In 1998, 2 years after completing graduate school, I officially incorporated and opened Training Wheels In-Home Personal Training in Milwaukee, Wis. With a good 25-client load, I traveled daily from client to client to help them achieve better health and fitness in the comfort and privacy of their own homes. Part of the greatest joy of my experience over the next 10 years came from accommodating and manipulating various training environments to my clients’ advantage without the use of expensive training tools such as cardiovascular equipment, machines, or dumbbells that the clients didn’t have and ultimately didn’t need. Using only their bodyweight as resistance, I was able to provide clients with effective, efficient, and enjoyable workouts that didn’t require them to invest in equipment.
Co-author John King and I are current faculty members at Wake Technical Community College (WTCC) in the Health and Fitness Science (HFS) Department in Raleigh, NC. Although blessed with a fully outfitted gym, we still find it important to build trainees’ fitness with bodyweight exercises and to teach our students, who themselves go on to become highly qualified fitness professionals, to do the same. One of the intracurricular themes in our HFS program at WTCC is the discussion of the detrimental effects of chronic sitting and sedentary living. This paper will address why being able to manipulate our own bodyweight is so important for the prevention of physiological neuromuscular decline. The most frequent forces that our joints must tolerate and our muscles act against result from our own bodyweight. In my experience, absorbing these loads improperly comes at a high cost of pain and injury. Improving command of his or her own body, however, can dramatically improve a client’s movement quality, quality of life, and performance. Bodyweight exercises allow clients to improve how they manipulate their own bodies through space in a way that is both important for health and difficult to replicate with other training methods that may not align with a client’s unique anthropometry (1).
This article will address three main areas. First, a discussion of what bodyweight training is; second, why it’s so critical for personal trainers to have a developed skill set using bodyweight as a training tool; and third, how to recommend and facilitate a bodyweight-resisted training session.
Although blessed with a fully outfitted gym, we still find it important to build trainees’ fitness with bodyweight exercises and to teach our students, who themselves go on to become highly qualified fitness professions, to do the same.
Bodyweight training is, in essence, the art of utilizing a person’s own body as a resistance tool without the use of external resistance such as dumbbells, barbells, or machines (2). A few examples of typical bodyweight exercises include push-ups, crunches, lunges, squats, and pull-ups as well as any of their variations. In short, any movement where additional load is not added to the body is considered a bodyweight exercise. Although anyone can implement or begin a bodyweight training program, an adept trainer can adapt the movements that his or her client performs to capture his or her own mass as an optimal resistance tool, rather than just a convenient one. Even without the use of external resistance, this training can improve not only coordination, balance, and flexibility, but also the more traditional fitness goals of strength, speed, endurance, and power (2). Because of its multiplanar nature, bodyweight training is recognized as a functional movement training modality as it allows the body’s musculature to work in concert (3).
Reasons for basing a client’s training on bodyweight exercises, or including them periodically in a comprehensive program, abound. Bodyweight training can be used to increase program adherence and convenience, improve movement quality, add diversity, decrease costs of exercise, or even simply to increase client enjoyment and satisfaction. The following highlights a few reasons for considering bodyweight training for your clients:
- Few things can derail an effective training program such as lack of access to equipment. Although some people have access to affordable facilities and associated equipment, not everyone does. Fitness professionals that have a good understanding of bodyweight training have additional tools in their tool box that can reach a broader range of clients and even enhance training programs for those that use a facility. In addition, clients that have bodyweight exercises as part of their fitness routine find it easier to exercise while traveling or working long hours.
- Bodyweight training helps teach the client how to manipulate their own bodies in an organic and safe way. When we place our bodies on external resistance machines, it’s difficult to assess how much of that movement “belongs” (initiated and stabilized) to the client and how much to the machine or equipment. Although sectorized resistance equipment is generally easy to use and provides adequate training stimulus, their singular use as a training modality may not provide optimal functional outcomes in many people, especially if the training program only uses a limited number of exercises. For a client to navigate their body throughout the world safely and powerfully, they should be encouraged to do so in their training, preferably more often than not. Bodyweight training provides this opportunity.
Bodyweight training helps teach the client to manipulate their own bodies in an organic and safe way. When we place our bodies on external resistance machines, it’s difficult to assess how much of that movement “belongs” (initiated and stabilized) to the client and how much to the machine or equipment.
