5 Reasons Why High-Rep Bodyweight Workouts Are Hurting You

Renowned fitness coach James Fitzgerald warns how this is doing more damage than good.

While the functional fitness world has been trending toward hundreds of air squats, burpees and lunges for time on repeat for the last six weeks and counting, coach James Fitzgerald warns this is doing more damage than good. Fitzgerald, the winner of the first-ever CrossFit Games in 2007 and the founder of OPEX Fitness, explained:

“They’re not functional and they create a cortisol addiction. Drops in power during bodyweight circuits, although it looks fancy on a Zoom call with a class, create poor movement compensations, and you’re 1,000 reps deep” he added.

So although 200 lunges for time might create a “sweaty workout” that many people seem to crave, per Fitzgerald, the five major reasons to avoid programming workouts such as air squats, push-ups, lunges and burpees “for time,” include:

  1. They don’t create sustainable results
  2. They lower immunity and resilience
  3. They lead to poor movement patterns and compensations
  4. They are not functional
  5. They create cortisol junkies and poor behaviors around exercise

So 200 Lunges for Time Is Out, What’s In?

Fitzergald explained there are safe and effective ways to program bodyweight workouts that can create long-term progress. It’s possible if you follow foundational program design principles.

He gave the following as an example of a more effective way to utilize bodyweight movements than four rounds for time:

  • Max set clap push-ups. Rest 60 seconds.
  • 20 Jump squats. Rest 60 seconds.
  • 60-second reverse plank. Rest 60 seconds.

Repeat four times.

Why is this a better approach?

Fitzgerald asks you to consider the following principles of bodyweight training:

The Dose-Response of Bodyweight Training

To create an effective bodyweight workout, you need to understand “the dose-response,” meaning the stimulus or outcome of each training session. This comes down to three things, according to Fitzgerald:

  1. Intention: What is the goal of this program and what is the client working toward?
  2. Modality: What type of movements is the client doing?
  3. The individual person: Who am I programming for? What are their individual abilities, skill level, limitations, training age?

When you understand the who (i.e. the person), the what (i.e. modality) and they why (i.e. intention), you can control the dose-response, and ultimately the adaptation and results that occur from it.

The Limitations of Bodyweight Training

Before putting together a bodyweight program, you must also understand its limitations.

These limitations primarily involve closed-chain activities with relative strength, meaning strength against bodyweight, as well as strength endurance, meaning the ability to perform repetitions at submaximal loads.

They also have relatively low variability because of the lack of access to equipment and novel means to perform movement patterns.

This leads many coaches to prescribe lots of repetitions of very similar types of muscle contractions, which can become a problem for most because poor movement patterns are then repeated for a large volume of repetitions.

Further, bodyweight workouts effectively lack intensity, at least in terms of maximal effort, because you have no access to external loading. For stronger and fitter clients, this means that strength endurance efforts are then sometimes turned into metabolic efforts that become glycolytic. In other words, they begin to use the anaerobic lactic energy system, which is a great way to lower immunity and create negative metabolic adaptations, as it promotes using sugars for fuel.

Three Final Tips To Effective Bodyweight Program Design

Once you understand the above, you can start to consider how to effectively program bodyweight workouts.

Fitzgerald recommends programming full-body resistance, which include both upper body and lower body movements, as well as core movements.

From there, he says:

Tip #1: Create a progressive program

Like any effective program, be it a strength or endurance program, a bodyweight training program should be progressive over time, with each week building from the previous. Three ways to do this include:

  1. Increase volume over time, adding repetitions each session and each week.
  2. Increase the speed of the contractions over time, from motor control to strength endurance to dynamic movements
  3. Adjust the tempo and increase the eccentric, or lowering, phase of an exercise

Tip #2: Split the days

For most lifestyle athletes, Fitzgerald recommends keeping to a simple training program that focuses on consistency and that alternates between full-body resistance training days and aerobic training days.

To #3: Consider the individual long-term

Simply put, make sure you have a good understanding of your client’s physical abilities, goals, and intention, and then design workouts that are “within your client’s capabilities.”

If you’re interested in learning more from Fitzgerald, you can check out his various education options at OPEX Fitness.