Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
12 Mar

Are Bodyweight Exercises Alone Enough?

RingsIn my Primal Blueprint Fitness eBook, I promote a bodyweight training program. Though it can be modified with weight vests, at its core it is comprised entirely of exercises that use your own bodyweight as resistance – pushups, pullups, planks, rows, squats, and sprints. For the majority of people who try it, it works great because PBF is a basic program designed to appeal to people from every fitness background. People who’ve never lifted a weight in their lives can jump right in with the beginning progressions, move on up through the more difficult variants, and get quite fit in the process. It’s not the end all, be all of training – and I make that pretty clear in the eBook – but it’s a foundation for solid, all around fitness. Some choose to move beyond it or incorporate weighted movements, some are content.

Still, some people are skeptical about the efficacy of a bodyweight training program. Is it truly enough, or just “good enough”? Can you really get big and strong without slinging heavy weights around?

It depends on what you mean by “enough,” of course, but the answer is generally “yes.” Bodyweight training is a legitimate option for anyone interested in building an impressive physique, increasing their strength, improving their athletic performance, mobility, and flexibility, and establishing excellent mind-body-space awareness. Plus, the ability to bust out some ridiculous moves on the pullup bars at the local park has to count for something.

Don’t take my word for it, though. Check out some of the people getting and staying very, very strong using primarily bodyweight exercises:

Al Kavadlo

Beastskills

Gymnastics Bodies

Eat Move Improve

Hannibal

So yes, a smart bodyweight program can rival the best barbell training, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. These guys aren’t just mindlessly doing progressively greater numbers of pushups, pullups, and air squats. If you want to get as strong as possible, just doing more reps won’t cut it. You need intelligent progression.

Progression isn’t just adding reps. Eventually, you have to make the exercises harder to keep getting stronger, either by adding weight, increasing the degree of stabilization required, or decreasing the amount of leverage you have. Normal dips too easy? Move onto ring dips, and then weighted ring dips. Doing twenty pullups in a row without much issue? Try wearing a weight vest or work your way toward a one arm pullup. Bodyweight rows with your feet up on blocks a cinch? Try taking one foot off, then both, then trying front levers.

And that’s part of the reason why most people opt for barbells over bodyweight training: it’s easier and far less humbling to add weights to a bar than remove leverage from a bodyweight movement. In many cases, to progress in bodyweight means learning an entirely new movement from scratch. Starting over from zero. It’s harder to quantify than weight training and easier to get stuck.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not effective. In fact, the degree of difficulty required to perform some of the more intermediate and advanced bodyweight exercises implies their effectiveness.

What kind of exercises qualify as “bodyweight training”?

There are three primary categories, and the most successful people draw on exercises from all three.

Calisthenics are the basic bodyweight exercises like pullups, pushups, squats, jumping jacks, lunges, dips, planks, and rows. They have the broadest appeal, attracting elderly Chinese ladies wearing windbreakers and impossibly muscled guys wearing jeans and Jordans.

Plyometrics consist of explosive bodyweight exercises, like depth jumps, box jumps, broad jumps, jump squats, Russian lunges, burpees, and jumping pushups.

Gymnastics describes the highly technical movements those amazingly compact, muscular people perform during every summer Olympics. Most people probably won’t ever reach that level, but they can still get really strong using the rings to work on the earlier progressions that precede the expert-level movements, like levers, planches, muscle-ups, rows, pullups, and dips.

How does bodyweight training measure up to weight training?

There’s not a ton of research, but it seemed to fare well in the one study I found. Athletes were placed on one of three training programs: traditional resistance training, “complex training” (an undulating mix of high and low intensity weight training), or plyometrics training. By the end of the study, all groups had experienced identical gains in back squat, Romanian deadlift, and calf raise strength.

There may be little research directly comparing bodyweight training to barbell training or other forms of strength and conditioning, but my intent is not to claim one is better than the other. They’re all different, and they’re all effective. We do have research showing the beneficial effects of bodyweight exercises on the same types of performance markers we traditionally target with weight training, however, and there may even be a few unique effects.

Bodyweight exercises require activation of more muscles.

Bodyweight exercises are closed kinetic chain movements; rather than moving an object toward or away from your body, you are moving your body toward or away from the ground. This requires cooperation between all the muscles that form the kinetic chain and provides an arguably more complete stimulus of the musculature. For instance, in a bench press, your core is supported by the bench; in a pushup, your core is supported by the core musculature.

Bodyweight exercises develop proprioceptive awareness.

Bodyweight training refers to moving your body through space, and this movement provides additional feedback to your body and brain when compared to lifting a weight with your arms. Neuromuscular activation is highest during exercises that move the body.

Bodyweight exercises can’t be replicated by weight training.

Many people avoid bodyweight exercises because they can’t figure out how to replicate some of their favorite barbell exercises, like overhead press (try handstand pushups), bench press (try ring pushups), or barbell rows (try tuck front lever rows), but what about the inability of barbell exercises to replace many bodyweight movements? You can’t replicate swinging on monkey bars, climbing a rope, doing a muscle-up, crawling on your hands, or performing an L-sit with weights, just to name a few. Even the weight training exercises that seem to replicate bodyweight exercises have different effects; compare your lat pulldown machine performance with your deadhang pullup performance for a perfect example.

A recent review spanning several decades of research summed up the effects of lower body plyometrics training on neuromuscular, performance, and health adaptations in healthy people:

  • Increased neuromuscular activation.
  • Increased strength and power.
  • Faster stretch-shortening cycle of muscles, leading to improved performance.
  • Improved coordination between muscles involved in the movements.
  • Enhancement of general athletic capability, including jumping, sprinting, agility, and endurance.
  • Reduced risk of lower body injuries in susceptible populations.
  • Increased bone mass.

