How much can I gain with body weight Exercises?

by Brad Pilon

Q: About Body weight exercises…

I’ve read that you can’t make any strength or muscle gains with body weight exercises,  so I want your perspective, what kind of gains can I make with body weight exercises? If I add a weighted vest or some other weight that will force me to put more effort will it get me to gain strength or muscle?

A: My Answer…

Firstly, as with all fitness and nutrition questions, it’s hard to answer generally as every one’s situation is slightly different. Your training status, body weight, current strength all come into play, but for the most part many people can add both muscle and strength using body weight exercises. And, you could even keep this effect going by increasing the difficulty of the movements or greatly increasing the volume of training that you do.  But after a while you will eventually have to move to body movement exercises – Which are essentially body weight exercises with extra weight added to the movement.

Bottom line – I don’t see the average guy building 16 inch arms with just pushups and chins. However, if you add a weighted vest, or chains to your exercise then it really isn’t a body weight exercise anymore..it’s a body movement exercise and I don’t see any reason why you can’t build large muscles with body movement exercises.

(If you think about, a squat is a body weight exercise with added weight.)

So while the muscle building effects of body weight exercises are limited by your body weight and by the amount of time you have to train, switching to body movement exercises like weighted dips, chins, push-ups, and squats keeps the  ‘essence’ of the exercise alive, while allowing you to still build muscle.

BP

{ 26 comments }

Neal W. January 6, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Actually, bodyweight movements can be increased in difficulty without added weight. This is accomplished by decreasing the leverage of the exercise. This is the main method used by gymnasts to gain size and strength. Look at the massive arms on any still rings specialist and you will see that added weight is unnecessary if desired/required.

Brad Pilon January 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Neal,

Part of the problem is that with gymnasts the time requirement is outside of what is realistic for the rest of us. I do not have 3 hours to practice on rings, thus need to add weight to increase the work so I can spend less time. Also everything is relative, to many people gymnasts are shredded, but not necessarily large.

B

Brad January 6, 2011 at 1:45 pm

Yeah gymnasts do tend to have some fairly large arms but also keep in mind they are not just doing pushups, chins, and dips. These guys are doing crazy one arm vertical pushups, plyometic chinups, and like Brad said, training an absurd amount of time. They have taken bodyweight workouts to a whole new level where they are essentially working with their bodyweight on each limb at one time. That being said, if they wanted to get even bigger they would still have to add weight/reps/or intensity.

Fred January 6, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Brad,

I have had great luck with progression to hand stand push up’s, one arm push ups, on legged pistol squats and front levers. I can’t do all these movements yet but work on progressively harder exercises in order to get there. Results 1 1/2 inches on arms and 3 inches on chest along with strength gains. PS I am also doing some weights

Neal W. January 6, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Brad, thanks for the response.

The hours of practice are for the development of technical skills. You can separate the technical practice from the strength/hypertrophy training. Would you agree that there is this distinction in gymnastics? Perhaps you are thinking that they are necessarily one in the same.

Take football. Football players are muscular and they lift weights, but you wouldn’t say that lifting weights is not very good for the regular guy who also doesn’t spend a few hours per day practicing plays and doing different football drills.

Perhaps the problem is that the strength training of gymnasts looks more similar to their technical practice than other sports where there is obviously a different between strength training and the sport itself. Ergo people think that there is no demarcation in gymnastics and you have to put in ALL the hours that a gymnast does to get the same benefit.

Now that I think of it, gymnastics is kind of like Olympic lifting in this regard. I never here anyone say that it’s pointless to use the same exercises for size/strength that Olympic lifter use because Olympic lifters train for multiple hours per day and that’s the only reason they get any hypertrophy. But you here it all the time with gymnastics.

Finally, you are surely right that gymnasts aren’t necessarily large. But the events that they focus on make a big difference here. Ring specialist are pretty jacked.

