Bodyweight exercises are common staples in home routines and can also be easily included into a gym workout in your pursuit of muscle gains. That’s the good news. The bad news is, they can also be horribly counterproductive!
That’s right, if not placed in just the right position in your workout order, bodyweight exercises could be a waste of time and energy. Nobody tells you this in online workouts devised by personal trainers and pros alike, so it’s best you heed this warning to understand what’s going on.
Here’s the problem: With bodyweight exercises – those done without additional weight – you can typically do a given number of reps until you reach muscle failure. Maybe you can do 35 parallel-bar dips, or just four pull-ups. Perhaps you can do 30 push-ups, or 55 abdominal crunches.
In these examples, you keep a set going until you achieve muscle failure. While that’s all good and well, remember that to optimally build muscle you want to reach muscle failure within the 8-rep to 12-rep range. If you can do 35 reps of a given movement, you’re way overshooting the mark. Here, the very light stimulus on the muscle better triggers an endurance response rather than one that maximizes muscle size.
Likewise, if you’re able to complete only a couple of reps, you’re still falling well short of the optimal hypertrophy range.
One obvious solution is to start adding to (or subtracting from) the load. Adding a loaded weight belt or using a machine like the assisted pull-up/dip machine can allow you to manipulate the load in order to ensure you’re reaching muscle failure while aligning with your training goals (which, for our purposes here, is building max muscle).
Another solution is to add the bodyweight exercise to your routine, accounting for cumulative fatigue. Dips may be really easy at the start of your workout, but if you do them last they’re much more challenging, which pulls the rep count down. You can even position a bodyweight exercise at the back end of a superset to ensure that what normally might be an easy exercise is now much more difficult.
The last thing you want to do is start off with a bodyweight movement and go for endless reps, so you miss the musclebuilding stimulus at the start of your workout but you manage to build up fatigue that compromises your strength on every exercise and set that follow.
In that sense, you’ll want to add bodyweight exercises into your routine based on your personal circumstances, not on what works for someone else.
By: Bill Geiger, MA