Dear Coach: Can I Increase Muscle With Bodyweight Exercises?
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I've been seriously exercising for two years now and I think it's time for me to change my routine. I do a four day split, cardio, yoga, whatever a week, but I've been dabbling in bodyweight exercises and thinking of trying out CrossFit. My question is, if I'm doing bodyweight exercises are they going to increase my muscle size/definition more than weight lifting?
I'm not a scientist, but I believe heavier weight equals more muscle gains. Let's say I'm doing a push up, but I change it to a 3-second push up with another modification making it harder, would that equal the same as lifting a heavier weight? I'm deciding to move to functional strength rather than the bodybuilding style, where I could squat heavy but couldn't do a pistol squat or more than ten pull ups to save my life.
I value your opinion highly since you're one of the few exercise blogs that are legit.
Dear Bodyweight Dilemma,
Those are some great questions.
I think, for starters, there's a big difference between size and strength. So perhaps clarifying your goals a little would help enormously. Being able to perform a pistol squat is a great display of strength, stability, and mobility all in one. And there's certainly no reason why you can't get crazy strong in single legwork. In the RKC we have the Beast Tamer Challenge - that's a press, pull up, and a pistol with the 48kg bell affectionately nicknamed the Beast. In terms of single leg strength there's really no ceiling either, just the same as for its two-legged bigger brother, the back squat. Australian cycling great Anna Meares is capable of a 165kg single leg squat for three! So there is much strength to be gained in exercises such as these.
However, the question of muscle size is much more difficult. I think you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who did bodyweight only training who was massive. Sure, they can develop incredible strength - Master RKC Max Shank actually trained for the Beast Tamer Challenge solely with bodyweight training - but he's only 180lbs.
While changing the leverage can make exercises harder I don't believe that ultimately one of the key factors in hypertrophy - the load (with the others being time under tension, volume, density, and finally food consumption) will ever be enough to force great muscle growth. While there are a few examples on the Internet of bodyweight gurus sporting great physiques they're not massive by weight lifting standards. And while gymnasts sport incredible bodies thanks to a lot of reps with a lot of time under tension at challenging leverages if you stood next to them you'd realize how small elite gymnasts really are. It's no slight on them, but the difference between how they appear on TV versus what they would look like standing next to even a mediocre bodybuilder in a gym would be stark.
Ultimately I think it comes down to what kind of physique you want. If you want a body that goes like it looks then a combination of some weights and some bodyweight training is great. If you want to be hyooge then you'll need some big weights.
Coach Andrew Read