Bodyweight workouts are all the rage, but do they deliver sustainable results for the average person?
Bodyweight workouts are great for their convenience and the unlimited kinds of exercises you can perform.
However, on average, the amount of “resistance” applied during bodyweight workouts is only about 60% of your bodyweight. So, for example, if you are doing a push-up or a squat, and you weigh 100 pounds, you are working against only 60 pounds of resistance. If you weigh 150 pounds, only 90 pounds of resistance, etc. When you consider your glutes are your largest muscle group, squatting against 60% of your bodyweight is not very much, unless you are just beginning to exercise.
When fitness publications or your favorite trainer program bodyweight workouts, they have to factor in the reduced level of resistance your body actually applies, and that is why so many reps and sets are involved. There is no rule that says you have to do so many reps or sets to get results, but the less amount of resistance applied, the more reps you have to do. That is why a decent bodyweight workout often requires as many as 12 sets or more of at least 10 reps or more to see even marginal results. That can be time-consuming.
Furthermore, because the level of muscle activation is fairly low, only a portion of the muscle groups being worked are necessary to complete the movement. The lack of resistance leaves much of the muscle group at most minimally activated. Yes, if you do enough reps, you will feel the fatigue of the primary muscles, but a significant portion of the muscle group has not been activated much at all. That means that many areas you hope to be (or think you are) working on, are being left out.
This leads to another shortcoming of the bodyweight workout: because muscle activation does not run as far or as deep as it could, bodyweight workouts must be repeated often to produce lasting results. Not only are the workouts longer, because of all the reps and sets, but you must workout more often to produce and maintain results. That may be great for trainers who workout almost every day, but may not be so great for those of us with busy lives. Who has that kind of time!?
And at some point, no matter how many reps and set you do, increased gains will become almost impossible to come by. It’s called plateauing, and is a common result of relying on bodyweight workouts.
The 10-minute workout, no equipment necessary. Are they serious?
You see them everywhere; “The 10-minute bodyweight workout,” “The 5-minute no equipment workout when you’re in a hurry,” “The 20-minute fully-body, no equipment workout.”
These kinds of workouts certainly sound appealing, but at most, they fall into the “it’s better than nothing” category. There are, without a doubt, real fitness and health benefits associated with them, but for the reasons outlined above, they provide few lasting results if you are looking for real, demonstrable fitness and physique gains. Using 60% of your bodyweight only for such a short period of time is not asking much of your muscles.
The Benefits and Drawbacks of Free Weight Training
Any reputable trainer will tell you that resistance matters. Not necessarily how much weight, but how much resistance and how it is applied. Resistance training can be far more efficient and productive than bodyweight training, because it simply requires more strength, which requires more muscles to be activated more deeply.
This, in turn, fatigues the muscles more quickly, which reduces the number of reps and sets necessary to produce results.
So theoretically, resistance workouts should be shorter than bodyweight workouts. But, from a practical standpoint, that is not necessarily the case! Free weight exercises tend to isolate relatively small groups of muscles, so multiple exercises need to be done consecutively to get a complete workout. Bench press for chest, squats, dead lifts and lunges for the glutes, quads and hamstrings, curls for the biceps, triceps extensions, lat pull downs, etc, etc. By the time you add them all up, they’re often just as time-consuming (or more so if you have to drive to a gym) as bodyweight workouts, where you can hit multiple muscle groups concurrently.
Some free weight programming addresses this obvious shortcoming by creating what are called compound movements, whereby you perform multiple movements with free weights in an attempt to hit multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This is the right idea, but is a partial solution. The fact remains, there are only so many movements you can do with any given piece of free weight equipment, and it will never allow the freedom of bodyweight movement. The science and thinking on exercise has evolved dramatically over the years towards functional movement training, but you may have noticed that most of the free weight tools being used were developed centuries ago for mostly static lifting. The evolution of tools has simply not kept up with the evolution of training. The movements of compound, or any free weight exercises, will always be limited by the limitation of the equipment.
Much like with bodyweight programming, your favorite fitness publication or trainer can and will show you a mind-bending collection of free weight programming and “how to” guides, and they all have value. Barbell moves, dumbbell lifts, kettle bell lifts, some single moves, some compound moves. They’re all great if (1) you like lifting free weights and (2) you have the time to go to the gym or the budget to buy your own equipment and (3) you have time for leg day and then upper-body day and then core day and still find time for cardio! But there is one inescapable truth: all free weight programming must be designed to accommodate the limitations of the weights, which by their very nature prohibit you from moving freely.
Cardio Day vs. Strength Day
One of the big fitness dilemmas: how much cardio and how much lifting should I do, and how do I fit I all in!?
It’s no secret, people who like cardio work are not always big fans of strength work and lifters are not always big fans of cardio, so we often favor one at the expense of the other to our detriment.
Again, the fitness industry has attempted to address this conundrum with programming designed to deal with the limitations of bodyweight and free weight exercises. For the bodyweight crowd, workouts like HIIT and Tabata have emerged. For the free weight crowd, circuits combining weight work and cardio work. Crossfit® also works running and jump roping into its programming.
HIIT and Tabata workouts can be done with bodyweight only, or sometimes programming will include dumbbells or other resistance accessories in an attempt to add some extra resistance, but typically, it is again a partial solution. HIIT and Tabata workouts will definitely get the heart rate up, but if done with bodyweight only, the 60% of bodyweight rule limits the resistance effect as described above and any added resistance again tends to target only certain muscle groups but not others, given the limitations of moving freely while incorporating weights. So beware the full-body workout claim!
The lifters approach for combining cardio tends to be circuits. Weighted exercises hitting multiple muscle groups interspersed with time on the treadmill or rower, for example. In Crossfit®, we see the weight work combined with running or burpees or jump ropes. Whether circuit training or doing a Crossfit® workout, the cardio portion tends to be some of the more rote (some would say boring?) cardio work: running, jump roping, rowing, burpees. There are obviously tens of millions of people who love Crossfit® and circuit training, so that programming has great appeal to many people and will get the job done with enough time and effort. But the same free weight limitations above still persist, and let’s face it, it can all be a bit boring!
Why aren’t we seeing the most time-efficient and productive workouts possible from the fitness industry?
What is important to know is that historically, trade-offs have existed between bodyweight and free weight workouts, and between cardio and strength workouts, not because their limitations were insurmountable or because they were simply incompatible, but because the fitness industry has attempted to adapt to the ever-evolving training philosophies using the same basic equipment that has been around for decades, and in some cases, centuries.
As training science has moved more towards functional movement training and less towards static lifting, for the most part, the tools have not changed. Trainers and fitness publications are on board with the functional movement trend, but have had to deal the best they could with antiquated tools designed to, in large part, restrict natural and free movement.
On the opposite side, the complete freedom of movement, not to mention convenience, offered by bodyweight exercises is perfect for training true functional movement, but in doing so, you must give up, or limit, the unquestioned muscle activating benefit of adding resistance. You can add a handful of partial measures with old-school weight tools, but again, they are half-measures born from an industry reliance on existing tools designed to restrict, not enhance, natural movement.
All exercise is good exercise, so you shouldn’t stop whatever you re doing! But not all exercise is as efficient and productive as it could be, and the fitness industry tends to downplay those inconvenient truths. For those who are strapped for time, or for those who are looking to get the maximum benefit possible from each and every minute spent exercising, it is important to understand the costs and benefits of each kind of programming you choose. And it is important to understand that in today’s fitness industry, which for the most part still relies on equipment designed for a bygone era of fitness, most of the content they are delivering is not as efficient and productive as it could be.