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Best Bodyweight Exercises for Strength Training & Bodybuilding

The following is a response to a bodyweight exercise query from my London Personal Training Q&A Group –

Q1) “Hi Nick,
I was wondering what would be the best way to incorporate bodyweight exercises in a programme for hypertrophy / bodybuilding. How would this benefit me as opposed to just weight training? I currently mostly bodyweight exercises such as pull ups and chin ups plus push ups, handstand push ups and one legged squats when I get bored of lifting weights.

My routine is weight training 3-4 times a week. I’ve been doing this for 4 and a half years and I’m 22. I like to do supersets. Thanks.

ps. Are bodyweight movements such as one arm push ups any useful or just for impressing people? I’d like to try and train myself to do them! lol”

A1) Nick Mitchell:
Don’t view bodyweight training and weight training as two distinct things- essentially they are both the same – RESISTANCE training.

I applaud you for what you can do as the vast majority of supposedly strong men can’t do genuine handstand push ups (note to self – must try to do this one time in my life!), and as added variety for your training programme its definitely no bad thing to incorporate bodyweight exercises.

Many classic body weight movements where its nigh on impossible to add weight are limited in their scope as you do need to increase the intensity (intensity in its classic sense of load approaching 1 rep maximum), but you can always slow down the tempo and /or pause in certain positions to work the isometric portion of the muscular contraction.

I think one arm push ups are more about showing off than anything else, as they seem to be more a feat of balance than of strength. However, why not give press ups on an unstable surface a try? Eg put your hands on one or even 2 medicine balls and then perform the movement – that will challenge all your stabilisers and fixators for a great workout.

Bodyweight exercises are definitely a great way to add variety!

Q2) “Why would these supposed strong men struggle with certain bodyweight exercises? Are there muscles just not used to working in this fashion? Weak stabilising muscles? I’ve always wondered about this actually.

I was also wondering about chin ups and pull ups. Does the grip make a significant enough difference to how the muscles in the back are worked or is this just a myth? I would presume that the difference would be small just from how my back feels afterwards when I focus on my lats.

I know that an underhand grip will use the biceps more, but I was thinking when doing weighted dips that you could use more weight so I’ve been focusing on this grip. Is this a good idea at all? Any other tips on bodyweight movements such as weighted pullups/chinups or even weighted dips would be greatly appreciated as I’m trying to increase the weight I use.

Thank you for your time, I realise that’s quite a lot to ask!”

A2) Nick Mitchell:
Performing handstand push ups requires control of key stabilising muscles, most notably in the rotator cuff region (the muscles that keep the upper arm and shoulder blade together). Look at gymnasts on the rings for example – I could out bench press, squat and deadlift them even if I was stoned out of my head on marijuana, but I would tear my body to pieces if I ever attempted what they did. You get what you train for (the Law of Specificity) and many, many strength athletes ignore working the small fixator and stabiliser muscles to their peril.

The best analogy here is that you can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe. If your chest muscles are powerful but (for example) your (tiny little supporting muscle) teres minor is weak or inhibited, then you won’t ever be able to bench press/ punch/ throw / hand off as effectively as if you had proper muscular balance.

Yes, the grip does make something of a difference as to the way in which you recruit muscle fibres on back exercises. A wider grip tends to work the upper out fibres of the lats more, a narrow grip will work the inner back and lower lats more.
Its actually more to do with elbow placement than hand placement, although of course your hands will pretty much dictate where your elbows can be during any chinning / pulldown movement.

If you pull your chin to the bar you will get more upper back development – conversely if you pull your stomach to the bar (yes, it can be done!) you will recruit far more lower lat fibres.

Note also that bodyweight exercises have a nice way of developing a balanced and very functional physique.

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