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My experience seems to show that you can't significantly change anything regarding your physique with solely your body weight, even if you work out regularly for years. On the other hand, you can find loads of shredded YouTube individuals arguing that you can build your muscles effectively with nothing but your body weight.

Where's the truth?

I guess some would say something like, "Yeah, it's not about weights, it's about progression, so you can do two-arm pushups, then one-arm pushups" — okay, and then what? Levitate?

Is there a real possibility to turn yourself into, say, Brad Pitt from Fight Club (not Schwarzenegger from Mr. Universe but pretty toned) without any shortcuts like weights and chemicals (supplements)?

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    Of course you can, but calling weights a short cut and putting it in the same context as "chemicals", maybe you have the wrong idea there. To most people, weights are just easier an straight forward than pretty hard to learn body weight stuff. Your muscles don't care how you add resistance, via a bar bell, your own body or a sack full of kittens. The bar bell is just more efficient and consistent with their goals for most people. Do you only care about how you look? – Raditz_35 Mar 3 at 11:24
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    The idea of being jacked also has to include a conversation about your height, weight, and body-fat percentage. Personally, Brad Pitt in Fight Club was pretty slim. He had a really low body-fat to bring out his abs. – C. Lange Mar 3 at 12:50
  • It would surprise you how far you can go with just push-ups and planks alone, but it's not the same for everybody for some reason. You'll always need some kind of resistance or there won't be any gain (using your own body as resistance is perfectly valid, but shadow boxing won't gain you anything but speed/technique, for example). Have you tried one-arm push-ups for a longer period of time? Burpees? And? There should be some significant muscle forming eventually. – Mast Mar 4 at 16:20
  • You can get pretty far, but it's hard stevenlow.org/overcoming-gravity – aidan.plenert.macdonald Mar 4 at 18:54
  • Herschel Walker was a famous NFL football player that did that. See The Herschel Walker Workout – LarsTech Mar 5 at 0:57
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If you look at the basics you'll see that you don't need weight, you need resistance.

The most common way of finding resistance is by using weight because you can increase it in steps, making progressive overload easily achievable. But you can also work without weights and find increasingly harder exercises rather than making the same exercise harder.

I could name a few examples such as:

inverted row > negative pull up > pull up > one arm pull up.

For chest you could do

push up on knees > full push up > elevated push up > one arm push up

For shoulders you could do:

regular push up > pike push up > assisted handstand push up > handstand push up

There are many levels of exercises with different difficulties that can help you progress. You just need to learn them, calisthenics is a great way of training. By the time you can do 30 one arm push ups, you'll have a pretty impressive chest/shoulder/tricep/core.

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My experience seems to show that you can't significantly change anything regarding your physique with solely your body weight, even if you work out regularly for years.

You can absolutely change your physique and put on muscle mass using only bodyweight. This area of working out is called callisthenics. One of my favourite callisthenics YouTubers is Chris Heria and as you can see, he's pretty jacked.

But physique is more than just working out. I found this fun article from Men's Health and, as you can see, it is possible to look fit at a variety of muscle levels.

Is there a real possibility to turn yourself into, say, Brad Pitt from Fight Club [?]

Let's talk about this specifically:

Brad Pitt from Fight Club

Pitt's physique in this movie is fairly lean. When I look at him personally, there's nothing incredibly impressive about his muscle mass -- I would say many active men are somewhere around this point. He looks to me like he did a pretty simple workout split focusing on big muscle groups. It looks like a lot of cardio was included as well. His goal is to look like a fighter.

The difference here is that he is likely around 5-6% body fat! At this level of body fat, your abdominals become extremely prominent and your overall physique is more defined. Elite level bodybuilders want to be around this level in competition.


So, yes, you can reach this level of physique. It will not be easy. You'll need to add resistance if you're doing bodyweight only workouts. As @MJB pointed out, this can be done by adding weights but it can also be done by doing more challenging progressions of the exercise.

The real challenge here will be adjusting your diet accordingly and getting your body fat down to very low levels. This is also possible but you should remember actors and bodybuilders aren't at these levels year-round. Actors do reps before scenes to look pumped. Bodybuilders do insane water cuts before events.

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  • There's hardly a single fat cell in my body. I do a lot of crunches (two sets, 73 reps each, no cheating as far as I can tell), no sharply outlined abs still (you kinda can see that there are muscles under the skin but no clear Brad Pitt-like relief) – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 4 at 9:59
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    @SergeyZolotarev How well you can see your abs is also very different from person to person. There are multiple factors like muscle size, fat %, but also how deep the muscle inserts. You might have a lot stronger core than the next guy but still don't see your abs as well as his. This is also the reason why some people have a 4 pack and others a 6 or 8 pack. If the muscle doesn't insert very deep, there is not much visible seperation, giving the 4 pack rather than 6. – MJB Mar 4 at 11:02
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    @SergeyZolotarev As C. Lange alluded to in his last line, water also plays a part: the modern "jacked" appearance is actually a sign of being malnourished and dehydrated, combined with flexing - are you comparing your relaxed abs with Brad Pitt's tensed ones? (some Actors from "Game of Thrones" are on record as commenting about how many top scenes required them to walk around tensed up to show abs & pecs, and how surprisingly hard work that was) – Chronocidal Mar 4 at 14:28
  • @Chronocidal I'm perfectly malnourished, that's no problem. Abs should stick out even in a relaxed state if there's no fat and muscles are well-developed. I doubt if I bring it to 100, then some magic will happen with my abs, it's not that much more – Sergey Zolotarev Mar 5 at 2:17
  • @SergeyZolotarev if you're perfectly malnourished, then that's probably why you're not seeing body composition changes from bodyweight training. You need to get your nutrition in check before worrying about anything else – Dark Hippo Mar 5 at 12:09
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Bodyweight training can be referred to as calisthenics, which is a widely popular training methodology that can result in decent muscle mass. It may be a slower progression than traditional weight lifting, but you can certainly build a sizable lean physique.

