By Luigi Bercades, Ph.D., Sports Science and Medicine
Bodyweight training has been around for ages. Some sources trace it back to calisthenics that German gymnastics educator Friedrich Ludwig Jahn promoted in the 1800s. Today, one of the hottest trends in fitness is Body Leverage Training, in which progressive resistance is achieved by adjusting the levers of the body with or without the aid of suspension-type apparatus, such as the pioneer TRX.
There are several advantages to this type of training: it’s cheap and portable, it’s highly adaptable to the athlete’s goals, it’s highly functional, and, because of the variety of exercises, it’s fun.
A clear disadvantage would be a limitation on the absolute weight that can be lifted. To gain the most from bodyweight training, some principles need to be understood.
Simply put, the training needs to be specific to the athlete’s particular goals. To program specifically, you’ll need to consider the following (Chaplin, 2013):
- The movement patterns and range of movement
- The energy systems used
- The movement velocity
- Forces experienced
All of these factors can be progressively overloaded (more on this below) by bodyweight training, except for the last one. Most sporting movements require forces beyond our own bodyweight. In fact, something as easy as walking already requires forces around one and a half times our bodyweight to propel us forward. The amount of force increases with the speed or power required for the activity. And that doesn’t even count the external forces we need to overcome. Taking down an opponent in MMA, for instance, will add his weight to our own that we need to lift.
Power can be improved with just bodyweight by doing plyometrics, but it’ll be a challenge to develop absolute strength with bodyweight alone. But the ideas below are a start, and for most people, they’re sufficient.
Whenever you train, you’d expect that you’d improve in whatever you’re training for, whether it’s strength, hypertrophy, power or whatever. Therefore, your training needs to “grow” with you. You should be able to adjust it so that your body can continually get gains from it. The ability to adjust your training’s volume and intensity is also important to insert periods of active recovery for long-term gains.
It’s easy to see your improvements if you’re lifting weights – the weight on the bar just keeps on increasing. But how can you do this if you’re stuck with just your own bodyweight? Here are a few ways:
- Time Under Tension (TUT)
It’s really simple – just slow down each rep. If you’re used to doing a 2-1-2 tempo (that is, two seconds up – one second hold – two seconds down), then just prolong it to 3-2-3, 2-1-5, or whatever. Extending the TUT increases the production of waste products in the muscles and the likelihood of muscular damage, both of which resulting in a greater hormonal response (Read, 2013). All this will improve strength and particularly, hypertrophy.
Other suggestions to increase TUT are to reduce rest intervals between sets (to emphasize hypertrophy), and to add isometric holds to reps (for muscular endurance and joint stability). For the latter, you have to remember to do the hold at the position of highest muscle tension. For instance, in doing a bodyweight squat, you can do a 2-15-2 (two seconds down – 15 seconds hold – two seconds up) (DuVall, 2013). Those who are after the burn won’t be disappointed!
Slowing down the reps, particularly the downward, or eccentric phase, can also be useful when introducing a new exercise to an unfit client. For instance, stepping on a bench for assistance to the top position of a chin-up, then lowering at a slow, controlled manner (2-3 seconds). Eccentric, or negative, training will quickly improve strength but beware of the greater muscular soreness a couple of days after compared to usual training.
Changing the length of the body’s lever systems is another easy way to progress overload. An example would be the shorter lever length of the push-up on the knees (the length between the knees and the shoulders) compared to the push-up on the toes. An additional adjustment would be to the percentage of the bodyweight lifted. With the push-up, it can progress from the simplest wherein you’re just leaning against a wall, to the hardest where you doing it from a handstand.
With this in mind, unless I know I’m training a fit client, I usually start out with the easiest variation then progress from there. It’s going to be more motivational for an unfit client to proceed this way instead of trying out a harder exercise and having to regress.
To further enhance the effect leverage, we can also use asymmetry while performing exercises. It’s a matter of shifting more of the bodyweight to one limb. A squat, for example, can be progressed to a lunge, then to a lateral lunge, a Bulgarian split squat, then finally, a pistol squat. Using this principle in something like a pull-up will afford months, if not years, of progression for most people.
- Complex training
This type of training pairs a heavy set of a certain exercise with one with a similar movement pattern but performed powerfully, with enough rest in between to recuperate fully. Pairing these two types of exercises has been shown to stimulate the nervous system and increase muscle recruitment to produce more powerful contractions (DuVall, 2013). An example would be a set of five pistol squats, rest for 2-3 minutes, then one-legged depth jumps.
Don’t Forget – Program Balance!
One last issue I’d like to address is program balance. The majority of bodyweight exercises emphasize pushing because of their convenience – It’ so easy to do squats and push-ups! Therefore, a conscious effort has to be made to include pulls to balance out strength development and the posture. Examples of lower and upper body pulling exercises are found here:
- Glute bridge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V-GsfUFOsNg
- Hip thrust: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCm-70-9_XE
- Nordic hamstring curls: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_09B6DtHdo
- A variety of glute and hamstring exercises: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UhQ3sILuTY
- Door row: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=basCkYP5fPk
- Inverted row: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYUxXMGVuuU
Combining these principles will provide most athletes progressive overload for years to come. I’m a firm believer of bodyweight training, especially because it democratizes fitness and physical activity – with enough knowledge and just your own body, you can get faster, higher, and stronger.
- Chaplin, C. (2013). http://www.maxiraw.com/training/body-weight-training.
- DuVall, Jeremey (2013). http://breakingmuscle.com/strength-conditioning/how-use-bodyweight-training-build-bigger-muscles.
- Read, A. (2013). How to maximize strength and size with bodyweight exercise. http://breakingmuscle.com/strength-conditioning/how-to-maximize-strength-and-size-with-bodyweight-exercise.