Traditional strength training is commonly associated with large, compound, barbell movements such as squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows – and for good reason too. These movements offer a fantastic way to develop strength while also stimulating large increases in muscle size.

But even so – there are various other methods of strength training which can cause similar adaptations – without the need for barbells. In fact, we can actually improve strength and promote muscle growth without any equipment at all.

Enter body weight training.

Bodyweight training

Body weight training effectively describes a form of resistance training that uses our own body weight as the only form of resistance. It is commonly (and deservedly) looked down upon as an inferior form of exercise, as it doesn’t require any fancy equipment, and is thought to be ineffective at promoting strength development.

Which is completely untrue.

While bodyweight strength training may have some restrictions when it comes to the development of lower body strength in absolute terms (think squat and deadlift strength) – it can be a fantastic way to develop other aspects of strength and stability when implemented correctly. Moreover, it is an excellent way to introduce methods of resistance training to a novice trainee.

As an added bonus, bodyweight training is incredibly versatile, and due to the lack of equipment required, it can be performed absolutely anywhere and at any time.

The importance of mastering our body weight

Body weight training effectively requires us to master our own body as its primary form of resistance. This means mastering basic upper body and lower body exercises to promote a high level of movement quality, which can then be transferred to more demanding lifts under load.

For example, it is important to master a body weight squat before commencing a high level of loading (such as that seen in a barbell back squat) as it allows us time to learn how to perform the movement safety and correctly. This ensures that when we do load the movement, the correct muscles are working the way we want them too, which will reduce our risk of injury considerably.

And from a slightly different perspective, mastering our bodyweight during upper body movements (such as push ups and chin ups) is essential, as they carry over to real life situations extremely well (think pushing ourselves off the ground, or climbing onto a ledge) while also building a solid foundation of strength and function we can build upon. This will become increasingly important during the impending zombie apocalypse, or if we intend to progress in more serious strength training in the near future.

Upper Body Bodyweight Training

Bodyweight training with a primary emphasis on the upper body is a fantastic way to develop upper body strength and size, with particular emphasis on push up and chin up variations.

bodyweight training pull up

Push ups allow us to develop upper body pressing strength, while also promoting the muscle growth of the pectorals, deltoids, and triceps. In addition to working these prime movers, push up variations also require scapula stability and efficient shoulder function – which, by becoming competent at them, can drastically improve shoulder health and reduce our risk of injury.

Additionally, we can also use our bodyweight to overload rowing movements, such as chin ups (and the many variations thereof) and inverted rows. By training these movements we can promote the development of the muscles of the back, with specific emphasis on the lats, traps, rhomboids, and biceps.

In a similar fashion to push-ups, these same movements require great stability at the scapula and shoulder, and by training them we can greatly improve our ability to stabilise at these joints – this in turn, can improve both shoulder health and our strength during other upper body movements (such as bench presses and overhead presses).

As an added bonus, each of these movements requires a large amount of trunk stability, and as such are a great way to train the abdominals in a more functional manner.

Lower body Bodyweight training

While bodyweight exercises don’t really lend themselves to lower body muscular growth particularly well, it does not by any means render them useless. By prioritising single leg lower body exercises, such as lunges, split squats, and if you’re feeling up to it, pistol squats, we can develop improved hip stability strength.

The ability to stabilise the hip during single leg movements is integral to maximising our performance during athletic movements (such as sprinting, bounding, and jumping), and can go a long way to preventing injuries of the knee, ankle, and lower back.

Moreover, by improving our capacity to perform these movements with sound technique will improve our ability to perform them safely under load – which will not only improve our capacity for strength development later down the track but also greatly reduce our risk of incurring a training-related injury.

Practical Applications

So we know that bodyweight training can have some serious benefits for both the development of upper body strength and size and lower body stability – but how should we include them into our programming?

Well, from the perspective of lower body training, split squat variations should either be used at the start of our session, as a way to warm-up the muscles around the hip, or at the end of the session, to promote hip stability strength development after our primary strength development.

Upper body exercises can be used as a core exercise to promote upper body strength, size, and function – these same exercises can be overloaded with band resistance and weight belts to provide extra stress to the muscle tissue. Additionally, these same exercises can be used as part of the warm up to promote scapula stability and shoulder health prior to completing our core lifts.

And of course, they can both be incorporated into a complete bodyweight training session if we do not have any gym equipment available (absolutely perfect for a holiday situation), which may look something like this:

1Push Ups3x12
2Chin Ups3x10
3Reverse Lunge3x10/side
4Inverted Row3x12
5Bulgarian Split Squa3x8/side

Summary

Bodyweight training should not ever be viewed as inferior to more traditional strength training methods – it has great capacity to improve strength, size, and function, which can greatly reduce our risk of injury AND improve our physical performance in other areas.

Additionally, considering that it requires no equipment at all, a solid bodyweight training session can be performed in a hotel room, outside, or while on holiday, allowing us to get in a quick workout in very limited time!


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Sources

Cogley, Robert M., et al. “Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 19.3 (2005): 628-633. Viewed at: http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/abstract/2005/08000/comparison_of_muscle_activation_using_various_hand.24.aspx

Johnson, Doug, et al. “Relationship of lat-pull repetitions and pull-ups to maximal lat-pull and pull-up strength in men and women.” The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 23.3 (2009): 1022-1028. Viewed at: http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2009/05000/Relationship_of_Lat_Pull_Repetitions_and_Pull_Ups.43.aspx

Kritz, Matthew, John Cronin, and Patria Hume. “Screening the upper-body push and pull patterns using body weight exercises.” Strength & Conditioning Journal 32.3 (2010): 72-82. Viewed at: http://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Abstract/2010/06000/Screening_the_Upper_Body_Push_and_Pull_Patterns.9.aspx

Claiborne, Tina L., et al. “Relationship between hip and knee strength and knee valgus during a single leg squat.” Journal of applied biomechanics 22.1 (2006): 41-50. Viewed at: http://journals.humankinetics.com/doi/abs/10.1123/jab.22.1.41