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Build Muscle Without Weights?

Can you build a lot of muscle without weights? Well, not really.

I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but I will say this – ‘It’s
terribly inefficient.’

Some people would have you believe that you can build new slabs of
muscle using only bodyweight exercises (or calisthenics). While a complete beginner might
make gains for a month or so performing endless press-ups, the rest of
us would be simply wasting our time.

Why? Because one of the core fundamentals of muscle building is not being applied:

Progressive Overload

bodyweight exercisesSimply put, in order for your muscles to grow you must increase the load
you place on them over time
. You must force the muscles to adapt to
increasing demands. Without this there is simply no reason for them to
grow.

I work out in the 8 – 12 rep range so when I can hit 12 reps on any
given exercise, I up the weight for the following workout. This forces my
muscles to continually adapt to the increasing stress I am placing them
under. How could I do this with bodyweight exercises?

Firstly, I would be performing way more than 8 – 12 reps which would
take me out of the optimum rep range for building muscle.

Secondly, the only progression there would be, would be an
ever-increasing number of reps; this is not conducive to building
muscle
. Again I stress, you want to be increasing the weight lifted in
each exercise whilst staying within the 8 – 12 rep range.

Is There Any Value To Bodyweight Exercise?

Actually, yes there are situations where bodyweight exercises are useful. Muscles are like anything in life, they either
GROW or DIE. In life:

  • Either your relationship GROWS or it starts to DIE
  • Either your business GROWS or it starts to DIE
  • Either a plant GROWS or it begins to DIE

Because bodyweight exercises would give a tiny bit or growth over a
number of years, you can use them to at least stave off muscle atrophy
(muscle loss)
if you are away from home.

Imagine that your job requires that you be on the road for a couple of
weeks, staying in hotels. You can certainly use bodyweight exercises in
your hotel room to hold on to your hard-earned gains. This way, when you
get home, you can pick up where you left off. (Even better though, use
the hotel gym if they have one ;) ).

So if you must use bodyweight exercises, here are some tips to get the
best out of them. If there is any chance of you building muscle with
them, these tips will ensure success.

Tips

  • 1st set – Go for it! Blast out as many reps as possible. This will get you warmed up and
    fatigued (this’ll be the only set where you can get 100 reps!) Each successive set will now consist of much lower reps.
  • Less Rest – I take 2 mins rest between sets at the moment. If I were without
    weights I would try 1 minute or less. If I was still performing too many reps I would take shorter and shorter breaks.
  • Go Slow! Try and hit optimum rep range by taking each rep slower. Try twice as slow and adjust from there.
  • Full range of motion – If you normally cheat – don’t! Full, complete
    range of motion will allow you perform less reps.
  • Improvise with weight – many moons ago when I didn’t have weights I
    filled an empty 2 liter milk bottle with water and did my sit-ups with
    my feet under a chest of drawers. It actually did help build some abdominal muscle as I was a complete beginner.

Some Examples of Bodyweight Exercises

  • Sit-ups
  • Push-ups
  • One-Arm Push-Ups
  • Handstand Push-Ups – Do a handstand against a wall and then press your body up and down with your arms – think of an upside-down squat.
  • One-Legged Squats – Put your arms out in front of you and one leg out in front. Now lower your body on the other leg until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Now get your ass back to the starting position.

So the conclusion is this, stick to the weights except in unavoidable situations. When forced to, perform bodyweight exercises to hold onto your gains but don’t expect any new muscle growth.

Mark McManus

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Caveman November 26, 2007, 11:22 pm

    Great post Mark.

    When I was in the military all we did were body weight exercises. We got in good shape, but I didn’t gain a lot of strength. Basically, I felt it was almost a form of aerobic exercise that just burned the fat off and all of those beers.

    When I was in Kuwait, I had a friend who was a bodybuilder. He would tie sandbags to the ends of a camo-pole to lift. Clever.

    I totally agree with you about the 8-12 rep range. I have experienced injury as a result of lifting too much weight for 4-6 reps and 15-20 does indeed give you good pumps but doesn’t seem to build muscle as well as 8-12.

