Vibram running, Kangoo jump workouts, slide boards, six-minute abs, shake weights, the ThighMaster … fitness trends and gadgets come and go. But one type of exercise has stood the test of time: body-weight training.
“There are so many fads and buzzwords out there, but body-weight exercise is the foundation for everything,” says Elizabeth Brooks, a personal trainer in the Washington area. “Pushing and pulling movements and lunging and squatting all translate into functional, day-to-day movement. If you can do a squat, you can get out of a car.”
So what exactly does body-weight exercise mean?
“Body-weight exercises are exercises performed without external resistance and loading of the body,” says Mike Fantigrassi, master instructor at the National Academy of Sports Medicine. “No resistance bands or weights.”
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Some exercises involve minimal equipment such as TRX suspension bands for pull-ups and Bosu balls for balance. But for the most part, says Fantigrassi, “you can do them anywhere.”
Another plus, he says, is that they “tend to teach an integrated approach to exercise.” In other words, rather than isolating a certain muscle or muscle group, body-weight exercises tend to involve many parts of the body at once. For example, a push-up works the chest, shoulders, arms and abdominals.
They also tend to put more demands on balance and coordination; think of how your body performs jumping jacks or one-legged squats as opposed to using a seated leg-press machine at the gym.
You might wonder how you can progress — that is, move to a more difficult version of a given exercise – without external weights. But it’s easy, says Fernando Gomez, a personal trainer.
Consider how to progress from the basic squat: Someone who is out of condition could work up to it by beginning with sitting in a chair and standing back up. Someone who is already fit, in contrast, could move up to jump squats – adding the short bursts of maximum force known as plyometrics.
Similarly, if people want to work on upper-body strength, they could begin with a modified, assisted push-up with hands on a bench and feet on the floor, or a wall push-up. A stronger person could progress by doing push-ups with claps in between, Gomez says — or maybe even a handstand push-up.
For pulling movement, a hard-core option would be the unassisted pull-up, which engages the muscles of the back, the abdominals, the shoulders, arms, forearms and hands as well as the pelvic floor (which you use to keep your legs from swinging).
So don’t assume body-weight exercise will be easy, Gomez says, adding that super-fit gymnasts are doing body-weight exercises.
“I believe body-weight exercises are for everyone,” Brooks says. “You just have to learn how to manipulate the sets and reps and how to progress certain movements.”
There are a few limitations. Brooks, a former bodybuilder, warns that if you are going for pronounced biceps or some other look or shape, the integrated nature of body-weight exercises won’t provide that specificity.
At the other end of the fitness spectrum, Fantigrassi says, some body-weight exercises can be too challenging for obese people and others who are de-conditioned. They also aren’t as effective at loading the body — the spine in particular — for osteoporosis prevention. So he would “still do resistance training for older people.”
Overall it’s hard to train the upper body with body-weight exercises unless you are already very strong, Fantigrassi says. Not everyone can do a pull-up or a push-up and maintain good form, for example, but most people can do a chest press with light dumbbells.
Brooks agrees, but says in the end it’s about modifying or progressing the movement to fit the client’s need and abilities. In fact, she uses body-weight exercises to help her diagnose and determine the needs of the client.
The plank exercise – holding your body in a straight-backed push-up pose, resting on toes and forearms — can reveal a weak core if the hips sink. An unsteady forward lunge can reveal lack of balance.
“If they can’t do a squat, why would I have them do a leg press?” she asks rhetorically.
“Body-weight exercise builds a foundation that then qualifies them to go to the next level,” Brooks adds. “The beauty of body-weight is it’s not fancy. It focuses on needs rather than gadgets. I love body-weight training.”
Four basic body-weight exercises
Try these basic exercises recommended by personal trainer Elizabeth Brooks and National Academy of Sports Medicine master instructor Mike Fantigrassi. When you’ve got them down, move to the more difficult progressions.
Squat: Standing with the feet about hip width apart, sit back in the heels and then stand back up. 10-12 reps. Progressions include the one-legged squat.
Lunge: Forward lunge bending both legs. Alternate sides, doing 10-12 per side. Progressions include jumping lunges.
Push-up: Against a wall or inclined against a bench in a position that ensures a straight back and hips that stay up. 10-12 reps. Progressions include traditional push-ups.
Pull-up: Starting at an incline, hold a strap looped around a bar and pull the body — which should be rigid — up. 10-12 reps. Progressions include full-body pull-ups.