Updated: Jul 22
Most people think you can’t build significant strength and size using bodyweight training but usually, they don’t place enough emphasis on quality (as well as quantity).
To make improvements in both strength and size you must progressively overload a muscle/muscle group. This means exposing it to more and more training stimuli over time. Bodybuilders and weight lifters usually do this by increasing total volume (sets x reps x resistance) over time. Though, increasing the numbers alone is not the only way to progressively overload. I’ll admit its much easier to do this with weights and quantitative, trackable numbers. While it’s not as intuitive to do this when using only your body to train, it can be done with the right methods.
Most people think bodyweight training is just Push-Ups, Squats, Pull-Ups, and Planks. Some start to get more advanced and practice things like Muscle Ups or Handstands, but the world of bodyweight training is vast and full of creative combinations. The common mistake is to think that you can stick with push-ups forever and keep doing more and more reps. There is inevitably going to be diminishing returns with this approach and this leads to the illusion that bodyweight training isn't as effective as weight lifting or equipment-based training which simply isn't true. These practitioners simply haven't explored beyond the simplest, most basic bodyweight exercises.
Instead of adding weight or just increasing reps to progressively overload, here’s some techniques used by knowledgable calisthenics athletes, gymnasts, yogis, and other kinds of bodyweight specialists:
Increase time under tension (the time it takes to complete each rep). Basically just slow down.
Increase lever length. This applies differently to different movements. A simple example is progressing from push-ups on the knees, to a full push up, and even to pseudo planche push-ups and so on...
Increase muscle fiber recruitment through mind-muscle connection (basically concentrating more on the muscles being used)
Choose a more challenging variation. Again, this applies differently to different movements. A simple example would be progressing from a basic bodyweight squat to a jump squat, cossack squat, or other squat movements that are more challenging. A primary technique for acquiring skills like handstands, muscle-ups, dragon squats, and more.
Increase range of motion through the given movement.
All these are ways of improving the QUALITY of your movements and finding ways to expand the movement patterns your body is familiar with. Doing these things while maintaining the same sets/reps means your body will be exposed to a greater training stimulus and make adaptations, in other words, you’re going to get stronger, bigger, AND improve the quality of your movements.
In my experience, the easiest way to do this is by learning SKILLS. Take the Handstand for example. A basic line of progressions related to the handstand might look like so:
Back to Wall Tuck Handstand
Chest to Wall Tuck Handstand
Free Standing Tuck Handstand
Straight Line Handstand
While this is a reduced example, it does represent a logical progression of exercises/postures to progress from the High Plank all the way to a full Handstand (full more Handstand training guidance, check out the Evolution Collective - which includes a complete handstand training program). Each of these progressions requires greater and greater strength, coordination, balance, mind-muscle connection, and control of increasing lever lengths. You might start with a 1 min. plank and end up achieving 1 min. Handstand. Even though the numbers are the same, QUALITY has improved massively.
So… want to start with bodyweight exercise? Have you begun training more at home and less with weights and equipment? SHIFT YOUR MINDSET from one of quantity to one of quality. Start progressively overloading by teaching your body harder and harder skills. You CAN build strength and size with nothing more than your own body while learning to pull off awesome skills too.
Thanks for reading. Wishing you well,