If we have to make a list of the body-weight exercises to see which is best based on only two factors—

  • which causes hypertrophy of the greatest number of different muscles

  • which is difficult for most people, so elite trainees could do 30 or more repetitions, but most intermediates would struggle with perhaps 1 or 2 repetitions

—which exercises would win?

What do I mean by stressing muscles? I mean that push-ups do use the calves and quads, but no one ever has built big legs from push ups, the same way no one ever has built big calves from squats or big biceps from dead lifts.

2 Answers 2


Any assessment of the ‘best’ exercise for a purpose intrinsically contains some level of subjectivity, but your two criteria shorten the list of of exercises that we might consider. Body-weighted exercises, by definition, limit our working load, and thereby present challenges to their physical difficulty and the degree to which they can stimulate hypertrophy.

The difficulty of body-weight exercises tends to be governed, therefore, by their technicality, or by the loads that they place on small muscles. And both of those factors disqualify them from being considered in this assessment.

The second problem, of course, is that exercises are functionally distinct, and that all exercises therefore tend to stress one functional ‘set’ of muscles, leaving others only to assist, control, or stabilise. That is, if we are pulling, we are not pushing; if we are lifting our body weight with our torso, we are neglecting our legs.

Yes, there are certainly gross compound exercises that incorporate the majority of the body in some way, but our body weight is unavoidably distributed amongst them.

Thus, your criteria tend to favour a multi-phase exercise, and/or an exercise that inherently stresses a large functional chain of muscles. And since there is, as mentioned, a subjective element here, we might therefore consider either:

  1. muscle-ups, or
  2. one-legged squats.

Muscle-ups are a multi-phase exercise that contains elements of push and pull, and further incorporate the core and lower body for stability, balance, and inertia. And one-legged squats stress the whole leg chain, whilst requiring significant activation of the core in order to counteract the imbalance of lateral loading at the hip.

I hope that helps.


This is very broad as there are probably a thousand exercises to compare..and you cannot scientifically compare the hypertrophy gain in terms of "the greatest number of muscles".. for example, your back has several muscles.. so simply pulling on a doorknob activates 3 times as many muscles as pushing a door closed.. does this mean I can say it causes greater hypertrophy? As for elite training, some exercises can be difficult for average person, but bodyweight is using ones own body, so skinny people sometimes excel at these well.. for instance, arnold schwarzenegger had trouble doing an extensive number of leg raises according to his book "encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding" because most bodybuilders have heavy legs, but that doesn't mean someone else who does these exercises are necessarily more elite. But I can suggest exercises that hit a lot of muscle groups that are known to be good hypertrophy exercises

Some contenders for great bodyweight exercises in terms of overall hypertrophy gains that hit every major muscle group, that would be considered "elite training".:

  • Pullups/chinups - these hit a lot of muscle groups and are difficult enough to stimulate hypertrophy. You can also add weight to them to make them more difficult. As far as elite training, it's not common to be able to do 30.. unless your really skinny and don't weigh a lot.
  • Renegade row
  • Renegade row slider variation- this is a renegade row but done by also using the weights to crawl forward.. having your feet in a pair of sliders, and dragging your body forward without leaving the plank position. This is already an exercise by itself where you use your hands to drag your body forward while you plank with your feet on sliders, but this version also adds a renegade row so you workout your back, rotational abs, TA.
  • Step ups with knee high box
  • Box jumps
  • One-legged squats
  • Hanging leg raises
  • Hanging pikes(touching feet to bar)
  • jump squats
  • dips/chest dips-great for chest and tricep development, hard to do 30.
  • bosu ball pushups-really I think push-ups are easy and rough on joints so I don't consider pushups elite training, but with a body ball it makes it quite a bit more challenging.
  • swiss ball pike-hands on floor, bring the ball to your hands from a plank position bending only your waist.
  • one legged glute bridge
  • one legged L glute bridge
  • Hamstring slide using sliders

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