Bodyweight Fitness For Your Best Body
Bodyweight fitness isn’t as sexy as going to the gym.
There, I said it.
If you’re like me, you’ve been conditioned since birth to think of “going to the gym” as the way you get healthy.
Your friends bragged about how much they bench, how often they do leg day, and how many times per week they work out.
I paid for 3 separate gym membership contracts in my 20s and 30s. Each time, as is the pattern for many people, I thought each one would be “the time.”
I stayed active for awhile, and then drifted off–only to keep paying the monthly fee.
In one case, I paid the residual fee to keep my membership “alive” in case I wanted to return. I didn’t, on that contract.
After turning 40, I can safely say I’ve had enough.
But what are my alternatives?
It turns out that there is very little I can do at the gym that I cannot do at home, with just a small amount of equipment and some determination. In fact, with the determination, I can do more at home than I was doing at the gym.
After all, the best exercise for you is the one you actually do.
The Wide World of Fitness
As an adult, you learn that the world of fitness goes far beyond “the gym.”
There’s strength training including free weights, weight machines and bodyweight.
There are practices like yoga and pilates.
There are programs like P90X.
There are activities like running, hiking, walking, playing ultimate frisbee, swimming…the list goes on.
Keeping fit can be much more fun than “going to the gym.”
So what if your idea of fitness is some combination of the activities i listed above, plus some at-home strength training to build enough muscle to keep you fit?
Do you need a full weight room to accomplish that?
I suggest not.
Is Calisthenics Right For You?
The following infographic illustrates some of the things you should consider if you’re thinking of making home-based bodyweight exercise your primary method of working out:
The things that contribute to that decision include:
- Having the space available at home. Bodyweight routines require space to reach some of the positions–especially if you’re doing some difficult yoga moves. If you can’t section off some space to use permanently or even occasionally, you’ll have a hard time with an at-home workout routine.
- Ensure your goal is appropriate. If you want to be jacked with big muscles, bodyweight training at home isn’t for you. Calisthenics can build strength, but it generally isn’t best for being “swole.”
- Having the patience to learn new skills. As a follow on from the goal section, if you want to increase muscle size and atrophy, you need to put more stress on the muscles. In bodyweight you do that by doing more challenging moves–not by adding weights to the bar. This means you need some patience to learn those moves where balance and flexibility are components more than they are at the gym.
- Self-Motivate Without a workout buddy. This one’s big – you need to be able to motivate yourself. It’s difficult if you can’t get amped up to work out–you won’t. You may need to be in a group fitness setting to get results. Some of us can, some of us can’t, and some of us need to play tricks on ourselves to do it.
- Willing to buy limited equipment. You will need a bar to do pullups, to hang rings on to do ring dips / ring pushups, and more moves. You might want parallelettes to do l-sits on. You may want a yoga mat. You won’t be needing squat racks, bench, and all the components of a traditional home gym, but there is still equipment.
- Knowing how to program exercises. This is where exercise guides come in. You’ll want to include the right combination of pull and push moves, flexibility moves, and upper and lower body strength moves. Consult the experts here rather than trying to do it all alone.
- Knowing how to perform exercises. This is where Youtube comes in. Use Youtube and bodyweight-focused websites like this to find out how to do exercises the right way and how to progress to more complicated moves. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel.
Now that you have evaluated the conditions that make bodyweight fitness at home the right thing or not for you, now let’s look at reasons you’ll benefit from making the switch.
16 Reasons to Switch to Bodyweight Fitness
The more I consider it, the more benefits I find in working out at home with a minimal set of equipment.
Here are some of the benefits that I’m able to capitalize on:
- Avoid driving on cold mornings. In the winter time, I find myself unwilling to leave the comforts of my warm home to get in the car and drive to the gym. Now, the gym is two rooms over–so I have no excuse. I did purchase a treadmill so I can do my 45 minutes of walking 4 or 5 times per week, which is especially useful for morning workouts or workouts on days when it’s too cold to spend that long outside. So although walking is a form of bodyweight fitness, the purists might say I sold out. Ah well 🙂
- Save time driving and changing. I still put on my workout gear to get in the mood, and I still shower before dressing for work, but I don’t have to drive. That saves me 10 minutes each way, meaning I can fit a workout into a smaller window of time. And in the event I exercise after work, I don’t have to change in the locker room. Which reminds me…
- Dressing room awkwardness. I’m really not a fan of changing in the locker room at the gym, with other guys toweling themselves off and scratching things I cannot unsee. I’m amazed at how open and revealing some guys are in the gym locker rooms. Unfortunately, I’d prefer not to see any of that. The rooms in my house are much more visually pleasant and allow me to avoid that visual pollution.
- Shower cleanliness. No worries about someone else’s hair in the shower. Or someone else’s germs. Or someone else’s anything else. Eww. I’m not sure about you, but when I’m in the shower at the gym, I can’t help but think about athlete’s foot. No more!
