Dear Lifehacker, I like the idea of getting a workout without extra equipment, but some people tell me it isn't effective enough to really build muscle. Is that true? Are bodyweight exercises effective? Thanks, Push-Up Paul
While the process of building muscle at a cellular level is complicated to say the least, at the practical level, it's quite simple.
In Greek Mythology, there's a story about a boy named Milo who carried his pet calf around everywhere he went. As the calf grew more each day, Milo grew stronger and stronger. By the time Milo was an adult, he was one of the strongest in the land. (By the way, in what would have made a great Game of Thrones episode, Milo devoured his childhood friend when it was full-grown.)
While there are some problems with this myth, it's actually not too far off. Building muscle can be simplified into one simple concept: increase the weight, repetitions (also known as "reps"), or volume that you can do in a given exercise. This concept is known as " progressive overload". The result is an increase in muscle size — a process known as muscular hypertrophy.
In the gym, you can obviously increase the weight of the dumbbell, barbell, or machine that you're using. But can you progressively overload using bodyweight exercises, thereby gaining muscle? Yes — to an extent.
Bodyweight Training: How Effective Is It?
Before talking about the benefits of bodyweight training, we have to understand whether or not it's effective.
For lighter folks, the first concern is whether their body weight is enough for hypertrophy to occur. Even if you don't weigh that much, the good news is that it's probably enough. In one study, hypertrophy occurred using as little as 30% of the maximum weight that one could lift.
What about heavier folks who are worried that they can't perform bodyweight exercises? That can be solved by finding versions of exercises that you can do, such as kneeling push-ups or wall push-ups instead of regular push-ups. Don't beat yourself up if you use an easier version of an exercise. What truly matters is improvements week over week.
Basically, no matter what you weigh, you'll be able to progressively overload. You can do so in the following ways:
- More reps. While you won't be able to increase the "weight" on a movement, you will be able to increase the number of reps that you can do.
- More volume. If you can't increase the number of reps after a certain point, you can add additional sets to increase the exercise's volume.
- More difficult variations. Lastly, you can progress to a more difficult version of an exercise (also called "progressions"), such as bulgarian split squats instead of regular bodyweight squats. There's an awesome list of bodyweight exercise progressions here.
The Pros Of Bodyweight Training
The largest advantage of bodyweight training is that you don't need a gym membership. Aside from the obvious financial and convenience benefits, there's a huge psychological benefit for beginners. Coach Ben Hessel, who runs the site Gym Free Workouts explains:
Many people are uncomfortable in a gym atmosphere. I love gym "bros" making loud noises and dropping deadlifts like your daily dose of grunting, but it completely deters my type of client from stepping foot into a gym. For them, this allows them the comfort of being in their own home - or any comfortable environment. They don't feel judged, so they can challenge themselves to be uncomfortable and improve.
The gym can be an incredibly intimidating experience for beginners. Remember, just getting started is the most important thing you can do. Bodyweight training is a great option if it makes you more likely to start a routine.
Even if you eventually want to use free weights (dumbbells and barbells), bodyweight training is a great place to start and may be better in the long run. I asked my friend and trainer Hunter Cook, who specialises in both bodyweight and free weight training, about the connection between the two. He says:
Body weight movement isn't something I consider an option, but more like a prerequisite. When it comes to programming my clients movement, I will teach and reinforce my clients movement patterns with their body weight alone first. It is only when they learn to move properly unloaded that they earn the option to load the movement.
Although I believe that body weight exercises are only one tool in the toolbox, I do believe they can take people farther than they imagine regardless of their goals. Proper body weight movement is extremely joint friendly and allows for a more natural range of motion. Body weight exercises teach people how to utilise full body tension which is a prerequisite for learning how to control free weights.
The Cons Of Bodyweight Training
While you can gain muscle through bodyweight training, there are a few drawbacks.
First off, progressive overload is harder from a practicality standpoint. It's easier to visualise progress knowing when you've increased the weight on an exercise, whereas increasing reps or changing variations may not be as tangible. Also, it's not a question of if but when it will become necessary to increase an exercise's resistance. Most people can actually progress further than they think on bodyweight training, but they will eventually hit a ceiling.
Even if you are able to progress with bodyweight training alone, the second drawback comes down to the return on investment (ROI) of your time.
For any strength workout, there's a spectrum of how much work you can do and how intensely you can do it. On one end of the spectrum you have high volume workouts — doing lots of total sets — and on the other end you have high intensity workouts — getting really close to muscular failure on each set. Put another way, you can have a workout with lots of sets or a workout where you go as hard as possible. You can't do both.
While both high volume programs and high intensity programs will lead to hypertrophy, high-volume programs require longer workouts. For example, if you already find push-ups and dips easy, you may be able to do a workout using dumbbell bench presses and weighted dips in half the time (or less).
Lastly, many of the best exercises cannot be done with bodyweight. The barbell deadlift, for example, is often called the king of exercises, because it works many different muscle groups. Unfortunately, there is no true bodyweight equivalent for barbell deadlifts. You could, of course, find a way to work each of those muscle groups individually, but again your workouts will be longer. (You could also get some workout equipment for your home, if your main concern is going to the gym.)
Knowing all of the facts, here's what you should do if you're interested in bodyweight training:
- Use the information above to determine bodyweight training is right for you. If you are a beginner who is intimidated by the gym, then bodyweight training is a great place to start. If you already have some strength training experience and you don't have a whole lot of time, it might be best to use free weights.
- Pick a program and stick to it. Find a program that you like and stick to it. We have a great program available, but You Are Your Own Gym, Start Body Weight, and Gym Free Workouts are great as well. It's always important to stick to one strength training program, but this is especially true with bodyweight exercises where progressions may add an additional layer of complexity. Don't venture off on your own unless you know what you're doing.
- Make sure that you have your nutrition down. Remember, exercise is just one part of the equation. In fact, if your main goal is to lose weight, it plays a much smaller role than nutrition.
- Know when to progress to free weights, if possible. After you've made progress, you may want to switch to free weights in order to reach a certain level. Recognise that bodyweight training may just be a stepping stone to the program that's best for you.
As we've mentioned before, there is no best program, diet, or exercise. When it comes to fitness and health, everything is contextual and depends on the individual. Done correctly, bodyweight training will build muscle, but definitely consider your time, budget, and goals when selecting the program that's right for you.
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