Bodyweight fitness is the use of your own bodyweight to train in the form of pullups, pushups, and dip type movements. Most of the exercises can be done without any equipment which makes it a popular choice for those without access to a gym.
People are often capable of doing a high amount of repetitions of these movements, so how will you use them to gain strength? That’s a great question - one I too found myself asking before learning more about bodyweight strength training. We often think of strength training within the 1-5 rep range, and most other weight training within the 5-15 rep range. These ranges are used to fatigue the muscles with an overload of resistance that signals the body to become stronger and build muscle if in a caloric surplus.
Bodyweight strength training advocates that you can build muscle and grow a strong body without ever going to the gym to use weights. Most of us are used to using weights and equipment to increase the resistance to build muscle and get stronger, so let’s look into how you can perform bodyweight exercises to increase your strength.
Experiment with positioning and form
Performing a standard pushup for example you may be able to do 10, 20, or even 50 repetitions in a single set - so how will you signal your muscles to grow with an overload stimulus? If you observe the standard pushup form you’ll notice that the body is at a slight decline in the top position. If you raise your legs higher with the cap of the extension being a full handstand then you can progressively make the pushup harder (more weight for the arms and chest to press) to provide fatigue within under 15 reps. There’s a way to tweak almost every bodyweight movement to increase the resistance, here are some more examples:
Pullups: Raise your legs and eventually entire lower body when doing pull and row type movements. Change the width of your grip to shift the focus between your arms and back.
Pushups: Change the incline of your body to load up the shoulders, chest, and arms for a harder press. Bring your grip in closer to work your triceps more, or wider to work your outer-chest and shoulders more.
Dips: Extend your body more horizontally to increase the resistance of the dip movement, change your grip width to fatigue the muscles differently.
Isometric training is the act of using force against resistance without changing your muscle length. For example holding the top position of the bench press for 15 seconds. A post on Breaking Muscle summarized the research performed on isometric training perfectly:
“In 1978, Komi, et al. showed that isometric training increased recruitment of muscle units, improved submaximal load efficiency, and improved oxidative metabolism in the muscle. R.H. Parker discovered isometric training was more effective than dynamic training for muscle function improvement. Folland, et al. noted that isometric training and dynamic training both had similar results in isokinetic strength gains, while isometric strength gains were significantly larger for isometrically-trained muscles than for dynamically-trained muscles.”
The studies cited plenty of evidence as to why you should incorporate isometric training into your bodyweight routine to get stronger. This is a simple addition where in your regular training movements you simply pause at a certain part of the lift for a set amount of time. Start at 5 seconds and work your way up to longer each time. Here are some examples of isometric training with bodyweight exercises:
Pushups: Pause at various stages of the press for 5-15 seconds. Play with your hand width to activate different parts of the chest, triceps, and shoulders.
Squat movements: Pause at the low, mid, and high points of your squats for 5-15 seconds. Play around with your stance to alter the muscles you’re activating at the different heights.
Pullups: Hold the pullup at different stages of the up and down portion of the pull. Use different grip widths and incorporate leg raises to up the challenge.
Perform explosive power movements
Power movements like box jumps, dead-stop upper body jumps, or gymnastics bar movements are great for recruiting a large amount of muscle groups in one challenging movement. Check out the video below for an idea of the complex directions you can take bodyweight training:
Okay maybe these guys are a little crazy but there are some really unique and complex movements we can take away from this video and work into our routines. Here are some more examples of power movements you can work up to in your training:
Explosive bodyweight strength training exercises
Tuck Jumps: Jump up as high as possible and “tuck” your knees in towards your chest. Land, jump up and tuck again.
Burpees: From standing, kick your feet back to a pushup position, go down into the full position and complete one rep, bring your feet back to where your hands are and get back into the starting position and jump as high as you can before restarting the movement.
Lunge jump: In lunge stance, jump straight up as high as you can and swap legs while in the air to land back in your lunge stance with the opposite foot forward.
Squat jump: Like the lunge jump, start in the bottom of the squat position and jump up as high as you can at the top of the movement. Land back in your squat position and go for more reps.
Pushup variants: Add a jump at the top of the pushup movement to build more explosive power in your chest and triceps. Try clapping while in the air, try clapping two times, try the Aztec pushup:
As you can see there’s a ton of fun to be had with adding new movements to bodyweight exercises. Challenge yourself while building muscle and increasing your strength WITHOUT equipment or a gym membership. Some other benefits of bodyweight training include:
Do bodyweight fitness anywhere, anytime. No equipment or membership requirements make this one of the most convenient AND fun exercise styles.
It’s joint and ligament friendly - often times we’re trapped in the mindset that you have to lift heavy weights and put a lot of stress on the body to get stronger. Bodyweight fitness by nature puts less stress on the body.
- There are countless exercises you can do. Have fun and get creative as you improve your strength by doing bodyweight exercises.
Concluding from the research done and information presented here, bodyweight exercises can certainly be performed to increase your strength, or be a part of your programming as assistance work. Does that mean it will ever fully replace barbell and weight training in my routine? Probably not but with some weighted equipment and horizontal bars it could come pretty close. After learning more about bodyweight training I'm certainly going to incorporate it into my training - especially some of those exciting pushup variants and pullup routines which look like a fun challenge. Summarizing the information presented here, in order to build strength with bodyweight fitness you'll want to:
- Alter your positioning and leverages to make exercises more challenging
- Include isometric training into your routine each day to increase your time under tension
- Incorporate explosive power movements to recruit multiple muscle groups
- Your rest time will need to be reduce to overload your muscles in comparison to standard weight training