Bodyweight exercises can be a phenomenal tool to use in your journey to sculpt a bigger, leaner, stronger physique. They can also serve as a pair of cement blocks tied to your feet after you are thrown into the Lake of Gainz. So what is the hangup? How can a simple exercise like a pullup be BOTH an incredibly effective exercise for building an aesthetic, strong, back, and a complete waste of time that yields absolutely no positive skeletal muscular adaptations? The answer, as always, lies in the execution.
Of late, I have noticed a lot of strength coaches and fitness professionals prescribing TEMPOS to certain exercises, essentially marrying time under tension to a rep count. This is not a new practice, but I presume it has come back around into the limelight because a lot of us have realized that this stuff, you know MATTERS. Ask someone how many pullups they can do, and you will get a variety of answers. 10…5…20…40…when it is all said and done all these numbers represent are, well…numbers. They lack CONTEXT. Did the individual lock out their arms all the way in the bottom, completely stretching the lats? Did he/she use a 3 Second Eccentric? 10 Second Eccentric? 1 Second Eccentric? Was kipping or other forms of cheating utilized? Was there a clear contraction at the top? See where am I going here?
With all exercise, it is not enough to just say that you DID something, without the context behind it to provide the truth about what exactly it is that you achieved. Stop focusing on “how many” low quality reps you can do, and focus on the QUALITY and INTEGRITY of each and every rep that you perform. By shifting your focus AWAY from “achieving” feats of strength, and onto setting PR’s utilizing only the strictest, most consistent form, you will undoubtedly grow, get stronger, and get the MOST out of your training.
Here are 3 tips to maximize the results you get from bodyweight training that, incidentally, can be applied to ALL muscle groups:
#1- Slow it Down
With bodyweight training, there is really no “risk” to plummeting down at the speed of light during the eccentric phase of the lift. Not sure what I mean? Grab the heaviest Kettlebell you can possibly swing up into the Goblet position. Now, drop down as fast as you can into the bottom position. A little hesitant? Understandable, because you might, you know, get SEVERELY injured training that way. A Pistol Squat does not invoke the same inherent fear, and in fact, the “risk” of injury is outweighed by the “reward” of “doing” a rep. With the aforementioned Goblet Squat example, the risk outweighs the reward, so for many of us, a controlled eccentric comes naturally. With bodyweight training, we need to be smarter, so it is a constant self reminder that we are NOT training to “do reps”, but rather, to gain muscle and strength.
#2 – You Have to Feel It
Whether you are trying to improve your physique, or even get a particular muscle group stronger, you need to FEEL the target muscle working. Sound obvious right? Now is the time to be honest with yourself. When is the last time, you really, and I mean, REALLY focused on the almighty mind-muscle connection? That is what I thought. If you can’t feel pushups in your chest, you need to alter your technique, to fit your body, until you do. If you fail to do this, the only thing you will improve upon is your ability to dry hump the ground with crappy reps that yield no tangible results in size or strength. Feel each eccentric. Feel each stretch. Feel each contraction. Picture the target muscle working, and you will be BLOWN away at how effective that movement really is.
#3-Standardize Your Form
As I mentioned in the intro, you need to establish a precedent, and consistency with the WAY that you perform each rep, particularly if you are emphasizing progressive overload. If you are not cognizant of the tempo used, the standard of strictness that you hold yourself to (resisting bouncing, swinging, etc), and the range of motion used, then the log book you keep truly doesn’t matter. If you could do 10 Pushups last week, and this week you decided you were going to do 11, but used a faster eccentric, stopped halfway down on the last 3 reps, and didn’t really feel your chest activating….well, then what did you REALLY do? Conversely, if you ALWAYS use a 4 Second Eccentric, a 1 Second Pause, and an explosive concentric, with NO cheating, then if you do 11 reps, GOOD FOR YOU! You are well on your way to cashing in on those gains that you seek.
So there you have it. While these nuggets are applicable to ANY strength training exercise, the reality is, when it comes to bodyweight training, to get the MOST bang for your buck, you can’t rely on mechanical tension (weight) alone to yield results. Every factor of each movement becomes critically important, but the cool thing is, once you can wrap your head around that fact, most bodyweight exercises can be just as serviceable as their counterparts that utilize machines, dumbbells, barbells, or any other tools of the trade.