When it comes to functional fitness and training, it all starts with bodyweight exercises. Consider them the non-negotiable foundations of strength. Dumbbells, kettlebells, bands, and everything else can start to play a role only after mastering the very basic movements that strengthen how we function. In everyday life, those movements are primarily squatting, lunging, hinging, pushing, pulling, and rotating.
As our bodies become more proficient at the bodyweight exercises that strengthen and support those movements, then we can add resistance or increase the complexity of the movements. Jumping ahead to working with heavy loads or forcing the body to perform advanced exercises (like in a Spartan race or a DEKA event) without the basics down could make you vulnerable to injury.
What Are the Benefits of Bodyweight Exercises?
Aside from bodyweight exercises being the foundation of strength, other benefits of bodyweight exercise is that they can be done anywhere, workouts can be quick and simple, and they can be modified to be easier or harder based on your fitness level and goals.
The Best Bodyweight Exercises for Functional Strength
1. Bodyweight Squat
The bodyweight squat is arguably one of the most important exercises to learn and to perform well. It's a full-body exercise with an emphasis on the lower body (more specifically the quads, hamstrings, and glutes). The squat also challenges the core and improves mobility in the hips.
How to Do a Bodyweight Squat Properly:
1. Stand tall with your feet just outside shoulder width and your toes slightly pointed outward. Keep your hands at your sides.
2. Engage your glutes while pushing your hips back and lowering yourself toward the ground.
3. Once your quads are about parallel with the floor, pause, and then drive your weight through your heels and stand tall.
2. Single-Leg Deadlift (RDL)
The primary benefit of the single-leg deadlift is the way it challenges the entire body to stabilize and balance itself while moving on one leg. The exercise strengthens the hips, quads, hamstrings, glutes, and core.
Note: The video below demonstrates a weighted single-leg deadlift, but the movement pattern is the same for the bodyweight variation.
How to Do a Single-Leg Deadlift:
1. Stand tall with your core braced.
2. Press one foot firmly into the floor while slowly letting the other leg slide back. Allow your upper body to move forward as you hinge at the hips, while maintaining a slight bend in the knee of the supporting leg.
3. Continue lowering yourself down while maintaining a straight back. Pause when your hands reach about one foot from the ground and you're feeling peak contraction of your hamstrings.
4. Return back to the start position.
If you lose balance, use a chair, box, or wall to support you.
3. Straight-Leg Sit-Up
There's no debate that the muscles of the core are critical for everyday life and athletic performance. Theses muscles build stability, strength, and power. The sit-up is one of the fundamental exercises for improving core strength, but unlike the crunch, which encourages too much flexion of the spinal, the straight-leg sit-up is a much safer option.
Steps to Perform a Straight-Leg Sit-Up:
1. Lie flat on your back with your arms at your side.
2. Brace your core, eliminate the gap in your low back, and pull yourself up to a full seated position.
3. Keep your core braced and return to the start position.
4. Elbow or Palm Plank
If the straight-leg sit-up is a foundation exercise for core strength while moving the spine in flexion, then the elbow or palm plank is the foundational exercise for pillar strength, or the stability of your shoulders, core, and hips. Holding the elbow or palm plank for extended periods of time strengthens the core, and — as a result — protects the spine from too much flexion or extension.
How to Do an Elbow or Palm Plank:
1. Get down on your hands (or elbows) and toes with your core braced.
2. Squeeze your glutes and draw your belly button into your spine, and think about pulling your shoulder blades back up. Your head should remain in a neutral position.
5. Reverse Lunge
If the bodyweight squat is the number one exercise for your lower body, then the reverse lunge isn't far behind it. The reverse lunge is a staple exercise for building lower body strength while working them unilateral, or one at a time. The reverse lunge strengthens the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and opens the hips.
Steps for Reverse Lunging Properly:
1. Stand tall, brace your core to maintain a neutral back position, and think about pointing your hips toward the floor rather than out in front of you.