Your example of Brad Pitt from Fight Club is actually a pretty good example of what can be attainable through bodyweight exercises. Your example of 'Schwarzenegger from Mr. Universe' is also a good example of what is not attainable through bodyweight exercises.

A significant difference between traditional weight and body weight training is isolation. Training with machines, barbells, and dumbbells allows you to target specific muscles more easily than you would with pure bodyweight fitness exercises. A good example of this is triceps exercises. There are many different machines and dumbbell exercises that target only your triceps, for example tricep push down. In addition to this, we have identified exercies that not only target a specific muscle, but target specific heads of muscles. For instance, the tricep push down targets the lateral head of the tricep, while overhead tricep extension targets the Long head of the tricep. This type of isolation is much more difficult and less intuitive when it comes to bodyweight exercises. You cannot target muscle heads with bodyweight exercises to the extent you can with weights.

What this difference means is that, by using isolation training, bodybuilders can add more size to specific muscles than could be built by only doing compound lifts. You likely cannot achieve 18inch arms from bodyweight fitness alone, you would need extensive bicep and tricep isolation exercises which are much less effective using only your bodyweight versus using weights.

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  • +1: I think a lot of individuals think they can look like Arnold without going to the gym. It is possible to build mass with callisthenics but you need to be realistic. Welcome to Fitness.SE! – C. Lange Mar 4 at 21:27
  • I agree, calisthenics is certainly effective but has some clear limitations. Cheers! – Bluejuice Mar 4 at 21:53
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My experience seems to show that you can't significantly change anything regarding your physique with solely your body weight, even if you work out regularly for years. On the other hand, you can find loads of shredded YouTube individuals arguing that you can build your muscles effectively with nothing but your body weight.

Where's the truth?

If you search around a lot of the questions on here (and other fitness related communities), you'll constantly find individuals asking essentially the same question, but instead of bodyweight; they're asking why using weights doesn't work for them, why machines don't seem to be working for them, or, my personal favourite, if everyone with a semi-decent physique is on gear.

Yes, you can change your physique with solely your bodyweight. Or you can use weights. Or machines. Or you pick up a new born calf and carry it every day for several years as it grows into a cow.

Any sort of physique change is hard. Your body doesn't want to change, it's happy how it is, you need to convince it of the NEED to change, you need to convince it that a physical adaptation is necessary for survival.

If you're constantly loading a heavy weight across your shoulders and squatting with it, lifting a heavy load from the floor, or pressing a heavy load overhead, your body will respond. This is why powerlifters / strongmen / weightlifters gain muscle.

Likewise, if you're constantly challenging your body through various movements of increasing difficulty, front levers, planche push ups, one arm press ups, one arm pull ups, your body will response. This is why gymnasts have impressive physiques.

I guess some would say something like, "Yeah, it's not about weights, it's about progression, so you can do two-arm pushups, then one-arm pushups" — okay, and then what? Levitate?

Yes and no. Yes, progressions will get you stronger, a one arm push up or pull up is an impressive feat of strength, but if your goal is to build an appreciable amount of muscle, then you also have to stress the muscles with sets of higher reps.

If you can already perform 30 press ups non-stop, then you're going to be hitting a point of diminishing returns as far as muscle building goes. You would be much better served picking a harder push up variation (requiring more strength) and working on that until you can do a decent amount of reps, then pick a harder variation, and so on and so forth.

I wouldn't recommend levitation as a progression for press ups. Whilst undoubtedly impressive, I feel that removing stress from the muscles you're trying to work would be a little counterproductive.

Is there a real possibility to turn yourself into, say, Brad Pitt from Fight Club (not Schwarzenegger from Mr. Universe but pretty toned) without any shortcuts like weights and chemicals (supplements)?

No, for the simple reason you're not Brad Pitt, and you don't have his genetics. Yes, you can build an impressive physique with purely bodyweight exercises, but you do have to work hard for it (like you do if you take a "shortcut" with weights).

The only caveat I would throw in is that while you can almost always find a progression for upper body work (I've yet to see anyone who can knock out a set of 10 one arm handstand press ups), when it comes to lower body work, you might find that you do need to add additional weight after a certain point.

All of this presupposes that you're sufficiently handling your recovery. If you're not taking care of your nutrition, sleep, stress levels, water intake, etc, etc, then it doesn't matter if you're doing calisthenics, weight lifting, or carrying the aforementioned bovine creature, you'll find it very hard, if not impossible, to significantly change anything regarding your physique.

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A simplified answer - yes.

It depends on any secondary goals you have too, do you want to achieve immense strength in any specific movement, learn a skill (handstand, front lever, etc.), obtain a certain type of physique, improve your overall fitness level, etc. If you do have them, it’s good to train movements specific to your goal. There are articles that state there were no significant differences in muscle growth between individuals who did high reps, low resistance and low reps, high resistance when both group perform exercises to failure. But the group that performed low reps high resistance would have greater strength gains.

It’s possible to get your nutrients just from food. Supplement when you are not able to hit your dietary needs.

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This was the point of Charles Atlas' Dynamic Tension workout. He was too poor to own any exercise equipment, or join a gym so he developed (with some borrowed ideas) a system of muscle building using muscle-vs-muscle resistance.

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