BODYWEIGHT TRAINING: ARE YOU STRONG ENOUGH?
by Josh Bryant
Super-human levels of strength can be achieved with nothing more than your bodyweight.
Two-hundred-sixty-pound Indian super heavy weight wrestling champ “The Great Gama” built a 56-inch chest, coupled with a 50-year undefeated wrestling career and was considered to be one of the strongest men in his day by training with nothing more than his bodyweight.
Since the early 1990s, law makers have crusaded to ban weights from correctional institutions but nearly every prison yard boasts scores of inmates that could easily waltz into the first call of a natural bodybuilding show—all built with nothing more than bodyweight training.
Go to your local chain gym and compare the physiques of “gym bros” to gymnasts who train with nothing more than their bodyweight—the gymnasts have more muscle and better symmetry.
“Anything outside of your bodyweight is a luxury,” says iconoclastic Southern California Strength Coach Dr. Rusty Smith. He is 100 percent correct!
Bodyweight exercises have many advantages over traditional exercises like the clichéd dumbbell curl or shiny, chrome machines. For example, bodyweight movements are considered closed kinetic chain exercises. In “gym talk,” a closed kinetic chain exercise is one in which you move, while an open kinetic chain exercise is one in which the weight moves. A bench press is an open kinetic movement because your effort moves the weight (attached to a bar) up and down. A pushup is a closed kinetic movement because your effort moves your body up and down.
Closed kinetic exercises can be more beneficial in terms of results and safety because they build functional strength and are easier on your body. Closed kinetic movements are able to build functional strength because they train the body to move its own weight, a prerequisite for almost any real-world activity, from lifting yourself off your couch, to transitioning into a liver punch.
Closed kinetic exercises are considered safer, because they allow an individual’s body structure to determine the movement pattern of the joints. This allows for a more natural range of motion that may remove excessive stress from the joints and enables the muscles to perform the workout. With this natural range of motion, joints are less likely to be injured and muscles are more likely to grow.
In addition, most bodyweight exercises are classified as compound exercises, which means they are multi-joint movements that work several muscle groups simultaneously. Performing big compound exercises (as opposed to small, isolated movements) can produce big muscles and release a large amount of anabolic hormones.
Even more importantly, bodyweight exercises do not require bulky, expensive gym equipment.
There are a two main reasons bodyweight exercises do not get the hype they deserve. For one, no equipment manufacturer or famous personal trainer stand to make money—they benefit you, the user, and no one else!
The second reason is as one’s strength increases, many trainees feel bodyweight exercises are too easy, referring to the law of overload which states for muscles to get bigger and stronger they must experience stress beyond what they are accustomed. With creativity, you can overload bodyweight training.
Let’s take a closer look at five ways to overload bodyweight training.
1. Accentuate the Negative
Dorian Yates says that the biggest mistake most beginning lifters make is that they do not concentrate on the negative portion of the lift. Like heavy weight training, the same holds true to bodyweight training.
To get the most out of your bodyweight workout, establish a mind-muscle connection. As you lower yourself in a push-up or pull-up, do it with control and feel the muscle fibers you are working. The benefits of a controlled bodyweight movement allow for a safer and more effective workout. Adding a concentration on the negative of bodyweight movements increases intensity. For example, if a set of 15 push-ups is easy, try doing a set of 12 with a five-second negative.
2. Move Away from the Midline
To increase the difficulty of bodyweight training, consider the proximity of your extremities to your core. The greater the distance between the muscles you are targeting and what you are trying to lift, lessens your mechanical advantage.
For example, in lifting, if you are doing a deadlift, and the barbell drifts away from the midline of your body, the weight becomes much heavier and more difficult to lift. In bodyweight training, lunging with your hands above your head is more difficult than holding them by your sides. To increase the difficulty of push-ups, place your hands on the floor in front of your head. This simple change of limb position increases difficulty. Keep this concept in mind as you progress through your routine.
3. Use Paused Reps
When working out, your muscles work like elastic. As you lower yourself on the negative portion of a movement, your muscles store elastic-like energy. When you reach the bottom portion of a movement, this spring-like effect helps reverse your body motion and springs you back to the starting position. This explosive movement is great for sports!
To make things harder, try pausing at the bottom of an exercise for one second, and nearly half of all elastic energy is gone; after five seconds, all of that energy is pretty much gone. So, even a one-second pause is going to force your body to recruit new muscle fibers. With this in mind, add a pause at the bottom of any bodyweight movement and feel the overload.
4. Increase Range of Motion
To increase the difficulty of your bodyweight workouts, use a larger range of motion. Elevating your front or back will make even the most mundane workout more intense. Specifically, this could be done by doing lunges from off a step or doing a push-up between two boxes and getting a nice stretch at the bottom.
5. Go Unilateral
If push-ups and pull-ups are just too easy, try them with one arm! Besides having to lift a lot more weight, this will require and build better balance and core stability.
Single-limbed exercises exploit the “bilateral deficit” which is eloquently explained by expert trainer, Christian Thibaudeau, “The sum of your maximum strength using both arms is less than the sum of the strength of your right arm and your left arm working individually.” So if you can lift 150 pounds with two hands, but using only your right hand, you can lift 85 pounds and can do the same on your left, 85 + 85 = 170. 170 is more than 150. Knowing this allows greater overload and, most importantly, the knowledge to build more muscle and strength.
Bodyweight training, like any other type of training, requires more and more creativity the stronger you become. If you have the desire you now have the tools to take your physique and strength to the next level with bodyweight training.