The one area where bodyweight training probably falls short is the lower body. For the most part, our legs and glutes are just way too strong to reach their full potential through air squats – and most bodyweight proponents will agree. However, a program consisting of plyometrics (jumping lunges/squats, broad jumps, depth jumps), single leg squats, and sprinting, especially hill sprints, can produce a strong lower body. You may not get the same degree of hypertrophy without adding weights to your lower body work, but you can certainly get stronger.

Am I suggesting that everyone ditch the weights, cancel the gym membership, and invest in a set of Perfect Pushups? No. The two can coexist quite happily. In fact, if I’m designing the optimal program for strength and mass, I’m going with a fusion of bodyweight training (gymnastics, ring work, pullups, dips) for the upper body and weight training (lunges, squats, deadlifts) for the lower body.

My point is simple. If you have no access to quality gym equipment, if you live next door to a park with an awesome outdoor workout station, if you hate weight training, if you fear weight training, or even if just prefer bodyweight exercises, fear not: you can build an awesome body and get incredibly strong by emphasizing bodyweight training.

What about you? Do you prefer bodyweight exercises to weight training? What kind of results have you seen doing one or the other?

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. And if you’re vastly out of proportion it might just be easier to adjust the bar :)

    Groktimus Primal wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Great post and reaffirms how I train. I’m 51 and can do as many chins, followed by 100 push ups. The A frame and mat area at the gym is now bigger than the weights area, where I go for dead lifts and some squats and that’s it. “Conventional” training is moving in our direction at a pace that puts the food idiots a thousand years behind. People are waking up to this approach and lifestyle in the UK at an ever increasing pace and it’s GREAT. 3 years ago no got us, now our primal lives are admired in growing numbers. Yay!!!

      Adrian Keane wrote on March 12th, 2014
  2. The “Hannibal” video blows my mind. Has opened up a huge array of new challenges for me -thanks!

    Stéphane wrote on March 12th, 2014
  3. Useful info. Thanks!

    FYI – you’ve got Al’s site linked twice.

    Rob wrote on March 12th, 2014
  4. Very nice way of addressing this topic. Bodyweight and weights MUST be seen through the lense of one’s goals. What do you want to do? Be able to have the utmost control of your body in any position? Be able to move that huge piece of solid oak furniture? Once that has been established, the research must be done and the appropriate path mapped out. I’d like people to understand what strength means. I think they often misunderstand or have a very vague idea. I know this because I was (am) one of those people! What looks strong isn’t always strong, and what you mean by strong may not be Strong. I’d like to see the subtle or not-so-subtle differences addressed and cleared up. My resource for this type of information so far as been StrongFirst and its proponents.

    John wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Some more example goal – Be able to do something under load for an extended period of time? Do something explosively? Etc.

      John wrote on March 12th, 2014
  5. Where are all the women in these videos? I’d be really happy and more inspired if I saw some women doing the exercises that for example Al Kavadlo does. Anyone know of any videos?

    Elin wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • I agree! I remember this lady from watching some Gymnastics Bodies a few months ago and found her page to inspire all the ladies in the house:
      https://www.youtube.com/user/CARMENAMARA

      drea wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • I thought just the same; there were a few girls watching in both the Hannibal and gymnasticbodies clips! Eye roll!

      Kelda wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Do a You Tube search for Zuzka Light. I’ve been doing her workouts since last October (most are body weight-based and also feature plyo moves). Hope that helps.

      Pheebie wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • Zuzka Light has incredibly unbalanced workouts. I used to follow her but being someone who researches a lot about fitness overall and the science behind it, I learned that it is very important to balance out your workouts to avoid injuries. Considering her workouts tend to be full body, they very rarely incorporate a combination of push/pull, core and leg muscles all in one workout and that is a recipe for back pain and injuries. Not to mention she encourages people to push themselves to levels that are both dangerous and without merit because to have a great physique does not mean ending up on the floor from exhaustion. People have to be careful with who they get training advice from because a lot of these internet personalities who do have amazing bodies don’t necessarily know the best or safest way to achieve great results.

        Alex wrote on November 7th, 2014
        • Alex ~ I have to agree with you. My post is now several months old. as it turns out, back in July – August, I began to burn out on her ‘push yourself to the limit / keep up the pace’ mentality, along with her workouts. There were weeks when she would focus SO much on lower body, doing jump lunges, jump squats, side jump squats, etc. that I called it quits and ended my Zgym membership. For a few months I exercised intuitively, listening to my body and doing more ballet-style workouts, along with basic strength moves (like pushups, planks, pullups), walking, and yoga. Just this week I began missing the challenging aspects of HIIT, so I’ve begun crafting my own workouts, putting together moves that target the WHOLE body, and going at MY pace – fast and hard enough to get winded & sweat, but without having to conform to someone else’s speed or routine.
          Cheers.

          Pheebie wrote on November 7th, 2014
      • Pheebie I’m not sure if this reply will be in the right order but I couldn’t reply directly to your last post. Anyhow I’m glad to hear more people are finding out that these “Zwows” are not the smartest way to get in shape. I’m glad I never signed up to her Zgym, specially after realizing how much those workouts were lacking. One thing I’ve learned over the last few months is that fitness is most definitely not a one size fits all. A thousand people can’t follow these cookie cutter workouts and expect the same results. I currently do like a couple other internet sites that are free might add, BUT I tailor them to my needs. I take the rest periods/reps/sets that are appropriate for me and sometimes take away exercises if I feel they are too over loaded. And I now make sure that they are well balanced since I do full body workouts. Since you like HIIT I recommend you look into Melissa Bender’s Site. She has a ton of workouts of all kinds, HIIT, weights, body weight etc and they are very well balanced. She’s got the right idea but I don’t rely on someone else’s workouts exclusively, I use them as an aid and then fine tune it. It only took me years to figure that out, go figure:)

        Alex wrote on November 7th, 2014
        • Alex – thanks for pointing me in the direction of Melissa Bender’s site. I’ve been browsing through the content and watching some of the videos – lots of great information, tips, and ideas. I literally could spend and entire day perusing health & fitness sites. :)

          Pheeibe wrote on November 11th, 2014
    • Joe wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • +1!