See, for example, Chen Yibing

http://www.mostbeautifulman.com/athletes/ChenYibing/images/pic03.jpg

(sorry for the weird website I got this off google image)

or Yuri Chechi

http://www2.raisport.rai.it/atlanta96/news/2807/chechi13.jpg

Let me know if I making any sense! :)

Clint January 6, 2011 at 5:09 pm

Nice post Brad,
Body-weight exercises are a staple for me, and should be for anyone.
Added weight aside, there are huge benefits in regards to your form aswell as core strength just by adding a couple of these bad-boys into each workout.

As an example, my arm mass and strength increased considerably when adding in close-grip clap pushups towards the end of my workout.

Darryl January 7, 2011 at 12:18 am

I agree.

Did bodyweight a lot and do gymnastics. Even the hardest levered exercises (Pseudo Planche Pushups, Pistols)

Don’t create as much growth for me and many who I know, as much as weights do.

I do believe that if you have a weight vest, bands, etc available that combining weights and body movements is much better than simply relying on leverages.

Jim January 7, 2011 at 10:09 am

Hi Brad,
That chain thing pops up now and then on your blog and John’s as well. Is there a “Power Chain” workout plan coming out in the future? :-)

Separately, it would be nice if you got the RSS feed working for your site (I saw a test). You do a good job of updating on new posts via Twitter, but a working RSS feed would also bechelpful (I saw that you ran a test on yours). Unless I’m missing something, your blog is the only one I follow without an active RSS feed.

Thanks.
–Jim

wolverine January 7, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Hi Brad, my question is for someone with a bit more mass than the average joe who doesnt want huge biceps etc will bodyweight traing give me more bulk seeing as i am lifting a heavy bodyweight? thanks Brad you rock!!!!

Bill Pairaktaridis January 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm

I hear you on this one, Brad. It’s really hard to build mass and strength on bodyweight exercises alone. Even the basics of strength which revolve around low reps and high intensity can’t be applied to someone who’s a bit experienced. I’ve had to add weight to my chin ups and dips because of this. This way both my reps and explosiveness have improved on bodyweight alone and it’s a great way to measure progress since you can increase the added weight.

P.S. Are you moderating the negative comments?

Brad Pilon January 8, 2011 at 1:08 am

Hey Bill,

Not moderating the negative ones, only the rude nonsensical ones, or anything over 1,000 words (since I don’t have time to read them to see if they are rude or nonsensical)

David - Get Fit Get Lean January 8, 2011 at 2:09 pm

Brad,

Good advice. Once you get the bodyweight exercise down, add weight, leverage, etc. to make it a bodyweight movement and you’ll see results.

David

wolverine January 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm

so why did you answer bill and not me????????

Jim January 8, 2011 at 11:10 pm

Ignore my statement above.

I found your RSS feed listed on your “Books” page.
For anyone who’s looking, it’s http://bradpilon.com/feed/

Vaclav Gregor January 9, 2011 at 9:13 am

I think that it’s best to combine bodyweight exercises with the regular resistance weight training.
Interesting point of view on the body movement exercises, you are right about that squat is a body weight exercise with added weight.
Personally, whenever I do some kind of dip, pushup or chinup exercise I always try to add some weights.

wolverine January 10, 2011 at 12:41 pm

sorry, probably just overanticipating your wonderfull insight and got carried away, sorry, your rock Brad!!!

Richard January 10, 2011 at 2:23 pm

I’ve been using a cable and strap system for a couple of years that was developed for body weight exercises. From what I’ve seen, you aren’t going to get bulk. What you will get is lean muscle mass that will look natural for your body.

Brad Pilon January 10, 2011 at 2:56 pm

OH yeah, it’s not useless…I think I worded this post horribly…

Bodyweight exercises are not useless, it’s just that eventually you will have to add some form of weight, increase exercise time, or increases leverages…but eventually it seems more weight will be needed.

