Strength training makes it easier to move your body in every way, and you don’t need to have access to dumbbells, barbells or resistance machines to make a difference. Here’s why bodyweight exercises are a brilliant tool for getting stronger.
You might think that strength training is just another name for weight training. After all, lots of strength training exercises include dumbbells and kettlebells in their names (“dumbbell pullover”, “kettlebell swing”). In reality, weight training is just part of strength training, which is more about how you build muscle mass and strength – and less to do with the equipment you use.
Bodyweight is an absolutely vital weapon in your strengthening arsenal. Being able to lift, lower, rotate and bend your own body is the key to becoming and staying functionally fit. A common benchmark of strength is being able to squat and deadlift your own weight – which suggests that getting used to bodyweight is a solid way to build a foundation.
Here’s why you don’t need weights to strength train:
There’s a great variety of bodyweight exercises to choose from
If you think that bodyweight means “easy”, think again. Some of the most challenging exercises are weights-free, including burpees, push-ups and planks. These full-body moves require every muscle to switch on in order to jump explosively, stay still or move with control. You can increase the intensity by progressively overloading the time under tension – slowing down the descent – or by adding in a jump. Lunges can become plyo-lunges and renegade rows can be done simply by lifting one hand at a time and concentrating on keeping a firm, stable core.
It’s important to point out that many of us do enjoy lifting heavy weights and there are very real benefits to doing so – you don’t have to choose between bodyweight or free weights. However, if you are new to strength training or don’t have access to weights at the moment, bodyweight training can help you to lay firm foundations on which to build later.
There are lots of bodyweight exercises that mimic the same movement patterns as weighted ones, from squats, lunges and Russian twists (which are the same whether you hold weights or not) to good mornings and kneeling push-ups which work the same muscles as Romanian deadlifts and chest presses. In fact, compound moves such as push-ups are arguably harder than the standard chest or bench press because the upper body tends to be stabilised on a bench, making it easier to push heavier weight through the chest. A push-up, however, demands stability throughout the whole body, all while pushing a substantial amount of weight against gravity.
A full-body circuit might include:
- Deadbug (core)
- Glute bridge (glutes)
- Plank shoulder tap (full body)
- Burpee (full body)
- Jump squat (legs)
- Single leg good morning (hamstrings)
- Tricep dips (triceps)
Bodyweight is as effective as lifting weights or running when it comes to improving health
Strength training comes with a plethora of health benefits, from reducing the risk of type II diabetes to reducing inflammation levels and building muscle mass. You don’t, however, need to lift heavy weights to reap those rewards.
A 2018 study got two groups of women to do 12 weeks of high-intensity interval bodyweight training or combined training (aerobic and resistance – weighted – exercises). Throughout the period, they’d have their insulin resistance, inflammation and physical performance monitored. Researchers found that the beneficial changes were similar between the two groups, suggesting that bodyweight offers a similar level of protection against common issues as weight training.
For all those who dislike running, bodyweight movement also has the added benefit of improving cardio health as much as jogging, according to researchers at the University of Pristina. Scientists divided 57 studies to three groups: one did endurance training on a treadmill, one did strength-based circuits and the third did nothing. At the end of eight weeks, the two exercising groups had almost identical results at the end of the course, which led researchers to conclude that bodyweight strength circuits are as good for you as jogging, when it comes to cardio health.
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Mastering bodyweight exercises can make other activities easier
Think about it: you may need to lift heavy furniture, children or luggage every so often, but the one thing that you need to be able to do almost daily is to move your own body. To lift yourself out of a chair or haul yourself up onto the kitchen counter to reach a top shelf, you need to have good shoulder and arm strength – which you can hone with tricep dips and extended planks. If you love doing yoga, everything from a downward dog to a forward fold can be improved with regular good mornings and push-ups. Even running is a bodyweight exercise, whether you’re doing so with a backpack strapped on or not.
Few of us are working out simply to be able to lift heavy weights. We strength train to feel stronger, move better and feel powerful – all of which can be achieved if we can move our own bodies. If you can lift even heavier, that’s an added bonus.
Bodyweight training can keep us injury-free
Injuries can occur whatever kind of exercise you’re doing, but it’s fair to say that lifting heavy weights probably comes with a slightly higher risk. So long as you have correct form, you’ll be safe.
Bodyweight, however, is great because the risk of doing yourself a mischief is quite minimal and most of the classic exercises involve either working your big muscle groups, improving your flexibility or working on balance – all of which can reduce your risk of injury when you start using weights or doing other forms of exercise. Single leg good mornings, for example, involve standing and hinging on one leg, which tests how well your glutes and hamstrings are on each sides. Push-up work on that whole-body strength required for running and swimming. V-sits require flexibility and core strength, both of which are important for everyday movement and function.
Strength training using bodyweight can make you stronger
One of the most common ways of building strength is to work with hypertrophy. This is where you lift medium-to-heavy weights for up to 12 sets, with a short break in between, for anywhere up to around 45 minutes. The point is to make tiny tears in the muscle fibre which then forces the muscles to repair and grow back stronger. Except… you don’t actually need weights to achieve hypertrophy at all.
A 2017 study published in the Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness found that low-load bench presses and push-ups achieved a similar amount of hypertrophy and strength gain over an eight-week training period.
The major benefit of bodyweight exercise is that it tends to involve compound exercises that use multiple muscle groups at once. That means forcing the body to work harder – forcing it to get stronger, quicker.
Ready to get stronger, weights-free? Have a go at a side plank rotation – a great exercise for testing your balance, core strength and mobility. To make it easier, step one foot in front of the other (it’ll make balancing easier). Stack your feet on top of each other and really stretch the arm as you rotate to progress the move.
Ready to work up a sweat? Hop on over to the SWTC video library where you’ll find a range of 30-50 minute workouts, led by our very own trainers. Nearly everything is either bodyweight or can be modified to be so.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.
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