      KariVery wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • They’re out there… a lot of them in fact. Check out Staci at NerdFitness.com or Danny J at The SweatyBetties.com… or BodyRock.tv (multiple females).

      I also personally know plenty of women who blow me and most guys away in the gym. Don’t let the smaller number of female trainers discourage you.

      BE THE CHANGE! ;)

      Vince G wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • Thanks guys for all the information! Of course I would have been able to find some of these myself if I’d just put some effort into it. I guess my point is that this site should have been more inclusive in the first place. Not a critique, just a tip to make more women inspired to do these kind of workouts! I’ve just never seen myself as a hunky topless tattooed man… :P

        Elin wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • Agree completely! Loads of muscley dudes was off-putting to me when I began exercising as a chubby woman (nice to look at though ;)). We hold up half the sky.

          But I am absolutely inspired by today’s post. Makes me want to wag work and practice handstand push-ups all day!

          Madeleine wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • Frankly, that was my first thought, too, when I clicked on all the videos and saw all men.

          PawPrint wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • If you hadn’t said it first, I was going to say it. I’m not a spectator, but I’m not a beefy man, either!

          Deanna wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • To all the women in this post, the caption above simply states that there are some people getting very, very strong doing bodyweight only. The links are to some more prominent sites and trainers. The fact that there are only men in those videos represents the very real statistics that there aren’t many prominent trainers/videos available. I am 100% positive it was not a reflection of Mark’s lack of research or respect for women who do so. In fact, I have seen a TON of articles and info on this site dedicated solely to females. As well, the links we posted in response above show several women whose sites are mostly (or all) geared towards women. But I don’t see many guys posting comments requesting videos of guys be there to inspire them. I have literally done many of the workouts on Danny J’s site and never once thought I would be any more motivated by a male. Maybe that’s just me. I hope one day there are more sites/videos available out there because that will mean the ratio of women instructors/ bloggers/ trainers has improved. Until then, please… be the change you’re looking for.

          This from a guy who teaches only women by the way, at a bootcamp owned by a woman. Also, 3 out of 5 of my own trainers (who train me) are women (and good LORD they are bada$$).

          Happy Health!!

          Vince G wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • Check out Odelia Goldschmidt, who works with Ido Portal. She is ridiculously strong and moves very well.

          Colin wrote on March 13th, 2014
    • I second Zuzka Light, and also DailyHiit (formerly Bodyrock) for lots of videos of women doing mainly bodyweight routines.

      Pure Hapa wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • Zuska is amazing, great inspiration

        wildgrok wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • Hello to all Women here! this is currently my guru – http://www.bar-barella.com/ Check the girl out, amazing. As far as I know, she is Al kavadlo’s follower. Greetings!

        Malina wrote on March 13th, 2014
    • 13 years old girl shows awesome street workout movements
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JCuQffbTO8o

      N.Lockard wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • You may find what you’re looking for on this site. The woman who owns it used to comment here sometimes. She looks fit and STRONG. Used to be a professional figure skater.
      http://www.lovingfit.com

      Animanarchy wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • There is the Calisthenics First Lady:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I98aYGdCsiQ

      John C. A. Manley wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Suzanne – has some great info at Workout Nirvana http://workoutnirvana.com/

      jon wrote on March 13th, 2014
    • Look up Adrienne Harvey, she’s part of the team that does the PCC certification (mostly run by Al and his brother). In the PCC vids there’s loads of women :) Other female sources of impressive bodyweight feats :Girls gone strong, Boss Girls etc

      nico wrote on March 13th, 2014
    • Try Girls Gone Strong!!

      Silmarilia wrote on March 13th, 2014
    • Look up Nicki Doane doing the hard variations of Ashtanga yoga. There is a demo on one of here DVDs that is just insane.

      NeroMaj wrote on March 14th, 2014
    • http://www.madbarz.com typically has videos for women.

      Matt wrote on March 26th, 2014
  6. This couldnt have come at a better time because just this morning I was thinking I wanted to do just bodyweight work with sprints for 6-12 weeks. Heavy lifts has taken its toll over the past year and I am trying to improve my golf swing. Thanks Mark!

    Ray wrote on March 12th, 2014
  7. I started Convict Conditioning upon moving to a foriegn country. My foriegn language skills are not up to communicating about gym stuff, and I liked that CC purports to strengthen connective tissue as well as muscle.

    Like Mark said above, I found CC to be a worthy challenge for my upper body, but the only challenge to the lower body so far has been endurance-oriented, trying to do 3 sets of 40 pike squats. Heck, that’s an attention span challenge, too!

    I shall have to add a plyometrics workout just for my legs and see if that helps.

    S. wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • I also did CC. I’ve been doing more weights, but have decided to mix in CC. I think the different movements that make each progression more difficult adds some good stability work along with the strength.

      I don’t understand why you didn’t find the lower-body to be just endurance. Maybe you can crank out pistols (1-legged squats), but I’m not close. That’s still quite the challenge for me.

      Bob wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • I find the leg workout relatively easy so far becuase I started at the very beginning like the author recommended. If I started at the level I would find difficult, that would eliminate the chance to strengthen my connective tissue that the author promises.

