Why Bodyweight Training Isn't Enough

We love getting questions from our coaches! It tells us that the Volt Family is as committed to providing strength and conditioning expertise to athletes as we are, and shows us what YOU are interested in learning. One question we get on a fairly regular basis has to do with bodyweight training. The question itself takes on many iterations, but it hangs on one central issue: "Is bodyweight training enough to get my athletes stronger, faster, and ready for competition?" Many coaches want to use bodyweight movements as their primary training tool for their athletesand while we agree that bodyweight training definitely has its place in a well-rounded training program, if you want to see real results, you have to pick up some weight.

Bodyweight Training is Good...

Make no mistake: there are many benefits to incorporating bodyweight movements into your training program. Bodyweight training requires high levels of core strength and stability; it is easy on the joints; it allows for the expression of full and natural ranges of motion; it translates naturally to functional athletic movements; and (Captain Obvious) it does not require expensive equipment for a training session. You can get stronger and faster using bodyweight exercises; that isn’t up for debate. Gymnasts, for example, utilize a high volume of bodyweight work in their training programs, and they are among the more muscular athletes in the sports spectrum. The issue isn’t whether bodyweight training will make you stronger: the real underlying issue is whether bodyweight training ALONE is enough to optimize athletes’ sport performance.

...But is NOT Enough.

We’ve talked before on the blog about the concept of progressive overload and how central it is to strength and conditioning science. Muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, and bones all respond to the stress of weight traininga properly periodized training program that gradually increases the stress being placed on the body will result in positive strength adaptations in tissues and bones. A stagnant program, one that doesn’t vary the resistance being lifted over time, will create plateaus in physiological adaptations. Put simply, if you always squat 150 lbs for 5 sets of 5 reps, twice a week, you will only improve for a short time, after which you will cease to see any positive strength gains. @@You cannot do the same thing over and over and over and expect different results.@@ This is the cornerstone of a good periodized strength training program.

And this is where problems with bodyweight-only training plans arise. Because bodyweight movements by definition do not vary the resistance being lifted, it is difficult to achieve progressive overload in a training plan. Don’t get me wrong, there are ways to increase the intensity of certain bodyweight movements to incite strength gainsprogressing from a standard push-up to a decline push-up, for example, or a bench triceps dip to a ring dip. You can also play with the number of reps, the tempo of the movement being performed, and other protocols that place a greater stimulus on the bodybut there comes a point in all bodyweight movement progressions at which resistance must be added in order for improvement to continue.

Resistance Training Requires Resistance

Strength training on a program that progressively challenges the body is the most effective way to get stronger, faster, and more powerful. Think of your training program as a tool belt: bodyweight movements have a place on the tool belt, like a wrench or a level, but for serious athletes wanting to optimize their performance in their sport, bodyweight training should not comprise the entire tool belt. Conditioning work, mobility and flexibility training, nutrition and hydration, and good rest and recovery habits (to name a few) should also figure prominently in your training program. But in order to increase the size and capacity of your muscle fibers, in order to stimulate bone growth, in order to maximize the rate of muscular force production you must strength train.

The Limitations of Bodyweight Training

Keep in mind also that it is difficult to reproduce some movements using only the body. Think of a pulling motionwithout the use of any equipment, it is essentially impossible to duplicate. If you have the use of a bar, you can incorporate pull-ups and supine rows into your routine, but this isn’t true “bodyweight” training. Pulling in all planes of motion is therefore limited in bodyweight training, which can create muscular imbalances (e.g., strong pectorals and weak lats) that could lead to injury. Grip and forearm strength is difficult to train without weight plates and dumbbells; and spinal column musculature is hard to strengthen without the help of external loads. In these ways, bodyweight training can limit well-balanced progress.

Bodyweight training can also be limiting for special populations. For heavier athletes, moving a large body can be challenging, especially when working from a novice or detrained level. A set of pull-ups may be in reach for a 160-lb high school football quarterback, but considerably harder for a 250-lb lineman. Female athletes, who naturally have weaker upper-body musculature, can also struggle with the demands of bodyweight-only movements like pull-ups, push-ups, and their variants. For these athletes, the aid of a band or prior training with lighter dumbbells may be necessary not only for making improvements in strength, but also for athlete safety.

@@All movements and training protocols should be judged within the context of sport.@@ Whereas gymnastics athletes (who work primarily against the weight of their own bodies) may need to utilize more bodyweight movements in their training programs, football athletes (who must exert external force into opponents) may not. Specificity of movement selection must outweigh a coach’s (or athlete’s) individual training preferencesin a good training program, the requirements of the sport will factor more heavily into movement selection than personal preference.

The Takeaway

Bodyweight training is one of many ingredients necessary for a successful strength training program. And while bodyweight movements help athletes develop better core strength, better postural stability, and better proprioception and body awareness, alone they are not enough to produce good results. Loaded movements that create a stimulus for muscle and bone growth are the best and most effective protocols for developing strong, fast, and powerful athletes. If you do use primarily bodyweight movements in your training program, make sure that you keep progressively overloading your athletes so that they continue to see development, either by increasing the difficulty of the movement being performed, or by adding external resistance.

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Christye Estes, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is a CSCS-certified strength coach, a certified personal trainer through the ACSM, and a Sports Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye