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How to Build Muscle with Bodyweight Exercises

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calendar-iconNovember 28, 2020

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A common misconception with calisthenics, also known as bodyweight training, is that it is not as effective as weight training. 

When you think about building strength, building muscle or working out in general, training with weights often comes to mind. Many gym goers find it satisfying to head to the gym and measure your growth with the amount of weight you are able to push, lift off the ground, curl.

Bodyweight exercises have, as a result, been overlooked. The truth is that your muscles aren't concerned with what type of resistance you're providing them. 

Whether it comes from your own bodyweight and gravity or the weight of some dumbbells – resistance is resistance. 

This article does not aim to tell you why bodyweight workouts are better but rather aims to provide an accurate representation of the many possibilities behind bodyweight exercises. It will also advise on how to consistently improve towards your fitness goals with your own bodyweight. We’ll also go through some of the upsides and downsides of both weight training and calisthenics, as well as review the ways to overcome the downsides of bodyweight training.

Advantages of bodyweight training 

A great place to start would be highlighting the advantages that bodyweight training has to offer!

Convenience 

For starters, the convenience of bodyweight exercises is undeniable. 

There is no need for a gym or fancy machines yet there are numerous exercises to try out. If you want to take it step further, you can invest in a pull up bar or a dip bar that you can use in the convenience of your own home.

Time Efficiency 

Bodyweight training is also convenient for those that struggle in terms of time commitment.

Traveling to the gym can be extremely time consuming and even small things such as racking/unracking weights can be time consuming. It is also important to consider that the gym has limited equipment and you might have to wait for someone else to finish using a machine/weight that you need.

No Need for Equipment 

Whether it is due to lack of time, inability to access a gym or the cost of a gym membership, it can be difficult for some to access either equipment or commit to a gym membership. You’ll rarely encounter this issue with bodyweight training, as you can do a large number of bodyweight exercises without any equipment.

Calisthenics can cost significantly less than gym memberships and at-home equipment. You can choose to invest in a pull up bar or even a multifunctional bar, but even that can be optional as most public parks offer some space for people to workout.  

Lower risk of injury

Body weight generally places less stress on the joints relative to weightlifting. It allows your joints to become accustomed to moving freely and in full range of motion. By spending more time on technique with your bodyweight rather than racking up the numbers, you spend time building muscles that stabilize your joints, making them less susceptible to injuries according to Huffpost

Moreover, according to the arthritis foundation, bodyweight exercises can aid the circulation of synovial fluid, which in turn lubricates the joints. The Arthritis Foundation also suggests that bodyweight training is one of the best ways to reduce joint pain.

Advantages of Weighted Training

While we do want to highlight the advantages of bodyweight training, one shouldn’t overlook the advantages of weighted training when comparing the two workout styles.

Easier to Target Specific Muscle Groups

Unlike calisthenics, weight training can be effective when it comes to targeting specific muscles. There are a multitude of exercises that can target weaker, less used muscles and avoid your body's instinct to overcompensate. 

For example, if you're trying to target your biceps there are exercises such as bicep curls, barbell curls, incline bench dumbbell rows, standing bicep curls. However when bodyweight training, it is significantly harder to isolate certain muscles such as the biceps. 

Also, it is important to consider that the primary variables of increasing muscle mass are volume and intensity. Equipment and weights allow you to hit muscles with higher intensity at a greater variety of angles, which can help facilitate growth.

More Volume 

Increasing volume food weight training can be as easy as adding weight to the bar. Volume is one of the fundamental things to focus on when pursuing muscle growth and strength. Sok the fact that weight training makes reaching higher volume so easy makes this a very important thing to consider when choosing between the two forms of exercise.

Easy to Track Progress

With weight training, progress tracking progress can be as simple as watching your lift numbers go up. With calisthenics, you have to be a little more creative to systematically add resistance (more on that later).

Periodization and Bodyweight Training

Taking all of these into consideration one of the biggest criticisms of calisthenics is that it is very limited and does not allow for altering the difficulty of the workout over time, or periodization. Often what is meant by calisthenics being limited is that your bodyweight is a constant unlike weight training where you can constantly increase or decrease the weight you are using for an exercise. The rest of this article will be focused on how that is not necessarily true.

There's many ways to ensure constant periodization with bodyweight exercises. This can be done through increasing your workout volume, time under tension, practicing different ranges of motion, exercise variation, and utilizing assisted reps.

