Is it possible to get as strong and muscular with bodyweight training as you can training with weights?
As long as you train hard, progressively, and consistently you can get bigger and stronger with just about anything, including your own body weight; and I think most people can get just about as big and strong with bodyweight training as anything else if they do it correctly. The key is learning how to perform bodyweight exercises to make them progressively harder as you become stronger.
When using free weights and machines resistance progression is simple; as you become stronger and require more resistance you just add more weight to the bar, use heavier dumbbells, or pin more weight on the stack. Resistance progression is trickier with bodyweight. You can use weighted vests and belts to increase resistance, or you can manipulate other variables like leverage and timing, using body positioning to increase the leverage against the target muscles and spending proportionally more time in more challenging portions of the range of motion. For example, bodyweight squats can be made more challenging by only performing the harder lower half of the range of motion, and holding at parallel for a few seconds before slowly starting the positive (as opposed to only going down halfway and bouncing back up like most people).
Another option, if you have the motor control and discipline to do it, is what I call intentional antagonistic co-contraction or IAC. By intentionally contracting the antagonists of the target muscles during an exercise you can increase the intensity considerably. Assuming you have relatively balanced strength, if you learn to use IAC effectively no matter how strong you become you will be able to make any exercise as hard as you need it to be. There are several disadvatages to IAC, however. It takes time to learn, requires good motor control and focus, and makes evaluating workout performance more subjective.
A slightly less efficient but more easily quantifiable way to increase resistance is to wear a weighted vest or belt. While technically not pure bodyweight exercise, people who have difficulty with IAC will find it more practical and it allows more objective evaluation of workout performance.
A very challenging but less safe and efficient option for stronger trainees is to perform some exercises unilaterally. If you’re skeptical of how challenging bodyweight exercises can be I suggest you attempt a set of strict one armed chin ups, push ups, or squats. Unless you can do a high number of these in slow, strict form, pausing and squeezing at the top of chin ups or pausing and holding motionless at the start of squats and push ups, you are not so strong you won’t be challenged by a proper bodyweight workout.
In his column My First Half Century In The Iron Game in Iron Man magazine in 1986 Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones had the following to say about this,
…chins and dips, if properly performed, will stimulate muscular growth in your upper body and arms that will eventually lead to muscular size and strength that is very close to your potential. Adding full squats, eventually leading up to one-legged full squats, and one-legged calf raises, will do much the same thing for your legs and hips. Using this very simple routine, when you get strong enough to perform about ten repetitions of one-armed chins with each arm, your arms will leave very little to be desired.
So, whether you are limited to bodyweight training by location, time, space, budget, or other circumstances, or you prefer it for it’s efficiency and convenience, you don’t have to worry you might be compromising effectiveness.
While the exercises Arthur Jones recommended are a good foundation, and have been the cornerstones of my workouts for a very long time, I would add a few more exercises to round out your workout. Minimally, I like to have people perform six basic movements: a squat, a trunk extension, a vertical push and pull, and a horizontal push and pull. It doesn’t hurt to add a heel raise and timed static contraction neck extension and flexion to round things out, and although they can get worked pretty hard during other exercises some people may want to add a direct exercise for the abdominal muscles. The following is an example of how this could be done with bodyweight only:
- Hip Raise or Hyperextension
- Chin Up or Parallel Grip Pull Up
- Dip or Push Up
- Inverted Row
- Pike Push Up or Handstand Push Up
- Heel Raise
- TSC Neck Extension
- TSC Neck Flexion
A few tips for performance:
- Move slowly and focus on contracting the target muscles continuously throughout the exercise, taking at least four seconds each to perform the positive and negative
- Hold for at least two seconds at the end point of pulling and simple (rotary) movements and at the start point of pushing movements (parallel with the ground for squats, in a slight stretch for dips and push ups, just above the ground for pike and handstand push ups)
- Start, stop, and reverse direction as smoothly as possible, the lower the acceleration the better. Imagine you’re trying to sneak through the turnarounds.
- When you think are unable to continue positive movement in strict form, continue to contract as hard as you can for about five more seconds, just to be sure, but do not loosen your form.
- Move quickly between exercises. Once you’ve finished an exercise try to begin the next as soon as possible. If you begin to feel light headed, dizzy, or nauseous and wait for it to pass before continuing, however.
Give it a try, and let me know how it goes in the comments below.