        S. wrote on March 14th, 2014
    • i was afraid to squat for a long time, did not want to risk back injury. what i did was pistol squats with a 12kg dumb bell in my hand on the squatting leg side to balance out the weight of the lifted leg. used to do 4×12. that drew some looks in the gym :-) few of the barbell squatters could do that many. then i started regular barbell squats with low weight (just my bodyweight) but hated it. I have problem with the balance and still afraid to hurt my back. so started to do deep jumpsquats with 10kg dumbbells in each hand, once a week 16×16 as a form of HIIT. was amazed to see how muscular my thighs got. apart fm spitting my lungs out at the end fm exhaustion that is. will keep this routine for a while. did anybody try pushups/pullups as a form of HIIT training? that could be one way of doing more than 1 HIIT session a week. alternate the body parts to avoid overtraining.

      einstein wrote on March 13th, 2014
  8. Yes, bodyweight excercises and sprinting are the bomb for a nice body. I’ll take the lean, mean, fluid, native culture look, over the muscle bound unnatural look any day of the week. I admit to having an aversion to the bulked up folks. Looks like they spend way too much time on themselves, thinking about themselves. 2-25 minute bodyweight workouts and a sprint session a week will give you unbelievable results without killing yourself with weightlifting.

    Nocona wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Nocona, I couldn’t agree more. You’re 100% on the mark with your comment.

      BodyweightReallyIsBetter wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Some of the best bods in the business are Aussie Rules players — incredibly fast, and strong without being hypertrophic. Bulky muscles would be useless, and would only slow down a player and make him use too much energy.

      Believe it or not, under all the fat, sumo wrestlers are also incredibly fit. The layers of fat help protect them from injury when they fall; and their big bellies serve to lower their centre of gravity, making it harder for an opponent to move them. Their traditional training regimen consists of body-weight exercises, but some also supplement with weight-training.

      It’s good to lift heavy things, but if that’s all you do…..?

      SumoFit wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Sounds like my exercise routine. And it works. I’m lean but not that muscular, yet :)

      Nalle wrote on March 12th, 2014
  9. I made the transition from weight training to bodyweight training only. I made the switch a few months or so ago and I have seen better results in all areas, include muscle mass itself.
    As you pointed out in the article, there are progressions as well. The average gym rat wouldn’t know this and probably wouldn’t want to look into it either. That’s unfortunate because the benefits are incredible in so many ways.
    I love the fact the there is greater ranges of motion and more muscle is activated, both of which explain the gain in muscle mass I have experienced as never before.
    I also agree with the mention of sprints. Little did I know that long distance jogging was actually hurting me to a certain degree. Now it’s only sprints for me and I love them. They don’t take long and make me feel so much better than a 30 minute jog.
    My only regret is that I did not discover bodyweight training (and sprints) earlier.

    BodyweightReallyIsBetter wrote on March 12th, 2014
  10. There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift.

    Eric Miettinen wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • hah. I severely need to get back in/in better shape and have just started working on that. Deadlifts are one of my main exercises. They rule. In the past they were amazing for me for packing on strength and muscle when I was dedicated to doing them regularly. Waking up and heading down to the basement within minutes to lift 20 pounds more than my weight 10 times in a row made me feel like a beast. Now I’m nowhere near that.. When spring is here and I’m biking everywhere and camping and spending plenty of time working out when not getting natural exercise through survival tasks, then maybe I’ll be back on my way. In short, that’s my basic plan for this year.

      Animanarchy wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • couldn’t agree more. my goal is deadlifitng 2x my bodyweight. currently at 145%

      einstein wrote on March 13th, 2014
  11. A lot of people (mostly guys) are afraid by moving to bodyweight exercises there gonna lose there size and stength.

    I took 6 months off of all weights and got on a bodyweight kick, retested my 225 bench press max and it had gone up two reps!

    Obviously more advanced bodyweight exercises were used, but you can get strong using bodyweight.

    Best part is you can take them anywhere pull-ups on trees during a hike. Push ups on the grass. Something really great about taking the workout outside!

    Luke wrote on March 12th, 2014
  12. Im surprised mark doesnt provide more reference to the reduced risk of injury, or even healing abilities, using body weight exercises. This is a big one for me. a couple yrs ago i got biceps tendonitis from using barbells and constantly had shoulder pain during exercise. so i got the book ‘convict conditioning’ and totally changed my workout regimen to use ONLY bodyweight exercises. Since then, my tendonitis has healed(without taking any time off) and gained much more overall flexibility and mobility in my joints. not to mention I have gained alot of overall strength in the process as well(was albe to master the pistol after about 1 yr finally!)
    I dont plan on lifting a weight again any time soon!

    Shawn wrote on March 12th, 2014
  13. Are you familiar with Pure Barre? What do you think about that?

    Brandy wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • The combination of Pure Barre (or any barre workout) for the lower body and Horizontal Conditioning for the upper body are like a magical bodyweight only combination :)

      Emily wrote on March 12th, 2014
  14. Both Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade and Project: Kratos by Drew Baye are fantastic books. HIT bodyweight exercises are great and I love the freedom to workout wherever I am.

    Jack wrote on March 12th, 2014
  15. The Beastskills link goes to AlKavadlo. Al is my hero, but I do wanna see the Beastskills!

    Vince G wrote on March 12th, 2014
  16. Bodyweight hands down for me. Especially in the summer. Nothing better than being outside in sun using a tree f

    Brian wrote on March 12th, 2014
  17. I have been doing gym for 17 years, standard stuff: barbell, dumbbells, machine, etc…
    Since one year I am doing bodyweight exercises (callisthenics, plyometrics and isometrics) at home and in my garage (I could not install the bar in the living room). The progresses I have been making are impressive… no more gym subscriptions for me.

    Primal_Alex wrote on March 12th, 2014
  18. Bodyweight hands down for me. Especially in the summer. Nothing better than being outside in sun using a tree for pull-ups.

    Also I tend to think most Special Ops units in the military have guys in quite great shape. They go through years of training and never see a barbell or dumbbell, yet they are in fantastic shape.

