To get big and strong, you have to work out with weights, and heavy ones, right? Right. Mostly. OK, usually. Well, maybe not always. In fact, you might not have to. It’s complicated.
Strength builds most quickly through compound movements and heavy weights, and hypertrophy — muscle growth — can occur fastest through exercises, done at high reps, that isolate the muscles. But there are ways to pack on strength and size that don’t involve barbells or dumbbells. Lifters who follow bodyweight programs can approximate these results — it’s just a much different path from the other subgenres of lifting.
Bodyweight exercises — push-ups, pull-ups, dips, lunges, burpees, chin-ups, and dozens more — are movements that use the body’s weight to create a natural stimulus and resistance. They place the targeted muscle under stress and tear it, which is the first step to growth, increase balance, and don’t tax joints or ligaments. In an “equator” exercise, you’re either strong enough to do one, or you’re not. Being able to lift yourself to a chin-up or complete a dip can be difficult for untrained lifters, but when strength gets to a respectable level, it’s suddenly easy. Ironically, as the exercises get easier, workout routines become more difficult. Because the stimulus is lowered, more reps are needed.
But the “how” of these workouts can be vague. Where powerlifting has standard protocols for strength, wiki-like crowdsourced programming routines, and communities for recuperation and diet, bodyweight work is both obscure and overabundant: the exercises out there tend to be grouped haphazardly, with rep ranges and programming comparatively hard to come by. Good routines can be found, but the phenomenon isn’t as granular as powerlifting.
Which makes sense. We’re in an age where strength is associated with complex barbell routines: squats, bench press, and deadlifts are how you get strong. That context paints bodyweight work as odd, or as a backdoor to bulking up, or prep work for real powerlifting training. As a result, bodyweight work is misunderstood. Of the few rigid, progressive programs that get discussed, even popular ones like the routine detailed by Reddit’s Bodyweight Fitness Community seem to be of a lower profile than, say, Jacked and Tan 2.0 (a very good powerlifting program with an even better name).
This haze brings up questions. Can bodyweight work make us big and strong, or is it a shortcut for lifters who don’t want to work? And can we stick to these programs, and return to them, or are they just baby steps on the way towards real powerlifting work?
Can you build muscle without weights?
First, bodyweight programs work. They have for a really long time. For a century, boxers have worked hard without weights — punching the bag, skipping rope, push-ups — amassing impressive physiques; wrestlers have been training similarly for much longer than that. Gymnasts don’t get under the bar very much, and most pro athletes didn’t either until about the 1960s or ‘70s.
Of course, the best athletes in the world are blessed by genetics and experience. Barbell training has helped make today’s pro athletes stronger than the ones who preceded them. But using athletes’ routines as a benchmark for our own paints an incomplete picture.
Lifting heavy is the best and most efficient way to put on muscle. Since it takes the least time and demands the least reps, it’s perfect for athletes. Bodyweight work has a much lower stimulus — one chin-up won’t tear up your muscles as much as a barbell squat will — so you need to do more. But there’s an advantage to this lack of efficiency, especially for those of us who don’t have to outrun people for a living. It’s not that barbell exercises work and bodyweight doesn’t, it’s just that the latter requires a much different approach to achieve similar results.
What are the best bodyweight exercises?
Proper bodyweight programming information can be found with some work. Reddit’s program is a good one, and muscle-up routines are legion. Most call for maximizing reps, regular, scheduled workouts, and dialed-in diets. (If you can’t lift your body on a chin or dip, you can work up to that with a progressive chin-up routine. Push-up specific programs help too. Often building capacity on exercises like wall sits or air squats is a matter of just doing them until you can last longer or do one or two.)
Prison-type workouts, like those outlined in Josh Bryant’s book, “Jailhouse Strong: Interval Training,” are another route. The book lists all sorts of routines — intervals, burpee challenges, Tabata-type workouts, with some on his website — and runs down the history of strength training behind bars. While we think of prisoners as lifters, many states have done away with gym equipment, forcing inmates to go without weights. The ethics of all this can fill up a couple more columns, but it’s edifying to know that nothing seems to get in the way of prisoners getting big.
