The Myths Of Bodyweight Training

Image: Scott Webb via Unsplash

Dear Swole Woman,

First of all I want to say I’m really grateful for your column. I love your writing and your insights especially regarding diet and how much progress to expect from your training.

It so happened that I had to live with my parents for a little while, and my dad keeps some weights in his garage. I decided to do some minimum weight training to increase my muscle mass. I instantly fell in love with it; I had read a couple of articles and watched a few videos of the basic lifts and in six months in can bench, push press and front squat more than half my weight, plus I can deadlift a little less than my weight (it’s not much I know but to me its a lot of progress).

The thing is, I am moving out of my parents’ house again, so my access to weights will be gone. I can’t spend time or money on a gym, and I’m afraid I’m going to lose my gains. Do you think its possible for me to maintain my strength with just body weight training? My main concern is my delts, cos when I started training they were the weakest and now finally I have some ‘real’ shoulders. I’ve read that handstand presses against the wall are a good substitute for military press. I’ve also read articles on the internet but they’ve left me very confused.

— polly

This is kind of a grand debate I’m reluctant to wade into — body-weight training versus regular weight training. There is kind of a weird ascetic mystique that surrounds body-weight training, like it is somehow more virtuous because it, theoretically, happens in almost a vacuum. Everyone is particularly impressed with the actor who shows up on screen cut as fuck and attributes it all to his simple “anywhere, anytime” bodyweight routine. This debate is extremely fraught, but here we go anyway.

For one, let’s cut through the mystique a little: it’s easier to maintain muscle than it is to gain it in the first place. That doesn’t mean it will stick around forever for no reason, but it is somewhat harder to lose than it is to gain. It’s also relatively easy to build back up the muscle you once had, compared with building it completely anew, which is a wrinkle that no one ever talks about when it comes to admiring the “bodyweight routine” physiques of those celebs. If that celeb ever did a few cycles of real, heavy weight training with barbells and plates, that is the reason their muscles are popping after a few pushups and pullups, not because of the pushups themselves. Muscle memory is real. (Also they are probably shorting their carb intake to reduce fluid retention and almost certainly a little dehydrated.) Look at Jason Stackhouse up there; he was literally a semi-pro triathlete before True Blood.

This is not the ONLY mechanism at work, however I strongly suspect its significance is severely underplayed in almost every narrative of “how this celebrity got cut and jacked for the latest X-Men movie.” There’s also some mystique around the sheer functionality of bodyweight stuff, for instance, being able to do a pull-up or muscle-up or handstand. For the record, while practicing the actual thing is essential, regular weight training can absolutely give you the strength to do these things, and probably faster than trying to do this stuff alone.

The whole point of weight training is working against resistance, producing force against some kind of obstacle. In body weight training, your maximum resistance is, well, your own body, plus any force you can generate by dropping your body through the air (think jump squats vs regular air squats). This works pretty well for upper body muscles, because they are relatively small and your body is relatively heavy. But for any muscles that are large (pretty much anything in your legs and hips), it’s hard to do much for them. Your legs’ strength potential is huge and it’s a mistake to not spend time with them. The r/bodyweightfitness subreddit’s recommendation for training legs is “go to a gym,” if that tells you anything.

Another issue with bodyweight stuff is that it can be hard to create a nice steady incline of progress because, again, your body is a single (mostly) immutable thing. It’s like if you were trying to learn to pick up a 100lb sandbag. Do you think you could learn to do it if all you had was the 100lb sandbag? Probably not; you would just struggle and hurt yourself. What if you had a collection of sandbags in increments of 5lbs; do you think you could learn then? Probably yes. Regarding the handstand press vs. a regular barbell overhead press — would you rather press a barbell, or a length of wood with a person doing a handstand on it above you? Do you see what I mean?

You can break down some body-weight movements into easier and harder movements (a pushup with your knees resting on the floor vs a regular pushup vs an decline pushup), but there is not a lot of in-between. It’s like trying to learn to run faster on a treadmill that only goes at one walking speed and one insane sprinting speed. You can do it, but it involves a lot more playing around than any system that lets you go incrementally faster, or target certain paces. This applies also with weights — there is a smoother groove to, for instance, getting stronger legs with squatting because you can just add 2.5 pounds to the bar every session or week. How do you go from an air squat (very easy) to a pistol squat (very difficult)? Something like this I guess, but even in here, you’re doing all different kinds of movements with your weight distributed differently. With a barbell squat, you’re doing the exact same movement every time.

Lastly, we need to distinguish between training and exercise. You can get exercise through any kind of moving around; “health” comes from “exercise.” “Training” is when you want to systematically improve the intensity or efficiency of your exercise, either for bigger muscles or more strength or more speed.

So to finally, actually answer your question: you probably won’t be able to maintain your same strength with bodyweight stuff, and maybe not your current lewk. Bodyweight training feels easy for certain reasons and feels effective because of the narratives that float around it, but I think both of these things are vastly oversold, especially to people who stridently wish to only work out at home, for a variety of reasons from laziness (I’m sorry, this doesn’t make sense) to insane schedules.

However, bodyweight stuff obviously doesn’t do nothing. It is great exercise! It’s great for variety. Some people see great progress with it. It’s just harder to Train with it, because of everything I’ve said here, which makes it harder to appropriately challenge your muscles to their capacity without going too far, without it feeling either too hard to too awkward or too easy. On the plus side, you will maintain some strength and look with bodyweight training, and if you ever return to regular weights, your muscles will come back that much quicker. Re: your money and time point, if you can’t do it you really can’t, but I’d point out there are plenty of gyms that cost only $10–15 per month and 30 minutes is only 2 percent of your day, and that 30 minutes will make the other 23 hours and 30 minutes a lot better.

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