“But dude. Gymnasts are jacked. And haven’t you seen those playground guys? They’re yak strong and well built. Bodyweight training is all I need, right? I mean, those guys get away with it…don’t they?”
Enter the question(s) behind the self-reassuring ramble:
- How effective is body weight training?
- Can bodyweight training be the sole catalyst for building an impressive body?
Yes, I think it can.
But sometimes I think it can't.
Below is a compilation of thoughts followed by the big takeaway.
1. The first question to ask is why you want to go solely bodyweight. I'm going to assume you either (a) don't like barbell training, or (b) can't barbell train for equipment or similar reasons. In other words: you're trying to replace barbell training with bodyweight training. So for a frame of reference, let's create a barbell backdrop.
2. Barbell training is effective because it’s holistic. It's like living on Jupiter in supragravity. You do a bodyweight squat, you’re working against earth's gravity. You do a barbell squat, you’re working against +gravity. Why do astronauts wither away in space? No gravity, no loading on the system. So think of the opposite. If no loading = withering away, supra loading = building up.
3. Don’t forget—you aren’t just training muscles. Muscles funnel into tendons, which funnel into bone. You remodel all of these structures when you train. Stronger bones make for stronger muscles. More gravity = stronger bones. Earth's gravity can only be scaled to a certain point with bodyweight exercises.
4. Some bodyweight movements become, for all intents and purposes, “barbell” exercises when you add weight. Two biggies are chin-ups/pull-ups and parallel bar dips. Ironically, these two exercises are often considered the “squat” of the upper body. Where the squat is the gravity+ exercise for the legs, these two exercises are the gravity+ exercises for the upper body’s frontside and backside.
5. Bodyweight training doesn’t usually progress via +gravity or loading (unless you're moving from two handed exercises into one handed exercises). Instead, you're looking at doing it via tension, fatigue, and torque. More reps, more time under tension (doing reps slower), and changing the position to make the muscles work harder.
6. Learning curves are huge. Compare the overhead press and then the handstand. It takes one day to learn the overhead press if you're mobile enough to get your hands overhead. All you gotta' do from there is smack weight onto the bar. But with the handstand? It can take months to learn the handstand. Then more months to learn how to balance and control a handstand negative. Then more for a handstand push-up. Then more for a one arm handstand.
7. Overloading is much easier with barbell exercises, which means you can typically see progress a lot faster in the primary muscles.
8. Because bodyweight exercises progress via complexity and technique, you're often held back by a weak link rather than a primary mover. Take the handstands again. You want big shoulders? That's cool, but you're at the mercy of your wrist's ability to balance your body.
9. You aren’t a gymnasts and using them is a beacon is a reach.
9a. Gymnasts compete in the pommel horse, rings, parallel bars, and high bar. (I’ve excluded floor and vault because they aren’t as upper body intense.) Doing chin-ups and push-ups in your bedroom isn't really in the same “bodyweight training” league.
9b. Gymnasts start young(er). They have a lot of mileage under their belt — years of training.
9c. Gymnasts train a lot. Hours per day, often times.
9d. Some gymnasts strength train with a barbell. Epke Zonderland being an example.
10. Although gymnasts show what can happen, physically, from chasing bodyweight control, few of us are in the business of training all of those events…especially if you're getting into bodyweight training because of a lack of equipment. You won’t be chucking around on rings or pommel horses anytime soon.
11. So it's importantly to classify the type of bodyweight training you're getting into. There's a difference between more calisthenics based exercises and more gymnastics based exercises.
12. Comparing yourself to Olympic caliber athletes isn't even apples and oranges. It's like apples and eggplant.
13. If you want to do good things with bodyweight training then push-ups, dips, and pull-ups are only the ground floor. Yeah, you can scale them by increasing the time under tension, adding reps and, and using more conventional tactics, but if you want to “make it” solely with bodyweight exercises you need to chase higher skills.
14. Set your sights on planches, levers, one arm handstands, and other high skill level bodyweight movements. Yes, this is setting the bar high. Yes, that's the point. Start at an appropriate place and level yourself up over time.