- Saving money. This is perhaps the most obvious benefit, but gym memberships aren’t cheap! Why spend money to finance a place where machines aren’t maintained and you have to wait to use them? Moderately priced gyms are $30-50 per month in my area, and the expensive ones are up to $100/month. Sure, those also offer social events and other perks, but I’m not going there for perks or social events. I’m going to work out. Clearly, I’m not the target customer.
- Plyometrics build extra muscle fiber. It’s certainly true that pumping actual iron is one way to increase strength, but it turns out that plyometrics (exercises where you jump, such as a clapping pushup where you press yourself off the ground for long enough to clap) can increase your strength as well. I’m not doing plyometrics yet for my basic routine, but that’s in my future plans.
- Easy to learn; a lifetime to master. Most bodyweight movements are easy to “figure out,” at least on a basic level. They can be modified in endless ways using leverage to make them increasingly difficult, in order to keep even the most advanced exercisers motivated. At first I was worried that a pushup is a pushup is a pushup, but then I read more and realized that’s nowhere near the truth!
- Balance. Bodyweight exercise progressions frequently increase resistance by moving to support your weight on only one limb. By doing exercises on each leg or each arm, and by using other forms of leverage to change the exercise, you tend to emphasize balance more than you do by lifting free weights, and you’re more likely to affect the stabilizer muscles that circuit machines don’t activate. Which suggests…
- Injuries. Bodyweight exercises, on the whole, tend to result in fewer injuries. Or, put another way, it’s potentially easier to perform weighted exercises with improper form and cause injuries. It’s not worth the risk, at least to me. I’m not the type to pay for a personal trainer either at this point. (yes, I am cheap!)
- Better neuromuscular activation. Jason Ferruggia writes: “Exercises that force you to move your body through space have a higher level of neuromuscular activation than those where you are simply moving your limbs.” If there’s one thing I’m looking for in my bodyweight fitness routine, it’s a high level of neuromuscular activation. 🙂
- Getting outdoors. On a trip through City Park in my hometown of New Orleans, I recently came across an outdoor exercise facility built for bodyweight training. It had stations for pullups, dips, and resistance rowing machines under a shed. I recently discovered that about a dozen of these have been placed in public parks around metro Atlanta. So there more places than ever to get outside and get in a workout. I can tell you from my time at the gym that it gets pretty dull looking at the same four walls, other people working out, etc. Outdoors provides infinite variety!
- Engaging the brain. Because bodyweight exercises often require feats of balance and coordination to progress, there is more alignment of brain and body with bodyweight than there is lifting weights at the gym. The complexity forces you to stay in the moment. And the fun and feeling of accomplishment keep you there. And there’s the truth about any exercise program, which is that exercise is one of the things that reduces your risk for memory issues later in life.
- Encourages complex lifts and full body exercise. Bodyweight exercises work out more of the body than isolation exercises. Even the simple pushup engages most of the body including your core if you’re doing it right, unlike the bench press which only works the arms. This means more strength, more calories burned, more muscle built, and more calories burned as a result of bulking up. Win Win!
- Functional strength. Bodyweight exercises help you build strength needed for everyday tasks, like pulling things down, pushing things up, and climbing. Unlike contorted isolation exercises that allow you to work a particular muscle, your bodyweight routine gets you in shape for life.
- Intensity. It’s easy to work in high-intensity interval training when you’re not having to adjust the plates on your machines. HIIT is shown to have dramatic positive impact on your physical fitness.
- Variability. Because there are so many different ways to adjust a bodyweight exercise–pulses and hand-claps come to mind as applicable to many different exercises; most exercises build-up in the course of progressions that make them more and more challenging. No boredom!
What about drawbacks?
There’s always a drawback, and bodyweight fitness is no different. Here are a few that come to mind:
- There really isn’t a true replacement for the deadlift. You can do pretty challenging squats with bodyweight; the military press can be approximated using a handstand pushup; but there isn’t a bodyweight exercise that pushes you the way that deadlifts do. (Curious? Read our post about bodyweight deadlift alternatives)
- Bodyweight fitness is difficult to quantify. Whereas at the gym you can log that you hit a personal record of 80 pounds on the deadlift (you go!), it’s a bit harder to be precise with bodyweight. Increasing strength often requires progressions, and while you can record which step in the progression you are on, you may not be able to really say whether you were “Strong enough” to do the next–it might be your balance preventing the next step.
- Isolations are de-emphasized. In the event you’re recovering from injury and want to work on a specific muscle, you may need to be creative and emphasize certain exercises over others. There aren’t as many single-muscle moves in bodyweight; most moves are complex. This is good for general fitness but doesn’t give you quite as big a bag of tools as you get with weight training.
- Muscle size is de-emphasized. Due to the lack of heavy external weights, muscle size is going to grow faster for someone at the gym pumping iron than it will for someone working through bodyweight progressions. It’s simple physics, because pumping iron puts more stress on the muscles. Most bodyweight athletes aren’t working out for size, but it has to be recognized as a drawback.
With that, you should have a few things to think about as you consider adding bodyweight workouts to your regimen.
More thoughts? Comment below!
Image source: Canva