Bodyweight training has been a popular form of exercise for decades, especially when it comes to group exercise classes and workout videos. It can certainly be an effective form of exercise, but bodyweight training programs are often designed without really considering the many different types of people who perform the workouts. Bodyweight exercises are typically assumed to be appropriate for everyone, but that is not exactly true.
Since bodyweight exercises do not use external resistance (weights, bands, etc.), people usually do not think about them having a numerical difficulty or weight value. As a result, bodyweight exercises are thought of as essentially being one size fits all with a person’s weight being the correct amount for the exercise. There is a major flaw with this way of thinking, because bodyweight exercises do have weight just like any other form of resistance training. The difference is that instead of holding or supporting an external weight, the resistance of each exercise is determined by a percentage of your bodyweight.
Therefore, each exercise does have a numerical resistance/weight value, even though you will not know the exact amount when performing the exercise. The important thing to realize is every bodyweight exercise puts a specific amount of stress on your muscles and as with every other type of exercise, the difficulty of bodyweight exercises should appropriately match your ability level and your goals. If the difficulty of the exercise is not correct for your muscles and joints, then you will not achieve the correct training stimulus.
Some programs deal with this problem by including weights, bands, or other forms of external resistance into the workouts, thus allowing you to adjust the difficulty of the exercises to match your ability level. On the other hand, many workouts just focus on using bodyweight exercises, because they can be performed almost anywhere and little if any extra equipment is needed. This is done to make the workouts appeal to a larger audience, since these exercises can easily be included into almost anyone’s routine.
However, just because an exercise can easily be included into your routine, it doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. Bodyweight exercises can be any level of difficulty from very easy to incredibly challenging and workouts made up of only bodyweight exercises often have erratic fluctuations in exercise difficulty. The creators of these workouts typically use simple program designs that encourage everyone to perform the same exercises. Unfortunately, from a program design standpoint, it is a horrible way to do things.
Would you ever consider following a trainer who took a random group of people to the gym and made everyone perform bench presses using a weight equal to 75% of their bodyweight? Hopefully not, because 75% of a person’s weight would be way too much weight for some people, too easy for others, and it might be a decent weight for a few of the people. Any good trainer knows this would be a bad idea, but this is essentially what people do when perform bodyweight exercises in groups or with a video. These workouts may be easy to work into your training routine, but they don’t take into account the actual level of difficulty required to perform each exercise in relation to your ability level.
For a more specific example of why this is a problem, let’s take a look at one of the most popular bodyweight exercises: the lunge. Many people perform lunges because they are effective, require no equipment, can be done anywhere, and appear to be simple. However, the lunge is a fairly complex exercise that requires both strength and stability and many people do not have adequate amounts of both to be able to perform them correctly. A lack of strength puts too much strain on your muscles and a lack of stability means you will have form issues that could result in problems down the road.
On the plus side, bodyweight exercises can always be made easier or tougher by doing things such as changing your body position, limiting the range of motion, or performing a different variation of the exercise. The problem is these variations are rarely discussed with bodyweight training, because it is easier to go with the one size fits all approach. There is an illusion that bodyweight exercises are easier or simpler to perform than other exercises, but they are really the same as any other type of resistance exercise.
Just as you have to pick the correct amount of weight when lifting weights, you have to pick the correct exercises and their correct variations when performing bodyweight exercises. In some ways this is even tougher to do than when lifting weights, because if a weight is too light or too heavy, you can just get a different weight. With bodyweight training, if an exercise is not the right difficulty, you either have to figure out how to correctly modify the exercise or choose a different exercise altogether. Otherwise, you will not get the desired training effect and have a tougher time reaching your goals.
This article is not meant to discourage you from using bodyweight exercises, because they are a great addition to virtually any exercise program. The main point is that bodyweight exercises need to be tailored to your specific ability level and goals, just like any other type of resistance training exercise and it is important to evaluate each exercise to make sure it is right for you. For instance, if you use bodyweight exercise videos and find that some of the exercises are too easy, then you should replace those exercises with more challenging ones that work the same muscles.
Always remember to think about what you want to accomplish with each workout. If some of the exercises do no contribute to any of your goals, then you should alter or replace them with more appropriate and useful exercises.