Getting Stronger With Bodyweight Exercises
Up until recently, I thought there was no other way of getting strong and healthy than to lift barbells.
There are two kings of the strength world – the squat and the deadlift. How could you possibly replicate these two lifts without barbells? How can anyone produce the power to move massive quantities of weight, without training with massive quantities of weight?
This is true. Without a linear progression of weight increase, one does not continually gain strength – and barbell weightlifting is perfect for this. However, I have learned that strength is just one of the qualities needed for a healthy, athletic body.
Joint health and integrity, muscular endurance, kinetic awareness, proper posture, ingrained motor-patterns – these are all qualities that make for an awesome, healthy, long-lasting body, too. And you don’t really need a barbell set to attain these attributes. All you need is your own body.
Bodyweight training, also known as calisthenics, is a type of physical training which only requires the trainee to use his/her own bodyweight for resistance. Now let’s see why I’ve taken a liking to bodyweight exercises.
Bodyweight Training Injuries Are Less Common.
When performing calisthenics, the weight for exercise is held at a constant. This means that repetitions, and thus endurance, are emphasized with these kinds of exercises. Unfortunately, this makes it more difficult to gain strength (but is still possible – this will be addressed in a minute), because weight needs to go up for strength. However, in my humble opinion, this means there’s a reduced risk for injury.
I’ve come to this conclusion for several reasons, but here’s a good example – I always hear how someone hurts their back trying to lift something or carry something that is too heavy, but I have NEVER heard of someone hurting their back by lifting and carrying something light too many times. Never. Not once. Sure, it’s usually back-rounding that leads to injury, but the heavy load is probably needed as well to injure the back.
Bodyweight Exercises Strengthen Joints.
Bodyweight training emphasizes higher repetitions for the reasons stated earlier. I believe that higher volume and increased frequency of exercise helps build one’s tendons, ligaments, and joints. Honestly, ANY kind of movement and exertion will stimulate growth, and being sedentary leads to atrophy and reduced tissue strength. However, as mentioned in the link I just posted, one study found that merely 1 set of 20 reps of knee-extensions lead to increased collagen synthesis (AKA growth) in the knee joint.
Another blogger has reversed the osteoathririts in his knees, and returned to competitive cycling. His findings led him to believe that super-high reps on very light exercise can stimulate joint repair and growth overtime – and it worked for him. So, with bodyweight training, once you can do 1 pushup, imagine how much more resilient your shoulders, wrists, spine, and other joints will become when you’re now able to do 100 pushups, many times a week?
Bodyweight Training Develops Proprioception And Good Posture.
With any movement, may it be bodyweight training (like pushups) or barbell training (like bench presses), the trainee engages and develops his or her own kinesthetic awareness. Basically, when you move around and exercise, you try to focus on good technique and body-positioning, so your “intuitive sense” of how your body’s positioned is challenged. You can hold your hand behind your back, clench it into a fist, and your brain will know it’s clenched. Is it because you can see your hand? No. It’s because of proprioception (AKA kinesthetic-awareness). That is the intuitive sense that I’m referring to.
This is actually not exclusive to bodyweight exercises – it is developed with any kind of movement. However, like I said before, bodyweight training emphasizes volume, not intensity. This is so important for reinforcing good posture. When you’re doing certain exercises, such as a pushup or a plank, you are focused on good technique and good posture – for example, tucked chin, thoracic extension, posterior pelvic tilt, neutral lumbar spine. These are all things that can help the average person with bad posture. Our bodies are doing the exact opposite things when we aren’t exercising (unless you’ve got great posture), so training gives us the opportunity to put our bodies back into good positioning.
Now, why is volume so important? Because it takes time to reinforce good posture. Think about WHY you have bad posture… It’s from the hours of sitting on your back, hunched over the computer. Hours. So, with high-volume training, such as bodyweight training, you’re using additional time to work on things. This is when you’re actually trying to maintain good posture, so why not take as long as you need? It takes a long time to mess things up, and it also takes a long time to fix things. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor was it destroyed in a day.
Bodyweight Exercise CAN Increase Strength.
As I said over and over, bodyweight training looks to repetitions and volume, not weight and intensity. That does NOT mean that weight and intensity cannot be emphasized, and strength cannot be increased. You can certainly get stronger with calisthenics.
Let’s say a 180-pound man is starting a fitness program, and begins to learn pushups. First, he’ll do knee-pushups, which places about half of one’s bodyweight on the chest/shoulders/elbows/arms. You can verify this by getting into the position, with your hands on a weight scale. Anyway, this means the man is using 90 lbs for his pushup. Once this man gets stronger, he can do regular pushups, which places two-thirds of one’s weight on the upper-body. This means that the man is using 120 lbs for his pushup. And then there’s the elevated-pushup. I’m not exactly sure what percentage of weight is placed on the upper-body in this variation, but my guess would be about 75%. That puts the man at 135 lbs for his pushup.
Then there are single-arm pushup-variations. There are progressions for single-arm pushups, but let’s look at possibly the hardest variation – the single-arm elevated-pushup. That puts an estimated 75% of the man’s weight on one arm. We’re looking at 135 lbs PER ARM. We’ve just witnessed a strength increase from 90 pounds to 270 pounds, while still attaining each of benefits I mentioned before. Not too bad for pushups, huh? I’m sure, with a bit of practice, this man can then bench press 270 pounds – and that’s nothing to laugh at.
So, this is why I like bodyweight training. You get healthy joints, increased muscular endurance, increased kinesthetic awareness, good posture, and (with some extra effort) increased strength.
Now, enjoy this video of the one-arm elevated-pushup.