- Diversity in training is essential for long-term progression (4). As inferred in point 2, even with a variety of machines or other means of external loading, bodyweight training exercises can serve as an injection of novel training stimuli, pushing a client’s development forward, particularly if it has stagnated. Often, a trainee’s adaptations are stunted by too rapid a focus on the latest and most complex machines/movements; a focus on the higher end adaptations of maximal strength or power, without first building a base of balance, core strength, mobility, and stability (4). All of these qualities can be profoundly improved with bodyweight exercises (2). To reap these benefits, and avoid stagnation, and perpetuate adaptation, it is important for clients to perform exercises that challenge them to manipulate their own bodyweight throughout the continuum of their training journey and that trainers be proficient in programming these types of exercises.
- Organizing a training program around bodyweight exercises also can minimize the financial burden of resistance training. Fitness facility memberships, on average, can cost clients $800 USD in the first year alone, whereas purchasing traditional strength training equipment for home use can cost thousands of dollars more (5). It is easy to see why cost is such a large hurdle for many clients. Trainers who want to capture this segment of in-home or small group trainees and bring the associated health and quality of life benefits to this underserved population will need to be able to think outside the “gym.” Trainers need a good repertoire of bodyweight movements that will both challenge and progress clients’ fitness, anywhere and on any budget.
Trainers need a good repertoire of bodyweight movements that will both challenge and progress clients’ fitness, anywhere and on any budget.
- Personal preferences play a role in every area of a client’s life and their fitness program is no exception. As ideal as it would be for each client to equally enjoy each modality of resistance training, that is rarely the case. Some clients will simply enjoy and be more motivated to perform bodyweight exercises than utilizing more traditional strength training movements and machines. Others may be intimidated by the thought of hoisting large metal plates or are turned off by their misconceptions of the effect that style of training will have on their body or the types of people who perform them. Regardless of the reason, it is important to be able to design a program that is not only effective for a client, but also one they will enjoy as the two often go hand in hand. Routines and exercises that clients enjoy increase motivation, effort, and adherence to the program (6). The more options in a trainer’s catalog of exercises, the more easily such a routine can be developed.
Exercise Prescription for Bodyweight Training: The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends 8 to 12 repetitions of a resistance training exercise for each major muscle group at an intensity of 60% to 80% of a one-repetition max (RM), depending on the training level of the participant. Two to three minutes of rest is recommended between exercise sets to allow for proper recovery. Two to four sets are recommended for each muscle group with at least 48 hours between workouts or exercises for the same muscle groups (7). If a total body training protocol is used, this means a total of 2 to 3 workouts should be performed each week.
Exercise Selection: Exercise selection is arguably the most important variable in any program, and bodyweight-resisted ones are no different. Unstimulated tissues (muscle or otherwise) will have no training stress to adapt to, making it vital to include the proper exercises for tissues/movements that you seek to improve in your client (8). A total of 8 to 10 multi-joint exercises should be used per workout involving multiple muscle groups. A proper exercise selection will:
- Promote strength development for all major muscle groups of the body (9). An effective way of achieving strength development is to focus on movement patterns that recruit all the major muscle groups. A movement-focused split could include squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, and other movements that stimulate all major muscle groups and ultimately enhance the movements those muscles produce.
- Use large muscle groups to create an appropriate stimulus and aerobic intensity (9). The more muscles involved in an exercise, the more force the body is able to produce and the more work that is done. This not only increases the total number of muscle fibers stimulated, but also diffuses a larger oxygen demand across the body versus the smaller overall demand produced by focusing on a more concentrated area.
- Balance strength across individual joints and across the body (9). Working the front side of the shoulder through a pressing exercise, for example, should be balanced by training the back of the shoulder with a pulling exercise. Balancing the strength of the muscles around a joint helps prevent injury and improve movement efficiency.
- Be at an appropriate intensity based on the client’s needs (9). Because external resistance is not used, modifying the intensity of a bodyweight exercise will occur primarily through changes to the body’s position or angle of the joint(s) being worked. For example, performing a push-up with the hands on a bench/couch rather than the floor lowers the amount of force needed from the pressing muscles to complete a rep. To increase intensity, however, gravity could be further used by performing push-ups plyometrically.
