Q&A: Bodyweight Training For Muscular Strength And Size

 Question:

Is it possible to get as strong and muscular with bodyweight training as you can training with weights?

Answer:

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:

  1. Hip Raise or Hyperextension
  2. Squat
  3. Chin Up or Parallel Grip Pull Up
  4. Dip or Push Up
  5. Inverted Row
  6. Pike Push Up or Handstand Push Up
  7. Crunch
  8. Heel Raise
  9. TSC Neck Extension
  10. TSC Neck Flexion

Bodyweight "Big Six" On The UXS

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.

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43 Responses to Q&A: Bodyweight Training For Muscular Strength And Size

  1. Rich May 29, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Is IAC the same as what Diamond Dallas Page calls dynamic resistance in his Yoga for Real Guys program?

    • Drew Baye May 29, 2013 at 4:11 pm #

      Rich,

      I think the concept is similar. IAC is nothing new, it is just the term I think best describes it.

  2. Lio May 30, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Hi,

    Looks good. How often should I do it?

    Thanks,

    Lio

    • Drew Baye May 30, 2013 at 10:32 am #

      Lio,

      How frequently anyone should perform any workout depends on numerous factors, including how intensely you are capable of training, your recovery ability, and your goals. Read Effective Versus Optimal Training Volume And Frequency for more on this.

      • Lio June 2, 2013 at 2:47 pm #

        Thank you for your answer
        and the link
        Im going to learn the issue deeper

  3. Elis Mar Einarsson May 30, 2013 at 5:01 pm #

    Hi,
    I’ve been doing bodyweight training since about September 2012, and I feel exactly the same about understanding movements and inefficiency of how most people (including me before I found out about Body by Science and later you Drew) do exercises. I feel I’ve gained both strength and size. I need to be a bit more careful with my form and I’m still figuring out many things, so this article was very timely and informative for me :)

    I’ve been doing kind of a split for the last 2 weeks:

    A: arm curls, chin ups, neg acc. chin ups, diamond push up, push up and neg. acc. push up + TSC neck ext/flex

    B: 1 leg alt. squat, 1 leg neg acc. squats, alt 1 leg hip raise, hip raise, 1 leg calf raise and TSC neck.

    Doing this about 2x/week, 3-4-5 days apart, depending on my schedule. I want/need to improve my neck and trapezius!!

    Elis

    • Drew Baye May 30, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

      Elis,

      I would add a pike push up, half handstand push up, or isometric handstand (at the mid point of the range of motion) for the shoulders and traps. You can see an example of a pike push up at http://youtu.be/RNTdrlplBYo at about 2:50

  4. Jorge Flores May 30, 2013 at 6:35 pm #

    Hi, I just want to thank you for sharing Nautilus principles, I just read it and I changed my mind about my training tecnics, it is at this moment, the best and well explaint bodybuilding-strengh book I ever read, I am thankfull for learning the point of view of one of the greatest person interested in contribuite to muscular and strenght development. I really aprecciate it. Gracias Drew

  5. Liran Shoham May 30, 2013 at 7:00 pm #

    Hello Drew

    I understood all of the mentoined exrises and
    how to perform them execpt the TSC neck exricses.
    How should one do said exrices and why?
    Is thier a risk of neck injury due to the instibality of the joints?

    Thank you, Liran.

    • Drew Baye May 30, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

      Liran,

      The neck can be worked isometrically against the arms, placing the hands on the back of the head for extension, the forehead for flexion, or above the ears for lateral flexion. You can read about how to perform timed static contraction protocol here. The only difference I would suggest from that article is to use sixty instead of ninety seconds, with three twenty second segments.

  6. Ian Wilson May 30, 2013 at 7:43 pm #

    Exellent post Drew. I perform bodyweight squats at home due to back problems and lack of leg equipment and I can tell you they are harder performed with slow controlled movements, then when I was using a fully loaded leg press. It’s also a very safe way to work to total failure. Iv’e found I have great results doing bodyweight split squats especially for hamstring and glute development. Would you recommend adding trunk flexion exercises to your program if you’re already doing chin ups, squats, and exercises that actively engage your core. Since I’ve stopped doing them I notice my abs are actually sore for a couple of days after training.

