Despite the popularity of body weight training, questions and controversy have remained about how effective body weight exercises really are…
How far can exercises like push ups take you in strength and muscle gains compared to using free weight exercises like the bench press? Good question!
On one hand, body weight training has become a huge fitness movement as well as a commercial enterprise, and trainers who sell body weight exercise programs sometimes don’t stop at saying, “It works,” they make controversial claims that “body weight is better than free weights.”
On the other side of the coin, die-hard lifters often have a hard time believing that the results from body weight moves like push ups could come anywhere near what you’d get from bench pressing with free weights.
So far, scientific studies that might sort out this debate have been limited.
Previous studies showed that push ups did not increase muscle strength over time, compared to the way free weights do. That was not surprising though, because the studies progressed the workouts only by increasing reps, so the result of more and more push ups was more muscular endurance, but not as much muscle strength.
That prompted researchers from North Dakota State University to conduct a new study that used harder and harder push up variations, which followed traditional resistance training guidelines of progressive overload.
In a recent study, exercise scientists wanted to answer these two questions:
1. “Can progressive push up training increase upper body muscle strength and thickness?”
2. “Are progressive push ups as effective as traditional weight training in developing upper body muscle strength and size?”
The subjects included 23 men, age 18 to 45, who had moderate training experience (they were not beginners). In addition to being tested on the bench press, they were put through a program with 10 progressively more difficult types of push ups, including the following (from easiest to hardest):
1. Wall push up
2. Incline Push Up
3. Kneeling push up
4. Half push up
5. Full push up
6. Close grip push up
7. Uneven push up
8. Half one-arm push up
9. Archer pushup
10. One-arm pushup
(Note: Half pushups were done by lowering down until the chest hit a medicine ball). Archer push ups were done with one palm on the floor and the other arm extended out to the side with palm down on a medicine ball).
The results: Push ups done this way increased strength as much as bench presses!
The main finding of the study was that using progressive push up variations increased upper body strength to a level comparable to the bench press, at least over a 4-week period.
That might be a shock to die-hard bench pressers and body weight skeptics, but it makes complete sense when you see how it was accomplished:
What made these strength gains happen was not to simply increase reps on a basic push up forever, but to progress to a harder version of the push up that increased the difficulty/resistance over time, thereby mimicking how you would increase weight on the bench press.
You could also add resistance on regular push ups by using elastic bands, or by wearing a weighted vest or backpack, (though technically we could say that is no longer “body weight” exercise).
What’s the secret to making these gains happen?
Even with pure body weight exercises, we now know it’s possible to make strength gains similar to the gains you’d get with free weights.
Applying some kind of progressive overload appears to be the key, and it’s important to realize that lifting more weight is not the only way to overload.
This study has shown us that increasing the difficulty of a body weight exercise (by moving to a more advanced version) can also achieve the overload you need to make the strength gains you want even when no external resistance is used.
But what about muscle size?
There were no significant improvements in muscle thickness in either test group. That might seem disappointing at first, but was not a complete surprise either, because early strength gains in a training program can come from adaptations in the nervous system, and that can happen before muscle size increases take place.
If significant muscle growth can be achieved with progressive push up variations, it’s likely to take more than the 4 weeks that this study lasted, because muscle grows very slowly, especially in trained lifters. If this study were done on beginners, we would predict that on top of the strength increase, they would have seen more measurable muscle increase as well, due to the “newbie gains” effect.
In addition, the training variables will have to be geared toward hypertrophy, which involves reaching a certain number of sets and reps so the total volume lands in the optimal muscle size-building zone (multiple sets of medium reps or higher reps to failure).
Does progressive overload training work for other body weight resistance exercises?
The push up is well-suited for progression because of how many incrementally easier and harder versions exist. In this study, they used 10, so it’s not surprising that this one movement pattern – the horizontal push – was comparable to the bench press in strength gains, at least in the short term.
More good news is that you can achieve the same effect with body weight pulling exercises. For example, inverted rows can be progressed through several levels of difficulty, and then you can move into pull ups, so an upper body pull and upper body push body weight exercise can both be progressed for a long time. This gives most people a lot of room to gain upper body strength and muscle before hitting a ceiling where only free weights would take them further.
Lower body may be a little more challenging, or at least there may not be as many progressions to take you from the easy leg exercises to the harder ones, but it can still be done.
For example, a body weight squat (both legs) is too easy to provide a strength challenge to most trained lifters, but you could progress to split squats (working one leg at a time), then a one leg squat to a bench (or box/chair), then to assisted one leg squats (holding an upright), and finally to the very challenging full one-leg squat, also known as the pistol.
Are there limitations to body weight resistance training?
There now appears little doubt that strength can be increased by progressing to tougher versions of a body weight exercise. However, it’s clear that there’s going to be a ceiling at some point.
Body weight training can give you excellent gains, but if you want to go even further and achieve your maximum potential in muscle size or strength, ultimately you will have to use free weights or additional external resistance in some form.
If maximum strength could be achieved with body weight alone, then athletes in all sports would not need to use barbells and other free weights, and yet we see almost all of them hit the iron as a core part of their conditioning plans.
The same is true for muscle gain and bodybuilding. Anecdotally, we see many examples of people building outstanding athletic-looking muscular bodies with body weight training. But very rarely do we see anyone build the physique of a competitive bodybuilder with body weight exercise alone.
One disadvantage of body weight training by itself for overall body strength and muscle development is that body weight exercises can’t be progressed with the same kind of precision as you can achieve with free weights. With free weights you know exactly how much resistance is added, and it can be added in tiny increments (even as low as 2.5 to 5 pounds at a time), and recorded in a journal for progress tracking.
Every so often you hear enthusiastic promoters of body weight exercise claim that body weight training is superior to free weight training, but that’s not true, at least with regards to absolute strength and muscle gain potential. Body weight training does have unique advantages, and that might include less stress on the joints, but in the long run, body weight training will eventually run into limitations as far as strength and muscle development go.
So what’s the bottom line?
You can gain an impressive amount of strength and muscle with body weight exercise alone. Supporting this idea, we’ve now seen a study that confirms scientifically how body weight training can be used to increase strength as much as free weights, at least in the short term, by using progressively harder versions of a body weight pushing movement.
Body weight resistance training can also be used to help maintain the strength and muscle you build from free weight training, as long as you use a hard enough variation of the body weight move relative to your current fitness level, rather than doing beginner versions or endless high reps.
Even high reps have benefits, as it builds muscle endurance and can become an alternate form of cardio, so there will always be a time and a place where body weight training has value.
Despite some limitations, Body weight resistance exercise has been proven to be a valuable training tool, not only for results, but also for convenience and value, since you can do it anywhere for free – at home, in hotel rooms, or outdoors.
Even if you love pumping iron and training in well-equipped gyms, don’t write off body weight resistance training – it may not be better than barbell and dumbbell training, but it does work and is another tool well worth learning how to use.
Train hard and expect success,
Tom Venuto, author of
Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle and
The Ultimate Progressive Overload System (Click for details)
Kotarsky, CJ, et al Effect of progressive calisthenic push-up training on muscle strength and thickness. J Strength Cond Res 32(3): 651-659.