- Be appropriate for the available space (9). Exercise should always be safe and effective, but with limited equipment it is even more important to take the surroundings and available space into consideration. Can the client perform the movement well? Is there enough space to perform the movement safely?
- Incorporate the environment (9). Bodyweight training should seek to use what is available in the surroundings, whether indoors or out. Step-ups can be done on stairs, for instance, or dips performed on the edge of a sturdy table.
- Be easily transitioned from one to another to minimize set-up or rest time depending on the pace of the workout and the desired training stimulus (4).
Exercise order: The order of exercises also is an important variable in program design and implementation. Generally speaking, ACSM recommends the following:
- Larger muscle groups such as glutes and quads are worked before smaller muscle groups such as the calves (8). This allows for an optimal warming up and ramping up of the body and may improve the effectiveness of subsequent exercises.
- Compound, or multi-joint, exercises should be performed before isolation, or single-joint exercises (8). An example of this principle in action would be to perform all sets of lunges and push-ups before exercises such as toe raises or flyes. This helps ensure proper neuromuscular recruitment on the multi-joint exercises that could be compromised by unbalanced stimulation or fatiguing of individual muscle groups from single-joint work.
- Alternate pushing exercises with pulling exercises for the upper body to allow maximal recovery time of muscle groups (8). Allow the primary pulling or pushing muscles to rest by rotating to an exercise for the other before moving back. For example, rather than performing pull-ups, then rows, then push-ups, a client should perform pull-ups, then push-ups, then move to rows. Alternating movements in this fashion also increases circulatory system adaptation, as blood must be diverted from one active muscle group to another, rather than allowing to pool in a single location.
- Alternate upper body and lower body exercises if the client is performing a total body workout (8). This, again, allows for maximal recovery time of muscle groups over the course of the workout. With more recovery, performance and force production improves, allowing for a greater overall stimulus.
- Explosive/power lifts such as plyometric or Olympic exercises should be performed before basic strength and single-joint exercises (8). These lifts require the greatest coordination and timing of the body and should be performed while the client is freshest for peak performance and reduced risk of injury.
- Perform exercises for priority or “weak” movements/muscles before “strong” or lower priority movements/muscles to ensure that maximal effort and attention can be directed to the areas that need them most (8).
- High(er) intensity exercises should be performed before low(er) intensity exercises. As with number six, this allows for the most demanding work to be performed while the client is freshest, allowing for the greatest effort, coordination, and concentration on the exercises that need them (8).
Sample Workout: Using the criteria above, one can easily design a safe and effective training program using only bodyweight-resisted exercises. Here are two such workouts that a client could rotate between. Modifications for each of these exercises may be needed based on your client’s capabilities and fitness level.
Legs: 1A. Squats 1B. Side Lunges
Press: 2A. Push-ups 2B. Static Protraction-Retraction
Pull: 3A. Pull-ups 3B. Str. Arm Press down on floor/wall
Legs: 4A. Back Lunges 4B. Walking Lunges
Press: 5A. Dips 5B. Pike Push-up
Pull: 6A. Row 6B. Prone Retraction
Legs: 7A. Hip Bridging 7B. Single-Leg Deadlifts
Core: 8A. Plank 8B. Crunches
Legs: 9A. Heel Raises 9B. Toe Raises
Core: 10A. Side Plank 10B. Quadruped
This article addressed three main aspects of bodyweight training. First, a strong discussion of what bodyweight training is; second, why it’s so critical for personal trainers to have a developed skill set using bodyweight as a training tool; and lastly, how to recommend and facilitate a bodyweight-resisted training session. Although it’s tempting to only train clients in the comfort of a fitness facility and have access to a variety of equipment, it also is important for the reasons discussed in this article to learn to train outside the facility and in situations where equipment is limited or not available.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Bodyweight training helps teach clients to manipulate their own bodies in an organic and safe way, improving balance, coordination, flexibility, as well as the more traditional fitness markers (3). Bodyweight training can be done without equipment, reduces financial strain on clients, increases workout variety, and makes workouts more enjoyable for many. Bodyweight exercises can be programmed the same as traditional resistance exercises, but good bodyweight training typically involves most or all major muscle groups of the body, balances training stress across individual joints, incorporates the surrounding environment efficiently, and is an appropriate intensity for the client.
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