While many of us choose to go to the gym when we want to pack on some muscle, the fact is that we don’t have to do so. We don’t have to drop a boatload of cash on a monthly membership fee. In fact, we don’t even have to spend money on home equipment. Just by having a body, we have all we need to build muscle.
Wild animals of comparable size, often significantly smaller, are much stronger than we are, yet they obviously don’t have gym passes or weight machines. They have their bodies, and they use them for survival, a list of instinctive tasks that involve traveling, eating and protecting themselves. Of course, through technology and an eye on convenience, humans have altered our version of this.
That said, we still have the potential to build our strength and to gain muscle mass without an additional weight in our hands or a machine to give us a full-body work-out. There’s no need to be so complicated.
The upper body—arms, shoulders and back—are often how we visually define muscularity, i.e. “show me your muscle” translates into flexing a bicep. We can build up these muscles with our body weight.
- Pushups are so effective that most trainers still include them in routines, despite a bench press, incline press, butterfly machine and dumbbells being available at every gym. Pushups even have different levels of difficulty. Most people are capable of starting with pushups where their knees, rather than feet, are on the ground as the pivot point. Advanced strength trainers can elevate their feet on a chair or bench or, ultimately, work on the pinnacle of one-handed push-ups. Pushups build muscle in the arms, back, shoulders, abs and even the legs.
- Pullups are possibly one of the most intimidating of the bodyweight exercises because most of us can’t do many, something some of us—author included—displayed in gym class in the 90s. However, they don’t have to start off at such a high difficulty level. We can do easier pull ups with a lower bar (or branch or step) with our feet on the ground so our legs can kick in with necessary assistance. We can hang horizontally beneath a table, our hands holding the edge, and pull our bodies up this way. In other words, there are simple steps to working up to a set of full-on pullups, at which point those back and shoulder muscles will be evidently there.
Whether we are throwing or running or dancing or just showing off, the core—our abs—are critical in the process. In terms of appearance, which many of us are doing this for, a ripped belly is the ultimate prize. Again, no machines are necessary.
- Planks, like pushups, work more or less the entire body, but it’s core strength upon which it draws the most power. In essence, plank is getting into the top portion of the pushup position and holding it for a set amount of time. The degree of difficulty can be adjusted just like it was with pushups: knees on the ground, feet on the ground or feet elevated. For another degree of difficult, one foot, rather than one hand, can be lifted of the ground.
- Leg lifts are another quality core exercise. Again, the final version actually works the entire body, but for those not quite at the strength level yet, there are less intensive version to build up muscle in the meantime. Leg lifts can start lying on the ground and lifting a bent leg then a straight leg. After that, we can move back to a pullup bar and, while hanging from it, lift bent legs then advance to straight legs.
Despite the fact that we aren’t getting anywhere without powerful legs (and glutes), the lower body is perhaps the most overlooked part of strength building. No one says “show me your muscle” and gets a thigh flex. Nevertheless, this is where the truly big muscles are.
- Body squats are another basic exercise that works the entire body. Interlace hands behind the head, keep the upper body stiff and straight, then squat down and stand up. The beginner version would be to not squat down too far, say just to a chair height, and the advanced version would be work on a one-legged squat, which utilizes both weight and balance as muscle-building techniques. The speed at which these squats are performed all increase (slower) or decrease (quicker) the intensity.
- Lunges are the other classic leg exercise, and they build up all the muscles in the legs, as well as core strength. Again, there are myriad versions to help newbies and to challenge advanced folks. For an easier version, the lunger simply doesn’t go as deep into the lunge or uses their arms—with hands on their forward knee—to assist them getting back up. For advanced versions, the back foot could be put onto a chair or the goal could be to push back up into a jump rather than standing position.
Eating for Muscles
It’s insane to think that six basic exercises with no equipment can supply an intense but full-body workout. They can. But, it’s also important that we eat muscle-building foods to help the situation along. There are many great plant-based snacks and meals that provide the right stuff for building muscle, such as these recipes from the Food Monster App.
- Sesame Tofu by Rhea Parsons: High protein, low carb and vitamin-rich
- Lemon Coconut Granola with Cashews by Patricia Idus: good fats, protein rich and coconut has super powers for building muscles
- Mushroom, Beet, and Black Bean Burger by Kayli Dice: protein, vitamins and minerals and the feel of eating a burger inspires muscle-building (you have to flex your biceps on route to a bite)
- Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Chickpeas, Kale, Sprouts, and Seeds: The recipe just has a lot of everything good. It’s an awesome light but powerful lunch or dinner after a workout.
- Kale, Sweet Potato and Tempeh Hash by Carina Wolff: Start the day of with a powerful breakfast as well. Tempeh is fermented for good gut health as well as protein.
For more delicious recipes, download the Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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