When it comes to building strength and muscle, most people will immediately think of spending hours in the gym weights section. But ‘pumping iron’ and using expensive machines is not the only way. Simple and consistent bodyweight training actually holds the key to not only improving athletic performance and building full-body strength, but can also help lower your risk of injury, and improve mobility and flexibility.
Bodyweight training is the use of your own weight as resistance to build strength. And if this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that training shouldn’t only be something you can do in the gym. In fact, relying too heavily on gym equipment and weights for your workouts, may be holding you back from realising the benefits of incorporating bodyweight training in your workout regime. With no required equipment, bodyweight training can be done anywhere, anytime, at any life stage, and any experience level.
Lean muscle matters
Building and maintaining lean muscle mass is essential for maintaining a healthy, active lifestyle as you get older. Research has shown that inactive adults lose up to 8% of their muscle mass per decade1. This can have a knock-on effect on physical performance, mobility and functional independence. Building lean muscle is also effective in improving heart function, strengthening your lungs and improving cognitive function2.
But can your own bodyweight really be enough to build, shape and strengthen your muscles though? Absolutely. Here are our tips for incorporating bodyweight training into your exercise regime, and some of the most effect muscle-building bodyweight exercises to master:
You can’t build fitness on disfunction
Good form is absolutely critical when it comes to bodyweight training. Ensuring you have the right mobility to perform each movement properly is the first priority, otherwise you run the risk of injuring yourself. If you can’t squat properly, for example, it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat the movement – you won’t see or feel the benefits, and could end up doing more harm than good.
For this reason, if you’re wanting to start a new training regime, it’s always recommended to consult a coach and identify your unique strengths and weaknesses. A coach will help you learn correct form (and know what that feels like) and advise on the correct combination of exercises and number of repetitions for your body. For best results, adopt a consistent, sensible workout routine you can stick to.
Don’t forget to stretch
Always complete your bodyweight training sessions with stretching. This is important to keep your muscles flexible to maintain range of motion. Without stretching, your muscles can shorten and get tight3. Without the right flexibility, your muscles and joints won’t be able to extend as they need to for certain movements – putting you at a higher risk for injury.
Adjust for your level
Where weight machines typically focus on one muscle group at a time and a limited range of motion, bodyweight exercises are more likely to work multiple muscle groups at the same time, helping to build all-over strength. These exercises also more easily adjusted to suit your body and your fitness level.
Start simple with movements you can easily master, then build the number of reps and add modifications as you become more comfortable. Keep your focus on form and start with 8-12 slow reps, before building up to higher reps, and higher speeds. You should always feel it in your muscles by the end of each set, but not to the point where you’re in pain.
Master the core exercises
The key to seeing results with bodyweight training is to be consistent. So create a workout that you can stick to. Here are some of the best bodyweight exercises for muscle building:
Squats work your legs and glutes, and use the muscles in your hips and thighs as you pull yourself up from a sitting position. Hold your hands together in front of you or behind your head. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and lower your body until your thighs are parallel with the floor, pause in that position and then pull yourself back up to the starting position. For good form, make sure your knees stay behind your toes and don’t push forward.
Build on it: Add a power jump from the squatting position back to the starting position.
Excellent for building the muscles in your shoulders and chest, and the many variations ensure anyone can benefit from this movement. Start in a plank position, with your hands just wider than your shoulders, and your feet shoulder-width apart. Lower yourself until your chest almost touches the floor, and then push yourself back up to the starting position. If this is too difficult, try with your knees bent.
Build on it: Try Spider Push Ups – as you lower yourself to the floor, bring your knee to your elbow, and return to the starting position as your push back up. Alternate from side to side.
An excellent full body exercise that builds core strength. From a high-plank position, bring one knee to your chest at a time and then back out to the starting position before alternating, speed up the motion while keeping your back straight and your core still. When done correctly, this works your shoulders, arms, chest, core and quads.
Build on it: Use a towel or gliding discs and keep your toes in contact with the floor the whole time.
Everyone’s favourite – and they never get easier. Burpees activate the whole body and add a cardio element to a bodyweight workout. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and go into a squat, at the bottom of the squat, place your hands on the floor and jump your feet back into a high plank position, then bring your feet back to the squat position and jump up with your hands above your head. Repeat.
Build on it: Challenge yourself by including a full push up, or increasing the speed of the movements, while maintaining good form.
You can do these using your bed, the couch, or a dining room chair. Facing away from the chair (or bed) grab it with both hands behind you, shoulder width apart. With your feet flat on the floor in front of you, slowly lower your body by bending your arms at the elbows, until your forearms are at a 90 degree angle, then push your body back up again. Keep your back as close as possible to the chair without touching it.
Build on it: Lift one leg at a time as you lower yourself down.
Another very simple but highly effective muscle-building movement. Start from a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Take one large step forward with one leg and lunge until your back knee is almost touching the ground. Step back up into the starting position. Repeat on the same side for the desired number of reps before switching legs.
Build on it: Add a jump – changing legs in the air and coming back down into a full lunge.
Want to build your strength and lean muscle mass with a tailored training programme? Dr Matt le Roux will work with you to create a holistic, custom programme designed to help you reach and exceed your health and fitness goals. Book an appointment or online consultation here now.
- Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012;11(4):209-216. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22777332/
- Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Growing Stronger: Strength Training for Older Adults. 2002. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/downloads/growing_stronger.pdf
- Harvard Health. The Importance of Stretching. 2019. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-importance-of-stretching