The benefits of bodyweight training are easy to overlook when resistance training is so effective. The primary outcomes of resistance training are to gain lean body mass, reduce body fat, gain strength and power, protect joints, and reduce injury. For many, improving body composition is the primary motivation to take part.
However, COVID has closed gyms and forced many to invest in home gyms or worse, cease training. While there is no substitute for a gym, especially for seasoned lifters, the reality is many of our clients have become detrained.
Can they regain their muscular physique via bodyweight exercises? The answer is yes, especially when combined with blood flow occlusion techniques.
Bodyweight Exercises and Hypertrophy
Brad Schoenfeld, a leading researcher in the subject of hypertrophy, reported in a recent study that lifting heavy weight (3 sets of 7) at low repetitions and lighter weight and higher repetitions (25 to 35 repetitions) yield similar hypertrophy outcomes (11).
Thus, the long-held textbook parameters of 67 to 75 percent 1RM for 6 to 12 repetitions is not the only way to grow muscle. Interestingly, all of the subjects were well-trained men, not untrained subjects. Other researchers found similar results in untrained men (11).
Why is this? On the one hand, heavy loads recruit more motor units and fibers. On the other hand, more repetitions mean more time under tension and therefore, muscle hypertrophy, primarily of type 1 muscle fibers.
For the powerlifter or speed and power athlete, the latter method is concerning. One study found an increase in cross-sectional area, satellite cells, and myonuclei content in type 1 muscle fibers in the vastus lateralis after exposure to a sit-to-stand protocol combined with blood flow restriction—hardly conducive to improving power output (9).
However, for most of our clients, these results are inconsequential. What is vital to our clients are results, and the traditional push-up exercise gets results and the benefits of bodyweight training are well-documented.
Naoki and Nakazato (2017) compared two groups of untrained men with one group bench pressing at loads of 40 percent 1RM to failure and another doing push-ups to failure (twice a week 3 sets to failure). Muscle biopsy found significant increases in hypertrophy and no differences between each group. When completed to failure, push-ups can hypertrophy upper musculature (10).
Bodyweight Exercises, Occlusion and Hypertrophy
An abundance of other research supports the use of occlusion of blood flow restriction to build muscle. For example, thigh musculature in men and women were increased using twice a week protocol consisting of two sets to failure of single-leg squats over six weeks combined with blood flow restriction (8). The researchers used a 7 out of 10 discomfort level to guide level of tightness.
In another study using blood flow restriction, a 3 percent increase in thigh circumference was indicated. In this study, step ups, bent-knee push-ups, leg raises, seated knee flexions (knee to chest), and squats were completed circuit style for over 100 repetitions, three times a week, for eight weeks (7). Other researchers found lower-leg musculature hypertrophy to occur while restricting blood flow during walking (1,2,3).
Bodyweight Exercises and Muscle Activation
Another reason to leverage the benefits of bodyweight training is some impressive electromyography findings. One study compared all the usual exercises for triceps training (I.E. tricep pushdowns, close grip bench press, and skull crushers) and found that the diamond push-up had the greatest tricep muscle activation (4).
It’s worth noting that another researcher found the narrow hand position of the push-up also activates more pectoralis primary muscle fibers than wider grip push-ups (5). Also, when comparing muscle activation between the pull-up and lat pulldown exercise, the pull-up was superior on the concentric contraction in the Biceps brachii, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, and pectoralis major exercises (6).
In each case, the benefits of bodyweight training can be seen—each non-resistance exercise is as effective, if not more so, than its resistance-based counterpart.
Most of us understand that prolonged, eccentric contractions coupled with brief pauses or isometric contractions and fast concentric contractions grows muscle, improves strength, and, very importantly, protects joints.
So, should the same tempo strategy be prescribed for your clients in bodyweight exercises? Yes, especially during exercises with high muscle activation such as the diamond push-up. No doubt, muscle hypertrophy can and will occur when progressively overloaded in either time under tension or load on the back in that exercise.
Weighted pull-ups, sissy squats, single-leg squats, dips, and diamond pullups are all challenging exercises. In many ways, grabbing a barbell and pulling up is easier; perhaps this is why some coaches at high levels use them to grow muscle in athletes, like Stanford Performance Coach, Corey Schlesinger. He was quoted on a recent podcast saying:
“How I sneak in a lot of volume is chins and dips. A lot of these guys can get great hypertrophy through bodyweight movements (12).”
If a high-level coach working with elite athletes has found success hypertrophying muscle, then certainly we can find the same success with our detrained or teetering clients.
Shifting to Bodyweight Exercises Without Gyms
This pandemic has forced people to stay in shape in alternative ways and it’s important that you show your value during this time. Clients will appreciate your effort to educate them on the benefits of bodyweight training and help them experience results—even at home.
Educate your clients about interesting muscle activations of specific bodyweight exercises, try occlusion methods with those who can tolerate discomfort, sprint them when you can (or HIIT), and take advantage of the time at hand.
Your clients are at an impasse. They will either forsake you and the local gym or they will recognize and reward the value you bring to the table during good and bad times.
- Abe et al. (2010). Effects of low-intensity cycle training with restricted leg blood flow on thigh muscle volume and Vo2max in young men. J Sports Sci Med, 9(3), 452 – 458.
- Abe, T., Kearns, C., Sato, Y. (2006). Muscle size and strength are increased following walk training with restricted blood flow from the leg muscle, Kaatsu-walk training. Journal of Applied Physiology.
- Abe, T., Sakamaki, M., Fujita, S., Ozaki, H., Sugaya, M., Sato, Y., & Nakajima, T. (2009). Effects of low-intensity walk training with restricted leg blood flow on muscle strength and aerobic capacity in older adults.
- Boehler, B. (2011). Electromyographic analysis of the triceps branchii muscle during a variety of triceps exercises. University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Retrieved from source
- Cogley, R., Archambault, T., Fibeger, J. Koverman, M. (2005). Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 19(3).
- Doma, K., Deakin. G., & Ness, K. (2013). Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises.
- Head, P., Austen, B., Browne, D., Campkin, T., & Barcellona, M. (2015). Effect of practical blood flow restriction training during bodyweight exercise on muscular strength, hypertrophy and function in adults: A randomized controlled trial. International Journal of Therapy and Rehabilitation, 22(6).
- Ishii, N., Madarame, H., Odagiri, K., Naganuma, M., Shinoda, K. (2005). Circuit training without external load induces hypertrophy in lower-limb muscles when combined with moderate venous occlusion.
- Jakobsgaard, J., Christiansen, M., Sieljacks, P., Wang, J. Groennebaek, T., de Paoli, F., & Vissing, K. (2018). Impact of blood flow-restricted bodyweight exercise on skeletal muscle adaptations. Scand Scoiety of Clin Phys and Nuc Medine, 38(6), 965 – 975.
- Naoki, K., & Nakazato, K. (2017). Low-load bench press and push-up induce similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gain. J. Ex Sci Fit, 15(1), 37-42
- Schoenfeld B., Wilson, J, & Lowery, R. (2016). Muscular adaptations in low- versus high-load resistance training: a meta-analysis. Eur J Sport Sci., 16, 1–10.
- Smith, J. (2019). Cory Schlesinger on athlete-driven strength and conditioning. Just Fly Performance Podcast, 138.