Can bodyweight training build muscle?
It’s a question that is debated a lot. And the simple answer is yes. Obviously if you wish for a bodybuilder physique, you’ll need a barbell set, but if it’s lean, functional muscle you want, you’d do well with some bodyweight drills.
The main problem with using bodyweight training to build muscle mass is the lack of load. With a bar you can make small increments in weight every workout, this isn’t so easy with body weight. So we have to look at other methods of changing the parameters. There several variables that can be adjusted in any training program:
Intensity – or the amount of weight moved. Easy to adjust with a barbell, not so much with pure bodyweight. However weighted vests, chains, dipping belts and heavy backpacks are all usable, portable and don’t take up much space at home. Easier still is to change the leverage of the exercise, a simple example is the push up. Start on the knees, as you progress move the knees further and further back, then move to a full plank style push up with the hands elevated (a chair or step), move to hands on the floor, then as you progress further elevate the feet. potentially you may move to one arm or handstand push ups. Squats can be done with an emphasis on one leg, move to split squats, lunges and single leg squats. Or go explosive by jumping. Pull ups may be hard enough to even get started on but most can hang from a bar, once this is comfortable, hang with the arms at 90, then move to negatives, or lowering slowly under control after an assist on the way up. Your next step is proper pull ups, then moving to even harder variants such as circular and typewriter pulls. A simple guide that strength coach Chad Waterbury advises is “Take a weight you can lift 5 times and perform 25 reps with it” Follow that guideline and you’ll not go far wrong.
Volume – Amount of time the weight is moved. This is most people’s guide to progression with bodyweight, trying to constantly do more and more press ups or squats. While high rep training is great for conditioning, endurance and even fat loss it won’t slap on much beef. For size and strength you want to work in lower rep ranges. There are two methods I like for this, Straight sets and Ladders. Straight sets involves taking a single drill and performing multiple sets of 3 reps. The number of sets can be 10 or more, but by keeping the reps down you are still focusing on the thicker type II fibres. This works great in conjunction with density work. Ladders are becoming better known. Perform one rep, take a short break then do two, then three up to five. Take a longer break and stat back at one. Repeat for up to 5 sets. You’ll very quickly increase the volume but with low reps. I used this method myself a while back alternating Pull ups with 1 arm push ups and built the biggest guns I’ve ever had.
Density – Or time taken to perform the workout. This is an often overlooked but extremely important method of progression, you’ll need a timer of some description. There are few ways of making this work, but each is effective if you train hard. You can time your full workout, next time try to beat that time. You can set a fixed time to workout in and try to fit in more reps (never at the expense of quality) You can race the clock with Minute Drills. These are very challenging, but great fun. Set a timer to go off every 60 seconds, every time it goes of perform a full body circuit of 1-5 exercises for 3-6 reps/drill. The faster you work, the more rest you get before the next set begins! Here’s a video of one of my own minute drill sessions, it’s the last couple of rounds. Obviously you may use different drill, but this one shows:
U – Push ups Mountain Climbers Knee Jumps
I hope this has shown some of the many possibilities of bodyweight training, it is way more than the standard diet of Push Ups, Sit Ups and Squats, or even worse, the tripe doled out by the average aerobics instructor. With a little imagination and a lot of elbow grease you can use your body to turn you body into some thing awesome.