Bodyweight Workouts: Yay or Nay?

It seems like these days, there’s a big increase in the number of people who rely exclusively on bodyweight training, or commonly referred to as calisthenics, as their primary training modality. Or, maybe it’s just the fact that I follow a decent number of bodyweight related instagram and YouTube channels. Either way, I still think it’s making a comeback.

Personally, I do a lot of bodyweight training myself, although mixed in with weights. In my garage gym, I’ve installed a set of gymnastics rings above my squat rack so I can go back and forth. Pro tip for a home gym: if you put rubber mats or carpeting (I have carpets) underneath, you can lift barefoot, which I highly recommend for enhanced tactile feedback and better biomechanics. Just don’t drop anything on your feet! lol Complete tangent here, but I recently had my carpets cleaned, and my gawd I didn’t even remember that they were that lightly colored originally. It’s actually pretty gross seeing how dirty they were and me not even realizing it!

I’d say the bodyweight training first became pretty popular back in the days of the whole Charles Atlas phenomenon (98-lb weakling thing), in the mid 1900’s when he popularized what became known as “dynamic tension”. Which from what I understand, is a method of using one’s own body to provide resistance. For example, pressing your hands forcefully in a prayer-like fashion contracts the chest.

The problem with this is that there’s a limit to how much resistance you can provide, and so it can be difficult to progress beyond a certain point. I’d say this is the biggest criticism of bodyweight training, but I would be quick to argue that there are ways to easily scale up the difficulty that goes WAY beyond, by intelligently using gravity and leverage.

Easy example is pullups. There’s something weird about the fact that a lot of people that can pull plenty in bent over rows or lat pulldowns, can’t demonstrate the same power/pulling ability when doing pullups. They seem to struggle with that, which has always been weird to me. My non-scientific theory is that bodyweight trains one to better recruit more muscle groups in a functional manner, which allows them to apply greater power. Now, once you’re able to do a fair amount of pullups, there’s nothing that says you can’t more weight! You can find a basic hip belt for cheap on Amazon and hang weights from it. Try this: train weighted pullups for a while, then go back to strict bodyweight – you’ll be amazed at how easily you can pull yourself now!

If you’re still skeptical about bodyweight training, I would simply point you to gymnasts. Pound for pound, there aren’t any more jacked athletes around. Not only that, they have incredible control of their bodies that allows them to do things that most people can’t fathom. Most gymnasts have developed their bodies primarily, and many times exclusively, through their gymnastics specific training without any traditional weight training. IMHO a decent pair of rings are one of the best investments you can make.

The instability provided by rings makes pretty much every movement exponentially harder. But as your body adapts, its ability to perform complex manuveurs also increases, and you just feel STRONGER all the time. It’s a weird thing to explain, you just have to experience it. If you need some resources to get started, there’s a whole separate industry now of people incorporating gymnastics training into their regular workouts. Just look on Youtube – a couple really good ones are Christopher Sommer, Carl Paoli, etc. Incidentally, Paoli is affiliated with the CrossFit crowd, who have also adopted a lot of these principles.

Anyways, this post went on longer than I anticipated, but it’s cool to me as bodyweight training opens a whole set of doors. For me, I’ll keep on doing it until I can pull my goals of completing:

  • Strict, controlled muscleups for reps
  • Iron Cross
  • And the often talked about, rarely seen, unicorn of the training world, Maltese 😀