Richard Kelly doing pushups

Is Bodyweight Training Right for You?

Richard Kelly 16th September 2019

There is a widespread belief that bodyweight training is easier than weight training.  This is due to the fact that there is less equipment and therefore it sounds easier.  The result of this is an expectation that push ups and bodyweight squats are easier than a weight squat or a bench press.  The problem with this attitude is that it simply reveals the disrespect that bodyweight exercise has in general. 

Technique must come first, regardless of anything else, just as skill and capability must be built up before you challenge yourself with any exercise.  For anyone struggling to lose weight, or who is on the weaker side, bodyweight exercises can be incredibly difficult.  Push ups are not that straightforward, and for some people the shoulders and even neck can feel like it has been overworked, whilst the chest and arms, which should be the main muscles worked, feel like they have done nothing.  This is typically due to the fact that because the chest and triceps are not strong enough for the push up additional support muscles end up working in as well.  In this instance a bench press would enable you to build up strength and work up to the push up.  This becomes more obvious with something like a pull up, which many people struggle with. 

Equally, for anyone trying to build size and strength it is very hard to create overload through bodyweight training.  Because they typically are so light, the only way to create an overload without weights is through high repetitions.  But this is not the best way to increase strength, as it is more likely to create muscular endurance. 

Therefore bodyweight training could be both too challenging, or not challenging enough, for you. 

So how can you determine whether bodyweight training is the right thing for you?

Well let’s take something that most people can do, like a squat.  Squatting is a great exercise but one where poor form is pretty common.  Spending the time learning the exercise in bodyweight form and with perfect technique has great benefit. Not every exercise has to be so challenging that it makes you sore the next day.  Regressions of movement like this, or doing push ups from the knees, teach good form or challenge the body at an achievable level. 

It’s also worth considering that there are ways to progress a bodyweight exercise.  Adding an isometric hold can increase the challenge of an exercise, as can going to a single limb movement from a double, such as a pistol squat from a squat.   This is important, as with something like a pull up there is little progression you can make on it once you can do them, other than increasing the reps or sets, or reducing the rest gap between sets.  Having bodyweight exercises there are genuinely achievable ways to progress provide an excellent means to continue to challenge the body as you progress. 

The biggest issue with bodyweight training comes with exercises that work you close to maximal, typically things like pull ups or pistol squats.  These exercises involve plenty of technique and stability, not to mention high strength levels.  Because of the relatively difficultly of them using weights as a means to progress to the point that you can do them is a viable and preferred method. 

This, to me, is why resistance training through weights is important to maintain and understand.  Although push ups and pull ups are very effective exercises a bench press or lat pulldown is much more scalable and can help you reach the point you are competent on push ups and pull ups. 

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