    -Caveman

  • admin November 27, 2007, 9:41 pm

    Thanks Caveman. I think you’re spot-on about the body weight exercises being a good form of cardio.

    I also suffered injuries on a low-rep program; the weight was to heavy to use proper form and so I suffered the consequences. Good form, 8 – 12 reps and I haven’t had an injury since.
    Cheers,
    Mark

  • Muata January 14, 2008, 8:27 pm

    Hey fellas, I guess I’d have to disagree with you guys here. One, a larger muscle does not mean a stronger muscle. One can most definitely get strong by using their own bodyweight- think of Herschel Walker. Hypertrophy is another issue, as you’ve mentioned above. However, getting shredded from BW exercises is more than possible. Gymnasts come to mind, and I think you’d be hard pressed to say that these guys are not strong (iron-cross or muscle-up anyone?). For progressive resistance, using a weighted vest does the trick. Yes, for those who are going into bodybuilding and are going for the more aesthetic look, BW exercises are not the ticket; however, weights are not needed for strength gains and you don’t have to do 100s of reps. As Pavel discusses in his “Naked Warrior”, you change the leverage point(s) to make the exercise more difficult instead of adding endless reps. For instance, I’m sure most in shape guys can crank out 50 regular pushups without too much of a problem, but I’d like to see the same guys do 50 handstand pushups, which is a hell of a lot more challenging. Just my .02 cents . . .

  • G February 18, 2008, 3:46 pm

    Yaye, I guess body Navy Seals don’t gain any strength? lol

  • Mark McManus February 18, 2008, 4:26 pm

    Yes I’m sure they gain a lot of strength, just not a lot of muscle though. Strength gains and hypertrophy are different goals.
    Mark

  • J November 6, 2008, 8:44 am

    nah i was in the navy we did all these BW exercises ans i wasnt very BIG when i entered the Navy as well and we did these exercises and i gained tons of muscles and i was more to say not in shape when i forst started but when i left to go bk home to my family the couldnt believe how big i got from these as in i grew several muscles by just doing the regulars..

  • Ketch Rudder December 9, 2008, 10:45 pm

    This thread above shows yet another of the many streams of ignorance anyone can stumble upon.

    It’s time to set the record straight.

    On Hypertrophy
    ————–

    It seems that a few have heard the word “hypertrophy” and thus feel good about bandying it about.

    Yet, two kinds of hypertrophy exist.

    Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy
    ————————

    Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy happens with an increase in the fluid volume of non-contractile elements within the muscle such as mitochondria, capillary density, and glycogen.

    Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy results with muscles pumped up with fluid. Bodybuilders get sarcoplasmic hypertrophy — all show, little strength.

    Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
    ————————

    Myofibrillar hypertrophy happens with an increase of the myofibrils, the actual contractile protein muscle fibers responsible for generating the tension or force that allows us to move. This type of growth is permanent and doesn’t fade away after a workout.

    Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the kind of growth resistance trainers gain, especially when they combine such training with anerobic energy systems training, which leads to getting more energy production into muscle cells, faster during workouts and proper nutrition (2 grams protein per pound of body weight).

    On Muscle Growth
    —————-
    Muscle growth needs growth training — doing more work in the same time or do the same work in a less time.

    In both cases, force gets increased.

    A great way to increase force is to increase the amount of mass moved. A man can achieve this in many ways — bodyweight, sandbags, resistance bands, dumbbells, barbells.

    To trigger growth potential, a man must fire up as many muscle fibers as possible.

    Muscle growth happens after the workout, from healing and from the nutrients taken on the days after working out.

    On Bodyweight Exercises
    ———————–
    A man can grow big muscles from bodyweight excercises, along as he increases his protein intake (2 g x 1 lb body wt).

    Great bodyweight exercises include: Backhand Chin-ups, 3 Chair Push-ups, Pec Chair Dips, Handstand Push-ups, Tricep Chair Dips, Palm-Up Pull-ups, Crunch Twists, Leg Thrusts

    On Legs
    ——-
    To build legs, a man needs to hold weight, either overhead or in front and perform squats.