2. With control, step back with one foot. Then, focus on slowly lowering into the lunge. Slowing the eccentric part of the exercise both increases muscle recruitment and reduces the risk of banging your back knee on the floor.
3. Drive through your front heel to return to a full standing position, squeezing your glutes to fully extend your hips at the top. Resist the urge to lean back as you do so. Focus on rising out of the lunge with your body as tall and straight as possible.
6. RFE Split Squat (Bulgarian Split Squat)
The RFE split squat or rear foot elevated split squat, also know as the Bulgarian split squat is a progression from the reverse lunge. It's a demanding, but low-impact exercise that strengthens the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and — when loaded with resistance — can force the muscles of the core to work very hard.
How to Correctly Do a RFE Split Squat:
1. Standing in front of a box that's just below knee height, place the top of one foot on the top of the box with your other foot comfortably in front of you. Make sure your stance isn't too short or too far. A good rule of thumb is to start by standing two to three feet from the box.
2. Keeping your core braced and your torso upright, slowly lower yourself to where your back knee just about reaches the floor.
3. Slowly return to the top.
Aside from the pull-up and a few others, there aren't too many bodyweight-only exercises to strengthen the muscles of the back. This makes the superman a critical exercise. Not only does the exercise strengthen all of the muscles of the back, but it also strengthens the core, shoulders, and glutes too. Exercises like the superman prevent the rolling forward of the shoulders and neck that can habitually happen over time, typically with office workers.
Steps for the Superman:
1. Lie flat on your stomach with your arms out in front of you.
2. Brace you core and lift both your legs and arms up off of the ground. Keep your head in a neutral position. Pause and return to the start position.
8. I, Y, T
Similarly to the superman, I,Y,T's are a series of movements that strengthen the shoulders and back. The exercise can be performed as a strength-building exercise, a dynamic warm-up exercise, or as a mobility exercise.
How to Do an I, Y, T:
1. Standing upright with your feet about shoulder width apart, hinge at the hips and raise both of your arms straight overhead into an I position. Keep you core tight and try not to arch your lower back when going overhead. Return to the start position.
2. Repeat the same steps, but while raising your arms into a Y position, and then a T position.
If the squat is the number one movement for your lower body, then the push-up and pull-up are fighting for the number one upper-body slot. Not only is the push-up essential for building upper-body strength in the chest, shoulders, and triceps, but the exercise is also the progression to a plank, as the core is also put to work.
How to Properly Do Push-Ups:
1. Get down on hands and toes with your hands about shoulder width apart.
2. Brace your core and square your body up so your hands, elbows, and shoulders are stacked.
3. Slowly lower yourself to the floor with your elbows tracking slightly toward the body. As you just about reach the floor, return up to the top.
10. Lateral Bound
The lateral bound is a ballistic bodyweight exercises that builds both strength and power throughout the entire lower body. It works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, unilaterally, or one side at a time. This exercise is an essential for functional movement, as the strength that it builds protects the knees, hips, and ankles from the demands of sport.
Steps to Complete a Lateral Bound:
1. Begin by standing on one leg.
2. Jump laterally to the other side and land on your opposite foot. Quickly rebound and jump back. Try to land softly on the balls of your feet. Repeat.
11. Lunge Jump
Take the reverse lunge or split squat and make it dynamic. This is the strength and power exercise that works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. It safeguards the knees, hips, and ankles — much like the lateral bound.
How to Do a Lunge Jump:
1. Start in a tall standing position.
2. Lunge back, softly tapping the knee to the ground, then explode up and switch sides. Repeat this quickly while keeping your core braced and your torso upright.
The burpee is the beast of all bodyweight exercises. Just about every single muscle in the body is being worked: upper body, lower body, and core. Your cardio will also see a big boost once you can get proficient at this.
How to Do Burpees:
1. Drop down and touch your chest to the ground.
2. With a braced core, push yourself off the ground, land in a squat, and proceed to stand to the upright position with a fully extended hip.
3. Jump off of the ground, making sure that both feet are in the air.