Warning: Your whole concept of strength training is about to change. How can we be so sure? Because for years, fitness insiders have told men that bodyweight training is an excellent Plan B – perfect for holidays, business trips and days you can’t make it to the gym. They’ve championed it as a system for boosting metabolism and building endurance and decreed it a smart starting point for guys. “It’s all true,” says BJ Gaddour, strength and conditioning coach and author of Your Body Is Your Barbell. “But so is this: your body weight can be even more effective than iron for packing on muscle.”
It’s all in how you use it. These bodyweight training secrets can help you increase not only the size and strength of your muscles, but also your power, mobility and balance. Best of all, you’ll do it without ever having to set foot in a gym. Welcome to your new Plan A.
Secret 1/ Dial in your diet
Body-weight training incentivises an entirely different body type than weightlifting does. “With weightlifting, the heavier you are, the more weight you can lift – not because you have more muscle, but because the extra mass gives you more leverage and momentum,” says Gaddour. “So there’s little motivation to fix poor eating habits.”
The exact opposite is true for bodyweight exercises, in which the extra mass becomes a limiting factor. “Carrying around an additional nine or 10 kilograms is like wearing a weight vest,” Gaddour says. “So the incentive is to get lean as quickly as possible – and exercise alone won’t do that.”
Start by eliminating added sugar, particularly in the form of empty liquid kilojoules. Then focus on increasing your intake of protein and produce. The recommended daily allowance of protein for the average male is 56 grams. “Aim for double that,” says Gaddour. In a recent USDA study, men who consumed twice the recommended amount of protein lost more fat and maintained more muscle than those who consumed less. “Do the opposite with carbs,” says Gaddour. “Limit your daily carb intake to around 100 grams and eat most of your nonvegetable carbs after your workouts.”
Related: Exclusive Men’s Health Meal Plan
Secret 2 / Prioritise strength
“A big misconception is that you need to lift heavy to build serious muscle,” says Gaddour. But the reality? Your muscles can’t tell the difference between your body weight and a barbell. “They know time and tension,” Gaddour says. “As long as a move is sufficiently challenging, you don’t need to add weight to trigger growth.”
Think about that the next time you drop and do 20 push-ups or bang out a set of 50 body-weight squats. “If your goal is to increase size and strength, then most of the body-weight sets that you do should be challenging in the five to 10 rep range,” Gaddour says. Check out Coach’s Corner below to learn how.
Related: The Strength Secret Most Men Ignore
Secret 3 / Focus on form
“Every rep of a body-weight movement recruits more muscles, better engages your core and places a greater demand on your nervous system than most weight-based exercises,” says Gaddour. That makes technique all the more important. “You want to maximise your training effect while minimising wear and tear,” says Gaddour.
Bodyweight exercises share a few key points. Remember this mantra: “Vertical shins for lower-body moves, vertical forearms for upper-body ones,” says Gaddour. Vertical shins shift more load to your hips and hamstrings, taking pressure off your knees. Vertical forearms shift more load to your pecs and lats, taking pressure off your elbows. In both cases, the results are healthier joints and faster gains.
Secret 4 / Master fewer moves
“Next to lack of motivation, the biggest roadblock for people who are just starting a fitness programme is ‘exercise ADD,’ ” says Gaddour. “When you constantly switch things up, you never fully master the skills associated with executing an exercise perfectly.” You also never fully realise its fat-burning and muscle-building potential.
That flies in the face of what many guys are told – that constant variation is the key to avoiding plateaus. “But most are better off sticking to fewer exercises and milking every benefit before moving on,” says Gaddour.
Secret 5 / Use your body daily
Body-weight moves generally require more skill than machine- and weight-based exercises do, so your brain and body need more time to learn to perform them efficiently, says Gaddour. Speed the process by practising easier variations, such as the ones described on the poster, during your off days. “Do one set of 10 reps per move,” says Gaddour. Moving around in a deep squat for five to 10 minutes a day or holding the top of a hip thrust for 20 seconds every 20 minutes you’re at your desk can also be a mobility game changer. “Get mobile, and the muscle will follow.”
The steeper your body angle is to your working muscles – say, elevating your feet in a push-up – the harder the move is,” says MH advisor BJ Gaddour.
Reduce your contact with the floor by raising a limb or narrow your base of support by moving your hands or feet closer together.
Slow the lowering phase of an exercise to three seconds or pause at the bottom for four seconds to eliminate any built-up elastic energy.
The more muscles you engage, the harder you’ll work, Gaddour points out. That’s why the burpee, T-push-up and chin-up with knee raise are so fatiguing.