Bodyweight Training for Building Muscle: Pros and Cons
Getting into incredible shape doesn’t need to be limited to the confines of the gym.
This might sound ludicrous coming from a company that has gyms across four continents of the world, but the fact of the matter is, using our bodies to improve our physiques is far too underrated.
The benefits of moving your body through space are vast - exercises like pull-ups, press-ups, dips and glute-ham raises can help you hone a powerful and lean physique.
Here we explore why you may want to consider adding more bodyweight training into your life.
Pros of Bodyweight Training
1. It can be done anywhere, anytime
An obstacle stopping many people from starting their fitness journey is their reluctance to travel and sign up to a gym.
The greatest advantage of bodyweight training is that it can be done anywhere, anytime.
While we do train our personal training clients at our facilities, we often like to prescribe bodyweight training as ‘homework’ for clients to complete on their days off from training.
It’s also particularly useful for clients who are on the road a lot through work where they may not have the time to get to a gym, or are stuck in a hotel with a poorly-equipped gym.
2. It keeps you honest
With traditional barbell lifts like the squat and bench press, the quickest way to gain strength is to increase your bodyweight.
By adding pounds to your frame, your leverages increase and your performance will increase, giving you an illusion of progression.
On the other hand, if you incorporate bodyweight exercises like the chin-up or dip as ‘indicator’ lifts into your programme, it keeps you honest.
If your bench press is going up, but your chin-up strength is going down, chances are all you’ve done is get fatter.
3. Develop full body tension and stability
Learning how to generate maximal tension through the body is an important part of developing strength.
When you’re performing exercises like ring dips, press-ups, L-sits or frog stands, your body has to work as a unit to keep form and maintain stability.
This will have a strong carryover to exercises like the deadlift, where your entire body needs to be working efficiently together to lift the load.
Another related bonus is the increase in shoulder stability you’ll experience by incorporating certain positional holds and ring work.
4. Builds a base
There’s something to be said about building a base level of strength using bodyweight exercises before advancing to fancy training protocols.
For example, before worrying which direction your pinky finger should be facing on an incline dumbbell curl, you’d probably get more out of increasing your chinning strength from three reps to 10 reps.
The same can be said about triceps pushdowns and dipping strength.
The added benefit of working with bodyweight exercise targets is it’ll encourage you to drop body fat too.
For those who are very weak and only starting out, you can gain a lot of benefit from getting better bodyweight squats, split squats, lunges, press-ups, inverted rows, chin-ups and dips.
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5. Develop abdominals
If you’ve ever worked on rings, or trained front lever and planche variations, you’ll know how sore your abs get the next day.
Any time you move your body through space, your core works hard to stabilise and maintain correct alignment through your body.
After you’ve developed a good level of abdominal strength through direct work, bodyweight training can serve as an effective means of maintaining it after that.
6. Safer on the joints
Generally speaking, bodyweight training is safer on the joints than weight training as your body can move through its natural range of motion.
That’s why dumbbell work is safer than barbell work, as your body is less fixed into a certain plane of motion.
7. Build muscle
The problem with bodyweight training is it has a reputation for being only suitable for building endurance and for ‘fat loss’ circuits.
However, if you know how to manipulate the difficulty of an exercise, you can perform it, so you fail within a six to 12 rep range.
Doing endless sets of 25 push-ups won’t build much muscle. But if you work your way up to doing sets of 12 on feet elevated incline ring press-ups, your chest will grow.
Resistance is resistance. It’s about knowing how to make the resistance high enough to trigger muscle growth.
So should you ditch weight training in favour of bodyweight training now?
Not so fast.
Cons of Bodyweight Training
1. Low reward per unit time invested
Mastery in advanced bodyweight exercises doesn’t happen overnight. It takes weeks, months, and sometimes years of practice.
While the rewards can be great, the problem is we deal with predominantly busy professionals who don’t have the time in the day to spend hours working on bodyweight skills.
There’s nothing wrong with it, but our clients need the most bang for their buck, and training predominantly with weights provides this.
2. Hard to quantify
Leading on from the previous point, progressing through bodyweight exercises can sometimes be hard to quantify.
Progressive overload with weights can be more black and white - you add reps, sets, weight, etc.
As you increase the difficulty of bodyweight exercises, it can be hard to know whether real progress was made session to session.
It’s a long-term game, and for those who are numbers and statistically oriented, it can become a little frustrating.
3. Lack of Posterior Chain and Legs Overload
The biggest problem with bodyweight only training is the inability to sufficiently stimulate the posterior chain and thigh muscles effectively.
To work the posterior chain, nothing beats barbells and dumbbells. For anyone who wants to prioritise bodyweight training their programme, they should ensure they keep some weighted posterior chain work.
The same applies for leg work overall. While pistol squats are a great exercise, very few have the required flexibility to perform them safely. Other ‘quad’ based movements like split squats, lunges and squats will all require loading eventually for maximum adaptation, so dumbbells and barbells become a necessity.
What are good bodyweight exercises?
The sensible approach to bodyweight training is to think of it as a tool which can be used to accelerate your results.
No matter your starting point, here are some good exercises to strive towards being able to perform well in the long run:
Inverted ring rows
Perfect squat (this might be simple but think about how many can’t perform a bodyweight squat well)
Glute ham raises
Bulgarian split squats
Front tuck lever
You’ll notice we’re not saying you need to start mastering advanced gymnastics moves.
For many, these will be out of reach unless you focus on your bodyweight training over a long period.
If you’ve got a pair of rings, and you’ve spent some time developing some base level strength, here’s a great bodyweight hypertrophy workout to try:
1A. Ring Chin-Up 4x8-12 3112 60s
1B. Ring Dips 4x8-12 3211 60s
2A. Feet Elevated Ring Press-Ups 4x8-12 2211 60s
2B. Inverted Ring Rows 4x8-12 2012 60s
Moving your body through space is underrated. The neuromuscular activity, stability and complexity required to perform bodyweight exercises will always trump free-weight or machine based work.
This doesn’t mean you should overhaul your training with bodyweight only routines. Instead, we need to take the Bruce Lee mantra of ‘take what is useful, and leave the rest’.
For our clients, we need to use a blend of all three, as each serves a benefit that the other can’t offer. Combined, we’re able to deliver the transformation you want.
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