If your aim is to improve your fitness level and your body shape you need to include strength training as part of your program. Whether your primary aim is to lose weight, gain muscle, or improve overall body composition, you would need to be training for strength in order to get the right results.
If you’re planning to use a bodyweight approach for strength training, and want help to learn more about it, we are here to help you. It’s why we created this beginner guide, Bodyweight Strength Training 101 for you.
What Is Bodyweight Strength Training?
It simply means using the weight of your own body as the means to increase your strength.
Many people believe gaining strength is accomplished by heavy weight lifting only. However, you can increase strength by using your body’s own weight. Also, bodyweight strength training can be optimized for different types of strength.
Strength is defined as the level of ability your body has to exert muscular force against a resistance. You must use resistance to induce muscular contraction which builds the strength.
Anything with weight can be used as the resistance including the weight of your own body, a foreign object or both. But the resistance must be continually progressing (progressive overload) in order to increase your strength level and muscle size.
In weight training, you can simply add weights to a dumbbell, barbell or machine to achieve progressive overload. Bodyweight training uses different exercise variations and increases in training volume as the means of achieving progressive overload. The more difficult bodyweight exercises you do, the stronger you’ll be.
Benefits of Gaining Strength
- Improve performance – Being stronger allows you to perform better in a wide variety of sport, work and everyday activities in life. It helps you successfully complete tasks and overcome challenges, generally improving your quality of life.
- Build muscle – Gaining strength leads to increase in muscle size. More muscle helps you look more attractive and command respect.
- Reduce the risk of injury – We face risks of being injured every day from the physical activities we perform. Strength gives you more protection, allowing you to be better suited for the environment in which you live.
- Be more confident – When you know you are not physically weak but strong it gives you an automatic sense of confidence. Knowing there is strength behind your capabilities helps you live your life with less fear and insecurities.
Benefits of Bodyweight Training
So you read the benefits of gaining strength. Now here are the benefits of using bodyweight training as the tool for strength building.
- Burn more calories – Most bodyweight exercises burn a lot of calories when you perform them. Just the strength training bodyweight moves can produce tremendous impact. But if you want to maximize the results try adding a form of cardiovascular activity like running, swimming, or biking in the workout.
- Workout anywhere – One of the best advantages of bodyweight training is that you can do the exercises anywhere and anytime. Whether you want to workout at home because you hate the gym, or you travel a lot, bodyweight is the answer.
- Great for beginners – It is a good place to start for beginners getting into strength training or people who want to do serious weight training in the future.
- The exercises are compound – Bodyweight movements work multiple muscle groups at the same time. Some persons may argue that they even work a larger group of muscles than similar free weight lifts.
- Less risk of injury from training – Another benefit of bodyweight strength training is the decreased likelihood of injury. The occurrence of injury in weight training caused by severe tears and other accidents happens frequently. Employing bodyweight exercises can dramatically lessen the chance of these occurrences.
- Cheap cost – The only thing you might need to spend a few dollars on is a pullup bar, but even that you can get for free if you are able to build your own.
- Have fun – It is just a more fun way of working out than lifting weights. It allows you to perform lots of creative moves that can impress your friends. Can you imagine how much you’ll amaze people by working your way up to perform a “human flag” or “handstand pushup”?.
How to Gain Strength With Bodyweight Training
Now it’s time to learn how to gain strength and muscle with bodyweight training.
1. Start With The Basic Exercises
While bodyweight training can make you strong and muscular, a great transformation cannot happen overnight. You have to begin with the basics before you start trying anything extreme. It’s standard for beginners to start with exercises that require pushing and pulling your body. The essential movements for starting out with bodyweight training are the basic push-ups, pull-ups, and squats.
By starting out with the basic moves you will build a good foundation of strength and become acquainted with the essential bodyweight exercises to help you properly progress into the advanced movements. As I mentioned above one great thing about bodyweight exercises is they work multiple muscle groups at the same time which is what you need when you are at the beginner level of strength training.
About the basic bodyweight strength exercises
- Pushups – This exercise requires you to push your upper body up from a surface using your arms. It will work your chest and triceps muscles, as well as secondary muscles like shoulders.
