If you’re training at home with limited equipment, you might be leaning heavily on bodyweight exercises. Or maybe you travel a lot and have to rely on hotel WODs that can be done with no weight. How effective is this training, really? Do bodyweight exercises build muscle? Let’s explore.
How Do You Build Muscle?
Before we talk about whether or not bodyweight exercises build muscle, let’s talk about how muscle forms in general.
When you do some sort of resistance training or weight lifting that challenges your muscles, you’re technically causing “trauma” to them. During this process, you form micro-tears in the muscles. In the healing process, your body fuses muscle fibers together to form new fibers. They end up appearing thicker. So, as you cause stress to your body, and as you recover, you eventually build more muscle and get stronger.
Side note: This is also why recovery is so important. While resistance training/weight lifting is necessary for building muscle, that growth actually happens when you’re recovering.
So, Do Bodyweight Exercises Build Muscle?
If done correctly, yes, you can build muscle using nothing but your own body’s weight. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness found that a low-load bench press and push-up triggered similar muscle hypertrophy and strength gains. However, strategy matters. Let’s talk about what you’ll need to do.
If you’re a total fitness newbie just starting your strength training journey, then you might not need to make any modifications. For example, your standard push-up might already be challenging enough.
However, if you can whip out a set of 20 push-ups without breaking a sweat, then you’re going to have to get creative.
One thing you can do is increase the time under tension. In other words, spend more time doing it. Using a push-up as an example, you might slow the down-phase (the part where you’re lowering your chest to the floor) to a count of three, before pushing back up again.
Or, if you’re doing an air squat, you might slow the down-phase to a count of five seconds.
You are increasing the amount of time you’re spending under tension. This makes the movement harder and thus triggers that muscle trauma.
You can also increase the number of reps you’re doing, or decrease the rest time in between movements.
There’s a Caveat…
By this point, we’ve established that yes, you can build muscle with bodyweight exercises. And it can take you pretty far!
However, you’re going to get to a point when you’re going to need to add weight to your workout. This is a good sign — it means you’ve made serious progress.
Don’t get us wrong: There are still benefits to bodyweight exercises, and you can continue doing them! However, if building muscle is one of your top priorities, then increasing the resistance over time is going to be necessary.
Bodyweight exercises are excellent because you can do them anywhere, they’re low-impact, and they’re especially helpful for active recovery. Keep moving and challenging yourself, and enjoy the gains!