    • Drew Baye May 30, 2013 at 8:01 pm #

      Ian,

      My biggest concern when I started this experiment was whether I could work the legs hard enough with body weight alone, but the combination of slow movement speed, static holds at the position of maximum moment arm, intentional antagonistic co-contraction, and the ability to efficiently pre-exhaust the squats with either hip extensions or leg curls and extensions has proven to be very effective.

      Although the abdominal muscles are involved to a significant degree during chin ups, push ups, and other exercises, I don’t think it hurts to add a set of crunches. I occasionally finish my workout with hanging reverse crunches.

  7. Paul Bennett May 30, 2013 at 11:27 pm #

    Thanks for posting. Would love to see some training vids in the future – especially on your bodyweight machine

  8. George Sheehan May 31, 2013 at 7:48 am #

    Great article, Drew. I was in the U.S Marine Corps for 22 years, and 10 of those years were body weight only workouts (being Recon and infantry, muscular endurance was paramount). I was 6 ft. 1 inches tall, and 209 lbs with just body weight workouts. Throw in some rope climbs, and you’ve got a winning workout.

  9. Brian Liebler May 31, 2013 at 8:00 am #

    Drew,
    I pre-ex the body weight squats with TSC leg curl, TSC leg ex. followed by your version of body weight squats, which really turns out to be almost a wall sit as so much congestion(or fatigue)gets in the way that dynamic is almost impossible. It’s a quad killer!

  10. Vinicius Franco May 31, 2013 at 10:57 am #

    Hello Drew!

    I just want to thank you!

    I started working out in November of 2011. I started with HIIT (tabatas) and after a while I was overtrainned. I was working out almost every day, the sundays was the only day that I didn´t. I Had a lot of problems until I found you. The information that you share with your readers is not only good and useful, it is a matter of health for all of us that do not have the means to pay a trainner but want to transform our lives. When I understood the principles of HIT, I understood why I had my progress stopped, even reversed, and why I had all those sympthoms derived from overtrainning.

    Even though I´m trainning for a good time now, my results wasn´t showing because I also didn´t pay attention to the diet and sleep.

    I started a diet for exactly a month now and continued with my bodyweight HIT trainning and a good sleep regimen. Now things are appearing. I´m dropping at least 2 pounds a week but I´m adding muscle. I´m doing the Slow Carb Diet from Tim Ferris so… I don´t care about hitting the mark of 20 pounds in 30 days, because of the muscle gain.

    Thats my story. Thank you very much because you helped me a lot!

    Hugs from Brazil!

    P.S. English is a self-learned language, so, excuse my mistakes.

  11. Drew Baye May 31, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

    Thanks to everybody who has replied here and through e-mail for the feedback. A lot of you have reported great results with bodyweight training, and hearing about your successes makes my day.

    I just got the following e-mail from one of my phone training clients, which I am psyched about:

    “Hi Drew,

    I swear to you that as fit as I have ever gotten…for some reason I have never been able to do a chin up or pull up. I can’t explain why but even in elementary school I would climb the ropes in seconds and kill it in all other tests but could never do one chin up or pull up, no matter how hard I tried.

    Now after doing only three work outs your way, (which never involved one isolated triceps or biceps exercise as you know) for the first time yesterday I pulled my chin up over the bar. I can’t tell you how excited I am! I am not sure if it was because I followed the form you were showing me in our last call or because I really have already gotten that much stronger but I am so happy!”

  12. krishnans May 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm #

    nice post…like the comment on th efact that bodyweight exercise if done correctly can reach potential makes sence because those old warriors you see in history were pretty nice built but not fancy gym equipment..also the indian warriors used body weight to get big and in yoga some move sare very difficult to perform like that andy murray flying push up and even one arm press up like rocky bilboa is hard if you add some sprints the mix and some core work then 45 mins of this and a good diet is what daniel graig used to get in shape allegedly…trying this s..t out getting good results not tired like heavy weight make you yes good stuff man keep it coming thick and fast by the way toure pictures are awesome!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Drew Baye June 1, 2013 at 9:08 am #

      Thanks Krishnans,

      Bodyweight exercise has been used by the warriors and militaries of various cultures and countries throughout history with good effect, and when done correctly it is much harder than most people expect.

      So much harder, in fact, that if you do it right there is no need to add any sprints, and no need to do any core work beyond one or two basic abdominal exercises, if even that. A full-body workout which effectively stimulates improvements in all general factors of functional ability can be completed in less than twenty minutes if you rush between exercises.

