Many of us scoff at bodyweight-only training. However, it may be time to rethink the assumptions that expensive equipment and gym memberships are the only way to get strong. When done right, bodyweight-only training can get you — and keep you — strong.
“Bodyweight training exercises, also known as calisthenics, are arguably the fastest and most reliable way to get stronger,” says Mike Clancy, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and personal trainer in New York City. Bodyweight exercises like pushups, pullups, lunges and squats incorporate multiple muscle groups and mimic natural movement patterns, making them both highly functional and great for building full-body strength.
Sure, what constitutes as “strong” varies from one person to the next, but “if you can do multiple one-armed pushups, most people would probably classify you as pretty strong,” says Greg Pignataro, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and coach with Grindset Fitness.
- They’re easy to modify. Don’t worry: You don’t have to start your bodyweight strength program with one-armed pushups. Thankfully, bodyweight exercises are easy to modify to suit your current level of strength and fitness. For example, if you can’t do full pushups, elevate your hands on a box or bench and gradually lower the level of incline until you reach the floor.
- You’ll still progress. As with any exercise, you’ll need to keep increasing the challenge of bodyweight exercises to see continued strength progress. Once you start cranking through dozens of full pushups, you can make them more challenging by slowing your tempo, performing plyo pushups (push yourself up forcefully so your hands leave the ground) or adding in another exercise (try doing rows from the floor after each pushup).
- They’re budget-friendly. Another advantage to bodyweight exercises is they’re mostly free (you may eventually need to invest in a pullup bar or exercise bench) and highly accessible: “Unlike machines and most equipment, bodyweight exercises are portable and can be utilized anywhere, making them valuable for a consistent routine,” Clancy says. With bodyweight exercises, you can get a workout done in your hotel room on vacation, in the park during your lunch break or in the living room while you catch up on your favorite show. Being able to do your workout anytime, anywhere can help you stay consistent with your program, and consistency is key to seeing results.
WHEN IT’S NOT ENOUGH
Note, however, that bodyweight exercises may not be your best bet for building muscle. You certainly can build muscle with bodyweight-only exercises — especially if you’re a beginner — but it may be easier if you incorporate greater loads through dumbbells, barbells and other pieces of equipment.
And of course, specific strength goals, like squatting 300 pounds, may require specific training protocols that go beyond bodyweight-only exercises.
Ready to give bodyweight training a try? Start with some of Pignataro and Clancy’s favorite bodyweight-only moves.
Begin on the floor on all fours with palms beneath your shoulders. Extend your legs behind you and lift your hips so your weight is on your toes. Keep your back flat and your body in a straight line. Contract your midsection and hold for as long as you can before you feel your lower back begin to sag toward the floor. If you’re unable to do a straight-arm plank on the floor, elevate your hands on an exercise bench or lower onto your forearms.
Begin in plank position on the floor. Your hands should be in line with and slightly wider than your shoulders. Brace your core and squeeze your glutes, then bend at the elbows to lower your chest toward the floor with control. Make sure to keep your elbows close to your sides and your neck neutral. Once you’re in the bottom position, push yourself up to straighten your arms.
Grip a pullup bar with an overhand grip and hang at arm’s-length with your arms fully extended. Without using momentum, squeeze your shoulder blades together and pull yourself up until your chin clears the bar. Pause, then lower back down with control. If you can’t do a full bodyweight pullup, use a band or stand on a box or bench and use your legs only as much as needed to get up to the bar.
BAND HIP THRUST
While seated on the ground with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, rest your upper back against a sturdy bench or box. Lift one heel off the ground and drive through your planted foot to drive your hips toward the ceiling. Push your hips as high as you can without arching your back. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement before lowering your hips back toward the floor. Repeat all reps with the same foot lifted before switching sides.
While standing, hold the handles of a suspension trainer or set up a barbell in a rack. Step away from the suspension trainer or barbell until your arms are fully extended and your body forms a straight line. Initiate the movement by squeezing your shoulder blades together to pull your elbows straight back. Pause briefly before reversing the movement so you end with your arms fully extended. To make the move harder, step your feet closer to the suspension trainer or barbell. To make the move easier, step your feet away from the suspension trainer or barbell.
Start by dropping down into a lunge position. When both of your knees are at 90-degree angles, jump into the air and switch legs. Land quietly with soft knees, drop down into a lunge and repeat.