How to Build Muscle Without Weights

Doing your own weight training at home will save you money and help your health. TORWAISTUDIO/Shutterstock

Feeling the effects of the economy? Have too little time to hit the gym — or too few bucks to join one? Here, then, is some guidance on how to build muscle without an expensive weight set or gym membership, and all from the comfort of home.

Most people who want serious muscle gain — bodybuilders and powerlifters — pump iron to achieve results. If your goal is to be like Ahnold (the former California Governator), lifting heavy weights would be the way to go.

Have more moderate goals? Then, machines and free weight equipment are not necessary to build muscle. These three surrogates for machines, dumbbells and barbells will help you get your body into shape.

  • Bodyweight
  • Elements from the natural world (think: rocks, stones, tree branches, dirt)
  • Heavy, everyday household items (water-filled laundry detergent bottles, water jugs, gallon-milk containers)

There's a good chance you don't have boulders in your apartment, but you can do two out of three on the list.

Doing the squats

Woman doing squats on a street
Squats are an easy-to-do exercise outside of the gym. Artem Varnitsin/Shutterstock

You can use your own body's weight and use household items to perform variations of the following three exercises:

  • Squats
  • Deadlifts
  • Bench Press

A large contingency of weight lifters refer to these exercises above as the holy trinity of muscle-building exercises.

Before you squat with household item weights, learn how to perform a squat correctly with your own bodyweight. There are over one million Google entries on how to squat correctly, so you won't have a problem learning how. The gist of the squat:

  1. Feet about hip-width apart;
  2. Keep a flat back as you stick your booty out and pretend you are about to sit on a low toilet;
  3. Knees remain over ankles; chin stays parallel to floor
  4. Squat down as low as you can maintain a flat back
  5. Activate (gently squeeze) your quads (front of thighs) and buttocks as you come up, exhaling

Doing 5 sets of 20 will give you 100 squats. Getting enough rest and protein in your diet combined with 100 bodyweight squats will help you gain muscle.

After you get used to doing the squats, grab your water-weighted detergent bottles. Go hardcore and hold on to a 5-gallon water jug with each arm.

Doing the deadlifts and presses

Pushups work many different muscle groups. nullplus/Shutterstock

As for deadlifts, try the stiff-legged variety. The regular version often gets too confused with squats. Most people who sit at a chair typing away all day have stiff hamstrings from not stretching enough. The stiff-legged deadlift will not only stretch the hamstrings, they strengthen the back of your thighs as well.

The basics for this exercise: Stick the booty out like you did with the squats, only this time, barely bend your knees as you reach your hips back. You should feel a stretch in the back of your legs. Again, activate the thigh and buttocks muscles as you come forward, exhaling.

Want to give the regular deadlift a try? Place your jugs and bottles on the floor and stick your hips way back and use your hips — not your back — to drive you back to starting position with items in hand.

Both squats and deadlifts recruit just about every major muscle in the body. For those pressed for time, these exercises are perfect.

Pushups also involve many different muscle groups. They strengthen your 'pecs' (chest), shoulders, biceps, triceps, deep mid-section core, and back muscles.

Beginning exercisers and anybody with shoulder joint issues should get clearance from a medical professional and perform modified pushups on the knees. Keep in mind to gently squeeze your belly button towards your spine to activate the deep transverse abdominis, which acts like a corset around your core.

Scheduling your exercises

Is 'getting toned' a goal for you? For those who want to focus on specific muscle groups, split your workouts like this:

  • Day 1: Squats, Deadlifts, Pushups
  • Day 2: Core (bodyweight planks, Pilates-style crunches)
  • Day 3: Arms (half-gallon triceps kickbacks; water bottle arm curls and shoulder presses)
  • Day 4: Rest
  • Days 5, 6, 7: Repeat

Other in-home muscle-building exercises using every-day items around the house:

  • Lunges
  • Bent-over rows
  • Lateral Shoulder Raises

Benefits of weight training

These exercises do more than just make your muscles look all toned and beefy. It makes your bones stronger, too, according to Brad Schoenfeld, an assistant professor of exercise science at New York City’s Lehman College. Over time, our bones weaken, but resistance training, says Schoenfeld, stimulates the cells that strengthen bones. In particular, this can help to avoid bone problems later in life, so it's never too late to start exercising at home.

Other benefits of weight training includes improved insulin sensitivity, reduction in inflammation and better overall mental health.

And as Schoenfeld explains, there's no need to overburden yourself, either. Lifting to one's limit is an individual process, so doing reps with 10 pounds or 100 pounds matters only according to what your body tells you can take. This sort of light-load training, he says, "is a huge boon to adherence, because many older adults or those with injuries or joint issues may not be able to lift heavy loads."

So get to those exercises!