How to Get Strong Without Weights
By Tania Tetrault Vrga
Questions about bodyweight training?
You’re not alone. I’ve been getting tons of questions about bodyweight training lately. There is good news and bad news. The good news is that you don’t need any equipment to get strong and fit. The bad news is that designing an effective at home workout program requires knowledge, planning, and creativity, which appears to be lacking in many at home fitness programs.
The easy way out is just to do a ton of reps.
Perhaps the easiest way to make a workout harder when you don’t have any equipment is to simply do more repetitions. When you are squatting with weight you might do a heavy set of 5 repetitions, but if you are not loading up the squat, you could potentially do 30 repetitions or more in a single set. This is the main strategy I’ve been seeing online these days. We’re seeing so many at home programs with hundreds of reps of basic bodyweight movements such as pushups, squats, sit-ups and burpees. The reason I call this “the easy way out” is that doing hundreds of burpees might be fun to do as a benchmark every once in a while, and a good way to fill up an hour, but it’s not particularly functional. It might improve your muscle endurance and overall work capacity if done mindfully, but it won’t help you get stronger, and it might even encourage faulty movement patterns, due to the high volume of work that is done in a fatigued state. So this really is an easy cop-out for a trainer who simply doesn’t have the tools in their repertoire to create effective at home callisthenics programs.
There’s no shortage of at high volume at-home bodyweight workouts
Doing lots of repetitions will certainly make your workout more challenging, but it’s certainly not the only way to achieve results. You’ll get bored fast if this is your only strategy, especially when there are so many effective ways to create progressions when training callisthenics. When looking for an online training program, be sure to look for a variety of movements, a variety of intensity levels and variations in volume. This is how we get fitter and stronger. Here are my top strategies for building strength using just your bodyweight.
Unilateral means using only one side of the body. In the context of fitness, this usually means using only one leg or one arm at a time. If, for example unweighted squats aren’t very challenging for you, try single leg squats. If pushups are starting to get easy, try a one-arm pushup. You will need to support your entire body weight on one limb instead of two, so this is equivalent to doubling the load. This is a fantastic way to get stronger without lifting weights. As an added advantage you may be able to identify asymmetries in your strength or range of motion, which will give you something to work on in your training. This strategy also forces you to work on other skills such as balance and core stabilization. Have you ever tried rear-foot elevated split-squats at a super slow tempo? Try it and let me know how they go. Speaking of super slow tempo…
Another great way to increase the intensity of a bodyweight workout is to use tempo. Tempo means doing the exercise at a specific speed. This can also mean isometric training, meaning pausing, or holding an active position for a specified amount of time. If we use pushups as an example, that could mean taking a full 5 seconds to lower your body, pausing for 5 seconds at the bottom, pushing up and pausing again at the top. Slowing down and adding pauses increases the amount of time that the body is under tension. Increasing time under tension can be a great way to build strength and build muscle when you don’t have access to weights to lift.
Using plyometric training can help develop speed and explosiveness, which are a type of strength. Plyometric training involves jumping, bounding, or otherwise using gravity to train explosive strength and speed. This type of training is often reserved for more advanced athletes so we recommend building up slowly, but it’s an excellent way to create adaptation and progress in an at-home workout program. Jump squats and lunges could be a good place to start, but you can also do explosive push-ups, hurdles, various jumping drills, and so much more.
Strengthen Your Weak Links
So many factors will affect our ability to reach or improve our 1 Rep Max, which is an indicator of absolute strength. If you are missing your barbell and your rack and are desperate to get back to heavy squats, think about all the things you could work on to improve your 1RM squat that doesn’t actually involve squatting. What if you could improve your hip or ankle mobility, how much easier would it be to grind up that heavy weight? What if you worked on your core stabilizers? Would it make it easier not to collapse and bail under a heavy load? What about that weird sideways shifting thing your hips always do when you squat heavy that your coach always points out? What if you could balance out asymmetries? Speaking of balance, what if you could fix that weird thing your knee does when you squat heavy? Well guess, what, you can work on all these things without a rack and a barbell, and now’s the time to do it! All you need is someone to assess and help you correct those patterns.
Use what you’ve got
Last, but not least is that option to work with household objects as added resistance. Over the past few weeks, with the COVID-19 pandemic, our members have gotten creative. We’ve used water jugs, food cans, backpacks filled with books, homemade sandbags, suspension trainers, sleds, and pull-up bars, you name it… As an add bonus, working with non-gym equipment mimics household duties and day-to-day life. This is what functional fitness is all about after all. If we train to be better at life, then why not use what we have on hand as our gym?
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