Two months ago, I was about to embark on a nomadic life, a suitcase and laptop in tow, knowing that I was also saying goodbye to a proper gym. But fitness is important to me, so I had to make do with the most important "equipment" of all: my own body. I made it work, and you can too.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhari.
At first, I was sceptical about making progress. I used to believe that bodyweight workouts were wussy -- that the only way to build the strong body I wanted was to lift weights in the gym. Still, I forged forward. For science (and my own convenience).
The Case for Bodyweight Workouts
I've always known about the advantages of bodyweight workouts, of course. They're beginner-friendly, and perfect for changing things up from a gym routine. But more than anything, they're great if you don't have access to equipment.You just need your body and just a few other things that could be normally found around your living space, in the park, or even in a hotel room.
Still, this question nagged at me: can I still really maintain my strength gains and current aesthetics -- and in an ideal world, also build strength and muscle -- with body weight alone? I'd been so used to lifting heavy weights in the gym that the idea of "downgrading" from heavy weights to light weights for a long period of time concerned me.
Well, according to JC Deen, fitness coach at JCDFitness:
Bodyweight will definitely help you maintain the strength, and some will carry over [to the gym]. However, you'll be limited in building massive amounts of strength that will carry over to barbell lifts because of two reasons: not enough resistance and different movement patterns. The best way to get strong on a certain lift is to simply do that lift.
The research consensus on bodyweight training seemed to be optimistic as well. One such study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that the strength gains were similar in three leg exercises -- the squat, Romanian deadlift, and calf raise -- between traditional strength training, plyometric training (typically involves explosive movements like jumps), and a mix of high- and low-intensity weight training.
Much to my relief, a research review in Sports Medicine also supports a bevy of benefits from both short- and long-term, intense bodyweight training for healthy people. These benefits include increases in strength and power, bone mass, and general athleticism. All those sound pretty good to me! Somewhat bolstered by reassuring evidence, I figured I could make a bodyweight program work. It was just a matter of how.
Bodyweight Workouts Still Kick My Arse
Before I peaced out of my precious home and gym, I had been training four days a week, doing intense strength training for all of my major muscle groups -- chest, back, legs, and shoulders. I also ate with the goal to slowly lose weight (which means I ate slightly less than what my body needed to maintain). For this new program, I emphasised maintaining what I had.
So I started doing a bodyweight routine five days a week, with one day of "heavier work" in the gym sprinkled in -- whenever I can manage to get to one. My bodyweight program includes four different workouts -- two upper-body and two lower-body -- that I just rotate through, alternating between upper and lower body days. Each bodyweight workout takes me about 30-40 minutes to complete.
The kick in the pants here is that those 30-40 minutes are really -- to put it lightly -- unpleasant. It's not about the duration, but how hard you make the workout. One of the major drawbacks of bodyweight programs is that you can easily coast through them, but the common #fitspiration saying "You get out as much as you put in" actually makes a lot of sense here. Much like the high amount of effort required to make a high-intensity interval session worthwhile, you need to consciously push yourself out of your comfort zone to continue to see results, especially in a bodyweight program.
So, I keep the metabolic stress, or the "burn" as the cool kids say, high by making the workouts longer (adding another set or two), stringing together multiple exercises and treating them as one giant set, taking little to no rest in between, modifying the exercise to be more difficult, or all of the above. By the end of each workout, I'm in zombie mode (but in the best way possible, of course).
Bodyweight Workouts Reminded Me That Working Out Is Fun
When I first started out, I expected to lose a lot of the strength I'd fought for in the weight room. But I've been pleasantly surprised: I'm getting stronger in some areas, while at least maintaining in others. I get way more practice with some movements (specifically my lunge, push-up, and squat), and as a result, have gotten more proficient with them; building better body awareness and control over my body.
And I've been super happy with my progress so far: I can bang out 25 push-ups in one go with relative ease, squat heavier than ever (thanks to my bodyweight practice), bust out a couple of wider grip pull-ups, and successfully hold a crow pose for a longer period -- all improvements over my previous bests!
