Right or wrong, good or bad, lots of guys are preoccupied with building muscle (this post may be skewed slightly towards male readers…). So it’s not surprising that we frequently receive questions which vary on the theme of, “can I build muscle with bodyweight exercise.” My answer? Yes! But…
When it comes to packing on lean muscle mass, there’s a bit of nuance that needs to be addressed. And it all starts with the question, “what are you looking to grow muscle FOR?” Is it to be more functional in a sport, activity or movement. Is it to look better on the beach? Is it for reasons of health, vitality and virility. Or is it perhaps to just be plain old hyoooge?
If your answer is the latter, you won’t get there on bodyweight training alone. It would still make an important addition to your training with respect to maintaining the maximum possible movement potential and mobility though!
The kind of mass you can pack on with bodyweight exercise is what I call muscle where muscle is due. My favorite term for this is the Functional Physique. By engaging your body in functionally useful and transferable movements, your body will be forced to lay down muscle mass wherever necessary to support that movement.
This is such a foreign concept for most trainers, who are caught up in the idea of training to get bigger so you can perform better. Few understand that by training to move better you’ll get bigger–but only where you need it. That was a big revelation for me when I discovered Circular Strength Training®. And it’s why I feel better now than when I was constantly pushing myself in two dimensions to get bigger and stronger. The funny thing is, I can push more weight in most of the conventional weight training movements than I could back then!
Functional Physique Role Models
Let’s take a look at a male gymnast or a break dancer for a good illustration of these principles. These guys sport sleek muscularity. And they built it primarily by manipulating their own bodyweight in space. So if we look at the movements they have to do, it can give us a little hint about how we can tweak our own bodyweight training to build more functional muscle mass.
If you’ve ever watched a bit of male gymnastics on TV, you’ll surely have noticed that they have to hold a static positions periodically. This is called an isometric contraction–and they have to do some doozies! Moving your body in space is challenging, but supporting most of your weight in a static hold can be seriously tough.
Using the secret weapon of the gymnast
And we can use this to our advantage in bodyweight training. Here’s an example that has challenged even the strongest of my trainees. Get yourself set for a push-up and lower yourself to about the halfway point, just before your upper arms reach parallel with the ground. Then hold that position for 40 to 60 seconds without moving. Right afterward, do 5 push ups in a “cluster set” (do one push up, rest ten seconds, do another, etc). When you’re ready to add more sophistication and even more growth potential, replace the clustered push ups with 5-10 continuous Quad Hops. Rest a minute between sets and start over, completing anywhere from 3 to 6 sets.
With a little imagination you can apply the same principle to any number of exercises to get a complete full-body hypertrophy (muscle growth) workout without ever stepping foot in the gym!
What other exercises do you think would work well with this method? Let us know in the comments!