It is coming up to a year since I started training solely with bodyweight movements. Here’s what I’ve learned about strength and hypertrophy training sans-weights through practise and study.
What started as a healthy experiment has become somewhat of an obsession for me. Bodyweight training was an intriguing pursuit to begin with — the notion you can build strength and muscle with virtually zero equipment is quite a tantalising prospect and completely the opposite of what we learn about exercise through popular media and infomercials.
Since that time, I’ve learned that bodyweight training is not only a desirable add-on to other forms of training, it can be a totally self-sustaining lifestyle option.
In this post I outline why bodyweight training approaches and programs need to be practiced differently than traditional weight training.
Two distinctions that make the difference
In Bret Contreras’ recent book, Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy, he talks about different approaches to designing a training program based on bodyweight exercises. He recommends the whole body routine that is performed several times per week. This tended to rub some people the wrong way and it is precisely because they’re applying a weight training mentality.
I’ve come to learn that the main difference between weight versus bodyweight training is that, obviously, you can increase weights and maintain the rep range you want. By progressively adding weights you create the continuing stimuli to build muscle and strength.
However, there is another, often overlooked difference between the two training modalities: Weights will tend to fatigue the central nervous system (CNS) faster and more completely than bodyweight exercises.
So these two distinctions need to be accounted for in designing bodyweight programs. This is one of the reasons why Bret Contreras recommends the whole body approach several times a week. Because you can’t increase the weights, and because the overall stress to the CNS is less; bodyweight training is more effective when done more frequently.
The high frequency approach
If you read enough about strength training, you’ll often see the phrase “strength is a skill”. This has two implications for bodyweight exercisers:
- A high training frequency will stimulate more neural adaptivity
- Performing higher reps than traditional weight training is a valid means of progression in the place of adding additional weights.
Rarely do we see strength training routines advocate high reps. For the most part, you can use higher reps with bodyweight training as a bridge to creating the strength necessary to tackle the next, more difficult exercise. With some exercises it may take a certain number of preparatory reps to create the stress necessary to recruit more muscle fibres (thereby increasing the strength training stimulus).
Don’t get me wrong — you do want to train in lower rep ranges as much as possible but higher rep training with a low intensity exercise is a good way to develop the muscle and joint strength to handle harder exercises.
You are what you do everyday
If you think of strength as a skill, then daily practice becomes a no-brainer. Old school strength athletes learned this and knew that they had to keep the CNS fresh so that they could go again the next day. Repeated daily practice with the right intensity will increase strength, as long as you’re always progressing the exercise.
My current routine:
I am performing this routine up to 5 times per week. I’m using this as a transition from strength and hockey training to a more focused hypertrophy regime (summer is coming here in NZ). If you choose to use a circuit routine like this, take into account recovery ability and if you feel fatigue from yesterday’s workout, take a days rest. Over time your recovery ability will increase and the task of progression keeps your muscles stimulated.
**This circuit style routine is a good for beginners and one you can progress nicely (as I have). Over time you’ll want to perform a more focused routine (which I will provide in another post). The concept of periodisation means you will change your program up as you progress.**
- All exercises clustered in threes. Perform each exercise one after the other without rest. Rest 30s between clusters.
- The routine is structured so that each each exercise in the cluster rests the muscles exercised previously. Exercise selection in each cluster is designed to manage fatigue and means there is a degree of freshness with which you can apply to each exercise.
- Notice I’m performing 3 sets of the big movements: Knee dominant (squats, wall sits, box jumps); Hip dominant (glute march, side lying hip lift, hip raises); Upper body pushing (push up exercises, push backs); Upper body pulling (inverted rows, short lever curls). I do 2 core movements and one specific movement for a trouble spot — Y, T, W, L for posture improvement.
- Choose exercises appropriate to your level of development.
- Accept only good quality reps. Once your form starts eroding you’ve gone too far.
You could easily structure a double set routine where you pair exercises that don’t interfere with each other (e.g. Squats paired with Push ups) and do 3 sets that way. This would be a more focused approach than the big circuit style I outline above.
Whatever program you choose, remember frequency is your friend and make sure it is challenging without burning you into the ground. Above all, have fun!