    The keys to Growth are INCREASING FORCE in resistance training and INCREASING PROTEIN in diet.

    On Bodybuilders
    —————
    Bodybuilders are not athletes. Bodybuilders are beauty paegant contestants.

    Long, slow continuous training, typical of bodybuilders, can decrease anaerobic activity, making muscle cells that lack the means for burst energy and hence an increase to force.

  • Muata December 9, 2008, 11:24 pm

    Ketch,

    I couldn’t agree with you more, and I’m glad that you gave a good breakdown on the different muscle fibers. However, and I’m more into strength than bloat, I wouldn’t say that BBs aren’t athletes. The majority aren’t “strength” athletes; however, the dedication and hours of training that it takes to build their steroid assisted bodies (talking about IFBB here) definitely makes them athletes in my book. But, those who say that you can’t build muscles using bodyweight exercises are just not well informed.

  • Ketch Rudder December 12, 2008, 6:51 am

    Great. It’s great to know that others know the truth about bodyweight exercising and muscle physiology.

    ——————————
    On athletes and athletics
    ——————————

    First attested in 1528, the word athlete comes to us from the Latin from athleta, in turn from the Greek athletes “contestant in the games,” which is the agent noun from athlein “to contest for a prize,” rel. to athlos “a contest” and athlon “a prize.”

    For me, an athlete competes on a playing field (rugby, gridiron football, Gaelic football, Aussie Rules football, lacrosse), on a court (tennis, basketball, volleyball, ice hockey), in a pool (water polo, swimming, diving), in a field (javelin, discus, hammer throw), on a track (sprints, runs, bicycle races), under special circumstances (sculling, rowing, downhill ski racing), and the like.

    Athletes must train to gain strength, which I say means thrust (explosive lift off), might (extended load carrying), quickness (agility) power), speed, stamina (aerobic); and coordination

    Bodybuilding train for appearance, to look muscular. Again, I assert that bodybuilders are beauty paegant contestants.

  • Muata December 14, 2008, 12:04 am

    Good breakdown of the origin of the word athlete; however, according to the breakdown that you use, BBs do fall into the original definition of the term since they are contestants in a competitive event. I know that we’re splitting hairs here, but let me ask you. Do you consider old school BBs athletes (e.g., Sandow)?

  • Patrick January 30, 2009, 4:54 am

    I have to strongly disagree with the author; both strength AND muscle size gains can be achieved through bodyweight exercises, largely by varying the angle of the exercise. This is particularly applicable to press-ups.

    The body does not have a magic sensor that detects that you are pressing iron plates as opposed to 200 pounds of bodyweight resistance. A weighted jacket or an individual on your back can also be used. In either instance, you are actually producing strength AND muscle gains more efficiently than by ANY one free weight or weight machine exercise, other than perhaps the deadlift. You are also achieving a higher cardio and endurance benefit than you would achieve with the weight exercises. There are PLENTY of lifters who can bench 300 who cannot knock off 50 consecutive press-up reps.

    While you will certainly never win Mr. Olympia by doing bodyweight exercises, the blanket statement that they simply don’t work to gain muscle mass is frankly and bluntly untrue; I don’t know any other way to put it. They can also be considerably easier on the joints, particularly for lifters who are no longer in their teens or twenties.

  • Alex April 2, 2009, 3:55 pm

    I am a little confused here. While BB might not be hardcore athletes in some books, I don’t see how anyone can say Mark isn’t building strenth with this system. I’m a Newb here, but it appears with his system of progressive overload that with every workout he is either increasing the weight used, or increasing the reps. To my simple mind this equates to increased strength as well as size. Prehaps not the best way to increase explosive strength and fitness, but certainly still gaining strength.
    Now my question would be can you alternate the two? i.e., you get build and BF% you like can you start working on the strength building exercises more or will you immediately start losing definition?

  • Vitalins October 14, 2009, 1:52 pm

    Quite a decent blog, at least filling of topics. Have more to these blogs.