    Brian wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • You are seriously out of touch if you believe SpecOps “never see a barbell or dumbell”. Having been in such a unit for over a decade now, lifting iron has always been a mainstay of our conditioning. Yes, we use bodyweight stuff too, pullups sprint interval…and every one in my unit does squats, deadlifts, etc.

      The bangwagon condescending tone here is a little offputting to be honest. Guys talking about how the avg gym rat doesn’t know about bodyweight exercises? Give me a break, most of these muscleheads know more about exercise science than we do. What the choose to do is for their own needs. When their CHOICE is different than yours, it doesn’t mean they are ignorant or ill informed. Try being a little less smug.

      Will wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • I apologize if I came off “smug”. That was not my intention. I do however know in most training and assessment selection courses bodyweight and rucking are the primary means of physical conditioning. I never said anything bad about barbells and dumbbells. I just said they aren’t for me. I use them all the time, especially in the harsh winter like we’ve had recently (I live up north – quite a bit of snow) but I prefer to use bodyweight outside when possible. I don’t think I am out of touch for making a statement of opinion. I know quite of few people in spec ops who use Crossfit, SEALfit and many other condition programs that integrate bars, DBs, KBs, bodyweight, sprinting, etc.

        Maybe you should reread my comment. There was no smugness, nor did I call anyone or anything a “gym rat,” “ignorant” or “ill informed.” I simply stated I prefer bodyweight to barbell and dumbbell exercises. There is nothing wrong with an opinion.

        If you truly are in the service you have my gratitude for serving our country. Thank you. However, I don’t think you need to read too much into a simple statement.

        Brian wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • Relax. He didn’t just mean your comment. There was another comment that mentioned gym rats not being in-the-know about bodyweight exercises. Your comment is not smug. Carry-on and eat more Kale.

          grasshopper wrote on March 13th, 2014
  19. My perspective is that of a middle-aged non-athletic woman, and I tried a lot of things, but heavy weight lifting is what I find the most effective. I am pair-shaped, and I did not start doing weights beyond the Buns of Steel till my thirties, but I always did cardio before, and was skinny-fat.

    Body weight training to get to advanced levels requires level of coordination, flexibility and athletic prowess that I can’t achieve, and in fact all my many injuries came from trying to do dynamic fast non-weighted exercise. I ripped my knee playing soccer, then doing double unders, then digging. I stressed my bunions to the point of not being able to walk running. When I try to spring my knees feel unstable. I broke two toes and sprang an ankle when I was doing high knee jumps on an exercise mat.

    Weight training with barbell is very easy, and is done at a slow pace. The worst injury I sustained was a painful wrist and I corrected it by adjusting my grip on the bench.

    Muscle-wise, I have only seen visible muscular increase when doing heavy weights training. Shred workouts with light weights and high intensity divested me of the upper body and left my ample hips the same.

    So, for a mature untrained woman without much athletic achievement behind her and with a pronounced pear-shaped divide, I recommend heavy lifting, particular if upper body strength/growth is the goal.

    Leida wrote on March 12th, 2014
  20. Been lifting for almost 40 years, and I now see a convergence near. Two curves, one is my strength, no longer rising, but declining slowly (to be expected). The other is my joint health, steadily declining (to be expected). Where the two curves cross is where permanent injury occurs. Bodyweight vs. free weights doesn’t make a difference in this. If you do heavy bench, or you do one-armed incline pushups, the laws of physics and biology on those poorly “vasculated” joint parts still apply.

    Rick wrote on March 12th, 2014
  21. I’m working on getting over an old knee injury so I can finally do more about getting fit again. Steadily working on the plank, pullups and pushups, but every time I do a full squat or use machines to try to work legs, I get sharp pain in the injured knee.
    Anyone know of an alternative to squats I could try until my knee is better?

    kay wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Straight leg raises with an ankle weight. Start at 100 reps at 2 lbs and gradually work your way up to 150 reps with 10 lbs. Raise the leg no more than 8 inches while keeping the other leg bent 90 degrees. Do them with the toe point straight up and pulled toward your torso (don’t “point” your toe), and then incorporate 150 reps of raises with the toe pointed to the side at a 45 degree angle.

      Worked for me.

      -Joe

      Joe wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • you can still do squats just do easier versions and work your way up. Start with a 1/2 squat or assisted squat or something that reduces your range of motion or takes load off the knee. This will allow the ligaments and connective tissues in your joint to build up along with the muscle. this is where weightlifting loses out, people tend to jump in and lift as much weight as possible as quickly as possible without building up their joints and then injure themselves.
      i would recommend the book ‘convict conditioning’ for some great progressions in squatting.

      Shawn wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • thank you so much. this makes sense to me. strong ligaments and tendons need to be addressed, and this sounds like a great possibility. thanks to joe also for leg lift suggestions.

        kay wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • Kay, I just returned from the amazing PrimalCon Tulum and learned a ton of great information to advance me out of my fitness rut. Coming off bilateral hand surgery for carpal tunnel, most of the bodyweight exercises were not possible for me right now. However, I did realize I needed to work alot harder on my leg strength. Right now, the attempts at sprints were met with right medial (inner) knee pain, which also stopped me with deep squats. Now that I’m home, I decided to have a local orthopedic surgeon check it out. Plain xrays showed little in the way of knee degeneration but he did order a knee MRI. I hurt my right knee doing a breaststroke kick variation with a sidestroke swim back in college 30 years ago. Lo and behold, this is a mechanism for a condition called Pes Anserine Bursitis, which you can look up. I was given some stretching exercises and waiting for the MRI in a couple days. The information I was given by my physician indicates that it is best prevented by a proper warmup that includes stretching of the hamstring muscles, the inner thigh muscles, and the top thigh muscles. Gradually increasing activity level, rather than doing everything at once, will also help prevent its development.

          Hopefully by PrimalCon Oxnard I will overcome this condition and be in much better shape to advance the activities without pain. Hope this helps.

          Daria Schooler, MD wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • Half-squats work the quads, but do not engage the posterior chain muscles (emphasis on Hammies & Glutes). This movement can ultimately result in a strength imbalance which actually leaves the knees more vulnerable to further injury.

          I would recommend any exercises that you can perform comfortably which target the quads, hamstrings and glutes, along with body weight squats to parallel as soon as practical.

          Caveat emptor: I am not a professional, and I offer this recommendation without knowing which type of knee injury you are dealing with.

          Best of luck to you Kay.

          Michael S. wrote on March 12th, 2014
        • When you squat, remember to keep your centre of gravity over your heels all the way down and all the way back up. Let your hips do all the work. A lot of people complain about knee pain because they let their centre of gravity drift forward and their knees end up working too hard.

          There’s a free tutorial on my blog for some lower body exercises that are awesome yet overlooked by conventional fitness. (Some judo and jiujutsu people know about them, but, like fishermen, don’t share their secrets.)

          SumoFit wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Suggestion: read the book “how to become a supple leopard” by Kelly Starret. Detailed explanation on how to do squats in a safe way

      wildgrok wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • thanks to all for the helpful comments. my knee injury is an old one more than 20 yrs ago but rarely bothered me even when I used to run marathons. it seems to give pain in the tendon/ligament at the top and bottom of the kneecap and only hurts on and off when I am on stairs or trying to do squats.
        I will check out the books and links, and take my time getting my fitness back this time.
        Dana, thanks to you as well, I never did have an xray or mri, it may be worth doing even now, to get more info.

        kay wrote on March 13th, 2014
  22. Anyone who is trying advanced bodyweight exercises, and not ready for it or in shape, will certainly run the risk of injury. However, slow progressions from the basics will most likely decrease the risk of injury in comparison to weight workouts.

    BodyweightReallyIsBetter wrote on March 12th, 2014
  23. Spot on.

    I doubt if Grok was spending 90 minutes at the gym each day pumping iron. If he was he would be eaten a long time ago by a lion because he didn’t have the endurance and agility to run away and climb up some rocks or something.

    As a former gymnast, I’ve always wondered why people spent so much time in a weight room doing repetitive motion exercises (curls and whatnot). What are people doing it for? Most of these people usually don’t even do a sport outside of the gym (think classic gym rat with the pencil legs) and if they are, the added muscle (bulk) is adding to their bodyweight to strength ratio, which in many cases doesn’t improve athletic performance. Ok, maybe if you’re competing in weight lifting or are a linebacker, which most of us aren’t.

    I’m not saying some gym work doesn’t help, but people would be better off (saved money, more fresh air, etc) by going to the local park or wherever (think movnat) and simple moving your body.

    John wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Ditto to what John said….

      BodyweightReallyIsBetter wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Functional fitness. Train in order to be able to play without injury….

      Joe wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • agreed 100%

      wildgrok wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • I totally agree! It seems to me that the logical reason for exercising your body is because… you want to be able to move with ease in the real world. So what exactly does lifting weights or working out on machines prepare you for? What, other than aesthetics, does bulk get you? Certainly not agility or flexibility.

      My own personal “aha” moment came while watching the movie Avatar. Isn’t that the kind of creature we are meant to be – that can move fluidly with strength and agility and dare I say joy? Those creatures are having FUN as they move because that movement is just so fundamental to the way they are in the world. They can explode with speed if they need to, or sit still and silent and receptive. That’s so much more useful than a six-pack.

      Seems the movenat method is all about this. Personally I combine yoga and trail running, but maybe I’ll give movenat a try one of these days.

      Gydle wrote on March 13th, 2014
  24. Upper bodyweight movements are easy. As soon as you have progressed to weighted pushups, pullups and rows for 10+ reps you should have the upper body you’ve always wanted.

    As the article states, it’s very hard to target the lower body and many people who only do bodyweight training for their legs are, IMO, leaving a lot on the table. I’d go as far to say that – outside of the genetically gifted – it is very hard to build an impressive set of legs using only your bodyweight.

    The good news is that you don’t need weighted squats and deadlifts to create a set of wheels. Even if you are immobile and/or previously injured, you can still use movements like split squats, hip thrusts, hyperextensions, and glute-ham raises that are very safe and allow for weighted progression.

    A great article on 21 Safe Exercises:

    http://www.t-nation.com/free_online_article/most_recent/21_exercises_for_injury_free_mass

    Mike wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • I dont really agree with this. You can build an extremely beefy set of legs doing pistol squats, you just have to be motivated and very self-disciplined about keeping proper form and pushing yourself.
      I have never done any kind of weighted exercise for my lower legs. I love to bike and have conquered the pistol after working at it for a while now, and I do believe my legs would give any gym rat who squats a ton a run for his money :-)
      I have done some of the exercises you list in the last paragraph, which are also bodyweight exercises btw

      Shawn wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • I agree that pistol squats are pretty darn awesome and those lifts I mentioned can, no doubt, be done with bodyweight. There are also studies that untrained individuals using 30% of 1RM to failure are able to put on just as much muscle mass as those using 80% of 1RM.

        My main contention with doing bodyweight pistols and even heavy barbell squats is not that you can’t build a beefy set of legs with them, but rather that you mainly build a beefy set of quads with them. Research shows that these movements do not put tension on the glutes/hamstrings through a full range of motion and, as a sprinter, these muscles are highly valuable and extremely hard to train heavy (even 30% 1RM) without the use of an external load.

        Mike wrote on March 13th, 2014
    • This is what body-weight exercises can do for your lower body:

      http://www14.plala.or.jp/gojiro/diary/04diary_image/chiyonofuji1.jpg

      SumoFit wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • i don’t know much about sumo training but i assume that lower body was developed lifting the adversary’s body too (and not without resistance fm that side), and those guys are pretty heavy :-)

        einstein wrote on March 14th, 2014
        • Good observations.

