In 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:
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.
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.
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:
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?