Bryant’s programs use the shop-worn swole jailbird stereotype to twist lifting knowledge on its ear. Prisoners, without weights or unlimited food, pack on strength and muscle with the right workouts. So we can certainly achieve similar results. The key to these workouts is that they’re regularly programmed, high in intensity and volume, mostly aerobic, and progress by the week — a couple more reps of a burpee, or less time in which to complete them. The pace and rep schemes increase the heart rate, like running, and the programming mimics the progressive overload that characterizes good powerlifting schemes.
Why workout intensity matters
These workouts’ combination of progressive overload and effort is what makes powerlifting or bodybuilding programs — any program, really — succeed. Powerlifters use low reps and high weight, bodybuilders, high reps and low, and bodyweight lifters need their own thing, with even more reps. All do a bit more the next week.
As much was effectively proven in a 1985 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology: how heavy you lift doesn’t have a 1:1 relationship to muscle size or strength — it’s the effort. Lifters, if pushed to their edge, both in individual workouts and over time, will, with proper diet and rest, put on size and strength. It’s lifting’s scientific golden rule: the weight on the bar matters less than the workout’s intensity.
And the intensity here is specific. While a Tabata burpee session might seem easier on paper than going heavy on squats, it’s not really — and it won’t be the following week when reps are added and time is cut down. Performing one chin-up is easy; 100 is tough. Maintaining correct form and tension on the very last rep can be torture. The key to bodyweight work is that it has to be difficult: a couple of reps, or even a dozen, isn’t enough for a stimulus. You need an ungodly amount. Bodies don’t respond to programming, rep ranges, or weight percentages, but to effort and tension. Programs are the easiest way to ensure dependable effort, and for bodyweight programs to work, the effort needs to be immense.
Powerlifting and bodyweight exercises
Bodyweight work isn’t worlds apart from powerlifting either.
Vacationing powerlifters, for example, get steered towards bodyweight routines as a form of periodization. And periodizing — switching up — your routine helps in the long run by getting more muscles involved and adding more complex movements.
Bodyweight work is also important within traditional programs. Many programs, like 5/3/1, feature assistance exercises — done after you push your squat heavy — to complement the main lifts, pack on muscle and build up conditioning. Often there’s a bodyweight option, since it’s less taxing on joints, easy to recover from, and requires high enough rep ranges that it builds up conditioning (which will allow you to train heavier).
Lifters will often move on bodyweight work, or modify it, adding weight to their exercises to register more of a burn. “Mythical Strength,” a terrific strength training blog whose author goes by Emevas, notes that bodyweight exercises are best kept in powerlifting routines as they are — without extra weight — because of how different they are from barbell work. Successful, unweighted bodyweight routines’ high rep ranges will push cardio, and “fill in the cracks left behind from heavy weight work.” Other muscles and patterns get used; lifters are better for it.
To be sure, bodyweight work is a grind: programs are difficult to find, the rep ranges are exhausting. Building up size and strength without weights is incredibly taxing, and adding enough reps to make a difference at the end of a heavy squat day can feel like an extra workout, and so most lifters stay away.
But they shouldn’t. Just because pull-ups are less discussed than squats doesn’t mean they’re not important. In lifting, nothing is easy: either the weight on the bar is too heavy, or the reps go on forever. There’s no silver bullet. Efficiency is great — but it’s not everything. Effort is the thing here, the rest is a variation.
It all comes back to what you want: football players need to get as strong as they can in the gym and spend as much time as they can playing football because it’s their job. Lifting heavy with weights buys them time for the field. But quotidian lifters are less after efficiency than results. To be sure, not many of us want to be in the gym forever, and bodyweight programs, which are perfect home workouts, save us time at the gym, and money. But it’s more of a push. It won’t save us effort. The workouts are still hard, tiring, and long.
Which feels like the point. It shouldn’t be easy. But it’s nice that it can be simple.
Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.