Gyms have often been the go-to places for all things fitness-related. However, with gyms closed due to COVID-19, training almost seems like a pipe dream. The closure of gyms and boxes have made it difficult for many people to begin or resume their fitness journeys.
For a while, you might view the closures as an opportunity to take some downtime. After all, overtraining is the enemy. On top of that, you may have been hitting the squat rack or the bench pretty consistently. Maybe, you even maxed out on your deadlift. You deserve a break.
There is nothing wrong with time off. But the uncertainty brought about by the lockdowns will catch up to you. It takes the form of wanting to undergo some “voluntary hardship” (as Mr. Mark Rippetoe calls it).
That’s great! The motivation is back! However, again, the gyms are closed.
It's time to switch to bodyweight training.
In this article, we go over the benefits of bodyweight training. After reading this, you might see how using your own body weight can be more effective than lifting weights.
But before that, let’s revisit an old basic strength training concept that has stood the test of time.
Can Bodyweight Exercises Build Muscle (And More)?
Hypertrophy, strength, and even metabolic conditioning are possible with bodyweight training. And it's all because of "progressive overload". Nothing summarizes the concept better than the early accounts of Milo of Croton.
Milo of Croton was a well-decorated wrestler who lived in sixth-century Italy. As you might imagine, there were no barbells, kettlebells, or pec decks in his time. To be healthy and conditioned during this period meant using your body weight often. However, Milo of Croton used a surprising piece of equipment throughout his athletic career — a calf.
According to early accounts, when he was a boy, he lifted a small calf everywhere he went. As time went by, the calf grew and so did his strength. Each kilogram the calf put on led to commensurate gains in Milo’s strength. When the calf matured into a bull, Milo still lifted it with little to no trouble.
When you gain strength or muscle from doing more sets or lifting more weight, you’ve tapped into progressive overload. Increased stimuli tell your body to adapt and grow stronger. The adaptation can be putting on more muscle mass. It can also be developing neuromuscular efficiency to make a lift or execute a movement.
When you think about it, a calf is like a loaded barbell. The growth of the calf is similar to adding small amounts of weight on the bar week in, week out.
Are we saying that you need to lift a calf to notice gains in muscle size and strength? Well, you can try. In the first place, people lift weights to build muscle and gain strength.
But, again, you are thinking of switching to bodyweight training.
Here is the good news: lifting your body weight can be just as effective as lifting weights. All you need to do is increase the stimulus of your training. Although you have no weights, progressive overload can be introduced in other ways.
You can build muscle with bodyweight training!
How To Increase the Benefits of Bodyweight Exercises?
Progressive overload means introducing any type of stimulus that makes a movement challenging. When it comes to weight training, this stimulus can be adding more weight onto a bar. It can also be more sets and reps even with unchanging weights (think kettlebell training).
However, the keyword here is “challenging”. And challenging your body does not always involve heavy lifting.
Think about this:
What, for you, is easy (not easier)?
Maxing out on your back squat? Or doing pistol squats with perfect form on each leg?
The answer is neither, right? Both are difficult. Maxing out on your back squat is challenging because of the weight. However, doing pistol squats comes with a set of challenges that have nothing to do with weight.
This can give you an idea on how else you may be able to trigger progressive overload.
Here are ways to do it:
Increase the TUT
TUT stands for "Time Under Tension”. It simply means the amount of time a muscle is contracted before it is lengthened or relaxed. A relatively longer time under tension is essential in causing the microtears in a muscle. These tears need to be present for protein synthesis to form bigger and denser muscle fiber and connective tissue.
Increasing TUT can also improve strength and muscle endurance. A 2019 study compared the effects of TUT training with conventional, high-repetition resistance training. The findings of the study are fascinating. Basically, the gains in strength and muscle endurance of the TUT group were nearly identical to those gained in high-repetition weight training.
In short, higher time under tension = the “pump” (muscular gains) you are after.
So, how do you incorporate this with calisthenics?
Simple: Do the movement slowly.
For instance, instead of cranking out 25 pushups, try doing five 10-second repetitions.
Instead of doing 40 bodyweight squats, try doing one repetition that lasts 20 to 30 seconds.
You get the idea.
Increase the Volume
Volume is the number of reps and sets in a program. Volume can be daily, weekly, or even monthly.
One way to get the most out of bodyweight training is by simply doing more. By more, we mean more sets and repetitions of a particular exercise. When it comes to bodyweight training, going up in training volume is excellent when your goal is putting on muscle.
With any bodyweight exercises like the pullup, for example, you can increase volume by:
● increasing the number of reps while keeping reps the same (e.g., three sets of 8 one week, then three sets of 9 the next).
● increasing the number of sets while keeping the reps the same (e.g., three sets of 8 one week, then four sets of 8 the week after).
Increase Exercise Complexity and Variation
After increasing TUT and volume, you can make doing more difficult movements your goal. Do this and you can experience gains beyond muscular strength and hypertrophy. Being able to execute more challenging exercises is also a sign of higher body awareness. On top of that, you will have also mastered recruiting other muscle groups like your core or upper back.