  13. Bradley Warlow June 1, 2013 at 7:36 am #

    Hi Drew,
    I was wondering about the average weight progression that you see in your clients- I remember reading that its about 10-15lbs each session. Can I ask why this is? does it always seem to be this amount every workout? In relation to the average recovery period of 4-7 days, is it all or nothing on the sense that if you do not rest at least 4 days , then will your strength increase less or not at all?

    • Drew Baye June 1, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

      Bradley,

      This can vary considerably between individuals based on what stage of training they are at and their response to exercise, and while it is not all or nothing it will vary depending on how well the workout frequency matches the time required for individual recovery and response. When in doubt you’re better off getting more rest time than less, since training too frequently over a period of time will interfere with recovery and adaptation and can eventually cause a plateau, while getting more rest than required will only reduce the rate of progress slightly but not stop it. Many factors affect recovery so the ideal workout frequency is a moving target, and workout performance is affected by a variety of factors as well, so it is better to evaluate progress and adjust volume and frequency based on the average change over several weeks of workouts rather than on a workout to workout basis.

  14. Michel June 2, 2013 at 10:20 am #

    Hello Drew, how are ya?
    Thanks for your work first and foremost.

    I have a doubt regarding this post.
    Let’s, for example, say that I start doing some push-ups. I do them in strict good form, slowly (about 4 seconds positive/negative and about 2 second stop before changing between one another) and, after failure, try to continue the exercise in good form for about 5 seconds. Shortly, the way you recommend doing them.
    Say I can only do 4 of them. If I were on a machine, I’d reduce the weight so I could do at least 7 reps, right?
    The question is, what do I do in the case of body weight workouts? Is there a problem in just doing 4 as long as I do it as intensely as possible?

    Thanks :)

    • Drew Baye June 2, 2013 at 4:56 pm #

      Michel,

      Four reps at an approximate 4/2/4 cadence is still a good amount of time to perform an exercise, although if a person can’t do at least six the difficulty of the exercise can be scaled by altering body position and leverage or the range of motion used, or by using the arms or legs for assistance.

  15. marklloyd June 2, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

    The weights I see many (most?) people use appear to be less challenging than the resistance their bodyweight would provide. It seems fair to assume that many of them couldn’t -do- one chin or dip. Have you ever used weights/machines as a preparatory program for bodyweight exercise?

    • Drew Baye June 2, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

      Mark,

      If someone has regular access to good machines they should just use them instead, unless they want to learn bodyweight exercises for times when they do not have access, such as when traveling. If bodyweight is the only option or the preference for whatever reason most bodyweight exercises can be scaled to almost any strength level by altering body positioning and the leverage against the target muscles, altering the portion of the range of motion performed, using the arms or legs for assistance, and more.

  16. Paul June 3, 2013 at 3:27 am #

    Hello Drew,

    Regarding chin-ups, is it really bad for the arms / shoulders when using a straight bar? I only have a straight bar and my left elbow makes a (mild) cracking noise at the beginning, but it doesn’t hurt. It sounds like the noise of cartilage. Any idea of this could be a problem?

    Do you have any experience with using of TRX like bands? I use it in my own workout and am quite satisfied with.

    Thanks and keep it up!

    Paul
    Europe – Netherland

    • Drew Baye June 5, 2013 at 11:50 am #

      Paul,

      An angled bar is more comfortable for the wrists but isn’t as much of an issue as how the width of the grip and position of the body affects how the wrists and elbows move. If your elbow doesn’t hurt I wouldn’t worry about the noise, but if it concerns you you might want to experiment with a different grip width.

      I have used suspension trainers and rings for exercises and they are not bad, but I prefer fixed bars because the stability allows you to focus more on the muscles and less on adjusting your body position to the movement of the apparatus.

  17. Bradley warlow June 3, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    Thanks Drew. this would explain why i got results from training high volume, up to a point. Could this mean that if I split my old high volume routine in half like Arthur Jones did, I would still continue to make progress, albeit slower? I’ve always wondered if the sticking point that people reach differs that greatly.(‘newby gains’ are said to be 10-15 lbs of muscle in the average trainee)

    • Drew Baye June 5, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

      Bradley,

      As long as you don’t exceed the volume and frequency of exercise your body can tolerate and recover from you will get some results, but your results will come much more slowly than if you allow your body enough time to fully recover and respond between workouts.

