What Is Body Weight Training?

By C. Michael Woodward, MPH, Abshier House

Body weight training is exactly what it sounds like: exercise using your body weight. Although body weight training is enjoying a surge in popularity these days, it’s the oldest form of exercise. Most people have been fully equipped to do body weight training since the dawn of mankind, but those silly kettlebells and rowing machines didn’t come along until much later.

The most familiar body weight training exercise — and arguably one of the most effective —is the push-up. Sure, you can add fancy hand positions or put a medicine ball under one hand to make it more challenging. When you get right down to it, though, a push-up is really just a conversation between you, the floor, and gravity.

[Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Antonio_Diaz]
Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/Antonio_Diaz

If you do enough push-ups, you’ll develop incredible pectoral muscles (chest), biceps (arms), and deltoids (shoulders) in no time. It will do wonders for your core strength as well—without so much as lifting a feather. Effective body weight exercises can be done for all areas of the body and to address specific or general training or recovery goals. And they’re great for all people of all ages, even some with mobility issues.

Advantages of body weight training

The reasons people like training with just body weight are varied. Some reasons include the following:

  • Cost. Since there’s no cost for equipment, your only expenses are maybe a mat, an occasional tool such as a strap to assist with stretching.

  • Good for beginners. Basic body weight training moves are easy to learn, with or without a personal trainer. As your fitness improves, you can make the exercises more difficult or complicated.

  • Convenience. You don’t waste time adjusting machines or waiting for them. In fact, you don’t have to go to the gym at all. You can do most body weight training anywhere.

  • Less chance of injury. Because you’re not slinging around a bunch of weights you might not be able to control, there’s less chance you or your fellow gym mates will be injured by a stray dumbbell that came crashing down on someone’s foot.

That’s not to say you can’t get hurt doing body weight training. Proper form is extremely important to prevent injury or overextension. Buy a few sessions with a personal trainer to learn how to do it right, or find a knowledgeable workout buddy to watch your form and alignment the first few times you work out.

Studying videos online can also be helpful. Working out in front of a mirror is really helpful, too, with or without a workout partner.

Challenges of body weight training

Everyone has an opinion, but there’s no right or wrong answer as to whether body weight training is more or less effective than lifting weights. Plenty of athletes and fitness pros swear by body weight training and feel it is more than adequate for their needs.

Whether you’re a novice or a pro, the same rule applies: working against resistance builds muscle, and the mechanics of resistance is the same whether you’re lifting a barbell or your own weight.

The biggest challenge with body weight training is that it’s difficult to see your progress. If you’re working out regularly, you are no doubt getting stronger and more fit. With weightlifting, you can tell you’re getting stronger because you can lift more and more weight on the same exercise over time.

But with body weight training, it is a little different. There’s only so much you can lift: your own weight and maybe that of a weighted vest and ankle weights you strap on. After you’re able to do all the exercises at maximum difficulty, it’s hard to figure out how to grow from there. But most beginners won’t have to worry about that for quite some time. You can cross that bridge when you get there.

Another disadvantage is that might you lose that the thrill of adding yet another 10 lbs to the stack, which can be very inspiring in the heat of the moment.

Push versus pull body weight exercises

If you think about it, pushing something and pulling something are two very different moves, and they either use different muscles, or engage the same muscles differently. Pushing generally uses the muscles in the chest and shoulders as well as the triceps, while pulling engages the biceps and the back. Thus it makes sense that you might get better results if you do some of both types in your workout plan.

To prevent overworking a muscle and allow ample time for recovery, it’s usually best to do all the exercises of one type on the same day, however. So some days will be push days, others will be pull days, and when you’re not doing one of those, you’ll be working on your legs, abs, and core.

  • Day 1 — Push

  • Day 2 — Pull

  • Day 3 — Legs

  • Day 4 — Rest

  • Day 5 — Push

  • Day 6 — Pull

  • Day 7 — Legs

  • Day 8 — Rest

Hundreds of health and fitness websites offer instructions and even videos on specific exercises. These can be very helpful when planning your routine.

Examples of beginner’s pull exercises:

  • Crunches and sit-ups

  • Shoulder circles

  • Chin-ups

  • Side leg raises

Examples of beginner’s push exercises:

  • Bridge

  • Rear leg raises

  • Squats

  • Leg-up Hamstring stretch

Shoot for 10 repetitions of each exercise, to make one set. Do three sets of each exercise. Be sure to rest for about a minute between sets (no more than two minutes). You can either do all the sets of each exercise in a row, or do all of your different exercises once, then repeat the entire circuit twice.

Like all kinds of exercise, your body will get bored and quit paying attention if you just do the same body weight exercises day after day for months on end. It’s best to “keep the body guessing” and do different exercises each time you work a muscle group.

So spend some time learning about the hundreds of body weight exercises for each part of the body, and switch up your routine on a regular basis, if not every time.

Often just changing the position of your hands will change which muscle is engaged by the exercise. For example, a regular push-up calls for your hands to be shoulder-width apart. The exercise gets harder if you move both hands out about a foot into a wide pushup. Suddenly what had been a breeze is now the hardest thing you’ve ever done, at least until the muscle gets stronger in that position, too.