Why Bodyweight Exercises Aren’t for Everyone

There seems to be this idea out there in the online fitness community that bodyweight exercises or calisthenics are a great way for beginners to get started in the wonderful world of fitness.

The seduction of bodyweight exercises

And when you think about it, it all makes sense.

After all, bodyweight exercises are….

  • Cheap (no gym membership needed)
  • Easy to get started (little or no equipment required)
  • Involve functional movements (you are controlling and moving your own body)

I mean, what’s more functional and useful than being able to squat your own bodyweight, push your body off the floor, or pull it up to a bar?

Why not skip the stupidly expensive gym membership and get fit without having to purchase anything more than a pair of shoes and possibly a pull-up bar.

Although this is true, many of us also live in a country where 2 out of 3 adults are currently overweight or obese, and unfortunately, the size of our muscles don’t always keep up with the size of our bodies.

Everything is relative

Bodyweight exercises, in general, rely on “relative strength,” which is the amount of strength you have in relation to your bodyweight. In theory, this means the bigger you get, the stronger you should become.

The World’s Strongest Man Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson is 6′ 9″ and weighs over 400 lbs. He also plays Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane on Game of Thrones.

This is why most powerlifters and strongmen competitors are typically massive human beings. Experience has taught them that the bigger they become, the more weight they are (or at least should be) able to lift.

That’s assuming however that the size of your muscles are keeping up with the size of your growing waistline. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of us, that’s not the case.

This idea of relative strength works in reverse as well. If you’ve ever watched competitive gymnastics, you know that the best competitors are often not only the shortest but the lightest as well.

Their muscle to weight ratio is much higher than normal sized people.

Even though this doesn’t seem to make any sense knowing what we have just learned about competitive powerlifters (i.e. bigger is better), gymnasts have learned that smaller and lighter works better when you are doing things like jumping, flipping, or pulling yourself up on a bar.

In fact, gymnasts often have more relative strength than most other athletes because they pack more muscle in a smaller package, which allows them to move their body more easily.

Notice I said moving their body and not a 600lb barbell.

Relative strength vs. Absolute strength

That’s the primary difference when it comes to relative strength and doing “bodyweight” exercises. People who are shorter and lighter generally find these type of exercises easier to do than people who are taller and/or heavier.

On the flipside, people who are taller and heavier often have higher “absolute strength,” which means they can lift more total weight, but at the same time, have a lower overall muscle to weight ratio (i.e. relative strength).

This is the reason they have established weight classes in power sports such as Olympic weightlifting, boxing, and wrestling. They know that it wouldn’t be fair to have a 250-pound heavyweight get into the ring with a 152-pound welterweight because the lighter boxer wouldn’t stand a chance against the stronger punching power of the heavyweight.

Having said that, this is also the reason that it’s not fair to expect a 6’3” 250-pound human being to do burpees and pull-ups as part of a “beginner” workout.

Bodyweight exercise modifications

Trainers who love bodyweight exercise routines usually point out that most bodyweight exercises can be modified to suit all skill levels. For example, if you are unable to do a regular pushup, you could always start off on your knees, or if that is still too difficult, you could do incline pushups on a box.

Although these types of adjustments may be helpful, they are sometimes not enough. Especially if the person is overweight, just getting started, or has not developed the core strength needed to stabilize themselves effectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, there also seems to be a limitation as to how far bodyweight exercises can take you once you have mastered the basic movements.

For example, once you are able to hold a plank for 3-5 minutes is developing the ability to hold one for 10 minutes or more any better? Or once you can do 50 pushups, is doing 150 really going to get your body to where you want to go or is it just more of the same?

At that point, aren’t you simply adding to your muscle’s endurance level more than continuing to build your strength or the size of your muscles?

Yes, there are also modifications to make many bodyweight exercises more challenging such as changing the body’s angle or adding a weighted vest for example, but at some point, there does seem to be a point of diminishing returns.

A quick word on suspension trainers (like TRX)

Before we move on, I just wanted to talk about bodyweight suspension trainers like the popular TRX system.

If you have spent any time in a gym or watched late-night TV you have probably seen these bright yellow straps with handles gizmos that promise to deliver you a brand new body.

Now I’ll tell you that I’m actually a fan of suspension training and like to use it regularly to mix things up, but at the same time, I would point out that suspension training is an advanced form of bodyweight training that is completely inappropriate for beginner athletes.

It always terrifies me when I’m at the gym, and I see personal trainers start their beginner clients with some type of suspension training.

Again, I’m not against bodyweight exercises or suspension training, I just don’t think that either one of them is appropriate for beginners.

Why weight machines are a better option for beginners

People who are just getting started (or restarted) on their fitness journey are often better off using traditional weight machines versus bodyweight exercises.

The ideal exercise system for a beginner or someone who may be returning to working out after a long layoff, is something that is easy to learn, has adjustable resistance, and is easy to track your progress.

Even though having access to these types of weight machines usually requires you to purchase a gym membership, I think it’s well worth the investment especially these days where most people can find a decent gym membership for as little as $10-25 a month.

Weight machines also allow you to start off with a much smaller load than your bodyweight and give you the ability to adjust that load in much smaller increments. Also, unlike most bodyweight exercises, these types of machines provide you with support and don’t require a certain degree of core strength in order to use them effectively.

That’s not to say that weight machines are the perfect option for everyone, however, because like anything else they have a few negatives as well.

In exchange for the relative safety of using the machines comes some degree of inflexibility as well. With the possible exceptions of cable attachment machines, most weight machines follow a relatively fixed path of movement which will generally work for most (but not all) gym members. People who are unusually tall or short will not always be able to adjust the machine to fit their ideal movement pattern.

Even with these limitations, however, weight machines seem to offer the best combination of flexibility, safety, and strength building to suit most beginners.

I stress beginners because at some point you’ll want to move on from exclusively using weight machines after a certain degree of fitness has been achieved.

Eventually, you’ll outgrow weight machines as well.

Even though weight machines may be the best option for those who are just getting started, that doesn’t mean that you won’t eventually need to move on to something else.

At some point, I generally recommend that most people move on to using free weights (dumbbells and barbells) for the majority of their strength building workouts due to the flexibility and increased range of motion they allow, but only if they have someone available to show them the proper lifting form and technique.

Ironically, this is also the point that I would recommend that you add in some bodyweight exercises to your workouts, specifically things such as lunges, planks, squats, and pull-ups.

The bottom line…

If you are just getting started (or restarting) on your fitness journey, skip the bodyweight routines until you improve your overall strength to weight ratio.

Instead, start with basic strength building exercises using a machine while learning proper exercise technique. As you progress, begin to introduce free weights and core bodyweight exercises gradually.

Drew Kimble CSCS*D, CPT
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