Bodyweight Training for the Hardcore Bodybuilder
Bodyweight exercises may sound boring, but here are a few ways you can amp up the intensity of your workout for big muscle gains.
By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography by Paul Buceta; Model: IFBB Pro Mike Van Wyck
We’ll be the first to tell you that performing bodyweight exercises is so Men’s Health, i.e., for guys who are skinny and will forever remain skinny. You’ve probably employed a few bodyweight moves in your workout such as hanging leg raises, dips or pull-ups; so, we’d be foolish to try and convince you that a bodyweight workout is somehow going to magically add pounds of muscle. But that’s not to say there isn’t some value in bodyweight exercises, and if you learn how to employ some strategic tactics, you can actually take your training to a whole other level.
BE A GOOD FAILURE
Ok, for starters, it’s important to realize that you should always take your bodyweight exercises to failure. Simply stated, because you’re using just your own bodyweight, it doesn’t make any sense to stop a set before you’re fatigued. That’s why you often see “to failure” listed as the number of reps for a particular bodyweight move on many of our programs in MuscleMag. The reason being that we want you to go to absolute exhaustion to get the most out of the particular move when bodyweight is the resistance. Since you can’t manipulate the resistance by adding or decreasing weight, and adding reps is the only way to go, we ask that you simply perform as many with good form as you can. What possible good does it do you to target 10 reps for a set when you could’ve easily punched out 15 or 20?
The reason we harp on that point is because one of the main reasons we encourage bodyweight moves is to flush the target muscle or “finish” a routine. So if it’s the last move of the day and you stop even when you had more to give, then you’re doing a disservice to your body because your pumps won’t be as good as they could’ve been. In short, stop when you absolutely have to, not sooner.
So with failure as an ironclad underlying principle, we want to point out some incredible ways to tie-in bodyweight moves into your routine. Let’s start at the end. Placing finishing moves at the end of a routine to flush the muscles with water, blood and nutrients is one of the best strategies a bodybuilder looking to squeeze every last bit of effort out of his muscle bellies can follow. Getting a pump by using your own bodyweight is ideal because once you reach failure you draw water inside your muscle cells, and as with a balloon, the more water the muscle cell can hold, the bigger the pump you’ll experience. The bodyweight pump essentially stretches the muscle cell, making the muscle itself temporarily bigger while initiating biochemical pathways that prompt permanent growth. Say you’re hitting chest, tackling a burnout set of decline push-ups after the weights; your pecs will fill up with tons of shirt-busting fluid, and we all know how great that feels!
But there’s another way to incorporate bodyweight exercises into your routine, and not just at the end of the training session, but rather between free-weight exercises. Of course we’re talking about plyometric-type moves. As you know, plyometrics involve explosive (rather than the usual strong but controlled) actions that require a high proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Fast-twitch muscle fibers are those fibers most responsible for power, size and strength.
One way to understand plyometric bodyweight moves is to examine a standard move first. Take the push-up, for example. As you press yourself off the floor to the arms-extended position, without knowing it you actually decelerate your body so that your hands don’t leave the floor; the same action happens with a bodyweight squat. We naturally decelerate our ascent to keep our feet on the ground. But with plyos, you disregard deceleration, choosing to explode off the ground as high as possible, allowing your hands (or feet in the case of the squat) to separate from the floor. And it’s that phenomenon that recruits more fast-twitch fibers than standard moves. Exercises like the plyo push-up between sets of bench presses or plyo jump squats in between sets of leg presses can add intensity to an already brutal routine. That intensity will further break down your muscles causing long-lasting change in size and strength.
You can also practice timed holds using your bodyweight. For example, wall squats in which you hold your body at 90 degrees for as long as possible, or holding the peak contraction of a pull-up until you can’t hold yourself up any longer are ways to make your bodyweight work to your advantage. And we like to stress the idea that from one workout to the next, you should journal how long you’re able to hold those positions, making sure that you beat your time each week or month. That progressive overload is a sure-fire way of knowing whether you’re getting stronger, bigger and better at each exercise. All without picking up a weight.
BODYWEIGHT MOVES IN A LEG ROUTINE
Here’s how you might include bodyweight moves to boost the intensity of leg day. Start with the leg extension to pre-exhaust the quads.
Leg Extension: 3 Sets x 10-15 Reps
Smith-Machine Squat superset with Plyo Jump Squat: 3 Sets x 10-15 Reps To Failure
Leg Press superset with Wall Squat: 3 Sets x 8-10 Reps To Failure
Lying Leg Curl superset with Split-Jump Squat: 3 Sets x 15 Reps To Failure
- Always take your bodyweight moves to failure.
- Use bodyweight exercises as a way of flushing the muscles or finishing a particular bodypart routine.
- Incorporate techniques such as plyometrics and isometrics to help make bodyweight moves that much harder and more beneficial.
- Keep a journal to monitor your progress on sets and reps for all bodyweight moves from week to week. We recommend the MuscleMag Training Journal.
BEST BODYWEIGHT MOVES
Below are just a few of the exercises for certain bodyparts where bodyweight moves can add both depth and definition.
- Inverted Pull-up on Smith Machine
- Wall Squat
- Jump Squat
- Sissy Squat
- Split-Jump Squat
- Incline Push-up
- Decline Push-up
- Plyo Push-up
- Hanging Leg Raise
- Double Crunch