Fitness Basics: Bodyweight Training

Julia Malacoff
by Julia Malacoff
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Bodyweight training will never go out of style. One of the biggest reasons? It’s incredibly convenient. “There are no gym facilities, class fees or special equipment required, and you can train any day, any time of the day, anywhere, without restriction,” says Carmen Demske, a certified personal trainer and strength and conditioning coach. “The freedom and flexibility that bodyweight training offers tends to lend itself to busy people or stay-at-home parents, but it’s truly a great form of exercise for everyone at all fitness levels — and definitely not just beginners.”

So how do you incorporate bodyweight training into your workout program? Here, fitness pros explain how to use it for various goals, outline the most important bodyweight exercises, and share how to get the most from your training.

Aside from the convenience factor, there are plenty of other reasons to add bodyweight exercises to your routine.

Benefit #1: Better body awareness.
You can improve the ability to sense, move and organize your own body through space through bodyweight exercises, says Danny Lee James, a strength and conditioning coach. “It’s much more applicable to real-world situations compared to using machines or dumbbells,” he adds.

Benefit #2: Help address asymmetries and imbalances.
“Are you able to perform a squat with proper alignment?” asks Max Castrogaleas, an exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery. Many people shift to and favor one side of their body in a squat, for example, and a bodyweight squat is a simple way to reveal that.

Benefit #3: You have to keep changing things up.
“Bodyweight training also forces creativity, which can do wonders for engagement and motivation,” James points out. “As you get better at certain exercises, you have to come up with new and novel ways to incorporate challenges.”

Benefit #4: It’s great for beginners.
“For beginners, bodyweight training can often be the first step in the exercise journey,” James says. “It’s far easier and safer to first establish sound technique without additional load. Once you’ve mastered fundamental bodyweight movements, then we can begin adding load, or complexity. At this point, the risk of injury or ingraining bad habits can be greatly reduced.”

Benefit #5: Advanced exercisers can use it too.
“For more advanced athletes, the best use of bodyweight exercises are in the warmup,” James says. For example, you might do walking lunges as part of your warmup for a sprinting session. But there are also ways to make standard bodyweight exercises much harder. For example, doing pistol squats instead of regular squats, one-handed pushups instead of two-handed ones, and slowing down the tempo of pullups to make them more challenging.

Depending on your goal, you’ll want to use these equipment-free exercises differently.

Fat Loss
“Bodyweight training works very well for fat loss,” Demske says. “It can be used alone with increasing intensity, duration and frequency, and very often I recommend bodyweight exercises as additional ‘homework’ for my clients post-training sessions.” For many people, bodyweight exercises that spike your heart rate like — squat jumps and burpees — are a much more appealing alternative to spending hours on the treadmill, so feel free to incorporate them liberally into a fat-loss program.

Muscle Gain
“Muscle gain is determined not only by your mode of exercise but also your nutritional habits,” Demske points out. Bodyweight training alone probably won’t get you to your goal, but with increasing volume and intensity, it can be very effective. Still, if you’re hoping to achieve a bodybuilder-like physique, you may want to explore more than just bodyweight training, Demske adds.

Maximum Strength
Increasing your strength in terms of endurance can be achieved with bodyweight training at a high intensity and volume, according to Demske. But if you’re after a certain one rep max, you’ll need to actually lift weights to get there. That said, bodyweight training can be used to assist with strength gains, Demske says.

There are hundreds of bodyweight moves to choose from, but these five are tried-and-true classics.

Planks: These work the whole body, but especially your core. “Planking is highly variable and can be made more intense by shifting the body forward over the shoulders, lifting a leg or simply increasing hold times,” Demske says. To modify, place your knees on the ground.

Bodyweight squat: “These are effective for increasing leg strength, maintaining range of motion and burning fat,” Demske says. “Squats are a key component of any functional fitness routine, and they mimic the type of movement we regularly need to do throughout everyday life. It’s never a bad idea to be good at squatting.”

Lunges: These help with balance and increasing range of motion, Demske says. “They also strengthen the adductors and abductors, which enhances the aesthetic of the legs. Finally, lunges work the muscles around the knee for added joint stability.”

Pushups: These are underrated and often poorly performed, according to James. ”Think of pushups like a moving plank. They’re great for building whole-body stiffness, plus strength in the upper body. Good push-ups require and develop shoulder stability.”

Chinups/pullups: “These are great for upper body pulling strength and an amazing core exercise,” James says. They also train the muscles around the shoulder blade that help keep your shoulders from creeping toward your ears.

READ MORE: Fitness Basics: Cardio

No matter how you incorporate these moves into your sweat sessions, here’s what you can do to maximize the return on your effort.

1

VARY YOUR EXERCISES AND INTENSITY

“Don’t get into so much of a routine that you do the same thing over and over,” Demske says. “Switch it up, keep the intensity high and level up once you’ve mastered a move.”

2

SLOW DOWN

“People tend to move fast and fail to focus on exercise technique,” Castrogaleas notes. Before doing an exercise at a quick tempo, perform it in a controlled manner in front of a mirror. “The mirror will provide visual feedback so that you can focus on proper form and alignment,” he says.

3

PRIORITIZE RECOVERY

“Remember, you are still utilizing your body weight as a form of resistance!” Castrogaleas points out. “Excessive training without proper recovery can lead to overtraining and increased risk of injury.”

Get a full-body workout in no time using only bodyweight exercises or minimal equipment. Find ideas in “Workout Routines” in the app.

About the Author

Julia Malacoff
Julia Malacoff

Julia (@jmalacoff) is a seasoned writer and editor who focuses on fitness, nutrition, and health. She’s also a certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Level 1 coach. Based in Amsterdam, she bikes every day and travels around the world in search of tough sweat sessions and the best vegetarian fare.

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