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 weights, 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. Just ask Atlas, Sampson, and Hercules. Think they used a Smith Machine or Ab Roller to crank out some squats and chisel their ripped 6-packs?

Figures both mythical and real for millennia have used the following three surrogates for machines, dumbbells and barbells:

  • 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.

You can use your own bodyweight 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.

SquatBefore 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:

  • feet about hip-width apart;
  • keep a flat back as you stick your booty out and pretend you are about to sit on a low toilet;
  • knees remain over ankles; chin stays parallel to floor
  • squat down as low as you can maintain a flat back
  • 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.

Ready to add some weight to your at-home squats?

Grab your water-weighted detergent bottles. Go hardcore and hold on to a 5-gallon water jug with each arm.

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.

Doing pushupsPushups 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.

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
Got any other ideas for weight-free workouts at home? Leave us a comment below.

Judd Handler is a lifestyle coach and fitness trainer in Encinitas, CA.

Photos: Jupiterimages; jessica mullen/Flickr