More importantly, I'm having fun again.
These days, the world is truly my oyster-gym. Freedom from the weight room has allowed me to get creative and view almost everything as a fitness possibility. A tree branch? I can use it as a pull-up bar. Stairs? Step-ups, crawls, and calf raises. A bench? Oh, man, that's the bodyweight workout jackpot. I could do it all on a bench: dips, hip thrusts, split squats, feet-elevated push-ups, box jumps, single-leg box squats, and more! An additional (portable) piece of equipment -- a suspension trainer or TRX straps -- gives me a greater arsenal of creative bodyweight movements, in addition to anything else I come up with. You get the idea.
Things continue to get more exciting as I work toward some challenging progressions, like trying to do a perfect pistol squat. One reason I had initially turned my nose up on bodyweight exercises was that eventually, they got too easy and...boring. But making the right progressions do wonders to increase the resistance, challenge, and intensity.
Plus, I'm loving the convenience and time aspects of these workouts: I get them done quickly without fussing over a mentally-draining commute or constantly having to wait for the squat rack to open up at peak times.
How to Make Your Own Bodyweight Workout Awesome
While my own goal was to maintain my strength and continue my existing exercise habit, bodyweight workouts are a fantastic starting point if you want to get into shape but are not sure where to begin.
There are many ways to build a bodyweight routine. You can set it up in the traditional x number of sets for whatever number of reps style, combine them into big sets (called supersets or giant sets), finish as quickly as possible for time, or do any combination of these. Here's a simple template for you to follow, and the folks over at Greatist have a bunch of great bodyweight workout ideas too.
In creating mine, I focused on emphasising the compound exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, squats, inverted rows, dips, and so on. These all target bigger muscle groups, require more effort, and generally produce better results. Once you've got the big moves covered, you can pad your workout with things like planks, side lunges, bicycle kicks, and so on. "Think of it more as accessory work to your main lifts, and use them to add more volume," JC adds. Keep these points in mind, too:
- Quality over quantity: As I've written before with regards to lifting heavy weights, focus on quality movements and good form, even if you're moving fairly quickly through them. Bodyweight exercises should be no different.
- Keep the workout challenging: The basic principle behind muscle growth is that you need to fatigue and overload them, or gradually increase weight, reps, or amount of overall work you can do (volume). Since you can't easily add more weight, and there comes a point where simply adding more sets or reps do little for continual improvements, focus on making your workouts harder by adding additional sets, reducing rest, and progressing to advanced variations (see point below). These are important for keeping the workouts interesting.
- Make those exercises harder! When doing certain exercises, even changing the angle and position of your body in relation to the exercise can increase the difficulty. For example, in a push-up you make them easier by pushing up from a bench (incline); conversely, you make them harder by propping your feet on the bench, with hands on the ground (decline). Experiment with the angle, change the grip, pause in the middle of your exercise, or even do an exercise with one arm or leg, and so on.
- Train often and consistently: Follow a bodyweight program as you would any other workout plan: with consistency and doing your best to stick to a schedule. Since the loads aren't heavy, you can make up the weight with higher number of sets and frequency. JC says, "You can probably do a workout every day -- either a full-body or an alternating upper body and lower body kind of thing."
- Add variety: Not only to your exercises but to the planes of movement: you have vertical and horizontal pushes (overhead press and push-ups), vertical and horizontal pulls (pull-ups and rows), twists (Russian twist), and hip hinge (like a deadlift and bending over to pick something up the right way). Consider including multiple sets of different kinds of exercises at various angles and intensities to help your body move more freely and like an athlete!
If there's anything those YouTube videos of athletes doing crazy things with their body weight and my own experiences have taught me, there's no one way to improve your fitness and build a strong body. Bodyweight exercises are just one trick in a big bag o' tricks. Best of all, they're free.
Stephanie Lee is a geeky health and fitness writer. You can follow her shenanigans on Twitter or on her YouTube channel.