Increase workout volume

A simple way to make an exercise more difficult is to add volume, or the number of reps and sets you do an exercise. The good thing is that increasing your workout volume is almost invariably correlated with muscle growth

Exercises with more reps are great for improving muscular endurance. Even more so, the volume at which you stress your muscles can speed up your progress. 

When increasing volume, one should always be cautious of overtraining, or adding so much volume that your body is not able to recover. An appropriate workout plan, nutrition plan and rest schedule should help in avoiding that problem.

Time Under Tension

Many people try to squeeze in as many reps as they can without realizing that a big component of building muscle and strength is time under tension. It is basically how long your muscles are under stress when you are performing an exercise.

One easy way to help increase TUT is to slow down your repetitions, increasing the time spent during each rep. Studies have shown that the optimal time for completing a given rep is around 6 seconds if you’re aiming to achieve maximum muscle gain.

Range of motion 

Bodyweight training can be made more difficult by altering the range of motion. You can read more about range of motion in our article here. Simply put, by altering the range in which you muscle is doing work, and the work is doing within that range, you can make an exercise more challenging without adding any weight at all.  

Weight Distribution/Angle

An easy way to practice exercise variation to ensure a constant periodization is by adjusting your weight distribution. 

Adjusting your weight distribution helps increase the difficulty of bodyweight exercises and continue progress towards your fitness goals.

For example, let's say regular pushups become too easy for you. You could change the way your weight is distributed by placing your legs on something that raises your legs a couple feet higher than normal, like a chair or bench. As this becomes easier, continue to increase your elevation to increase the difficulty. 

Try Related Exercises

If you find yourself stalling on an exercise, a great way to break through the plateau is to simply change to another exercise that hits the same muscle group. 

You can also look for variations on the exercise you’re currently doing. For example

Assisted Reps

A good way to ensure you are truly reaching failure is through the use of assisted reps.

For example, if you're trying to do pushups to failure, consider transitioning to assisted push ups (pushups on your knees) rather than the regular pushup position.

Additionally, as you struggle to complete your sets, try doing more sets with fewer repetitions within each set, similar to a drop set used in weightlifting. It can also be useful to decrease your rest time in between each set to add even more difficulty to your workout.

Conclusion

In the end, there are many different opinions regarding the use of bodyweight training and weight training. Similarly, there are many common misconceptions. 

Both forms of exercise are quite different and have their own unique purposes and benefits. 

The major benefits of bodyweight training include:

  • Convenience
  • Time Efficient
  • No need for Equipment
  • Lower Risk of Injury

The major benefits of weight training include:

  • Easier to Target Specific Muscle Groups
  • More Volume
  • Easier to Track Progress

Things to try to keep periodization consistent with bodyweight training include:

  • Increase workout volume
  • Increase time under tension
  • Alter your range of motion
  • Alter your weight distribution
  • Try related exercises 
  • Assisted reps

Regardless of your fitness goals, bodyweight training can be extremely effective when approached in a way that allows for constant growth. 

There are a number of factors to consider in order to provide yourself with a challenging workout, however, it is possible to constantly grow with just bodyweight training. 

For some challenging bodyweight workouts, and a more in depth look at a proper nutrition, workout, and rest plan, check out some other articles on myworkouts.io.

Resources and Useful Research

  1. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/exercises-bodyweight-training_n_2543656?guccounter=1
  2. https://www.arthritis.org/health-wellness/detail?content=healthyliving&filter=physicalactivity
  3. https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/periodization-3-ways-to-ensure-consistent-muscle-growth/1446
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6303131/
  5. https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/topics/foundational-training-series/12
  6. https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/topics/foundational-nutrition-series/13
  7. https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/topics/foundational-sleep-series/14
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3285070/
  9. https://www.myworkouts.io/edu/how-to-perform-exercises-for-optimal-muscle-growth/1432
  10. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/bodyweight-squat/51753
  11. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/bodyweight-jump-squat/88571
  12. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/pistol-squat/22367
  13. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/push-up/63674
  14. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/clapping-pushup/73784
  15. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/one-arm-pushup/95929
  16. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/hand-stand-push-up/3230
  17. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/pull-up/17685
  18. https://www.myworkouts.io/exercise/push-up-on-knees/22749
  19. https://www.myworkouts.io/workouts/b/bodyweight-workouts/29990
Date Created: November 28, 2020

Last Updated: April 13, 2021

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