When you don’t have exercise equipment, you can still get a workout using your own bodyweight. You’re probably already familiar with some of the most popular bodyweight exercises – push-ups, squats, tricep dips, lunges, and pull-ups. When you do these exercises, you use your own body weight as resistance rather than weights.
It’s rewarding to get a workout without going to a gym or investing in equipment, but you might also wonder how effective bodyweight exercises are since you’re not using barbells, dumbbells, or even kettlebells. Can you count on them to help you build muscle and get stronger?
The Upside of Bodyweight Exercises
The pro of doing bodyweight exercises is you don’t need equipment and you can do them almost anywhere, even when you’re outdoors. You might be strolling through a park and you plant your palms on a park bench and do a set of push-ups. Then switch your position and do triceps dips. Simple, right? When you’re on vacation, you can even do bodyweight exercises in a hotel room. Convenience and a lack of need for equipment make bodyweight exercises appealing. There’s certainly a place for these exercises when you don’t have access to equipment.
Another benefit of bodyweight exercises is they use movements that improve functional strength – how your muscles work together as a unit. Contrast this to an exercise like biceps curls, using weights where you only work one isolated muscle group. Bodyweight exercises, because of the large number of muscles they work, can improve how you move in daily life and when you play sports.
The Downside of Bodyweight Exercises
Despite their appeal, bodyweight exercises have limitations. When you’re a novice and do them, you’ll make strength gains. You’ll also build some muscle if you’re consistent. But as your muscles adapt to the stress, you’re placing on them and become stronger, your gains will plateau and you’ll stop making new strength and hypertrophy gains. Since you’re not adding resistance and your bodyweight stays the same, the only way to increase the challenge to your muscles is to do more repetitions. Eventually, even more repetitions and total volume won’t lead to greater strength gains.
In their native state, bodyweight exercises go against progressive overload, a basic principle of strength training that says you must increase the stress in your muscles for them to continue to adapt, become stronger, and grow. When you use dumbbells or a barbell, you can choose a heavier barbell or dumbbells and make your muscles work harder. That’s what you must do to avoid plateaus where your muscles stop growing and becoming stronger. You’re limited when you’re working with only your own bodyweight.
How to Make Bodyweight Exercises Harder
If you can only do bodyweight exercises, there are some ways to make them harder. For push-ups, hand placement and foot placement make the exercise harder or easier. If you place your hands closer together when you do a push-up, you work your chest and triceps harder. The exercise becomes more challenging because close hand placement increases the path your body has to move through to complete a push-up.
You can also make bodyweight push-ups more challenging by elevating your feet on a bench, so your hands are lower than your feet. Likewise, placing your hands higher than your feet makes a push-up easier. If you have a weighted vest, wearing it when you do push-ups will make the exercise more demanding too. Another approach is to do plyo push-ups where you push your upper body back up explosively. This is an excellent way to increase the power capabilities of your upper body.
How about a triceps dips? For a typical triceps dip, your hands should be shoulder-width apart. If you place your hands closer than shoulder-width, you make the movement tougher. As with a push-up, the exercise will be harder if you elevate your feet when you do a dip. This adjustment also emphasizes your shoulders more than a standard dip. You’re a bit more limited with squats and lunges but you can still make both exercises harder by descending lower into a squat or lunge. For lunges, try doing elevated lunges where you place one leg on a platform or bench and do the exercise.
Changing the tempo can increase the challenge of bodyweight exercises, too. If you slow the tempo of each exercise, you’ll keep your muscles under tension longer, and that’s a stimulus for muscle growth. Going slower will also help you focus more on using good form. Also, pause at the top of the exercise and hold the position for a few seconds to further increase the tension on your muscles.
Try Some of the Toughest Bodyweight Exercises
If you’ve mastered basic bodyweight exercises, like squats and push-ups, try more ambitious bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, pistol squats, or one-arm or one-leg push-ups. You probably won’t be able to do these exercises out of the gate, but gradually work up to being able to do a few.
Don’t Forget About Cardio
Some of the most effective ways to boost your heart rate using your own bodyweight are exercises like burpees, squat jumps, and mountain climbers. You can get an effective workout, when you don’t have access to equipment, by stringing together bodyweight exercises, like dips, push-ups, and squats, with sets of burpees or mountain climbers in between.
The Bottom Line
Bodyweight exercises have their benefits, but also some limitations. Eventually, you’ll “outgrow” them and need to add more resistance to keep making gains. This is particularly true of the lower body. The muscles in your lower body are larger and stronger, so they need more stimulation to become stronger and larger.
You don’t have to spend a lot of money to move beyond bodyweight exercises. Using resistance bands with bodyweight exercises can add more resistance without making a big investment and they have the advantage of working your muscles at more angles than barbells or dumbbells. You can get resistance bands with varying degrees of resistance, so you can continue to increase the challenge over time. Keep doing bodyweight exercises but don’t assume you’ll make gains with them indefinitely without modifying them.
- Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy, Author: Bret Contreras (2014)
- org. “Is body-weight training effective as a strength training exercise?”
- The Fundamentals of Bodyweight Strength Training” Low, Steven (2010)
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