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Bodyweight training has been the bread and butter of quarantine fitness, especially earlier in the year when gyms were shut down. The appeal of bodyweight training is fairly obvious: No equipment is required. You can do bodyweight workouts virtually anywhere: at the beach, in a hotel room, at the park — the world is your oyster.
Outside of sheer convenience, bodyweight training is also functional. Using your bodyweight stimulates a natural range of motion, cues postural muscles, improves balance and proprioceptive senses (our ability to understand where we are in space), and increases muscle length or flexibility.
While bodyweight training is convenient and appealing, the debate of whether it is as effective as weight training is lively among the fitness community. So we ask the question: How can we make bodyweight training effective in improving body composition and reaching fitness goals?
How to Make Bodyweight Training Work for You
Like any type of exercise, bodyweight exercises range in difficulty. From the notoriously tough strict variations of the push-up or pull-up to more approachable moves like the air squat or lunge, the possibilities are virtually endless. Each of these movements poses unique challenges for varying fitness levels. If you can’t do a single push-up, then completing multiple reps in a workout is obviously going to be out of reach. What then?
The good news is most bodyweight exercises are infinitely scalable, so you can choose a version that makes the most sense for your fitness level. If a push-up is out of reach, you can perform a wall push-up, box push-up or a push-up on your knees (modified push-up).
If you want to achieve your first strict pull-up, work on your pulling strength with leg-assisted pull-ups, jumping pull-ups or band-assisted pull-ups. Find a scale that works for you so you can begin including these movements in your workouts.
Conversely, if you are a bodyweight aficionado and want to challenge yourself further, try more challenging variations or add weight (with a dumbbell or plate) or a weighted vest. Weighted dips, pull-ups and push-ups are another level of challenge for those who have the prerequisite fitness.
Add variation to your exercises. Bodyweight exercises are incredible for building muscular endurance. More volume of one movement will increase the intensity of your workouts and create greater muscular hypertrophy (growth). Shorter rest times between movements also will increase fatigue and continue to build muscular endurance.
Use progressive overload. Progressive overload is when you gradually increase the weight frequency, or number of repetitions in order to decrease the body’s adaptations to the stimulus. For example, if you’re working on building pushing strength and you can’t do even one strict push-up, begin with a modified push-up (on a box, or on your knees depending on difficulty). Perform an EMOM (every minute on the minute) and do one modified push-up. The following week, perform two push-ups every minute on the minute. Continue this pattern until you have built up the strength and endurance to perform a strict bodyweight push-up.
The same progressive overload strategies also can be applied to the strict pull-up.
As you become proficient in these movements, you can decrease rest time between sets, increase the volume of reps, or perform different variations of one movement.
Increase the time you spend under tension. This is most commonly seen in the squat, but can be applied to any bodyweight exercise. Add a three-second pause in the bottom of your squat, a three-second descent into the squat, or both.
Slowing down in the eccentric portion of a movement (or the lowering down) is called eccentric loading. During this type of contraction, muscles resist stretching load, creating a greater force than an isometric (paused contraction or static hold) and increased muscular strain. The ability to create greater forces during eccentric contractions increases muscle growth.
Include supersets in your training. A superset is when you move quickly from one exercise to another without taking much of a rest break. Supersets can train opposing muscle groups or movement patterns, but they don’t always need to work opposite muscle groups. Think about alternating a push with a pull, using a bodyweight push-up or pull-up or working agonist muscles (muscles that perform the same actions) with a squat and then a jumping lunge. Use these ideas to add more variation to your bodyweight workouts.
Add plyometrics to your workouts. Increase the strain on your muscles by adding in some explosive or dynamic movements. Think: squat jumps, broad jumps, jumping lunges, burpees, plate hops, box jumps, etc. If you’re outdoors, use a park bench or a step as a surface to jump to.
According to a study , top level soccer players improved their jump performance after a six-week pre-season training program using loaded and unloaded plyometrics, making a great case for these types of bodyweight movements.
Functionality: Bodyweight vs. Weighted Training
Many bodyweight exercises are common in our everyday lives. Using different variations of these exercises will make you stronger in those tasks. From getting in and out of your car to carrying all your groceries into your house at one time, bodyweight exercises improve your mobility, stability and balance. They also can decrease risk of injury as strength adaptions occur at end ranges of motion.
So, do bodyweight exercises replace adding weights?
This is the ultimate question. Unfortunately, there’s no high-level evidence out there comparing bodyweight exercises to loaded exercises. It seems, however, that there is some strong evidence that you can make gains even when you leave the dumbbells behind.
In a systematic review, research found that adding variety to your training as we discussed above will induce muscle hypertrophy (growth). Researchers found that focusing on multiple sets of three to six reps with short rest intervals (less than 60 seconds) and moderate intensity (think: 60 to 80 percent of your one-rep max), with increases in training volume (12 to 28 sets per muscle each week), also known as progressive overload, led to muscle growth. As we’ve covered, you can use this tactic whether you add weights to your exercises or not.
One important note is that muscle hypertrophy will happen in the latter weeks of training — typically around weeks six to 10. Therefore, persistence in training is essential, and you shouldn’t get discouraged right away; muscle adaptions take time.
Long story short, if you want to make body composition changes with bodyweight exercises, you can. Pick a training program you can stick to and make a three-month commitment to it. After all, the best training program to follow is the one that fits your lifestyle.