Building mass and brawn has long been synonymous with the clanking of weights and the heavy grunting of guys and gals cranking out extra reps on machines. In order to build muscle it seemed, people needed to fully immerse themselves in the iron world. Not so anymore. Emerging trends illustrate the potential for hypertrophy simply utilizing your bodyweight without much external loading. Instead, it requires some simple body manipulation.
Muscles rely on one key factor to signal growth: an overload stimulus. It doesn’t identify between dumbbells or barbells or that cool cable machine in the corner. And unfortunately, it doesn’t sympathize with the price of the equipment or its status as the latest and greatest in exercise technology. Simply put, if you can challenge the muscle enough with a high enough stimulus, the body will be forced to build more muscle. Tools in the gym are simply a shortcut.
It’s important to note that bodyweight training is by no means a replacement for lifting, but rather another tool for muscular hypertrophy. When in a pinch or in addition to your current routine, you can add these simple strategies to bodyweight exercises for a great workout weight free.
Strategy #1: Power-Up Your Potential
With your nervous system jacked up, it’s easier to get a good lift and pump. With it dormant and sleeping, it’s nearly impossible to boost strength and performance regardless of how many Eminem songs you listen to. When performing traditional lifts without a warm-up, your muscle fibers aren’t working in harmony. This causes major pitfalls in strength and performance. There are two ways to work around this for your benefit.
First, perform a thorough warm-up that leaves you in a light sweat. For bodyweight workouts, this could look like a few short sets of squats with a hold at the bottom, pull-ups, and push-ups – all stopping before fatigue sets in.
Second, add some power exercises into your routine. Power and heavy strength exercises have the ability to fire up the nervous system and activate more muscle fibers. This boost is referred to as post-activation potentiation. These challenging exercises are stimulating to the nervous system and cause enhanced muscle recruitment. Use it to your benefit by incorporating clusters into your bodyweight training. Start with a challenging power move like squat jumps or dead-stop upper body box jumps (this challenging variation courtesy of Todd Bumgardner:
After the explosive movement, move straight to a more traditional bodyweight exercise focusing on strength, and then to one focused on volume. A sample progression for the chest would look something like this:
- Dead-Stop Upper Body Box Jumps, 3-5 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Handstand or Feet-Inclined Push-ups, 5-8 reps
- Rest 15 seconds
- Traditional Push-ups, 8-12 reps
- Rest 2 minutes before repeating.
Strategy #2: Isometrics
Isometrics are often neglected in fitness routines for one reason or another. When applied correctly, they can be a valuable addition to any strength or hypertrophy routine. Alongside growth, they also increase joint stability and strength.
To make the most of isometrics, focus on building tension across the entire muscle. Certain joint positions place more emphasis on the bony structures rather than the contracting muscle. In a push-up for instance, hanging out at the top (with arms fully locked out) puts the majority of the stress on the shoulder joint and takes strain off the chest – not the desired outcome. Instead, gradually move into the position of most muscle tension and hang out. For the majority of exercises, this is going to be when the joint in question is around 90 degrees or slightly greater. For push-ups, this means the elbow joint is close to a right angle.
Add isometrics at the end of your routine for extra volume and as a finisher of sorts. Here are some examples that will leave your muscles burning:
Repeat 5 times with no rest:
- Jumping Squats, 5 reps
- Bottom position squat hold, 30 seconds
Repeat 3 times with no rest:
- Jumping Pull-ups, 5 reps
- Pull-up hold (elbows at 90 degrees), as long as possible
Strategy #3: Physics for Appropriate Progression
Bodyweight training centers around your body’s relationship with gravity. Take the push-up for example. With your feet on the ground, your body is at a slight decline. Because of force vectors, you have to move less weight than if your feet were inclined. Move your feet onto a box and you have a whole new exercise. Inclining your feet also places more of the weight directly over your hands increasing the difficulty.
When applying this to your workout program, start in the hardest position that you can maintain with proper form. For push-ups this might mean inclining your feet. For bodyweight rows, this means moving closer to parallel with the ground. As you fatigue, begin to move into an easier position. This allows you to crank out a few more reps and increase the overall volume of your workout without switching to a completely new exercise.
Free weights and machines certainly aren’t useless – quite the opposite in fact. Muscle hypertrophy relies primarily on tension and a high stimulus that overloads the body. Free weights are one option to accomplish this load. Bodyweight training is yet another tool in your toolbox. One shouldn’t replace the other. When in a pinch and unable to hit the gym, utilize these bodyweight strategies to get an effective substitute in, but don’t abandon the gym setting.
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