I’ve had a few people ask me recently if bodyweight exercises “count” as strength training.
It’s a great question, actually, and I want to shed some light on that today… because don’t we need heavy weights to get strong?!
First, the word strong is very relative, and in fitness land there’s this rule of specificity, isn’t there? There’s a difference between getting stronger on barbell power lifts versus challenging yourself and becoming physically strong enough to *properly* perform bodyweight exercises such as pushups, chinups, pistols, etc.
You won’t become a powerlifter using bodyweight training only, just like you aren’t going to become a runner without running.
However, bodyweight exercises can most certainly help you increase your overall strength and allow you to put on some muscle.
The key for doing so is to make sure you continuously focus on progression with your bodyweight workouts just like you would focus on progression with weights. Doing the same bodyweight squats and pushups over and over will eventually cause anyone to plateau unless you do a million reps of them. No thanks!
Making sure to challenge yourself to perform more difficult variations (only when you are READY for a progression!) is how you’ll be able to still build some muscle with your own bodyweight.
This type of progression might look something like the following:
> Hands elevated pushup (seriously, skip the pushups on your knees and just elevate your hands!)
> Hands elevated pushup from a lower height
> Traditional pushup
> Closer grip pushup
> Decline pushup
Or maybe it looks something like playing with tempo manipulation or adding strategic pauses, timed sets, etc. Have you ever tried manipulating your bodyweight squat so that you perform a full squat, raise back up to halfway, come all the way back down again, THEN all the way back up? This is a 1.5 squat. Killer!
The other thing about bodyweight training that a lot of people tend to overlook, is that being able to move properly WITHOUT ANY LOAD is absolutely essential before we just start adding weight to a barbell in the gym. We need to master our own bodyweight movement FIRST.
Unfortunately, I see too many people sacrificing form and quality for more reps, more speed, more weight. Too many people perform exercises that their bodies aren’t ready for yet, and this is where bodyweight training really comes in to play: to help us focus on the technique that’s quite literally at the core of our bigger lifts.
And then we practice, refine, rinse, repeat.
I recently learned the phrases “linkage” and “leakage” as they relate to training, and I think these will help paint a picture on how bodyweight exercises can and do help us get stronger.
When your body has linkage, you are able to get tight, create complete tension in your body, and you consistently move properly as one unit through your movements.
When your body has leakage, however, you likely aren’t contracting appropriately in your glutes and core, your body doesn’t properly move as a unit, and you may notice things like:
> Sagging your hips or chest to the ground in your pushups
> Swinging your legs forward in your chinups/pullups
> Dropping the chest forward in your bodyweight squats
> Opening of the hips and lack of balance in your single leg deadlifts
Leakage also sounds like a personal peeing problem LOL, but we’ll save that for a post about understanding your pelvic floor. 😉
When you focus on creating linkage during bodyweight exercises, once you DO end up adding weight or returning to your bigger lifts after any time away from the weight room, you’ll feel much more in control, solid, and balanced. You may even notice that you are able to set more frequent PRs in your traditional lifts!
I’m willing to bet if you concentrate on “pulling” yourself to the ground and keeping a tall spine during bodyweight squats instead of rushing through them as fast as possible, you betcha you’ll notice a difference once that barbell is on your back.
So my final verdict is that YES, bodyweight training most certainly counts and contributes toward your overall strength training routine. Use it to master your own body’s movement patterns, for continuously challenging yourself, for training options when no equipment is available to you, for training options through injury, etc.
I’m not going to tell you bodyweight training is the BEST or only way to get an amazing bod because barbell training, kettlebell training, dumbbell training.. all those are pretty awesome too. And you can build a great body with any of the above or any COMBINATION of above, yes… bodyweight included.
Strength doesn’t always have to be about that number on the bar! I cannot emphasize this enough.
In fact, my clients just LOVE feeling strong from some of the bodyweight stuff I write into their programs… they always text me when they can pull themselves from a little lower in inverted rows, add reps to their plank variations, hold their own bodyweight longer in things like wall sits, hollow body holds, etc., or feel like their balance has improved (linkage!).
And for me? Nothing makes me feel stronger or more badass than busting out a bunch of chin-ups!