To increase exercise complexity, just pick a more challenging variation of a particular movement.
Are you bored with bodyweight squats? Do a lunge variation or try pistol squats.
What Are the Advantages of Bodyweight Training?
Now that you know about building muscles and getting stronger with bodyweight training, perhaps you’re wondering if it has any unique benefits.
Again, the answer to this is yes!
Here are some of them:
24/7, “No Days Off” Availability
Even Pavel Tsatsouline recognizes and praises the accessibility of bodyweight exercises. With bodyweight training, your gym equipment is with you everywhere you go. You can do
pushups, squats, and bridges anywhere. See a bar (not the one that serves alcohol!)? Do some pull-ups, chin-ups, or muscle-ups (yikes).
With bodyweight training, you can do your workout everywhere and for any period of time.
Barbell and numerous dumbbell movements train you to move in the following directions:
While this isn’t a problem in itself, it can cause pattern overload. Pattern overload occurs when soft tissues like muscles and joints sustain damage due to repetitive movements. A contributing factor to this is lifting too often with a specific muscle group in the same plane of motion.
Pattern overload happens when people bench press too much and tend to develop kyphotic postures (hunched posture). This is also why powerlifters develop too much feet ``turnout” from years of heavy back squats and deadlifts.
Pattern overload can be detrimental to your health, fitness, and functioning. Unchecked, it can shorten your training career. It is a sign that the type of training you are doing is too repetitive.
To prevent pattern overload from happening, you will have to train in all planes of motion. Bodyweight training is a great type of training for this.
Nearly any bodyweight exercise can be done along:
● the frontal plane (lateral lunges, Cossack squats, lateral raises).
● sagittal plane (your pushups,pullups, squats).
● transverse plane (anything that has a rotation of the trunk or a twist).
Broader Carry-Over to Life and Athletics
Of course, if you are an Olympic weightlifter or a powerlifter, you are better off training with your sport’s implement. The same is also true if you are into strongman training or if you’re a Highland Games athlete. If your goal is a one-rep max deadlift or barbell squat, use a barbell.
Otherwise, you might be one of the many people who can benefit significantly from calisthenics and other types of bodyweight training.
In our daily lives, we push in different directions. The musculatures of our upper back and lats are suited for hanging and pulling. Our hips are ball and socket joints that allow us to sit, spring up, and move sideways.
Bodyweight training has movements available for all planes of motion. These movements are also integral and simulate many situations in which we may find ourselves in. Using your body weight in your training program, you train your muscles and almost every movement pattern for life.
Hence, the military, law enforcement, and non-weightlifting sports use bodyweight training in their strength and conditioning training program.
For anyone who has tried a barbell-based strength training program, novelty comes in the form of adding more weight. The addition of an exercise does occur, but even the variations can resemble those that are the program’s meat and potatoes (e.g., deadlift = Romanian deadlift).
This is fine. However, not only does this require equipment, it can also be mind-numbingly dull. Why? Because there is little to no skill acquisition.
The human mind needs experiences from which it can learn. Bodyweight training provides a vast network of movements, each with its own unique variations and skill level.
A simple pushup can be changed into one where the legs are elevated above the ground.
Pull-ups can evolve into an L-sit pull-up that also works the core and hip flexors.
The possibilities are endless with bodyweight training. Every unlocked skill leads to more
significant muscular gains on top of unparalleled psychological satisfaction. Because of that, training can be kept exciting and enticing enough to perform for months or years.
Every calisthenics movement or bodyweight movement uses large amounts of muscle mass and neural recruitment. This is because all movements force the body to work as one unit.
The body cannot perform such neurally demanding movements without developing specific adaptations. These adaptations are shoulder stability and truncal rigidity (core stability, if you will). No other modality produces these better than bodyweight training.
To get an idea of what proprioception looks like, compare doing a flat bench press with a legless pushup (a pushup variation where your feet are suspended).
Balance is not a problem in a flat bench press. The core is engaged but not to its fullest extent. In the case of a legless pushup, the body has to develop and not only pushing force. It must also create core stability and glute engagement. No longer just a chest exercise, the legless
pushup requires more bodily awareness that may be underdeveloped with the bench press.
Proprioception has other benefits. As we get older, our chances of falling increase. The way to reverse or prevent injury from this is by:
● training for muscle growth, and
● training to develop proprioception.
These are two adaptations in which bodyweight training excels.
Is Body Weight Better Than Weights?
The answer to this question depends on your training goals. If all you want is the ability to move as much weight as you can, then the answer is no.
However, achieving good health, fitness, and overall functioning is not the only result of peak force production. We need to be able to develop and sustain muscle mass using the most readily-accessible means. Also, we need to train to move in multiple directions safely to avoid injury. Last, but surely not the least, our training should also include the development of the nervous system.
For all these goals, bodyweight training has the edge over a standard weight training program.
If you want to take your gymless training to the next level, make your body your gym with Unity Training’s modular bodyweight training kit — the most affordable and adaptable suspension trainer on the market today.