      Most people do too much exercise, too often, and would make faster progress by doing less exercise, less often, with higher intensity

  18. hostler June 3, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    Just performed the suggested workout. Very tough. The squats were much more intense than I expected. Good stuff.

    • Drew Baye June 5, 2013 at 11:54 am #

      Hostler,

      Thanks for the feedback. Most people are surprised just how hard bodyweight squats are when done correctly.

  19. Ian Wilson June 5, 2013 at 5:10 am #

    Drew

    Do you think it would be beneficial to add either bidy weight Glute Ham raises, or reverse trunk extensions to engage the posterior chain more. Or would the squats engage the Glutes and hamstrings enough? I’m trying to rehab my lower back at the moment, and I’m not sure whether adding either of those exercises as well as the body weight squats would be helpful or over training.

    • Drew Baye June 5, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

      Ian,

      If a good trunk extension machine or barbell isn’t available I would recommend a forty-five degree bodyweight hip extension or a hip raise rather than glute-ham raises or reverse hyperextensions. When done correctly bodyweight squats train the hip and thigh muscles effectively but don’t do much for the lower back.

  20. Steven Turner June 5, 2013 at 9:06 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Have you tried the 3 X 3 routines on the body weight machine. I have put a few people through 3 X 3 workout with only a chin bar, bodyweight squats and push ups they found this routine ‘brutal”. I agree with your comments on the IAC there is some learning on how to intenstionly contract the antagonist muscles but the intensity on the agonist muscles is greatly increased.

    I have found that with the TRX straps whilst the straps can be very demanding there is a lot of skill learning involved using them. Not sure to what degree is improving with TRX straps skill improvement or muscular strength?

    • Drew Baye June 5, 2013 at 9:44 pm #

      Steven,

      I haven’t performed a traditional 3×3 workout on it, but the workouts I’ve been performing are structured like a 3×3 using a legs, pull, push pattern. Two of the workouts I’ve been doing on it are:

      1. Unilateral Squat
      2. Chin Up
      3. Dip
      4. Squat
      5. Parallel-Grip Row
      6. Pike Push Up
      7. Hip Extension
      8. TSC Arm Curl
      9. TSC Triceps Extension
      10. Unilateral Heel Raise

      and

      1. Leg Curl
      2. Wide Parallel-Grip Pull Up (just outside of shoulder width)
      3. Push Up
      4. Leg Extension
      5. Overhand-Grip Row
      6. Half Handstand Push Up
      7. Hack Squat
      8. Inverted Arm Curl
      9. Triceps Press Up
      10. Hanging Reverse Crunch

      While suspension trainers can be useful, training on a stable bar or support is more effective because it allows you to focus more on performing the correct body movement and contracting the targeted muscles and less on trying to constantly adjust to a moving apparatus or maintaining your balance.

  21. Steven Turner June 6, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    Thanks for your reply and the two workouts I will give them a try. On the TRX I notice that where gyms put in metal frames for the TRX stations to hang they now lay idle and unused. I believe that for many people who don’t have the required strength and balance TRX would be almost impossible to train on.

    In my opinion unstable training modalities are inefficient for strength training, in fact training on unstable surfaces should be called “balance” training.

    • Drew Baye June 7, 2013 at 9:47 am #

      Steven,

      The exercises done on suspension trainers can be modified to accommodate weaker or stronger individuals, but due to the additional balance challenge they are not as good for many exercises as a stable apparatus.

  22. JLMA June 6, 2013 at 9:10 pm #

    I see more benefit in my case when (unable to continue positive movement) I continue to contract until I cannot contract at all any more (25 seconds, or so, depending on the exercise) than continuing to contract for only 5 seconds.

    Is it wrong continuing to contract “in place” for as long as possible?

    thanks!

    • Drew Baye June 7, 2013 at 9:44 am #

      JLMA,

      In most cases I don’t recommend continuing for more than five seconds after positive failure, but it depends on a lot of factors, including the total time under load up to that point, the skill of the subject, the specific exercise, the equipment, the position failure occurs at and whether it is because of a sticking point, etc. I’ll write a separate post addressing this.

      • JLMA June 8, 2013 at 9:51 am #

        Thanks for the reply. I would indeed like to read more on this duration-of-contracting-after-positve-failure issue. Thanks for your website.

        • Craig June 8, 2013 at 6:33 pm #

          I’m also interested as I usually try to to continue contracting for at least 10 seconds after positive failure.

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