Alyssa January 13, 2011 at 2:49 am

Hey Brad yes i very much agree in the first part quote “it’s hard to answer generally as every one’s situation is slightly different” However i must say though that when i started off doing weights i gradually increased my stamina and eventually came to a point where adding weights such as doing chin ups has helped my strength a lot. I would not recommend a newbie to do this as it can cause muscle damage as it puts too much strain on the muscles.

Joe J January 15, 2011 at 8:21 am

Your comment about “relative” is so true. I’m sure most people get into all sorts of unnecessary arguments or basically end up talking cross purposes because they both have a different ideal body image in mind. Hell, to me even gymnastics look big I and don’t even strive for that look. Just want to be very lean but mean ;) And bodyweight exercises deliver on this for me. Instead of adding chains and vests etc, I’m just working towards the one-handed variety (i.e handstand, push-ups, chins, pistols ). Sure, I’m certain even these will prove redundant for some, but, at least for me, this will keep me challenged for years to come. Bodyweight exercises rock! Good article, thanks.

shazia January 18, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Hi Brad,
I just like to say in the the past months I have been carrying out alot of different forms of exercises and by far body weight ones have been the most challenging yet most satisfying!

Mike January 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I would disagree.

There was a 2006 article by Ralph Carpinelli entitled “The Size Principle and a Critical Analysis of the Unsubstantiated Heavier-isBetter Recommendation for Resistance Training.” The jest was that any exercise done to max effort will produce the same size and strenght gains.

For instance, if you hold a 20lb dumbbell with an extended arm, eventually, it will get too much to bear. The force (weight) of the dumbbell hasn’t changed, but your effort has. You are incorporated all your muscle fibers at some point (i.e., max effort). Once these fibers start to fall off, the weight becomes heavier and heavier.

The rub, and not covered by the article, is that if you increased the weight of the dumbbell you are probably more likely to reach max effort (i.e., you don’t give up early out of boredom) and you would most likely reach this max effort quicker.

All in all, doing bodyweight exercises should produce the same size and strength gains as lifting weights assuming your reach max effort. The reason people don’t reach max effort with bodyweight exercises is that it takes too long.

Brad Pilon January 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm

MIke,

Kinda weird that you disagree when we made all the same points… Basically time becomes the lmiting factor.

Mike January 23, 2011 at 12:28 am

I posted before I went back and re-read some of the early posts.

I was posting in response to the comments that implied that it was necessary to change from strict bodyweight exercises. While it is advantageous, it is not necessary.

I really enjoy your blog.

Brad Pilon January 23, 2011 at 2:10 pm

No worries Mike, you made very sound points!

Ben October 9, 2011 at 12:16 am

I’m just putting these points out there – they are not based on science or that much experience, just my own:

I think people tend to move towards bodyweight exercises and search for alternative methods of muscle gain because gaining real muscle tissue is a slow and arduous process. When I say real muscle I mean the stuff that hangs around a long time, kinda like the football player’s neck years after they retire(!).

It sounds great to be able to build muscle through higher reps and lighter weights. What I’ve found is that it produces is short term “inflation” of muscles and a full sensation in the muscle. Try doing 10 chin up several times a day for 3 weeks and you’ll probably get bigger muscles The problem is how transitory is this gain? Will you shrink if you don’t keep up the volume? Would you want to keep up this volume?

In some ways it’s similar to eating to gain muscle. It feels good to see the scales go up and you shirt sleeves fill out. But is this real muscle? Usually it’s just water rentention and body fat.

Consider actors who train hard for 6 months and through high volume and fat loss (to help create an additional illusion of size through low body fat) and produce amazing results. Unless these people already have a training history they are not lifting the kind of weight that is necessary for lasting muscle. These gains will disappear once filming wraps up and the intense training schedule stops.

Not many people have the dedication or interest to develop high levels of strength. When you are truly strong, rep ranges do not matter. You will be strong from 1 rep to 20 reps regardless. And this kind of muscle is the stuff that sticks- and I think is why the people who are strong can lift a couple times a week and maintain excellent pysiques.

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