Saturday, April 12, 2014

To Build Muscle, All you Need is your Bodyweight

In the following post, featured on Mosladder, the author brings up some excellent points with regard to bodyweight bodybuilding, or simply building muscle with bodyweight.

Since we've all seen the well-developed bodies of elite gymnasts, Hannibal and Barstarzz (among others; of playground bar/pro calisthenics fame0 we already know you can get ripped and yoked with bodyweight exercises (dips, pullups, front levers, pistols and handstand pushups anyone?) 

Here is how to take your bodyweight workouts to the next level:

The question: Can you build muscle by only using your bodyweight?

The answer? Hell yes! 

But just like lifting weights to build muscle, it isn't easy. It may even be too hard for a lot of people. After all, in order to destroy your muscles with bodyweight, you have to use leverage, push harder than you would with free weights to find failure, and learn to have complete control over your muscles in order to activate all the muscle you need when you need it.

What this all boils down to is this. In order to build muscle with just your bodyweight, you need to do three things:
  • Work to absolute failure
  • Continually progress 
  • Extend the time under tension
Work to Absolute Failure

Forget 'leaving a rep or two in the bank,' or avoiding the failure point to save energy for something else. The greater the destructive stimulus, the greater adaptation the body must make, and if you want to continue to build muscle in the long run, you will need to push to failure, fully recover, and repeat.

Absolute failure for bodyweight exercises can be hard to pinpoint. Let's face it, after you've done a couple dozen pushups or squats, you start wondering if you'll ever 'truly' fail. But you can, and eventually the muscles give out.

Using the bodyweight squat as an example, imagine you can perform 50 repetitions before it becomes difficult to stand up. This is when your set begins, and your mental fortitude is tested. When you cannot   stand back up (or you fall to the floor) you are done. 

But just to be sure, hold onto a chair or rail and perform slow eccentric (negative) repetitions. When you fail at those, then you can stop.

You can also reverse this process by pre-exhausting the muscles. Perform an exercise to failure or close to failure, followed by the target movement. Pushups followed by dips, or vice versa, for example. 

The same method can be used for pushups, pullups, etc. Perform a regular set to failure, then do an assisted version (pushups on your knees, pullups with a band or with feet supported) until you cannot perform another repetition. It takes guts to push to this point, and if you do it right, you will feel it the next day.

Continually Progress  

There are many ways to continue to stimulate your muscles to grow, but if weight is weight (your body, free weights,) then repetitions are repetitions. High repetition sets to failure will develop your muscular endurance, but only so much muscle.

As with free weights, you must continually challenge your muscles to grow. This means increasing the load somehow, as well as the overall amount of work done. Here are two ways to accomplish this:

  • Eliminate momentum
  • Increase the lever arm
  • Destabilize the base
Eliminating momentum is another way of saying 'slow down.' Instead of bouncing off the bottom of a pushup or dip, lower slowly, pause at the bottom and then push back up. This ensures complete control over the movement, helps prevent injury, and makes the muscles do all of the work. Use this same tactic with every one of your bodyweight workouts and see how long you last.

Increasing the lever arm means putting your body at a disadvantage to complete the exercise. So for instance, a pushup with your feet elevated is harder than one with the feet flat. Move the hands wider apart and it becomes more difficult still; move the hands further in front of you, and although it brings other muscles into play, it is still more difficult to complete a rep.

This is an easy concept to get if you like doing planks. Most folks can hold an elbow plank for a few seconds, but as you begin walking your hands ahead of your skull, the exercise gets significantly harder. 

Destabilizing your base forces the muscles to work harder to maintain proper form and execute the movement, while also bringing additional supporting muscles into play. 

Some good ways to do this include:

  • Performing pushups with your feet on an exercise ball 
  • Pushups with one foot elevated
  • Hack squats
  • Box squats
  • One leg squats
  • Planks with your hands/elbows on an exercise ball
  • Single leg deadlift
  • Side plank with extended arm and elevated leg
Extend the Time Under Tension

One of the easiest ways to extend a set and force the muscle to work a little longer is to keep them under tension a little longer. This may mean hanging with the shoulders, upper back, wrists and biceps activated for 10 seconds when you can't perform another pullup or row. 

It can also be done by good old fashioned flexing. After failing at that last pushup, stand up and tense your chest, shoulders and triceps in an isometric contraction for 10 seconds. 

Additional time under tension means more work for your muscles.

It Works if you Work it

Bodyweight muscle building is no mystery, and it's no myth. With the right workout and nutrition program, and enough mental toughness, you can push your body to limits you'd never imagined, and build muscle at the same time. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Spring Training and Bodyweight Muscle Building

Spring is here! At least in some parts of the country, and even if you are still nursing hot cups of steaming beverages and shivering in your thermal underwear, summer is not far around the corner.

That means more activity and less clothing, which means now is the perfect time to start shedding pounds and packing on some muscle! Fortunately, with bodyweight exercises you can do both, and because it's a busy life, you can keep it simple.

If you have mastered doing 20-30 pushups without much effort, then you are ready for this upper body workout. If not, work on basic, wide hands and close hands pushups to failure and beyond (*see below) until you can.

For those who are ready, do the following exercises, resting about 2 minutes after you have gone to failure and beyond.

*Failure and beyond: When your muscles cannot do another rep of the exercise. You then switch to an easier exercise, such as regular pushups or pushups on your knees, each one to the same degree of failure. If you feel excessive strain on your wrists while doing pushups, consider purchasing some inexpensive pushup stands to relieve the pressure.

Pushing to failure and beyond is how we are going to build some spring/summer muscle, and develop greater body awareness at the same time. You can build muscle with bodyweight exercises, and performing this routine as described will leave you no doubts.

*For these three exercises, when you reach failure, switch to regular pushups to failure, and finally pushups on your knees to failure. As always, warm up your joints with mobility exercises and joint rotations before 'going heavy.'

∞There are no set reps. Go until you can't go any more.∞

Exercise 1: Divebomber Pushup

In this video, she recommends only doing 5 divebomber pushups. But remember, you are going to absolute failure (whether that's 2 or 20,) then switching to regular pushups and then to pushups on your knees.

Do these with minimal momentum, maintaining muscle tension throughout the movement.

Exercise 2: Scorpion Pushups

A good rule of thumb when doing scorpion pushups is to imagine your are trying to touch the heel of the reaching foot to the opposite shoulder. Do these with minimal momentum, maintaining muscle tension throughout the movement.

Exercise 3: Hands to Hips Pushups

As with the other exercises, do these with minimal momentum. Keep the body rigid (as if you'll have a choice!) the entire time and avoid 'bouncing' up and down.

That is your entire chest, shoulders and triceps workout for today! In addition, you will be doing extensive core work and activating the lats quite a bit to stabilize your movements.

How many sets of each should you do? That depends. If you go to complete failure as described, you may not need to or be able to do anymore. 

If you feel you can, give it a try. However, work harder on the second set; really push for those last reps.

***If you want a great read and a handy comprehensive bodyweight fitness reference by your side, I highly recommend this book: