well+Good panel. "Taking out weights and equipment allows you to become connected to yourself and build up from the basics."

Here’s everything you need to know about basic bodyweight exercises, from the benefits to how to use them to get a sweat-inducing full-body workout.

Experts In This Article

What are bodyweight exercises?

As the name suggests, Denise Chakoian, a certified personal trainer and founder of CORE Cycle Fitness, says these moves “utilize your own body weight to provide resistance against your own gravity.” And when it comes to effective home workouts, bodyweight exercises take the cake.

Unlike other types of workouts—think rowing, cycling, or even weightlifting—you don’t need anything special to make every muscle in your body burn. Essentially, just the knowledge to properly perform some core body exercises—aka the "Big 5” bodyweight moves, which consist of burpees, mountain climbers, planks, push-ups, and squats. “They can be done anywhere, anytime,” says Chakoian.

The fact that you can do bodyweight exercises at home completely free of charge is only the beginning. After learning the other perks, you'll be more than ready to put together a bodyweight workout plan.

The benefits of bodyweight exercises

Adding basic bodyweight exercises into your workout routine does much more than build muscle. (Muscle-building without equipment, at that.) Learn why strength training without weights can bring on benefits, from developing body control to keeping your joints healthy.

1. They’re great for both newbies and pros

The nice thing about building muscle at home with bodyweight exercises is that it can be both a great starting point for those dipping their toes into exercise, as well as a challenge for those who have been working out for years.

Think about it: These moves—whether you're talkin' push-ups and squats, core body exercises like mountain climbers or planks, or compound bodyweight exercises—can be as easy or as challenging as you want them to be. You just need to adjust your bodyweight workout plan accordingly, depending on your current fitness level. "If you can easily bang out 30 push-ups in a row, try switching to a variation that challenges you to complete just 10 to 15 reps, like a decline push-up,” Trevor Thieme, personal trainer at Openfit, previously told Well+Good.

2. You’re developing spatial awareness and body control

According to Andy Speer, Peloton Tread instructor, a bodyweight fitness routine can help you develop both spatial awareness and body control. “The ability to run, crawl, jump, balance on one foot, push and pull-up are critical to maintaining health and athleticism long-term, and can all be developed at a foundational level,” he previously told Well+Good.

3. You’re keeping your joints healthy

Basic bodyweight exercises are great for healthy joints. "A main benefit of bodyweight training is joint mobility," Speer says. "Developing the ability to articulate the joints of your body is often overlooked. The ability to focus on finite movements will expand your competency in gross movements (like push-ups and squats) and reduce your risk of injury due to over-compensation."

Can I build muscle with body weight only?

Are bodyweight exercises effective for building muscle? They sure are, so start putting together your bodyweight workout plan now. “Bodyweight exercises, like those done without machines or added props/resistance, are effective ways to build strength,” says Jonathan Tylicki, master trainer and director of education for AKT. “The misnomer here is that bodyweight exercises are not ‘weight bearing,’ therefore ineffective. Think about it this way—even without weight, you’re still performing exercises under the resistance of gravity, so you can get many of the same benefits as weightlifting.”

The science backs up the benefits of muscle-building without equipment, too. According to a study published in the journal Physiology and Behavior, bodyweight exercises have the ability to build muscle "independent of an external load” (aka dumbbells, resistance bands, and weight machines). Another small study found that, during a 10-week program that involved doing strength training without weights, the participants improved in seven of nine physical fitness parameters. Not just in muscle endurance (an 11 percent increase) and lower-body power (a six percent increase) but also in aerobic capacity (a 33 percent improvement).

And all it takes to build up your strength? Doing some bodyweight exercises at home. “Depending on the exercise, you can increase the challenge by changing the angle of the exercise, adding speed to the exercise, or increasing your range of motion,” says Tylicki. “These types of exercise incorporate more of your full body, which makes them extremely efficient. Because you’re incorporating more of your body, you also improve the neurological connection—aka mind-body connection—to your movement.”

Bodyweight exercises vs. other workouts—how do they compare?

There are many ways to get in a full-body workout. Building muscle at home by incorporating in the core bodyweight exercises, hitting the gym to lift weights, or even doing yoga. But how would a typical bodyweight fitness routine stack up to some of these other options?

Bodyweight exercises vs. weightlifting

Bodyweight exercises vs. weights—how do they compare? Tylicki says he likes to think of it this way: “Weightlifting trains more specific muscles, or groups of muscles, and improves your strength and muscular contraction. Bodyweight training gives you more full-body benefits and improves your balance, coordination, and range of motion,” he says.

When doing a push-up, for example, he says you’re engaging your upper body (chest, shoulders, triceps, back), your core, and your lower body. However, when doing a chest press while weightlifting—which focuses predominantly on your chest—"your back, core, and legs are completely relaxed because you’re laying back on the bench," he says. With that being said, Tylicki notes that utilizing both types of strength training can help you get better at the other.

Bodyweight exercises vs. cardio

A lot of the time, your go-to bodyweight exercises can actually turn into cardiovascular-focused movements. Sometimes more obviously (like with burpees and mountain climbers) and other times when you up the speed, tempo, or pattern, says Tylicki (think with exercises like push-ups and squats).

“Slower tempos elicit more control and overall muscle activation, whereas faster tempos give you a faster muscle contraction and power,” he says. “A great example of this is an air squat (or bodyweight squat) versus jump squats. Both follow the same movement pattern, just a different speed that can focus more on strength or cardio.”

Bodyweight exercises vs. yoga/Pilates

Tylicki says bodyweight exercises are incorporated into both yoga and Pilates, “delivering fantastic improvements to balance, stability, and mind-body connection.” What’s different about these types of bodyweight exercises is that the focus is on slow and controlled movements. “They also incorporate flexibility to work through a full range of motion,” he says. “You’ll find improvements to your overall strength, including your core, and improved muscular endurance.”

The best bodyweight exercises to try

Scroll through the "Big 5” bodyweight moves to find out why these exercises should be part of any effective home workout. By kickstarting a bodyweight fitness routine, you’ll not only get a sweat-inducing full-body workout but also enhance your strength, joint health, and beyond.

1. Planks

When it comes to strength training without weights, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bodyweight workout that doesn't include some sort of plank. And there's a reason why trainers love the move so much: When it comes to working all 360 degrees of your core, it's the best you're going to get.

"Core strength is fundamental to your posture and your life—it supports your spine and enables you to lift heavier," says Joi. "I believe planks are the best core exercise because they encompass your full body and are also one of the exercises that truly makes you focus and become aware of your body." In addition to firing up your abs, planks also hit your glutes and shoulders and are a great way to turn on your muscles at the beginning of any workout.

2. Push-ups

Effective home workouts always include the humble push-up—a move that packs a whole lot of bang for your buck. At their core (pardon the nerdy fitness pun), push-ups are really just moving planks, which means they'll give you the same benefits as the static version of the move while also hitting your upper body harder. As you become more advanced, you can try different push-up variations that will help fire up even more muscles in your arms and shoulders.

3. Burpees

While you might think you need to step outside for a run or hop on a spin bike to get your daily dose of cardio, burpees prove otherwise and make muscle-building without equipment easy. “Burpees are a full-body exercise that doesn’t require any equipment—meaning they’re your gym on the go,” Kirsty Godso, a Nike Master Trainer, previously told Well+Good. “They’re one of the most-used bodyweight exercises and are great for building both strength and cardiovascular endurance.” The exercise combines planks, push-ups, and jump squats, and by the end of a single set, you'll be dripping in sweat.

4. Mountain climbers

Another core-burning cardio move trainers can't get enough of for building muscle at home? Mountain climbers—aka planks, but make 'em cardio. The exercise involves holding a plank while quickly pulling your knees to your chest, which spikes your heart rate and forces you to engage your abs. You can slow them down for a lower-impact burn or twist them from side to side to fire up your obliques.

5. Squats

Traditional squats hit every muscle from your waist to your toes, and mastering their perfect form requires you to stay focused and brace your core for the entirety of the move. To do them properly, trainer Peter Tucci suggests keeping the mantra "lift, tuck, lower" at the top of your mind, which will help remind you to keep your chest up, tuck your pelvis in, and lower your butt to a 90-degree angle from your knees.

Frequently asked questions about bodyweight exercises

What is the single best bodyweight exercise?

While there are clearly a handful of effective options when you're doing bodyweight exercises at home, what’s a trainer’s top pick? For Chakoian, that’s push-ups. “You’re working the chest, core, anterior and posterior shoulders, and back,” she says. “This is a great bodyweight exercise that’s not only results-driven but a great strength training exercise.” If your face goes red when exercising, no worries—that’s the body’s totally normal response to a tough workout.

Is it OK to do bodyweight exercises every day?

Now that you know the many perks of doing bodyweight exercises, you probably want to add them to your daily schedule. And guess what? You can. “It’s great for people to do bodyweight exercises every day,” Chakoian says. Whether you’re doing push-ups or core work, she said there’s no harm in doing these impactful moves regularly.

How long should bodyweight workouts be?

Chakoian recommends opting for workouts that are 20 to 30 minutes. If you don’t have time to squeeze in a daily workout, no worries—she says to aim for at least three times per week to start building up your strength. (Pro tip: If you’re super sweaty post-workout, be aware of the “shower after exercise” myth. Aka, instead of showering right away, wait for your body to cool down first.)

Well+Good articles reference scientific, reliable, recent, robust studies to back up the information we share. You can trust us along your wellness journey.
  1. Counts, Brittany R et al. “The acute and chronic effects of “NO LOAD” resistance training.” Physiology & behavior vol. 164,Pt A (2016): 345-52. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2016.06.024
  2. Lipecki, Krzysztof, and Bartosz Rutowicz. “The Impact Of Ten Weeks Of Bodyweight Training On The Level Of Physical Fitness And Selected Parameters Of Body Composition In Women Aged 21-23 Years.” Polish Journal of Sport and Tourism, vol. 22, no. 2, 2015,

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...