I’m a personal trainer; I have an interest in all things fitness related and the way the industry is going. Every time I walk into a gym, I find myself surrounded by numerous machines and contraptions. Racks of free weights, strength training machines, cardio equipment, the latest fads in functional training, the latest gadgets promising improved core stability... and to tell you the truth, most of it is pointless. I surf the web, watch the infomercials on TV, browse fitness magazines, and try to make sense of what I see and read, beyond all the hype and ridiculous sales pitches.
Does it work? Of course, it all does... to a certain extent, and in very varying degrees. If you wave your arms around, and watch what you eat, you’ll be hard pressed not to make at least some progress!
But beyond a few well-tried and tested methods, do the fad programs and the fitness paraphernalia actually deliver on their promises? Hardly... but I’m sure you realised that even before you actually purchased the damn things!
It’s great business though: to the untrained eye, it looks like you’ll never get fit unless you sign down your name on that contract or key-in your credit card details. You’ll never look good or get strong unless you hand in your hard-earned cash in exchange for a gym membership, a fancy DVD, or an overpriced eBook.
But the truth is, you can! You can put on muscle without ever touching a dumbbell. You can have a strong core without the help of a stability ball, and you can develop functional fitness (whatever that means) without the help of an overpriced suspension training system.
Look around you: there are kids practicing parkour in your streets, doing back flips off the neighbourhood walls, vaulting concrete and metal obstacles, jumping off high roofs. In China, in the parks, you see middle-aged men and women doing the splits on the grassy lawns or practicing tai chi in their everyday clothes. Even in the West, you still find people working out on the beach or on an outdoor pull up bar in the midst of the concrete jungle... In every city, in every country, you see a handful of guys and girls who keep on exercising without any equipment and progressing for 10 or 20 years; people who still manage to remain exited about their exercise regime.
I’m not a purist. I don’t want to advocate the superiority of any training method (I do in fact use weights at times), but bodyweight training is seldom done correctly: it’s seen as something you do when you start training, something that does not require any equipment and therefore is suitable for boot camp type sessions, and something you need to move away from when you start progressing.
It’s the calisthenics you were put through in gym class because of the limited availability of other equipment. It’s also the push ups older guys attempt when they decide to get some fitness back 20 years later (and that they perform badly!). It’s the donkey kicks every girl I see seems compelled to do hundreds of repetitions of, without any apparent results!
Here’s the thing though: there are almost infinite variations to common bodyweight exercises, and you can string them together and progress through them to keep your training fresh and varied, to constantly discover new ways in which your body can move and to keep improving without resorting to the same isolation, repetitive exercises which only require increasing the weight on a barbell. You can lose weight and get stronger at the same time, without spending hours on tedious cardio. You can follow a consistent training program whenever, wherever, be it under a tree in the local park, or within the confines or your home.
I’m no great gymnast or acrobat. I’m an ordinary guy who came to strength training late in his life and struggled to be enthused by what was on offer, struggled to make sense of it also sometimes... I’m not particularly muscle-bound or athletic, but I can walk into a gym and pull off a few renegade pistol squats or a couple of muscle ups, and smile about it and enjoy the way my body moves.
And people will certainly notice, and try the exercise, and fail, despite their months or years of training, because even though it might not involve lifting anything heavier than their own body weight, these things require good strength and balance, and coordination.
Some of these feats look incredibly hard when they are in fact quite easy, some look deceptively simple when they are actually very hard, but the truth is that after a few months of well-structured training, they are achievable for most.
All considered, there are several very good reasons why you might consider training primarily (if not exclusively) with bodyweight exercises:
- One that is put forward most often, is that bodyweight exercises do not require a gym. This, in my mind, is not a very good argument for bodyweight training. Sure, occasionally your finances might not allow a gym membership, or the facilities might simply not be available nearby. And for some people, beginning an exercise program from the privacy of their home or a quiet park is a way to avoid feeling self-conscious. Nonetheless, I still choose to train bodyweight primarily, even when I visit my local gym...
- More importantly for me, becoming proficient at bodyweight exercises is all about your power-to-weight ratio. Not only does an optimum power-to-weight ratio translate well to the majority of physical activities and sports, but aesthetically it also leads to a certain body type which is driven by efficiency. Think here of the body of a gymnast, compared to that of a power lifter... A strong, muscular body, yet lithe and agile.
- Generally speaking, bodyweight exercises develop far greater flexibility than weight training does.
- And still generally speaking, bodyweight exercises also develop far greater balance than weight training does.
- Bodyweight exercises offer some clear targets to shoot for: imagine the satisfaction of achieving a pull up or a muscle up for the first time, or your first 30 seconds handstand... It is very different from increasing the weight on a barbell by a few kilos... It is something very tangible: here’s something you couldn’t do only a couple of weeks ago, and it has now become a reality.
- Bodyweight exercises offer an incredible number of variations. And as you progress through them and develop, your training keeps changing and evolving, always keeping things new and fresh.
- Finally, most of your aims can be achieved using only bodyweight exercises, whether it is losing weight, putting on muscles, preserving quality of movement and aging gracefully, developing cardiovascular fitness, or building a rock solid foundation for a variety of sports.
For more on the subject, have a browse through these 12 principles of bodyweigh training.
Ultimately, there is a great deal to be gained from bodyweight training. It is not a simple quick fix towards gaining a bikini body or putting on muscles (though it can be), and it is much more than a beginner training program: it leads to a lifetime pursuit and exploration of the ways in which your body moves and functions. Beyond a fitness regime, it is a system and a practice that emphasizes mobility, strength, flexibility, balance and coordination. It promotes movement and encompasses elements of various sports and activities ranging from gymnastics to hand-balancing skills, acrobatics and strength training.This site only provides a foundation in a nameless, infinite system of movement. Through a few simple exercises and a tried and tested program of progressions, it will help you build the strength and mobility to start on your journey towards a lifetime practice of fitness and movement exploration.
NEXT: About the Start Bodyweight Program