As we head into 2014, leading experts have predicted that one of the hottest trends on the horizon seems to be a throwback to the days before elite clubs and high-tech fitness centers populated every corner. We are poised on the brink of embracing body weight exercises as one of the most effective ways to stay in shape.
Bodybuilders and personal trainers alike frequently extoll the virtues of resistance-training machines, free weights, and a plethora of training styles. While there is no substitute for the overload principle in terms of maximally encouraging muscle fiber hypertrophy, there are many overlooked benefits to training with lighter weights — as in one’s own body weight — and simply ramping up the intensity.
Where heavy resistance training encourages growth of the muscles’ contractile proteins, a regimen built around high repetitions/ low intensity loading will jump-start other aspects of the musculature. Mitochondria, the powerhouse of a muscle cell, become more effective. Capillaries spread and expand their network throughout the muscle tissue. An increased number of capillaries mean an expansion in blood flow, which serves to deliver more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. This in turn enables an athlete to exercise longer, as the muscles become endurance-trained. Thus, while training with lower weight (i.e., just using body weight) and high volume will not directly lead to muscle growth (the resistance isn’t high enough), this regimen will improve blood circulation to the targeted muscle. Once an individual resumes a more traditional approach of training with heavy weights at a lower volume, the target muscles have already received more nutrients and can grow and recover more easily.
According to research conducted jointly at the University of British Columbia at Okanagan and Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, subjects who completed 4 weeks of whole-body aerobic-resistance training demonstrated an increase in VO2 max as well as improved skeletal muscle endurance. Furthermore, scientists at the English Institute of Sport in Gateshead, United Kingdom have been studying the benefits of core stabilization and strength exercises, easily accomplished using nothing more than one’s own body weight for resistance. A strong core is particularly vital for individuals dealing with chronic low back pain as well as for performing activities of daily living, especially in an aging population. At least 29 muscles comprise the core of the human body, and many body weight movements can actually recruit all of them!
A more practical and less scientific look at body weight exercises reveals a plethora of benefits to this sort of workout protocol. From a financial point of view, the downturn of our economy has forced many of us to find ways to trim unnecessary costs from our budgets. While membership at a fancy fitness club may run into the hundreds of dollars per year, a program built around body weight exercises is virtually cost-free. By eliminating the need for equipment as well as the drive to a gym, one can perform sit-up’s, push-up’s, squats and planks in the comfort of one’s basement or living room….and even in a hotel room if frequent business travel is an issue. Another highly-touted benefit is the ease on one’s joints. After several months of heavy lifting in the gym, joints and tendons begin to suffer from an inability to properly heal due to the progressive overload demands being placed upon them. Body weight programs allow for the skeletal system to heal while still providing an adequate challenge to the muscular system.
When training my clients in the gym, I design new workouts for them every 4-5 weeks so that their bodies never plateau and are always being challenged. The same can be accomplished through more advanced body weight techniques. Squats can become pistols; push-ups on the floor can progress towards handstand push-ups against a wall; and planks can be held for an increasing number of seconds. Sit-ups, too, can be made more difficult simply by varying the angle of one’s legs relative to one’s torso.
Traditional hypertrophy resistance-training regimens usually call for exercises to be performed under significant weight in sets of 6-10 repetitions. When utilizing only one’s body weight, a higher volume of repetitions is going to be required. This range can encompass repetitions of 25 to 100 per set, depending on the exercise and the particular protocol being followed. While this may seem daunting at first, the added benefit to training in this fashion is that it encourages an increase in cardiovascular energy, making the session both aerobic as well as strength-based. The efficiency of such training cannot be disputed. The rise in popularity through the years of boot-camp -style classes is evidence that this type of format has mass appeal. Since body weight exercises are usually performed at a faster pace than traditional heavier weight-bearing programs, the body’s metabolism gets kicked into high gear, facilitating the rate of weight loss. High-output body weight exercises such as plyometrics require shorter rest intervals between sets, making this a high calorie-burning activity in a very short amount of time.
Despite our best efforts to train clients safely, injuries do sometimes occur, if for no other reason than “overuse syndrome”. As a result, a client may require rehabilitation or physical therapy. During such periods of time, body weight exercises can prove to be a great asset in re-training muscles and joints without sacrificing hard-earned lean muscle mass. Working in a high repetition range will develop endurance in the muscle, enabling it to handle the workload once greater amounts of resistance are reintroduced.
The next time a client asks you, “How much can you bench?”, be prepared to counter with an inquiry of your own: “How many body weight pull-up’s can you perform?” Do not be afraid to challenge your clients — and your workout partners — to a body weight-only circuit for a few weeks. Going back to basics might just prove to be the critical missing component in your training routine.
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