15. Overloading the lower body is tough without weight. Pistol squats are nice, but typically not enough. Ido Portal is known for saying that the shoulder’s crave complexity, but the hips crave intensity. It's hard to get good intensity with no equipment.
16. If you want to build your body with bodyweight movements, it's going to take time. More time than it would with the barbell. With the barbell, you can stress intended muscles easier, stress yourself more overall, and give a bigger push for change. Without bodyweight, expect to be held back by some weak links. Not that fixing up weak links is a bad thing, it just makes for a longer road.
17. Also expect to give more time if you have no coach and no equipment for bodyweight skill learning. Being under a watchful eye that can spot you and cue you in on proper body position makes a big difference. If you're a goonie going at things haphazardly, learning things as you go, I applaud you. Welcome to my world. But it's not exactly tailored for quick learning.
Some of my own training:
My upper body work is 80% bodyweight training via gymnastics skills and ring training. I used to be 100% bodyweight for the upper body, but I consider weighted chins and dips to be more barbell than bodyweight.
I'm also tall: 6'4″. Tall people don't typically favor well with gymnastics exercises (levers are longer, more torque), so a bit of barbell work helps me curb some anxiety about my tremendously slow rate of progress.
I squat and pull from the floor a bunch of ways with a bunch of grips.
So it's 80% upper gymnastics work, 20% upper barbell work. 90% lower barbell work, 10% lower bodyweight work. I trick, too.
I do this because I like working towards skills I can't do. Like I said, once you can do a barbell exercise all you do from there is hit them over and over and over with different loading patterns. With bodyweight skills, you're constantly searching for a tougher variation.
There's more, which I wrote about here.
Although they’re best seen as their own unique entities, there’s a sort of emergence that comes from combining barbell and bodyweight training — the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, as is the case in any good fusion. Gotenks is stronger than Goten and Trunks.
Barbell training is usually more organism taxing. There’s more grip work, spine loading, and it just seems to hit the entire system harder. Bodyweight training is less taxing, which means it’s easier for high frequency fiddling.
Barbell training forces you into a fixed vertically loaded movement plane most of the time. Bodyweight training allows for more movement freedom.
Because of the load, barbell training makes for a more bone bearing sort of tension and load. Bodyweight training, because of the freedom, allows you to adjust position and produce more tension through torque.
You can get better at barbell exercises while simultaneously turning into a fat slob. You can’t get better at bodyweight exercises and turn into a fat slob because you’re proficiency hinges on relative strength. Getting better at both makes for good things.
I created B3W as a first inception into the “barbell” world. How to go about squatting and pulling from the floor and incorporating weighted chin-ups and dips into the mix. The next step would be to phase towards more (a) gymnastics work for the upper body in planches, handstands, levers, l-sits and such, and (b) more calisthenics like one arm chin-ups and one arm push-ups and such.
If you're interested in checking out more of what I wrote on this….
- B3W – A program that fuses barbell and bodyweight training
- Combining barbell and bodyweight training: principles of fusion
- Is there a difference between barbell and bodyweight training?
- The basics of combining barbell and bodyweight training: qualifying context
Some concluding thoughts:
It helps if you have some equipment to make use of, like rings and parallettes. It's a much different (harder) journey if you don't have these.
You need a place to do chin-ups and pull-ups. Without this, you're not going to make it far.
High frequency training helps. Without loading on the spine and bones and such, your body can take more frequent stress. Training six days per week is something to consider…especially if you're on the calisthenics end.
You can build muscle with just bodyweight exercises as long as you (a) chase high level skills and (b) be patient. But beyond that, consider why you want to go this route.
If you don't want to use a barbell out of some kind of righteous mindset, flush said mindset down the toilet. At the least, add one bigger barbell lift into the mix. Get a barbell and a ton of plates and deadlift. That'll keep equipment low and give you one big organism taxing exercise for your body to handle.
If you have to use solely bodyweight training, then you have no choice. Find something to hang from. Find something to support yourself with. Start chinning and dipping. Then move into the gymnastics world. Beginner planche, lever, l-sits, etc.
There's no purpose in questioning possibility. Just go and get the work done. Let time work its magic.