How Fit Can You Get From Bodyweight Exercises Alone?
Very, according to experts—as long as you know how to increase the challenge as your body adapts. Here's your three-step plan.
If you've ever skipped a strength workout because you had zero equipment to work with, no shame. But next time, no excuses either.
Let's say a 150-pound person does three sets of 10 squat jumps, a twofer bodyweight exercise that builds strength and burns calories. You may think they've made 150 pounds go airborne. Really, they've hoisted 4,500 pounds.
"The forces exerted on the muscles when jumping and landing are incredibly high", says Christopher Minson, PhD, a human physiology professor and co-director of the Exercise and Environmental Physiology Lab at the University of Oregon. So high, in fact, that just by doing explosive bodyweight exercises, "you'll also help the muscles adapt to lifting heavier weights when you go back to the gym", he says.
Plyometrics, or fast-paced jumping exercises, aren't the only bodyweight moves that can offer big benefits. A feature article in the American College of Sports Medicine's journal found that bodyweight-only high-intensity training can reduce body fat and improve VO2 max (a measure of aerobic fitness) and muscular endurance as much as or even more so than traditional weight training does. A study in "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" showed that doing push-ups can be as effective as bench-pressing for increasing upper-body strength and muscle density. And a study by Polish researchers found that women who did just bodyweight training for 10 weeks improved muscle strength and endurance as well as flexibility (the study author says the results should be similar for men).
On top of all of that, when there's no equipment to mess with, most people have an easier time fine-tuning their form, says Minson, which can help you get the most out of every rep. And because you're not hauling weight, your range of motion and proprioception (knowing where your limbs are in space) tend to improve, allowing you to move quickly without overthinking it. That's helpful for any kind of movement, whether you're in the gym, on the field or even going down stairs.
Plain and simple: The average adult has enough mass on their bones to challenge their muscles without adding weight. "There's also a lot of opportunity for scaling up bodyweight exercises to continue progressively overloading the muscles", says Minson. In fact, that's the secret to getting stronger and fitter, weights or not. Keep reading to learn how.
The average adult has enough mass on their bones to challenge their muscles without adding weight.
Christopher Minson, PhD, a human physiology professor and co-director of the Exercise and Environmental Physiology Lab at the University of Oregon
Where to Start
Most exercises fall into one of these six foundational movement patterns: squat, lunge, hinge, push, pull and carry. Start off practising basic versions of these, perfecting your mechanics before you advance them, says Mike Bracko, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and exercise physiologist in Calgary, Alberta.
For example, you could do air squats for three weeks, Bulgarian split squats the next three, then try pistol squats (one-legged squats) for the next three, focusing on your form at each stage, says Bracko. For push-ups, he suggests starting with your knees on the ground, then you could progress to incline push-ups, hand-release push-ups, standard push-ups, plyo push-ups and then, if you're superhuman, planches (where your feet are off the ground). If you struggle with your form at any step along the way, either add reps and sets or scale the movement down until you feel confident moving on.
If coming up with bodyweight pulling and carrying exercises leaves you stumped, get creative. For pulling movements, recruit your partner or roommate, who can provide resistance without actually adding weight. (Yes, it still counts as bodyweight training even if there are two bodies involved.) You could each hold the end of a towel and do rows, for instance. For carries, try a bear crawl or crab walk to "load" your upper body.
How to Progress
Once you've got the basics down, it's time to put the overload principle to work. Here are some solid ways to do just that.
- Switch up your rep scheme.
You can do tougher versions of a move for fewer reps or easier versions for more. Or you could work in a bit of both: Bracko recommends performing harder variations of an exercise as you decrease the reps for each set. That way, you're upping the challenge while asking for less volume, so you can still nail your form.
Set 1 (for endurance): 20 to 30 frog hops
Set 2 (for strength): 8 to 12 squat thrusts
Set 3 (for power): 5 burpees
- Play with your tempo.
Research shows that speeding up exercises such as push-ups can better develop muscle power, so see how many reps you can do within a set amount of time, suggests Bracko. But instead of going all-out right off the bat, increase your speed incrementally—say, picking up the pace every 10 seconds until you can't go any faster without sacrificing your form.
Or slow things down with eccentric training, where you emphasise the lengthening or lowering phase of an exercise, or even isometric holds to increase time under tension. Try slowly lowering into a squat for 3 counts, then shooting up for 1, or holding that squat for 15 seconds.
- Eliminate rest.
To max out your muscles and get a cardio workout in, don't break between rounds and exercises, or rest only as needed to catch your breath, says Bracko. And do your workout for time rather than reps. For example, see how fast you can get through 5 rounds of 10 burpees, 15 lateral bounds per side, and 20 sit-ups. (Need ideas? Check out the Nike Training Club App for dozens of bodyweight HIIT workouts you can do anywhere.)
Each of these progressions gives you loads of room to experiment and advance week after week. No-one said basic had to be boring.