Do Bodyweight Workouts Limit Your Strength Gains?

Do Bodyweight Workouts Limit Your Strength Gains?

Bodyweight workouts have never been more popular. In fact, training using only the weight of your own body topped the list of fitness trends for 2016 – hardly surprising since bodyweight workouts don’t require equipment. In this case, YOU are the equipment.

Despite the popularity of this type of training, it’s unlikely that bodyweight workouts will replace weights anytime soon. If there’s one thing that makes a workout interesting, it’s variety. You might wonder whether bodyweight training is as effective as using weights or resistance bands. Are there limitations to the strength you can build using your own body weight?

How Effective Are Bodyweight Workouts?

Although effective, bodyweight-only training isn’t as effective as doing bodyweight exercises in combination with those that use equipment like dumbbells, barbells, and resistance bands. As you know, one of the basic tenets of strength development is the principle of progressive overload. When you adhere to this principle, you subject your muscles to greater amounts of stress over time. To do this, you pick up heavier dumbbells or do a greater number of reps with the ones you’re currently using. The key is progression since that’s the only way to get continued growth.

How does progressive overload apply to bodyweight training? If you’re using your own body weight as resistance, you can do more repetitions to overload your muscles but unless you become heavier, the resistance you’re working against stays the same. It’s like trying to get stronger using the same pair of dumbbells for months on end. You’ll get stronger at first but your body will eventually need a greater stimulus to grow in size or become stronger.

Another drawback of bodyweight exercises is they make it hard to isolate particular muscles that need extra attention. If you’re stronger or have more muscle development on one side of your body than the other, a bodyweight workout won’t easily correct that. Isolation exercises with weights have their place in sculpting a better physique.

You Can Make Bodyweight Workouts More Challenging – to Some Degree

Of course, there are ways to make bodyweight moves harder – and, therefore, provide overload. Push-ups are a classic bodyweight exercise but there are many push-up variations that are harder than standard push-ups. Once you’ve mastered doing them on your toes, you can increase the challenge (and overload) by raising your feet higher than your hands. Other push-up variations that are more challenging include stagger handed pushups, superman pushups, pushups on a stability ball, one-arm pushups, close handed pushups, and clap pushups, and, if you dare, handstand pushups.

You can also wear a weighted vest when you do pushups for more resistance as well as for other exercises. So, yes, you can make some bodyweight exercises more challenging but you’ll still likely reach a point where you need the resistance that dumbbells or barbells offer to build more upper and lower body strength.

The Positive Aspects of Using Your Own Bodyweight to Train

Although bodyweight workouts have limitations they have a lot going for them as well. The biggest benefit is the ability to do them almost anywhere. If you’re traveling and end up in a hotel room without a gym, a bodyweight workout is your ticket to getting a workout done anyway. If you have limited funds or storage space at home and can’t afford to stock up on dumbbells and barbells, a bodyweight workout will help you build and maintain muscle mass and strength until you can get them.

Another way to make bodyweight exercises more effective for muscle growth is to increase the time your muscles are under tension. This means when you do a bodyweight exercise, you do it SLOWLY. The increased time under tension provides a greater metabolic stimulus for growth. Some experts believe time under tension is an important growth stimulus for muscles.

Plus, bodyweight exercises are a wonderful addition to any workout routine. Bodyweight moves, like push-ups, work multiple muscle groups at the same time. When you do them, they boost your metabolism and the calorie burn more than doing isolation exercises. Plus, bodyweight movements build functional strength since your whole body gets involved in the movements. Bodyweight exercises of all types also effectively recruit the muscles in your core. Since power is generated from your core, that’s important.

Types of Bodyweight Exercises

You have a lot of options for bodyweight training. Some of the many bodyweight exercises include pull-ups, pushups, planks, burpees, mountain climbers, bicycles, wall sits, squats, lunges, and triceps dips. The problem is some bodyweight exercises may be too challenging for a beginner. When you first start out you may not be able to do a full pushup on your toes or hold a plank very long. You can always modify the pushup by doing it with your knees on the floor and perform the plank the same way. As far as exercises like triceps dips, another challenging one, building up strength in your triceps using dumbbells or resistance bands will make triceps dips easier.

Break the Sitting Cycle

If your main goal is to burn fat rather than build strength, decrease the rest time between exercises and add more dynamic exercises to your routine like burpees and mountain climbers. Bodyweight exercises have another benefit. Since they require no equipment, you can do them anywhere. We already know the dangers of sitting too much. You can use bodyweight exercises to break up periods of sitting in front of the computer at work or the television at home. During a break, do squats, lunges, squat jumps, or pushups before getting back to work. Doing this will give your metabolism a jump start too. If there’s one thing to love about bodyweight exercises, it’s how accessible they are. YOU are the equipment.

The Bottom Line

Yes, bodyweight exercises do have limitations, although you can modify them in a number of ways to make them more challenging. The best approach is to make them PART of your workout but not to depend on them to be your only form of exercise, unless your only goal is general conditioning rather than building muscle strength or size.



Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy, Author: Bret Contreras (2014)

The Fundamentals of Bodyweight Strength Training” Low, Steven (2010)


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