Over the past few weeks I’ve been getting a lot of questions on bodyweight training and timed static contractions so in this Q&A I will cover a few of the most common.
Question: Why are you only doing bodyweight workouts now? Do you really think they’re as effective as training with barbells or machines?
Answer: My workouts are actually a combination of bodyweight exercises and timed static contractions using either a heavy nylon strap or my UXS bodyweight exercise station for resistance, rather than pure bodyweight workouts. I have a few reasons for switching, but the main one is to be better able to provide effective workout alternatives for clients and readers who travel frequently or are active military and do not always have access to equipment, or who prefer to train at home and either don’t want equipment or don’t have the space or budget for it.
Although I’ve been training people and have taught and performed bodyweight exercises like chin-ups, dips, and squats for over twenty years now, it is not enough to extrapolate from free weight and machine training principles and techniques when teaching other bodyweight exercises. There are significant differences between these modalities, most notably in scaling difficulty and resistance progression, and it is necessary to have sufficient experience performing bodyweight exercises to really understand the differences, constraints, and advantages and to be able to teach them effectively.
As for effectiveness, how you train is far more important than what equipment you use, or whether you use any at all. And, if you know how to perform them correctly, bodyweight exercises are just as effective for improving general functional ability, health, and physical appearance as free weight and machine exercises. I discussed this in more detail in Q&A: Maximizing Muscular Strength and Size with Bodyweight High Intensity Training and Bodyweight Versus Weight Training. As a bonus, bodyweight exercises and timed static contractions are far more space, time, and cost efficient. They can be done anywhere you have a little room to move. You can finish one exercise and start the next as quickly as your conditioning allows without having to set up or wait for equipment. They can be done with no equipment, or equipment which can be bought or built very inexpensively.
Question: How can I make bodyweight exercises I have difficulty with easier and make bodyweight exercises I find easy harder without using a counterweight or weight?
Answer: The difficulty of an exercise is related to the resistance the target muscles work against, which is mostly the product of weight and lever. When you perform an exercise using a barbell or a machine you adjust the resistance by changing the weight. When you perform a bodyweight exercise you adjust the resistance by changing the average lever, which can be accomplished by modulation of range of motion, timing, load distribution, or different combinations of them. I explain how to do this with dozens of exercises in the Project Kratos program handbook.
Another option is to use timed static contraction protocol. A timed static contraction is a type of isometric exercise which involves contracting the target muscles against an immovable object for a specific amount of time, usually in stages with gradually increasing effort. Because the resistance is always exactly equal to the force you are applying, regardless of how weak or strong you are the difficulty of a timed static contraction is never too high or low for you to perform it effectively. I frequently use timed static contraction pull-downs and shoulder presses on the UXS with new clients who can not perform a sufficient number of chin-ups or pike push-ups at the lowest difficulty level (these can also be done with straps) and timed static contraction belt squats with clients who are getting too strong for squats at the highest difficulty level as an alternative to performing them unilaterally.
Steve Maxwell, black belt senior world and pan american jiu jitsu champion, the first person certified to teach Gracie Jiu Jitsu in the USA, and the first American to earn a black belt from Relson Gracie has been using the Project Kratos program with some of his clients and athletes and recently shared the following with me, including his unique method of performing timed static contraction belt squats,
I have placed a number of guys on the program with some of my own variations. All of my clients have had great success. I’ve had several people relate to me that they can hardly believe how strong they feel and would have never believed such a thing possible without weights. The hip belt squat for example. It’s amazing how you can feel the strength and power in the legs from that. Walking up stairs, running or sprinting, one can feel the increased strength in the legs…
I came up with a variation that involves wrapping ones martial arts belt around the waist and standing on the ends. It’s a very effect way to do the TSC squats with no equipment. It’s particularly good for travel.
I’ve had a lot of Jiujitsu guys and submission wrestlers, on the program, tell me that their training partners tell them that they feel like “beasts” on the mat from practicing the TSC and body weight exercises.
After Steve shared this with me I bought a two-inch wide towing strap and tested this out, and found it to be just as intense as the set up I was using but far more comfortable since the strap does not dig into the thighs nearly as much as the chain on most dip belts. Also, a belt or nylon strap is much easier to take with you than a heavy platform and can be used for a variety of other timed static contraction exercises (also covered in Project Kratos).
Question: How can I effectively train my grip with just bodyweight?
Answer: Chin-ups, pull-ups, rows, and other hanging exercises performed for sufficient duration will improve your grip strength considerably, but if you want to focus specifically on forearm and grip strength you can perform timed hangs holding the bar with just the ends of your fingers and thumb, or holding onto a strap or rolled up bath towel hung over the bar. You can also perform timed static contraction gripping and wrist extension and flexion with a bath towel by rolling it tightly then either crushing it or twisting it in opposite directions with each hand, then repeating for equal time with the directions reversed.
This could be done with a length of pipe (I use the dipping bars on the UXS for timed static contraction grip and forearm exercises) but a towel is more versatile and portable. Unlike a pipe, a towel can be rolled into a pad for timed static contraction neck flexion and extension, hung over a branch or bar for pull-ups and rows, and used for a variety of other exercises like timed static contraction rows and infimetric lateral raises and rear-delt flys.
Grip and forearm exercises should be performed at the end of your workout so they do not interfere with your ability to maintain your grip during hanging exercises like chin-ups, rows, and leg raises.