What if I were to offer you a portable training aid that would always be there when you need it, regardless. It would automatically tailor itself to your moods and inclination and particular physical needs. It would adjust to your weight and height and sex. It would automatically take into account strengths and injuries and it would always challenge you. How much would you pay? 

That training aid is the one you’re born with. Your body is the ultimate training aid. Press-up, squats, jumps and running, all put you through your paces. They help you develop strength, tone, stamina and muscle. They help you get physically fast, strong and capable. And they help you develop mental toughness and willpower. 

Without even realizing it, each of us carries with him the ultimate gym. Ballet dancers and martial artists, sprinters and marathon runners, boxers and gymnasts, they all use the same thing to achieve different goals: their bodyweight. 

Why bodyweight training works

There are a number of reasons bodyweight training works so well but the primary one is that ultimately, the performance of your body is predicated upon your ability to control it. From a physics point of view any physical activity can be broken down into the elements of weight vs control system. The higher the weight of your body the stronger your control system needs to be (i.e. your muscles). The greater demands you make on your body (running, sprinting, climbing, punching, kicking, jumping) the better your control system needs to be (i.e the fine balance between muscle power and tendon strength). The longer and harder you want to work your body the more optimized must its performance be (i.e. you aerobic and cardiovascular systems). 

All of these are results that are both physical exercise specific and genetics-based. The amazing thing is that your body responds, every time, to the demands you make of it, changing as required to best help you do what you want to do. If you want to become a sprinter, for instance, and you start working on your quads, your glutes, calves and arms. Strengthen your core and abs and use running to harmonize everything, you will really get faster. 

Bodyweight training works because it synchronizes and fine-tunes all the different muscle groups, tendons and circulatory systems that make up your body. We usually talk about functional fitness as opposed to building up a particular set of muscle groups but that is not a very precise distinction. Ultimately even body-building that pumps up each muscle group to the maximum size it can is functional fitness in the sense that, the body develops to perform a very specific function: that of showy muscles. 

The real difference between those who train using bodyweight and those who lift lies in performance. By definition, lifting uses equipment that isolates each muscle group and works it in order to strengthen it. Because the isolation hyperloads the muscle group that is being trained the results are fairly fast. The body however is designed to work as a whole. Muscle groups that have grown in size and strength in isolation may be strong but they cannot perform as well as part of the whole. It’s a little like having a classical orchestra and the guitarist turns up with an electric bass. He may be able to play louder than all the rest but that is not going to make for a great orchestral performance. 

Performance vs Size

The question of whether bodyweight training can help you develop large, strong muscles arises only outside the military. Army training relies heavily on bodyweight because it is efficient, portable and delivers results in the overall performance and those who have seen Marines or Special Forces personnel know that those guys are all built. 

So yes, bodyweight training will help you get big, strong, performance orientated muscles. It will take a little longer than if you are training with weights (because your entire body is involved in every exercise) but it will get you there. 

What bodyweight training will not do is give you the disproportionately large muscles that bodybuilding does. Bodybuilding has a very specific function: developing large muscles. Those who are involved in it put in an incredible number of training hours each week to achieve their goal. Muscles that are worked in isolation do not know when to stop growing exactly because there is little feedback from all the other muscle groups. Like my bass player example, they keep on growing until genetics dictate they can’t any more. And they grow a little faster than what they would if bodyweight was applied. 

Bodyweight training will also not give you the shredded look. For that you will need to have a specific diet designed to reduce the fat content stored in your body. Again, this is done for specific purposes and cannot be maintained forever. 

Bodyweight training will not make you look like a man, if you’re a woman. Because you are working within the boundaries of your own body and genetics whether you are a man or a woman you will get the body you deserve and it will be gender specific. 

The Good News

Training works best when it helps you move and feel better. It works best when it allows you to feel you are in control of your physique. All of this is achieved best through bodyweight training, plus it’s free. You don’t need to invest in a gym membership, special clothes or heavy barbells. A chin-up bar may be very useful but, again, not necessary if you can find alternatives outside the home. 

The results you achieve stay with you longer. You feel healthier. Plus you are happier. You are in total control of your body, just like the warriors of old. 

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