It’s 3am, you’re in bed, and something goes “bump” in the night. You might as well check to make sure someone isn’t breaking-and-entering. As you go downstairs, you are blinded by white lights and barraged with screams of “on the ground, NOW!” Boom. You’ve been raided and arrested for selling coke by weight. Now you’re going to jail.
Instead of becoming the next Pablo Escobar, you now have to worry about not getting your ass handed to you in jail by other inmates and prison guards.
Strength in Confinement – Indeed, I Miss my Barbell
What is necessary to maintain and even improve strength, when essentially zero equipment is available? No barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, plates, prowlers, bands, or cable pulley machines – just the static external environment, your body, and the clothes on your back.
You’re probably asking “but would this even happen?” Well, this likeliness of this scenario is almost nil, but the worst things seem to occur when you aren’t prepared for them. Plus, a tiny percentage of people out there have experienced this before – I’m looking at you, prisoners, whose weights were taken away by the guards.
Before I lay out a plan for developing strength without equipment, I’ll establish some ground rules: all exercises must be performed with bodyweight, and can only work with the existing environment.
Domains of Movement – Barbell vs. Bodyweight
If I were to give someone a barebones workout, it’d be a simple Push/Pull template. One day, do your pushing (bench press, overhead press, and squat). The next day, do your pulling (row, pullup, and deadlift). I’d also recommend to throw in some additional core work – stuff to improve the core’s anti-extension (planks), anti-lateral-flexion (side-planks), and anti-rotation (Pallof presses) abilities. As a side note, squats and deadlifts improve anti-flexion quite well, thus extra work is not needed. Anyway, push/pull/core is all you need to be strong as a motherfudger.
The thing is, plenty of bodyweight-only/gymnastic-style movements exist that require a helluva large amount of strength. Think – human flags, one-arm pushups, one-arm pushups, handstand pushups, back levers, etc. Sure, achieving the ability to perform these movements may not be as simple as achieving great strength in barbell lifts (which occurs in small increments), but they are nonetheless achievable in “chunks” or progressions. Ultimately, you can and will get stronger using only bodyweight movements and gymnastics.
Unfortunately, there is a catch. Bodyweight movements are only viable for upper-body strength, NOT lower-body strength. Sure, you can do kneeling glute-ham raises (which would actually be a decent option for hamstring strength due to the difficult of this exercise), but the only other option is performing pistol squats, which isn’t that great at all for leg strength.
Legs – Too Strong for Their Own Good
Let’s compare the pistol squat with the one-arm pushup. Both are the single-limbed variations of their respective movements and take some time to master.
Pushups use about 2/3 of your bodyweight. Elevated pushups increase to about 70-75%. If you weigh 180 lbs and master the one-arm pushup, that would achieve pushing strength of 240 lbs, or even 270 lbs if your feet are elevated. According to currently-accepted strength standards, a bench press of 240-270 lbs would put a 180-lb male lifter at a late-intermediate/early-advanced level.
As for the pistol squat, it would load your single leg with the entire weight of your body. So at 180 lbs, if you master the pistol squat, your legs would have the “squatting strength” equivalent to being able to perform a back squat with 180 lbs (think: 180 lbs with each leg is 360 lbs total – if you weigh 180 lbs and add 180 lbs, that would be 360 lbs). According to those strength standards previously mentioned, a 180-lb squat for a 180-lb male lifter is not even considered novice. (ExRx)
With that said, it is clear that conventional bodyweight exercises will not develop appreciable strength in the lower-body. Of course, there will be increases in endurance, balance, speed, and etc. (if you decide to perform complex variations of the pistol squat), but we’re not concerned with those attributes – only strength.
Going for the Unconventional, to Little Avail
While I said there aren’t any conventional bodyweight exercises that strengthen the legs, that doesn’t mean there aren’t unconventional ones out there that would strengthen the legs.
One in particular that I’ve thought about is the depth drop. This exercise is performed by stepping or jumping off of a raised platform and landing on the floor in a partial-squat stance.
The training effect derived from this movement stems the fact the trainee has to rapidly decelerate their body in order to prevent injury. Basically, if your muscles don’t activate to slow your body down as you land, you WILL snap your shit up. To not get hurt, you start with a short depth drop, then gradually increase the height of the drops – hence, why we never attempt a 400-lb squat when our current best is 200-lbs.
So, we found a scalable, progressive exercise to train our legs that requires nothing but our bodyweight and the external environment. Unfortunately, there’s still another caveat. Depth drops are a form of power training, not strength training. The variable that increases with training is velocity, and force is fixed (whereas strength development comes from increasing the force applied to a movement, irrespective of velocity).
It is suggested that strength training carries over to power training, and not vice versa once the trainee is no longer a newbie (Mann). I could not find the original citation or text online, so I will assume the previous assumption stands true. So it looks like we’re truly out of luck when it comes to substantially improving lower-body strength with bodyweight-only exercises.
But All Hope is Yet Lost
Like I said before, the chances of you not having any workout equipment available to you are pretty miniscule. In the typical scenario, you can do gymnastic movements for your upper-body and then find odd-objects or a workout partner to use as an external load to strengthen your legs. This works for strongman competitors, so it should work for you.
If you win the not-so-lucky lottery and find yourself in confinement with zero equipment at your disposal, you’ve probably got to worry about getting in touch with your layer before you think about strength training.
1.”Weightlifting Performance Standards”. ExRx, n.d. Web. 4 September 2014.
2. “Speed vs. Speed-Strength.” Mann. eliteFTS, 25 December 2013. Web. 4 September 2014.