Tell someone you are weight training and it often conjures up images of pumped-up muscles from doing dumbbell bicep curls or leg presses.

But tell someone you’re doing bodyweight training and it may elicit a shrug or the assumption that you’re a beginner and there’s no way you’ll build muscle without doing ‘real’ weight training.

That’s a common misconception.

Bodyweight training can build muscle, help you lose weight and improve your movement for sports or day-to-day activities.

How muscle is built

To understand how bodyweight training can develop muscles, it’s important to first understand how muscles are built.

In order for muscles to grow, they have to be forced to adapt to stress that’s different than the previous threshold the body has become used to.

Your body doesn’t know the difference between lifting a weight or doing a resistance movement with your body, so the key is ensuring there is enough resistance during each exercise.

And remember, it’s after a workout when your body repairs muscle fibres and replaces the damage you’ve done, which is essentially how you build muscle and build strength.

Bodyweight resistance

Throwing a couple extra pounds onto a bar is an easy way to increase resistance to work your muscles.

The same stress can be created during bodyweight training in a number of ways by changing and properly progressing your exercises.

  1. Time under tension
    Increasing the time that your muscle is under tension is one way to boost resistance.

    For example, if someone is doing a bodyweight push-up, instead of going up or down really quick, they could spend three or four seconds lowering themselves down.

    That will increase the amount of time their muscle is working and it makes the exercise more challenging. Give it a try if you’re skeptical.
  1. Holding pattern
    Holding a position is another effective way to add resistance.

    Using the push-up example, take three or four seconds to move downward. At the bottom, hold the position for three seconds. You’ll notice an immediate increase in difficulty.
  1. Changing angles
    Changing the angle of the bodyweight exercise you’re doing also increases the intensity of each movement.

    In the push-up analogy, put your feet up on something to increase the angle of your body.
  1. Adding more repetitions
    Like all exercises, if you add more repetitions of the movement you’re performing, it increases the work your body has to do to adapt to the given exercise. 

Benefits of bodyweight training

Portability
Prioritizing training can be an obstacle for some people, but since you take your body wherever you go there’s no excuse to skip a workout.

It’s simple to do bodyweight exercises at home, in a hotel room or even in your office.

If your schedule only allows you to go to the gym twice a week, you can boost your workouts by doing bodyweight exercises away from the gym. Even if it’s not a full hour workout at home, every little bit adds up.

Weight loss
Bodyweight training involves big movements incorporating the entire body, so a lot of muscles have to activate in order for you to do it.

That translates into burning a lot more calories than if you were just doing a bicep curl or an isolated movement, leading to more fat loss.

Improved movement
Bodyweight training increases your stability and co-ordination because you learn how to control your movements.

If you’re sitting on a machine doing an exercise, the machine is doing a lot of the stabilizing for you.

Confidence and trust in how your body performs improves day-to-day movements, whether that’s taking part in sports, recreational activities, carrying children or doing yard work.

The proof

If you can’t wrap your head around how bodyweight training builds muscles, just look at top gymnasts. They focus more on bodyweight training than using free weights, yet their bodies are muscular and powerful.

If you’re still doubtful, start blending bodyweight exercises into your weight training. The benefit will be more well-rounded fitness.