Despite what you may have heard
You CAN Build Muscle Without Lifting Weights!
Bodyweight exercises are often dismissed as “too easy” by hardcore training types and only effective for “endurance.”
This attitude is one of association – we see high-rep bodyweight workouts in boot camp classes and think that’s all they’re good for.
But by respecting the laws of hypertrophy, you can get jacked with nothing more than gravity.
The “SAID” Laws For Muscle Gain
One of the first lessons in any personal training book or exercise physiology class is a review of the SAID principle – Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. This is the foundation from which the very concept of physical training emerges…
You impose a stimulus (a demand) and the body will respond and adapt. This applies to everything from how calluses form on your hands to improving your VO2 Max. There are demands we must place on the body to elicit the adaptations of hypertrophy and those can be applied just as effectively with bodyweight exercises as with weights.
If we want the specific adaptation of muscle growth, science and experience point to a few tried-and-true methods for imposing the right demands:
Increasing The Volume of Work – Quite simply, we must do more over time.
Increasing The Density of Work – More work done in the same time or equal work done in less time. This is all about reducing rest to increase the demand on the body.
Progressive Overload – We must do more challenging things over time.
Tension – Muscular tension will increase automatically by respecting progressive overload, but we can speed things up by intentionally tensing muscles harder during training.
Time Under Tension – Again, this will grow by virtue of increasing the volume, but we can also spur powerful gains by manipulating the tempo of reps and adding isometric work.
*** Of course, what you do after your training session is just as (if not more) important for maximizing muscle mass – eat and sleep.
Training in step with all 5 parts is no easy task. This is why patience, hard work, and programming are the real secrets to success.
Bodyweight Training – Pros and Cons
Bodyweight training for muscle growth is not without its challenges, but as you’ll see, these supposed limitations can also be keys to more progress.
For starters, progressive overload isn’t as simple as mere weight selection – we’re dealing with the leverages of the body, not plates. Just a few degrees change in position can take an exercise from moderately challenging to nearly impossible.
If you bench press 135 3 x 10 one week, you could probably do 145 3 x 8 the next (an approximate 10% jump in weight). If you did 3 x 10 strict push-ups, how could you make it 10% more difficult? This is when we borrow from the other methods – adding reps or time under tension – for a while before progressing to something more advanced such as a 1-arm push-up.
This is similar to the training philosophy behind using kettlebells in 4-kilogram increments – you are forced to train with a certain bell size (or body position in our case) for a period of time, attacking it from all angles, before moving up. This requires some patience and creativity…
How about the legs? Can you build wheels without steel?
Targeting the leg musculature beyond the beginner training stages require exercises that demand (and promote) balance, athleticism, and mobility.
Moves like the pistol squat, shrimp squat, and sissy squat can build the thickest of thighs while hill sprints can pump up your posterior chain in no time.
Effective? Yes. Easy? No way.
Bodyweight Muscle Gain Workouts
A cue we take from the bodybuilding world is to focus our training sessions on particular body parts.
There’s no need to get super specific here (we won’t be concerned with a calf and medial delt day), but at least breaking our training up into upper and lower splits will allow enough targeted work to do the job.
Here are a couple examples from the hypertrophy template of Bodyweight Built:
A) Assisted Handstand Press 3 x 5-10 (80% effort)
B) Swimmer Rotation 3 x 2
^ Pairing a major lift with a challenging mobility-based drill is a great (time-efficient) double whammy.
A) Bodyweight Row 2 x 10-12
B) Scapular Pull-up 2 x 8-10
A) Hindu Push-up 3 x 10-15
B) Hollow Body Tuck 3 x 10-15
Bear Crawl x 2 Minutes
A) Hack Squat 3 x 6
B) Single Leg Hip Thrust 3 x 10 each
A) Bridge Ups 2 x 5
B) Prone Leg Curl 2 x 15 seconds each
A) Triple Extension Jump 3 x 15
B) Cossack Squat 3 x 5 each
40 yard dash x 4
Even if you’re only interested in raw strength, focusing on hypertrophy from time to time will yield greater results. Bigger muscles are stronger muscles.
If you want an all-in-one training package that delivers results with just bodyweight exercises alone, look no further than Bodyweight Built.
You’ll get fully programmed cycles of hypertrophy and strength training with targeted mobility work to keep you limber.