          A lot of wrestlers start out pretty average-sized. Although there are minimum height and weight requirements, there are no weight categories as in Greco-Roman wrestling and Judo. The smaller wrestlers — who are much more interesting to watch, because they are faster, more agile, and able to use many different techniques — usually fail to progress after a certain point.

          The guy in the photo was one of the exceptions, reaching the Grand Champion level despite being shorter and lighter than most (AND struggling with a bad shoulder throughout his career).

          Traditionally, wrestlers lifted heavy things such as large sacks of rice. These days they use barbells, but from what I’ve seen, their lifting is more of an afterthought. Pushing/sliding drills with a partner play an important role in their training, but they don’t routinely lift their opponents, although there are winning techniques that involve lifting. A wrestler wouldn’t typically use a lifting technique until after he had broken his opponent’s balance, and was already driving him out of the ring. The lift just finishes him off, as it were.

          However…..if you were to ask a wrestler what the secret of his strength, power, and success was, he would tell you it was mostly due to “shiko”, the infamous Sumo Stomp. Wrestlers perform hundreds of stomps a day to develop strength, flexibility and balance. The stomp is the mental and physical foundation of Sumo conditioning.

          This is what a sumo wrestler looks like under the layers of fat:

          http://www.leonishiki.com/sumo/images/Chiyonofuji.JPG

          Same wrestler as in the previous super-glutes shot, but earlier on in his career.

          SumoFit wrote on March 14th, 2014
  25. Mark,
    What do suggest for people like me? I have had multiple right shoulder surgeries including distal clavicle resection, and RC repairs due extensive damage to supraspinatus, subscapularis, infraspinatus, and torn bicep. Hard to do a pushup, and at this point, can do pullups. Any guidance would be appreciated.

    LCDR USN Ret wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • correction–can’t do pullups

      LCDR USN Ret wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • I am not Mark, but I do have some input. I had Rt Shoulder Surgery, and battle tendonitis in both shoulders and elbows. I get inflammation in these areas at the drop of a hat. If I do 2 or 3 dips on the parallel bars, I am out for a week or two. So, I started doing isometric holds on parallel bars and rings. I can do this with out aggravating my susceptible joints. And I am getting stronger. Try L-Sits, tucked front levers, frog stands, etc. I realize your situation is more severe than mine, but this has been working great for me. Best of luck.

      Dan wrote on March 12th, 2014
      • I also have had some serious issues with my right shoulder. I have found Pilates a great help in improving posture and getting those shoulder blades back into socket. I do a lot of band exercises with huge emphasis on posture whilst doing them. Also Pilates is great for core exercises, balance, flexibilty and maintaining long lean flexible muscles which are much less likely to get injured than the short tight muscles I used to develop with weights. Functional exercise is the way to go.

        patrick wrote on March 13th, 2014
        • Functional exercises can include weights, as well. For example, Turkish Get Ups with a kettlebell are great for rehabbing shoulders, and I think LCDR would greatly benefit from those.

          Dan wrote on March 13th, 2014
        • Agree fully about kettlebells. Once they are done with correct posture and form they are good. If the shoulders have become rounded you need specific exercises to get the blades back into the correct position. This is where Pilates and other forms of postural correction exercises really help. Unless this is addressed the injuries just keep reoccurring.

          patrick wrote on March 13th, 2014
  26. I think the most impressively strong person I’ve ever known was a yoga teacher I had the fortune of briefly studying under. He demonstrated once for us just how strong yoga can be. Impressive! Then he made us stand in mountain for 15 minutes…

    Casey wrote on March 12th, 2014
  27. Don’t forget Ido Portal: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aLogFAbTlDI

    dragonmamma wrote on March 12th, 2014
  28. I was not string enough for most body weight exercises so I went with barbells. I love how quantifiable they are.

    Diane wrote on March 12th, 2014
  29. I’m thinking about buying a suspension trainer and quitting my gym. I’ve been looking at the TRX system (and its knockoff, the MOSS 3000) and the Jungle Gym TX. In the past, I have tried using Mark Lauren’s regimen (YAYOG), but quickly realized I didn’t have the correct set up at home to perform many of the exercises without equipment. Does anyone have any insight about whether suspension trainers are effective or about which trainer to buy?

    Merry Mac wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • A suspension trainer is several notches down my list.

      If you have the room, an Olympic bar and weight set will do far more for your physique and will scale up as you get stronger. A suspension trainer will not.

      If room is tight, a pair of adjustable dumbbells like the Powerblock Urethane series can start small and relatively inexpensive and be scaled up as you get stronger.

      If the budget won’t allow for that, then bodyweight exercises plus a suspension trainer are an effective combo. Not ideal, but certainly sufficient for a novice trainer to improve and an intermediate trainer to maintain their strength.

      I’ve not tried the cheaper suspension trainers. There are quite a few if you search on Amazon and ebay. Watch out for build quality and read the reviews of other users. Uncomfortable handles will dissuade you from using your trainer. Cheap components with poor stitching could actually endanger you.

      Choose carefully and be well!

      Ben Fury

      Ben Fury wrote on March 13th, 2014
      • Thanks. I’m going to try the Jungle Gym XT.

        Merry wrote on March 13th, 2014
        • Jungle Gym XT looks good. The WOSS 3000 equalizer also has great reviews and is less than half the price.

          Ben Fury wrote on March 13th, 2014
        • I looked at the WOSS 3000. I decided to pay a little more for the Jungle Gym XT because of the design of the handles/foot cradles.

          Merry wrote on March 13th, 2014
  30. Great Article,

    I am a big proponent of using body weight for training. I have gotten some great results by training bodyweight that i would have never received with weights.
    Increasing my: balance, flexibility, mobility, proprioception, joint stabilization. But most important its lots of fun.

