Is body weight training effective for muscle growth?

The debate between gym junkies and calisthenic devotes has been raging on for years: can you get adequate progressions from body weight training to allow for muscular gains?

Most would argue that to get a true superhero physique that you would need to be in the gym 6 days a week, lifting super heavy weights and eating a mountain of food to see the types of gains you typically see on the cover of most of our men’s health style magazines.

Now, while I wont go into the fact that many of the cover men on those magazines are probably taking some sort of “supplement” and are most likely lifting heavy volume based sets in the gym, the question still remains: could you have this body shape by just a varied program of progression based bodyweight training…?

For now, lets just presume:

  1. Your nutrition is on point;
  2. You are sick and tired of waiting for the screaming gorilla in the gym to finish his bench press;
  3. You want to give body weight training a go.

You will also most likely ask the next three questions. Let me help to answer them for you and give you the best chance of building muscle while using the greatest tool we have in the gym: OURSELVES!


1. Where to Start?

With so many of the men’s health magazines promoting supplement after supplement and putting some muscle head on the front cover that is photo-1428968941220-58e83e6096ddscreaming at you to lift big and do more of it… It can be hard to know where to even start to take your first step into a body weight program.

If all you have in your arsenal of body weight exercises are push-ups, pull-ups and squats you may think that after 10, 20, 30 of these that you have no where else to go.

There are a few principals that you can employ to make each rep you do become more difficult and thus increase the body’s response to the exercise, which will in turn see a greater muscle growth response. All you must do is keep in mind these two principles, leverage and time under tension. These may sound like fancy terms however are incredibly simple and effective tools to use when building muscle and can be applied in your body weight training.



Most people when trying to gain muscle in either a regular training program or body weight program lack one thing and that is IMAGINATION. If you can step back for a second and think a little out of the box, you can make simple changes to your current exercises that will have dramatic effects.

If we take push-ups as an example, you will most likely have done them a thousand times and never thought about how changing your bodies position or “Leverage Point” could change how you perform this basic exercise.

By putting your feet on a box we now have a decline push-up, turn around and put your hands on the box and we now have an incline push-up, bring your hands into each other and you have a diamond push-up. The possibilities are endless and playing around with leverage can be an amazing tool to take major steps forwards in your development of that super hero body.

Time Under Tension

photo-1434656742621-5c4a7d73d0e7“Time under tension”, is just a fancy way of explaining different ways to extend or shorten the time in which it takes you to perform a repetition during an exercise. To keep things simple, lets take the push up as our example again. The usual method of performing this will probably see you taking one second to lower and then one second to rise. Research has show that once you contract a muscle beyond 50% you will shut down its blood flow which will in turn increase the build up of waste products in the muscle. This increase in lactate has been shown to pump up the body’s production of growth hormone in turn helping growth of the muscle.

A simple way to implement this can be by doing your push up in the below time pattern instead of the usual 1-1 time ratio most in your gym will be following.

Easy: 1-1-1 (1 second to lower, pause for 1 second at the bottom and take 1 second to return to start position).

Medium: 2-1-2 (Same as the easy, however now you will take 2 seconds to lower and raise back to start position with a 1 second pause).

Hard: 2-1-5 (Taking 5 seconds in the return phase of the push up can dramatically increase the waste production in your muscles and have great results).

Have a play around with these variations in time when you are next doing any of your exercises and see which works best for you.

2. What should I Do?

Below I have outline a beginner to intermediate program that you can follow to get you body weight training underway. This program can be performed multiple times per week, however make sure that you always allow for adequate rest between your sessions and if you need any help with implementing this program then hit me up as I would be only to happy to discus.

Day 1:

  • Elevated Push-Ups
  • Mountain Climbers
  • Burpee Jumps (No Push-Up)
  • Jumping Lunges
  • Plank Push-Ups
  • Leg Raises

Day 2:

  • Squat (Squat Jumps for advanced)
  • Side Plank Raise
  • Dips
  • Calf Raises
  • Pull-Ups (Can use back of a bench, fence or pull-up bar if you have it)
  • Plank Hold

Perform each exercise for 1 min trying to complete as many reps as you can. Have a short 5 to 10 second rest between each exercise and a 90 second rest after all 6. Repeat the circuit 3 to 6 times depending on your level of fitness level.

3. Will It Work?

The main issue here is that body weight training takes patience and it takes commitment and we all know how time poor and impatient us humans are. This is why many people don’t succeed when it comes to building a great physique when using body weight training. It takes too long and is too hard to stick to for the long run and why you will most likely turn back to the good old bench press and bicep curls.

However if you can stick with it and put in the hard yards, play around with a few of the principals and programs I have outlined above, I am certain you will begin to see the results you have hoped for and will give you another tool in your belt when heading to the gym. The key is to find variety in training so that you don’t get stale, bored and tired of the same old program week in and week out. Give it a go and for more information on changing up your routine, contact your local Accredited Exercise Physiologist.

Blog contributor bottom banner adam martin