Are Bodyweight Exercises Good for Building Muscle Mass?

bodyweight-exercise

Bodyweight exercises can be very effective in increasing muscle mass when performed correctly.

One of the most common training goals, especially for men, is hypertrophy, i.e., gaining muscle mass. Gaining muscle mass is important in all stages of life, but especially in older ages, in order to cope better with the increasingly common phenomenon of obesity.

Other reasons to want more muscle mass are improving metabolism, muscle tone, mobility, day-to-day function, performance in sports or just your looks.

All these and more can be achieved by proper bodyweight training, given enough resistance and a well-planned training strategy.

It should be noted that there are thousands of bodyweight exercises, yet many of which aren’t efficient enough to see real gains in terms of muscle mass – but some definitely are.

Here are a few guidelines and points to consider for this type of training:

Strengthening Stabilizer Muscles vs. Mover Muscles

Every exercise activates stabilizer muscles and mover muscles, the only question is – to what extent?

shoulder-muscles-breakdown
Stabilzer and mover muscles of the shoulder

The most important thing to remember when designing a training regimen is to tailor the training for the athlete’s goals. Therefore, it is possible that we would recommend exercises that focus largely on stabilizer muscles for one athlete, while for the other, exercises that emphasize mover muscles would be preferred.

This way, training goals can be achieved effectively.

However, when it comes to increasing muscle mass, exercises that involve mostly stabilizer muscles are less suitable.

For example, a squat can be performed on top of a BOSU, emphasizing the stabilizer muscles, balance, proprioception (sensing the position of the body) and so on, but this exercise is not ideal for someone who’s looking to gain muscle mass.

This is also the reason why you don’t see bodybuilders, for example, perform exercises on accessories such as BOSU, balance discs, medicine balls, unstable surfaces, etc.

ronnie-coleman-squatting
Ronnie Coleman – No BOSU for him

Performing Isolated vs. Compound Exercises

Isolated exercises will usually be less effective in gaining muscle mass (and other related effects, such as the production of anabolic hormones) compared to compound exercises.

Compound exercises will usually allow lifting more weight, increasing the potential benefits one can gain from training. It is possible to gain muscle mass with isolated exercises, yet most of the time, when the goal of training is to increase muscle mass, compound exercises will be needed as well.

Exercises Characterized by Complex Techniques

You may sometimes notice people performing exercises that involve complex, unique training techniques, either instructed by a trainer or while training alone. These exercises can make use of one’s own body weight and/or different accessories, and are sometimes performed a-symmetrically (with one leg in front, for example), on a narrow base or in various other settings.

The problem these pose for our goal of gaining muscle mass is that they require skill acquired through thousands of repetitions, and only then one might see gains in mass.

Training Intensity (Load)

In order to gain muscle mass, one must train with sufficient intensity. This is one of the most crucial and fundamental training principles called “the overload principle”.

progressive-overload-principle

A good standard to strive for is that within each set the last couple of reps are extremely hard to complete. Advanced athletes and bodybuilders typically reach ‘Repetition Maximum’, or RM, a state where not one additional repetition can be completed.

Note that very few people (even at advanced levels) reach such a high standard of training.

Number of Repetitions

The number of exercise repetitions within a set has a tremendous effect on training, and ultimately on reaching the athlete’s goals. Bodyweight exercises, whether assisted by different accessories or not, are typically performed with a high number of repetitions (15 or higher).

However, a high number of repetitions is not optimal for gaining muscle mass, and you should strive to perform fewer repetitions with a higher load.

Exercise Bank

While training veterans usually know many bodyweight exercises, the common everyday guy is less knowledgeable and usually has a smaller “bank” to play with, which can hurt their rate of progression.

For example, one of the most common bodyweight exercises are push-ups, which have hundreds of different forms. However, most people know only the few basic ones, a thing which lowers their progress potential. This is especially true in advanced levels of training where exercise variety becomes more critical.

obama-pushup
The good ol’ push-up

Muscle Groups and Their Effects on Muscle Mass

In hypertrophy-centered training, there are eight major muscle groups which should be trained: chest, legs, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps, spine flexors (abs) and spine extensors (back erectors). Training all these muscle groups with only bodyweight exercises requires significant knowledge.

For example, training the shoulders and biceps in a way that exerts a sufficient amount of load is no small (but possible) task, and may be primarily suited for the highly experienced.

As a consequence, it’s quite common to see some of these muscle groups neglected, reducing the potential for gaining muscle mass.

It’s possible to make use of accessories such as resistance bands or weighted balls (medicine balls), but these are not always around. You could also use a partner to provide enough resistance for effective training.

Nothing like a Kardashian on your back when you need some extra weight

Body Composition and its Effects (Lean Weight vs. Body Fat)

Body composition affects the ability to perform bodyweight exercises. A high body fat percentage will make some exercises difficult to perform, which is why it is generally relatively harder for women to do push-ups, pull-ups, dips and more.

Load Control

With weight training, it’s easy to monitor training loads simply by the weight lifted. By the same token, it’s also easier to quantify intensity. With bodyweight exercises, the main method of control is repetitions rather than weight lifted.

Gradual Increase in Training Load

weight-machine-iron-plates
Easy to increase gradually

It’s not always possible to increase loads gradually when doing bodyweight exercises. Adding just one push-up or pull-up can sometimes be very hard. At the same time reducing the load isn’t always easy. In standard weight training, you can simply change the weight – enhancing the potential effect of training.

Building a proper regimen that overcomes this issue becomes possible with lots of training or instructing experience.

Proper Execution of Exercises

With training machines found in most gyms, it doesn’t take much skill or knowledge to perform the exercises with relative accuracy. However, with bodyweight training, it requires proper guidance to be safe and effective as poor execution can lead to excessive load on the joints.

Remember that gyms have trainers whose job is to monitor the people training and instruct them to execute properly whenever necessary (especially when it comes to exercises with dumbbells and other free-weights).

Mixing Up Training Methods

After the first few stages of training (which can last for several months), it’s recommended that you introduce some variance into your training to compliment your progress. One example is the ‘pyramid’, where the weight increases with each set. With high repetitions the weight is low, and as the weight increases, less and less repetitions are performed.

pyramid-training

Another example is the ‘drop set’ method, where sets are executed continuously, reducing the weight with each set.

Some of these training methods are not possible with bodyweight training, and so it may not be optimal for achieving certain goals, such as professional sports training or bodybuilding.

Improving Daily Function

For the goal of improving a specific daily function, one should perform an exercise as close as possible to the movement he wants to achieve.

For example, for an 87-year old man who’s looking to have an easier time getting up from a chair, or a basketball player looking to improve his vertical jump, squats (among others) are a good way to go.

Initially, the exercise would be performed with only bodyweight, and later down the road, it can be increased using weights. In bodyweight-only training, increasing loads could be a problem. Additionally, some conventional gym exercises might not be possible to execute using bodyweight as resistance.

To summarize, bodyweight exercises can be used to improve general physique and to achieve other training goals, but this depends on the level of the person training and the specific goal.

For this reason, it is necessary to follow a training regimen that was carefully designed and constructed to yield optimal results when it comes to gaining muscle mass.

A good bodyweight program I’ve been following lately is ‘The System’ by Bar Brothers, which is a 12-week total transformation calisthenics program that relies purely on your own bodyweight.

I’ve made an extensive review of it here – Bar Brothers The System Review

In any case, it is recommended to consult with a professional in constructing a training regimen, in order to achieve training goals quickly and effectively.

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