There are countless bodyweight exercises and variations to choose from. They range from the simple – squats, lunges, push-ups – to the more complex – plyo-jumps, single leg squats, and archer pull-ups.
While all these exercises may have a specific value, in general some are better than others. The overwhelming variety of exercises is why people ask questions like,
If you could only choose one (or two or three) exercises to do, what would they be?
This question has been posted in every fitness forum or group dozens of times, and while I don’t think you should limit yourself to one or two exercises, it can be valuable to analyze which exercises are the best use of your time to meet your goals. It’s good to be able to pare down the fluff and concentrate on what will really make you better.
In this post, we’ll list the top 10 exercises we believe are fundamental for developing overall strength, flexibility, and body control.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #1 – Squat
Squats are an obvious choice for this list. Weighted or unweighted, the basic squat builds up not only hip and leg strength, but also improves your overall level of fitness. Plus they’ll help you build some good leg muscle too 😉
We’ll cover some other leg-dominant exercises in this post, but full squats deserve mention as the #1 fundamental bodyweight movement.
One of the great things about squats is how versatile they are. Once you’re able to do a fair number of regular squats with perfect form, there are many variations you can use to make the exercise more challenging. One of my favorites is the pistol squat.
Pistol squats add a balance and body control component to make for a more well-rounded squat practice.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #2 – Frogger
The frog jump, or “frogger” as I like to call it, is a locomotive pattern that is more than just hopping around on the ground. This exercise is in our top 10 because it is a great combination of hip flexibility, arm and torso strength, and balance control.
One of my favorite ways to apply the frogger is by using it as a transition into a handstand.
This teaches the “tuck up” to handstand in an accessible manner.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #3 – Monkey
The monkey is another locomotive exercise similar to the frogger, but now the movement takes you sideways on the ground.
This lateral motion challenges the muscles in your whole body in a different way than the more common forward, backward, and rotational movements that we usually use in our daily lives.
I’ve covered this move in depth for our Alpha Posse members, demonstrating how the monkey will lead into other skills, such as the handstand or the cartwheel.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #4 – Cartwheel
The cartwheel may not be the most glamorous skill, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. How well you can perform it measures your skill in aligning and orienting yourself while moving through space from upright to upside down, and back up again.
Working up to a proper cartwheel requires wrist strength, hip flexibility, and a developed sense of coordination. There’s a lot you can do to improve your cartwheel abilities, and we’ve written in depth on the subject.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #5 – Pull-Up
The pull-up is more of a “pure strength move” than most of the choices on this list and it’s a favorite on pretty much all “essential bodyweight exercise” lists.
Mastering the basic pull-up is the best way to build upper body pulling strength with minimal equipment, and it creates a foundation for more challenging bodyweight skills such as front levers, human flags, and muscle-ups.
The pull-up is easily one of the best ways to strengthen your arms and shoulders, and it’s definitely worth spending time on.
I teach the pull-up a little differently than the typical method. I add a foundational step, called the “pulling prep,” which strengthens the muscles around the shoulder girdle, preparing them for the load of a full correct pull-up.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #6 – Bear
The bear walk is another locomotive exercise that builds very good general body control. When done well, there is a great combination of hip and shoulder flexibility and shoulder and arm strength. This indicates a nice level of overall movement capability.
Most of our clients are amazed at how difficult this movement is when they first begin.
At more advanced levels of this skill, you can keep the arms bent to add more of a challenge.
I use the bear walk as part of my assessment of new trainees because you can tell a lot from this seemingly simple move.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #7 – Push-Up
The push-up is another obvious choice for a list of fundamental bodyweight exercises. It doesn’t get more basic than using your arms to push your body up from the ground. When practiced perfectly, the push-up also happens to be one of the best full body exercises around, and there many great challenging progressions and variations.
The push-up is a bodyweight exercise you’ve probably practiced before, but there are a lot of details that go into doing a proper push-up.
As you can see, I emphasize keeping the elbows close to the body throughout the push-up. This ensures the muscles stays tight and controlled throughout the movement, and allows you to get the most out of this exercise.
It’s also the form that you need to practice from the beginning to progress to more difficult skills such as the bent arm stand and elbow levers.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #8 – Hollow Body Hold
The hollow body is one of our fundamental exercises, because mastering it gives you the strength to perform so many other movements correctly.
It’s a full body exercise that can be done with modifications to accommodate the rawest beginner to the most seasoned athlete. We incorporate this hold immediately into our client’s routines.
It’s a simple position, but yields so much benefit. If you haven’t tried it before, give it a shot and you’ll see just how challenging it is. The key is keeping the low back glued to the ground the entire time.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #9 – Scales
The front and back scales can be used both as an assessment tool, and as a method of improving your strength, flexibility, and balance. When clients complain of poor balance or leg strength, the scales are the first place I have them go.
Scales may look easy at first glance but they are really quite challenging, but if you keep your leg fully locked out while maintaining an upright position, you’ll see how much this simple exercise works your legs and core.
Fundamental Bodyweight Exercise #10 – L-Sit
The L-Sit is the epitome of a full body exercise. It engages the upper body, which has to support your weight, the core, which works hard to keep your body upright, and the legs, which must be locked out completely throughout the hold.
If you are able to do a solid L-Sit, your strength and body control have reached an impressive level.
It’s very likely that you won’t be able to go straight into the full L-sit right away, so we’ve made a thorough tutorial that can take you step by step from scratch to a quality L-Sit. Start by keeping the legs tucked, and be sure your arms are locked out the entire time. As you get better you’ll be able to extend the feet and get into a full L-Sit.
BONUS Bodyweight Exercise #11 – Handstand
The handstand didn’t make our top ten list because it’s not really necessary for building a foundation of strength, flexibility, and body control. However, it certainly indicates a high level of all those things once you achieve it, and it’s my favorite skill to train, so I had to include it here!
We have a LOT of free resources to help you work on your hand balancing skills.
Getting the Most from These Fundamental Bodyweight Exercises
This list is not exhaustive by any means, and we don’t believe our list of fundamentals has to be your list of fundamentals. You may have other bodyweight exercises you find essential for your optimal performance.
However, it’s undeniable these 11 exercises, and their respective variations and progressions, will take you quite far.
You don’t have to do all of these exercises in one workout, or even in one exercise cycle. But these all offer specific benefits and you’ll do well by incorporating them into your routines at some point, especially if you’ve never tried them before.
Put These Exercises to Work
One of the biggest benefits of bodyweight training over weighted exercise is the ability to do it pretty much anywhere, anytime.
So even when you’re short on time, you can get in a training session.
We’ve taken many of the exercises included above and put them into a bodyweight circuit routine you can download and take with you. This will allow you to prioritize your training even when you don’t have enough time for a full workout.
Get Strong With Just Your Body
Get our downloadable bodyweight circuit routine so you can work on getting strong no matter how much time or space you’ve got.
You may be interested in working on ALL of the 11 fundamental bodyweight exercises above, but without a foundation, you won’t get very far. Spend the time now on building that base, and then come back to any and all of the exercises on this list.