Milo of Croton was the greatest athlete of ancient Greece. For thirty consecutive years he remained undefeated in Olympic wrestling, even though he was quite weak in his childhood and bullied by his peers on a regular basis. One day Milo decided to put an end to his ill-treatment and worked out a training plan to increase his strength. As part of his routine, he would carry a newborn calf around the family farm several times a day. Over time, the calf grew, and with it Milo’s strength, until one day, thanks to the incremental increase in load, he was able to carry a full-grown bull on his shoulders - much to the dismay of his tormentors… and finally the bull, which, according to legend, he eventually devoured on a single day.
What Milo already knew back then: Building muscle mass can be simplified using the following formula: increase of load (A) times the number of repetitions (X). There are, of course, other determining factors that have a substantial influence, but essentially it is progressive overload that is the stimulous for muscle growth (muscular hypertrophy). Working out at the gym, one can easily adjust the weight of equipment such as dumbbells, weight plates or machines. But is it also possible to achieve a progressive overload with one's own body weight? To a certain extent, yes.
Bodyweight Training is a form of strength training that has been around since the beginning of recorded history. It does not require any additional aids such as dumbbells, kettlebells or machines. The muscles work exclusively against gravity, or in other words, our own body weight. Common bodyweight exercises include pull-ups, push-ups, dips, squats and sit-ups.
The benefits of Bodyweight Training are obvious: it is relatively straightforward, since it can be practiced anytime, anywhere - useful for those of us who have little time for the gym. Executed correctly and combined efficiently, it can bring the body into shape in a relatively short time-span. Many of the exercises involve using the core muscles, with an added effect of strengthening abdominal and back muscles.
Another advantage is that with most exercises, several muscle groups are stimulated simultaneously, as opposed to using only isolated muscles with fitness equipment. This makes Bodyweight Training more holistic. This functional aspect also leads to a positive inter-muscular coordination and, consequently, a high transfer capacity. This means that the trained muscles are "intelligent” and the interaction between the muscles in the body are improved, thus economizing the movements when exercising other sports.
The lighter people among us might be wondering whether their low body weight is sufficient for proper muscle build-up. Here studies showed that hypertrophy already sets in at 30 percent of the maximum load that a person can lift. Conversely, this means that obese people can already show positive results with a relatively low load with simple exercises, before eventually increasing the load.
Therefore, in theory, a progressive overload can be achieved, no matter the individual body weight, by a) adding more repetitions and b) increasing the difficulty of the exercises, e.g. angle, speed, or the training volume.
However, exclusively exercising by means of Bodyweight Training eventually has its limits, as dumbbells and other weights bear benefits that cannot be achieved by using only your bodyweight.
Training weights can be adjusted to exceed one’s own bodyweight, making it easier to achieve certain training goals such as extensive bodybuilding. The lower body is difficult to train without additional weight. Squats, no matter how they are carried out, are effective, but not comprehensive.
Many of Bodyweight exercises are technically more demanding than exercises with weights which target the same muscle groups. For example, "overhead pushups" are best left to the professionals, while shoulder presses with dumbbells are less difficult to master. Additionally the weights can be adjusted in small increments, whereas the difficulty level increases drastically in Bodyweight Training with different variations of the same exercise, e.g. from a normal squat to a difficult one-legged pistol squat.
Those who rely solely on Body Weight Training for muscle mass development need more patience. Extensive exercise with weights leads to faster visible results than pure Bodyweight Training. Muscles can be deliberately overloaded with the exact right dosage necessary to achieve a certain goal. More growth hormones are released and it is easier to reduce fat.
This does not mean that Bodyweight Training cannot lead to similar results – it only takes longer.
Both types of training have their pros and cons and it’s not really a question of one or the other. The best results are achieved using a combination of the two methods. However, those who have little time should definitely consider Bodyweight Training as a healthy training alternative. Contact our Sports Medicine Team to receive more information.