Want to Build True Strength? Ditch the Weights

get strong without weights

“But don’t I need weights to get strong?”

In my work as a fitness and performance coach, I get this question a lot.

Even though I’ve been designing mostly bodyweight-based workouts for myself and my clients for over a decade, most people can’t seem to believe me at first when I tell them that you don’t need heavy weights to get strong, build muscle, or improve overall fitness.

Gymnasts have some of the highest strength-to-weight ratios of any athletes, and they rely mostly on their own bodyweight to build their high levels of strength.

In fact, in my observation over the years, most people use weights as a crutch. And it’s not surprising, due to the simple fact that bodyweight exercises are often more difficult than weight-based ones.

While machine or weight-based exercises usually focus on strength alone, most bodyweight exercises require a combination of strength, flexibility, balance, and coordination.

Take the single-leg squat, for example. It’s a seemingly simple exercise: just do a deep squat on one leg. Sounds easy, right? Go ahead, give it a try!

If you couldn’t squat down further than a few inches, or if you fall backward when trying to lower onto one leg, don’t feel bad. Single leg squats, also known as pistol squats, are a deceptively challenging bodyweight exercise requiring a combination of unilateral strength, flexibility, and balance. I work out at the iconic Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, California, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen bodybuilders (who load up the plates on their barbell squats) fail at doing a single leg squat. They’re hard.

A good rule of thumb to remember is that if you can’t do the basic bodyweight version of the exercise, you shouldn’t be adding weights to it.

If you can’t do a decent push-up, for example, you shouldn’t be doing heavy chest presses. Likewise, if you can’t do a deep bodyweight squat due to a lack of strength, flexibility, or mobility, you shouldn’t be doing heavy barbell squats.

While weights can be used as a tool or supplemental exercise, you should always focus on doing the bodyweight version of the exercise first.

So Why Focus on Bodyweight Training?

There are several good reasons…

They’re functional.Functional training is any resistance training that readies your body for real-life activities, like bending, squatting, twisting, lifting, pushing, and pulling. Examples of functional training would be practicing squat variations so that you can get up off of the floor or doing shoulder presses or push presses so that you can lift your suitcase above your head in an airplane.

They prevent injuries.

Bodyweight-based workouts can help prevent injuries in a number of ways:

  • They prepare you for daily movements, making it less likely you’ll injure yourself doing something “stupid”
  • They put less strain on your joints than lifting heavy weights so that you can keep doing what you love for longer
  • They prevent other injuries like accidentally dropping a heavy weight plate on your foot (it happens!)

They’re portable. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard the “I can’t work out because I’m traveling or can’t get to the gym” excuse from clients or family members.

One of the best things about bodyweight training is that you can do it anywhere.

You can do bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, lunges, bridges, and jump variations wherever you are, whether you’re in a tiny hotel room, a nearby park, or stuck at home due to the seemingly never-ending Covid pandemic.

How to Progress Bodyweight Exercises

One of the main factors holding people back from doing more bodyweight exercises is that they don’t know how to regress them properly. They’ll look at an exercise like a pull-up and determine that it’s so far outside of their current fitness level that it’s not even worth trying.

But just like any goal, bodyweight exercises can be chunked down into smaller, manageable steps

Let’s take the pull-up, for example. If you’ve never been able to do one, here’s how you might break it down to start:

Step 1: Horizontal bodyweight rows
Step 2: Chest to bar holds (hold your body at the top of the pull-up bar)

Step 3: Slow eccentric pull-ups (lower your body slowly from the top of the pull-up bar)
Step 4: Jumping pull-ups into eccentrics (jump up so that you do a partial pull-up, then slowly lower yourself down)
Step 5: A pull-up!

You can do this simple breakdown method for any bodyweight exercise, from pull-ups to push-ups, to single-leg squats, to handstand push-ups. If you’re not sure how to chunk something down, do an internet search for “exercise regressions” for your specific exercise.

Adding Challenge and Variety to Bodyweight Workouts

One of the main reasons people add weights to their workouts is not that they need them to build muscle or strength, but simply because weights help add variety.

And I get it: while you could do a similar bodyweight-based workout every day for the rest of your life, it might get a little stale.

This is why I like to include functional workout equipment like pull-up bars, medicine balls, jump ropes, and a kettlebell or two in my clients’ workouts: it keeps them from getting bored.

Keeping your workouts fun and challenging is one key to creating a lasting long-term fitness habit. 

And yet, there are plenty of ways to add challenge and variety to bodyweight workouts without using any specific gym equipment. Even if you usually work out in a gym, these tips are helpful to remember for any time you’re traveling or want to get in a quick at-home workout but don’t have access to equipment.

Here are several ways to mix up bodyweight and calisthenics workouts to keep them challenging and interesting:

Make it plyometric.

Plyometric exercises are any type of exercise that uses speed and force of different movements to build muscle power. High-level athletes often include plyometrics as part of their training, but anyone can do plyometrics — just add an explosive jump to almost any exercise.

For example, instead of a bodyweight squat, you could do squat jumps, box jumps, or jump lunges. Instead of push-ups, you can add an explosive push or clap at the top.

Make it isometric.

Isometric exercises are exercises that you hold a static position for a prolonged period of time at various positions or sticking points of the exercise. Examples of isometric exercises are planks, wall sits, and hollow body holds.

Make it unilateral.

Making an exercise unilateral just means you’ll be working one side of the body. Unilateral training is great for addressing imbalances in the body as well as better mimicking real-life movements.

Examples of unilateral exercises include lunges or single-leg squats instead of squats or uneven push-ups instead of regular push-ups.

Add resistance bands.

Resistance bands are a very effective and portable way to add a challenge to different exercises. For example, you can use resistance bands to make regular push-ups more challenging by looping the resistance bands around your wrists and crossing the band behind your back.

Other ways to use resistance bands include band-resisted squats, plyometric jumps, dips, and even pull-ups.

Get Creative 

Even if you don’t have typical gym equipment, you can do a lot with what’s around you. Use park benches for box jumps or step-ups, kids’ playgrounds for pull-ups and dips, or duffel bags filled with some heavy stuff instead of sandbags.

The world can be your gym, if you let it be.

Example Workouts

Here are two example workouts you can do using just your own body weight. Both are circuit-style, which means you’ll go through the exercises back-to-back with minimal rest. I prefer circuit workouts since they are more efficient than the standard gym workout and get your heart rate up while working your entire body.

Workout 1

Directions: Complete 3-4 rounds, resting as little as possible between exercises. Rest up to a minute between sets.

20 bodyweight squats
10-15 push-ups
10 backward lunges per leg
50 high knee sprints
10 superman raises
10 v-ups

Workout 2

Directions: Complete 3-4 rounds, resting as little as possible between exercises. Rest up to a minute between sets.

15 squat jumps
5-10 pull-ups
10 squats to step-ups
10 push-ups to double knee touch
10 single-leg hip thrusts per leg
10 hanging knee raises

Remember that you can always modify workouts as needed to decrease or increase the challenge level.

Photo by Larry Crayton on Unsplash

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