    Another great website i recommend you check out is http://www.goldmedalbodies.com.

    They have great tutorials and programs to help you get started or go deeper with learning bodyweight skillls.

    Have a good day,

    Daniel

    Daniel Spencer wrote on March 12th, 2014
  31. The key for me is to do them really slowly until complete muscle failure. For me this is high intensity and my HR goes upwards of 80%. Routine takes about 15 minutes. I cannot say this builds lots of bulk, however – I’m 47 and don’t want to be big; just fit, lean with good core strength and this method works very well for that.

    Andy wrote on March 12th, 2014
  32. Great article.
    The best workouts I get now are body weight based as they can always be adapted with adding in some weight with dumbbells, weighted vests etc and there are almost infinite hand positions you can do in chin ups or dips to always change the muscle stimulation.
    One only has to look at the gymnasts to see the effects of body weight exercises

    jamie wrote on March 12th, 2014
  33. Hey Mark, you did not mention Barstarzz this time!

    https://www.youtube.com/user/OfficialBarstarzz

    Miamians kick ass big time!)

    wildgrok wrote on March 12th, 2014
  34. If someone had suggested this to me two years ago I’d have been skeptical. I spent six months last year doing nothing but bodyweight training, and more recently do something similar to what Mark suggests combining bodyweight and free weight movements and it’s working better than I would have expected.

    Currently alternating between these two, using a bodyweight station I designed with bars for push ups, rowing, dipping, chin ups, and a variety of pull ups, and a step and pad for leg exercises:

    A.

    1. Bodyweight Knee Flexion (hanging from rowing bars, ankles over pad)
    2. Bodyweight Knee Extension (supported on push up bars, shins over pad)
    3. Dumbbell Squat
    4. Chin-up
    5. Push-up
    6. Row
    7. Pike Push-up OR Dumbbell Press
    8. Dumbbell Crunch
    9. Manually-resisted Neck Extension
    10. Manually-resisted Neck Flexion
    11. Gripping

    B.

    1. One-leg Squat
    2. Dumbbell Stiff-leg Deadlift
    3. Dip
    4. Parallel-grip Pull-up
    5. Incline Dumbbell Press
    6. Yates Row (underhand grip)
    7. One-leg Heel Raise
    8. Hanging Leg Raise
    9. Dumbbell Wrist Curl
    10. Dumbbell Wrist Extension

    Drew Baye wrote on March 12th, 2014
  35. I’ve been doing ‘convict conditioning’ for about a year now and it has been very good for me. I’ve improved my strength and have toned up very well without a lot of bulk. I highly recommend both books to anyone that wants functional strength without having to go to a gym. The only piece of equipment required is a pullup bar which is another bonus of the program, I can workout while I am on vacation even when the hotel has no gym.

    nikko wrote on March 12th, 2014
  36. I have seen it mentioned a few times, but ill say again the the Convict Conditioning system( book 1 & 2) by Paul wade has been plenty challenging. I have been working my way through the big 4 since last july and have seen major gains in strength and flexibility but also have leaned out a great deal. As well doing bodyweight exercises, and doing them properly, amour proofs your body against injuries as your body has to move as a whole unit as opposed to bodybuilding type moves that isolate a certain body part.The Naked Warrior by Pavel is also a good resource for bodyweight mechanics as it focuses on the squat and the pushup.

    I have also added in the Program Minimum 2.0 from Pavel’s Simple and Sinister kettlebell program. Anything by him is gold and the newer stuff is pure minimalist in its approach as all the fat is trimmed away and u left with simple, basic, and less effort and time for big gains in strength and conditioning. Good gains less injury and you able to keep same routine for a long time, all this in 30 min a day.

    dchess693 wrote on March 12th, 2014
  37. I didn’t see it mentioned here, but Pavel Tsatsouline’s Naked Warrior is a great resource as well. This book addresses the issue of getting high resistance workouts with body weight only.

    I know Pavel is a controversial figure (many have developed a deep hate for him) but his approach has always worked for me. If you disregard all the “Secret Russian technique” non-sense in his books and videos, there really is a lot of great material in them.

    Ido Portal’s stuff is also great.

    TJB wrote on March 12th, 2014
  38. I like bodyweight training because it’s so easy to fit in anywhere in any time that’s available. I’ve taken up yoga and find it much more challenging than it looks. The bodyweight parts of yoga can be very difficult. I’m 50 years old now and I feel that if I can one day be on top of these yoga poses, I’ll be quite fit indeed.

    Thanks for the interesting and thought-provoking article.

    Peter Whiting wrote on March 12th, 2014
  39. Try P90X; good combo of single hand weights and body weight exercises. A lot of variety, too, and a good nutrition guide. Tony Horton is humorous, as well. I like how you can do it at home with a dvd player.

    Tom wrote on March 12th, 2014
    • Come to think of it, Mark had something to do with the nutrition guide for P90X and that is how I found him in the first place.

      Tom wrote on March 12th, 2014
  40. Gah! The use of the word “results” is killing me!! If you don’t define “results” before you start, ANYTHING you notice at the end is a “result”. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, ANY path will get you there. Everything must be understood in its Context. Bodyweight or free-weight, they’re both good depending on what you want.

    And if you get hurt doing something, it’s either because the exercise was crap in the first place, some gimmick someone made up, or you’re doing something wrong, in which case you need to seek out the professionals. (Or you had a pre-existing condition). Don’t judge something by your own crappy standards.

    And who cares what Grok would do? (Sorry Mark.) Do you choose to look at it that way? Ok, but don’t knock the people who are kicking butt at something Grok wouldn’t do.

    Ah, mini-rant over. Really, no offense meant to anyone. I’m just very passionate about understanding things correctly.

    John wrote on March 12th, 2014

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