- Pull-ups – This exercise requires you to pull your body up from the ground typically using a pullup bar. Once performed correctly it will strengthen your back and arms, as well as secondary muscles such as your abs and shoulders.
- Squats – These are done to help strengthen your legs. They are done by putting yourself in a sitting position and going all the way deep to the ground and back up.
- Dips – This workout is responsible to strengthen your whole upper-body.
- Crunches – There are several body weight abdominal exercises. But when starting out basic crunches are all you need to work your abdominals. You need to strengthen your abs not only to make them look nice but having a strong core is crucial for calisthenics.
2. Aim For Progression
If you want to use bodyweight strength training to gain strength and build muscle, it must be done in a progressive manner. Progression means continually making adjustments to your workout to make sure that your muscles are always challenged with the resistance and workload you are working it with. The process is called progressive overload.
The idea is you work the muscle hard during your workout session to cause muscle tissue damage, then rest the muscle so that it can recover and heal. When the muscle is rebuilding itself it will compensate by growing slightly stronger and bigger. The muscles strengthen and grow after the workout when they are being rested, not during the workout. Then when the muscle is fully recovered and more developed you must make sure that the workload and/or resistance of the workout is a bit greater than the last so that the muscles can continue to be under enough tension. This process should be repeated until you gain the strength level and muscle size you are after.
All types of strength training operate under this principle of progressive overload. In bodyweight training, progression is accomplished by doing more reps, sets or circuits, and/or increasing the difficulty of the exercises performed.
4. Use Exercise Variations
Performing different variations of the basic bodyweight exercises is the best way to increase their difficulty in order to continually challenge the muscle for progressive overload as well as keep variety in your workout. The basic push-ups, pullups and squats will help you build some foundational strength. But if you want to get the absolute most out of your workout, it’s necessary to delve deeper into each exercise, and each variation of that exercise to ensure you are training with variety and progression. There are lots of progressive variations that come with each basic exercise that is enough to keep anyone growing stronger and bigger for many years.
So how do you know when to start using a more difficult variation of an exercise to continue challenging a muscle group? The trick is to make sure you continue to challenge yourself to increase your reps. And once you are able to perform a high number of reps for an exercise then you can progress to a harder variation of the exercise. 10-15 reps is a good range to aim for to build strength with most bodyweight exercises. If you are able to do much more than that, like over 30 reps, this means you have become strong enough for this exercise and it’s time to move onto a harder variation to challenge your muscle again.
Once you are able to maintain this pattern of progression, eventually you can build up your strength to be able to perform super advanced and difficult exercises such as one-arm push-up, one-legged squat, or one-arm pull-up.
You see, the reason you don’t want to stick with a high amount of reps for an exercise is to make sure that your training is always challenging the muscle for it to grow. For example, a set of 50 reps of push ups is high rep endurance training. It is not great for gaining strength. The problem is that even if you go to failure, it isn’t really hitting the muscle fibers with the most growth potential.
If you are a beginner you can choose the easiest variations of an exercise to start with and build up to advanced moves. You can do this by practicing variations in which the body is positioned in such a way as to create less resistance. As you become stronger, you can start practicing the harder variations. For example, if you can’t do enough reps of full push-ups, then start with incline push-ups which lessen the weight and reduces the resistance, therefore you’ll be able to do more reps.
5. Reps And Sets
Reps and sets are important elements of a strength training program. They are used to structure a workout program so that it can actually work to produce the desired results. Remember we talked about giving the muscle enough workload so that it can become damaged for subsequent growth? The structure of reps and sets in a workout program plays a major role in ensuring the workload the muscle is getting is intense enough.
A rep (short for repetition) is a single complete movement of any exercise. Reps can be used for measuring strength level. If you are able to do only low reps for an exercise it means that you are not very strong at that exercise or resistance and you need to build up your reps to become stronger at it. A set is a series of reps of an exercise done in a sequence. For example, performing 12 reps means you’ve completed a set. Completing 12 reps 4 times means you’ve completed a series of 4 sets. Usually, a series of sets is performed with a rest period after each completed set.
Different bodyweight workout programs use different reps and sets structure based on who the creator is and the objective of the program. However, if your primary goal from training is to gain strength and build muscle mass, a recommended guideline is to find exercise variations that will cause you to fatigue at around 10-15 reps and perform 3 or 4 sets of each exercise.
Structuring A Bodyweight Strength Training Routine
Having a workout routine to follow for strength training is also very important. A workout routine is a plan of action that tells you which days to workout, which days to rest and what to do in your workout session.
There are different types of workout routine structures. There are full-body routines that involve training all your muscle groups on the same day. And there are split routines that involve training different muscle groups on different days of the week.
No matter what type of routine you are using you should be alternating working the muscle hard with sufficient recovery time. Remember, after training the muscles they need time to recover and rebuild. Therefore, you should never train the same muscles on consecutive days.
Here’s an example of a full body routine
Here’s an example of a split routine
Monday – Chest
Tuesday – Legs
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Back, Arms and Shoulders
Friday – Abs
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
Sample Bodyweight Workout Routines
One of my favorite bodyweight training programs is Bar Brothers System by the Bar Brothers. It is a 12-week program that guides you in every aspect of bodyweight training to get results including motivation. You’ll get over 100 workout and tutorial videos as well as get to be part of a community of other people who used the program.
Here is a sample workout from the Bar Brothers that you can structure as a full body or split routine.
Although this guide is all about bodyweight strength training, we cannot complete this guide without providing some tips on nutrition because training without proper nutrition is not going to produce results in the way of building strength and muscle.
The most important thing about nutrition is to decide your goals and then structure your calories and macronutrients to make it possible to achieve your goal. If your goal is to lose fat you’ll need a calorie deficit and if your goal is to build muscle you’ll need a calorie surplus. If you want to learn how to calculate calories to lose fat and build muscle click here to read our guide on this topic.
Once you’ve calculated the number of calories you need to build muscle or lose fat you then split your daily calories into the 3 macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat). A good starting point for your macros is 30% protein, 40% carbs, and 30% fat.
Additional Tips for Bodyweight Strength Training
- Make sure to fully warm up and stretch – Make sure to properly warm up every time before performing your workout. It’s important to get your heart rate up and your muscles warmed to prevent injury. A simple move like jumping jacks, jogging or basic pushup can be good ways to warm up. Also, after you’ve completed your workout, make sure you stretch.
- Perform the exercises with good form – In order to get results, you have to perform the exercises correctly using proper control and motions.
- Supplement with other weights if you need to – You may sometimes need to supplement your bodyweight training with other types of weights. This might especially be necessary when you feel one of your body parts is stubborn or weaker than others. You can integrate any heavy object to help get the amount of resistance you need to strengthen that part. It does not have to be weight training equipment like dumbbells and barbells. You can use anything that’s heavy enough to give you that extra weight such as heavy things in your home or even a person. Just be creative because all that matters is the resistance, not where the weight is coming from.
- Practice and learn – Reading guides like this one and watching videos will help give you tips and ideas, but you have to discover bodyweight training yourself to reach your goals. You have to practice, learn and improve as you go along. If you want to avoid the bulk of the learning curve I recommend getting the Bar Brothers System.
- Be patient – It takes time to get great results from bodyweight training, so it is very important to be patient and never give up. If you want to get the motivation to help you stay consistent in your bodyweight training, watch the Bar Brothers video.
The main drawback of using bodyweight training for gaining strength and muscle mass is the weight of your body does not put the same level of tension on the muscle that heavy barbells and dumbells would. And you have to use more creativity in your workout to make progressive overload happen. As a result, bodyweight training may cause you to take a longer time to gain maximum strength and muscle mass.
This article provided you with the information you need to create your own basic bodyweight strength training program. However, if you don’t want to waste time trying to create your own program you can choose to use a system that has everything done for you. An expert-created program will have all the exercises, routines and protocols to allow you to start as a bodyweight strength training beginner and scale to the advance training. So all you need to do is just focus on following the program which would help speed up your progress.
Here are our Recommended Bodyweight Programs
Bar Brothers The System – A comprehensive program that helps you start with the fundamentals as a beginner and scale all the way up to maximum strength and total body transformation. Click here to read the review.
Bodyweight Burn – If your primary goal is to burn fat while also working out for strength with bodyweight training then this program is for you.