Summer means the kids are out of school, your schedule is turned upside down and you may be away from your fancy, well-equipped gym more than you like. When resources are limited, creativity to reach your goals is a must. You can increase your muscle mass and build strength and power with bodyweight exercises, and virtually no equipment in any location.
Like any form of resistance training, if you can challenge your muscles enough, they will adapt by growing larger and more powerful; and like any form of resistance training, this means hard work.
There are 5 essential keys to building muscle mass and strength with bodyweight only:
- Absolute Failure
- Progressive Loading
- Increased Time Under Tension
- Train Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers
- Patience and Consistency
Bodyweight training for hypertrophy is no different than other forms of resistance training. In order to stimulate muscle growth, you have to use exercises that challenge you with appropriate resistance and push until you can’t complete another repetition.
Perhaps more importantly, training to failure will challenge your mental toughness and give you a greater idea of your true physical limitations.
How to Train to Failure
With some bodyweight exercises, you will find it hard to complete several repetitions. With other movements you may be able to do dozens of repetitions.
In order to go to failure on these movements, take a page from traditional bodybuilding by using giant sets, drop sets, pre-exhaustion and negatives at the end of a set.
Giant sets today are often called complexes, as in dumbbell or barbell complexes, or set up as ’rounds’ of several exercises performed back-to-back with no rest between.
For bodyweight workouts, a giant set might look like this:
- Pushups to failure
- Pike Pushups to failure
- Bench Dips to failure
- Plank Walk-outs to failure
Use giant sets when you want to crank up the fat-burning intensity while stimulating multiple muscle groups.
Drop sets are a method for taking a particular muscle group to complete failure in one set. Using pushups as an example, you might do the following, with each exercise being progressively easier until no more repetitions are possible:
Pushups (flat if you can do 25 or less, with feet elevated if you can do more than 25 in a row)>Pushups on your knees (or flat if starting with feet elevated) >Pushups against an incline (such as a counter or desk; or to your knees if you were doing them flat)
If you have pushed each set to true failure, by the time you get to the easiest form of the pushup for you, it should be nearly impossible to complete one more rep.
By pre-exhausting the supporting muscles in a movement, you force the major movers to do the majority of the work.
For example, try performing Bench Dips for the triceps before doing pushups, pike pushups or handstand pushups.
Before doing pullups, try performing suspension trainer ‘curls’ or contracting the biceps isometrically.
Negative repetitions are a great way to build up to a difficult movement, and an excellent way to stimulate muscle growth.
To perform negatives as a finisher to a set, perform as many repetitions of the exercise as possible. When you can’t do any more, get to the contracted position and slowly lower your body over 5 seconds. Repeat 3-6 times or until failure is reached.
To do negatives at the end of a pullup set, you might jump to the top position or use a chair/ladder to get there before lowering your body under tension.
You can also do all negative sets. To do this, get into the contracted or starting position and slowly lower/raise your body under extreme tension. Do as many reps as you can in good form.
Develop a good base training level before attempting these techniques, and be sure to give the body plenty of time to rest when you push it this hard!
To continually get stronger and pack on muscle, the body must be challenged with greater and varied stresses.
This means you will have to increase the volume of overall work you are doing, or, more appropriate to your muscle building goals, do harder movements.
Here are a few ways to progress bodyweight exercises. Once you can do more than 10-15 repetitions of these exercises without going to failure, consider adding one of the advanced failure methods listed above.
Elevate feet. Use a ladder, wall, chair, whatever you have. Too high and it becomes primarily a shoulder press.
- Suspend feet in a suspension trainer
- Suspend hands in a suspension trainer
- Suspend hands and feet!
- Wider hands-Wider!
- One arm assisted pushup
- One arm pushup
- Scorpion pushups
- Archer pushups
This is just a brief sample of methods to increase the difficulty of the common pushup. You could also simply use a slow cadence with a pause at the bottom of the movement to increase the tension on the muscles, but more on that later.
- Slow cadence. Forget kipping, pull the shoulder blades down and in, then use a strict pulling motion up and down, pausing at the top.
- Throw a towel or thick rope over the bar and pull up while hanging onto the ends
- Do close grip pullups
- Side-to-side motion at the top. Pullup, hold yourself there and move all the way to the left, then right
- Behind-the-neck pullups
- One arm pullups
- L-Sit or knee tuck pullups. Do an L-sit with your legs straight out in front of you, then pullup. If this is too hard, try tucking your knees to your chest instead
- Clapping pullups. If you can generate enough power, blast above the bar and clap your hands together
- Muscle-ups. Next to the one-arm pullup, probably the most difficult pullup exercise.
For the average person, just increasing your repetitions and using a focused and strict full range of motion will be enough to challenge you for a long time.
Another way to progress is to simply use different exercises. Instead of using only dip and pushup variations to work your upper body pushing muscles, grab some gymnastics rings or a suspension trainer and perform the exercises on those. While your at it, do chest flyes, a great exercise for isolating the pectorals that builds incredible strength.
Still another, and simpler method, is to continually push the point of failure further and further away; that is, do more and more repetitions. As a regular practice, however, higher and higher repetitions will build more endurance than anything else.
To make bodyweight squats harder, try the following:
- Squat to a box at parallel height, relax then explode back up
- Squat down, shift your weight to one leg and pushup
- Do Airplane Squats-Squat down on one leg with one leg trailing behind, hands out to your sides
- Do Pistol Squats-Squat down on one leg with the other straight out in front of you
- Do Hack Squats-Squat down with your hands behind your back, together or separate, and lower yourself slowly to parallel while balancing on the balls of your feet
Increased Time Under Tension
If you can increase the time the primary movers are under tension during a repetition and throughout the set, you can stimulate more muscle growth.
This is what using a slow cadence will do, assuming the exercise is performed correctly. Try taking 4 seconds to raise or lower the body, 4 seconds at the bottom/top position, and 4 seconds to come back up.
Your muscles will recruit more muscle fibers than if you used a fast rhythm, and it should be harder to do higher repetition sets.
At the end of set, isometrically contract the working muscles for 5-10 seconds, another way to increase their time under tension.
Increasing the time under tension alone is not the final word in increasing muscle size with bodyweight exercises, but it is a start.
According to Charles Polloquin, one of the best things to do for greater hypertrophy is to use tempo variations; that is, use a slow cadence for some sessions and use a faster cadence in others. The first will create more constant tension throughout the movement, the second will train the muscles to develop greater power and force.
Train Fast Twitch Muscle Fibers
As the largest muscle fibers in the body, fast twitch muscle fibers must be trained in order to build muscle mass.
This means ‘going heavy’ and fatiguing the muscles. By going heavy, or placing greater force demands on the muscles, the body recruits more fast-twitch muscle fibers. To do this, choose an exercise that you can only comfortably perform 1-5 repetitions in.
By fatiguing the muscles, the same thing happens. As slow-twitch muscle fibers fatigue, the body recruits more fast-twitch fibers. To do this, perform giant sets with no rest between sets or repetitions.
You can also fatigue the muscle fibers by eliminating any rest between reps during ‘heavy’ sets.
Patience and Consistency
No matter what type of training you do or what you want to achieve, patience and consistency will help you achieve your goals.
Bodyweight muscle building does work, but there is a high level of skill involved with many advanced bodyweight exercises that takes time, hard work and patience to learn.
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