Can you build muscle doing bodyweight exercises?
The answer is, “it depends.”
I hate giving this answer, but in so many cases, it’s the only one that can be given.
Unlike with my coaching, when people ask questions in the comments or inbox, it’s quite difficult to give a definite answer because I don’t know the person and their situation.
So in order to be helpful, I need to either ask a follow-up question, or explain a bit of theory, and by that point, the person asking is often no longer interested and thinks I’m just a smart-ass by not giving the single answer that they so desperately want to hear.
This applies not only to the question above, but to almost any other questions relating to fitness and nutrition. Though we have universal principles that we must adhere to if we want to get results in the gym, we also have those tiny details that make this whole thing very subjective.
So again, can you build muscle doing bodyweight exercises?
Yes, provided that:
1. The body weight exercises are challenging enough to stimulate the fast-twitch muscle fibers (see below)
2. There is progressive resistance to the body weight exercises used
– Going from regular push-ups to feet-elevated push-ups
– Going from feet-elevated push-ups to dips
– Going from dips to 1-arm push-ups
– Going from body weight squats to single-leg squats
– Going from regular pull-ups to different pull-up variations
And so on…
If neither is present, then the answer is NO.
If you’re new to training and have been a couch potato for years, any form of exercise will give you results. Yes, even 5 push-ups a day can add size to someone’s chest if he’s bedridden for a long period of time.
Likewise, if you’re used to doing 5 push-ups a day with minimal effort, and you bump it up to 10 push-ups a day with close-to-maximal effort, then yes, you will continue to get results.
On the other hand, if your strength allows you to do more than 20 push-ups with minimal effort, bumping it to 100 push-ups will not quadruple your chest size.
Because of what are called muscle fiber types.
To explain this, I’ll paste an excerpt from my book, Minimalist Fitness.
Muscle Fiber Types
There are actually three types of muscle fibers, but for simplicity’s sake, we will narrow them into two — the fast twitch and the slow twitch.
Slow twitch muscle fibers are muscle fibers intended for endurance type of activities. These muscle fibers are activated when we walk, jog, run at a moderate pace, and do some form of low to medium intensity cardio.
When you do an exercise with high reps (20 or above), you activate mostly slow twitch muscle fibers — that’s because these activities don’t require that much force to execute.
And since slow twitch muscles fibers are built to handle light workloads, they are not susceptible to growth — which is why working out with light weights for high reps won’t build as much muscle mass as compared to low – moderate reps.
Fast twitch muscle fibers, on the other hand, are muscle fibers intended for heavy duty tasks that require intense muscular efforts. These muscle fibers are the ones responsive to growth. You can activate them doing heavy weights for low to moderate reps (5-15).
On another section of the book…
Muscle Strength vs. Muscle Endurance
There are generally two measures of muscle strength: Muscular strength, and muscular endurance.
Muscular strength refers to your ability to exert a maximal amount of force within a short period of time. For example, if you can bench press 300lbs for a single rep, that’s a measure of your muscular strength.
Muscular endurance refers to the ability to perform an exercise for a prolonged period of time. For example, doing 100 push-ups in a row, running a marathon, or holding a plank for hours.
These two measures of strength require different types of training to develop. A man who can bench press 500lbs for one rep doesn’t always mean that he can do 100 push-ups. In this example, he has well-developed muscular strength, but not much on muscular endurance.
On the other hand, a man who can do push-ups for 500 reps will most likely fail at doing a bench press for 300lbs or even less. In this example, he has well-developed muscular endurance but not much on muscular strength.
This fact also relates to the fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fiber types. If you have trained for high reps for years, there’s a high tendency that your slow twitch muscle fibers are well-developed, and vice versa.
We all have different levels of muscle strength and muscle endurance, but in this book, we’re going to focus on developing muscular strength. Why? Because as we’ve discussed, slow twitch muscle fibers don’t have the potential for that much growth.
To further understand, have a look at these two types of runners: Marathon runners and sprinters.
Marathon runners are an endurance type of athlete, and they can beat any bodybuilder or powerlifter in a marathon game any time of the day. But if you look at them, they don’t possess enough muscle mass. In fact, they look very skinny. That’s because their type of training is mainly for developing the slow twitch muscle fibers.
On the other hand, look at sprinters. They look very powerful and strong, but they only run for a couple of seconds. By using power and speed, the sprinter activates his fast twitch muscle fibers to produce a great amount of force to complete the task in a very short time. This is the reason why the muscles of sprinters are huge and well-developed.
Do you understand now why doing hundreds of pushups, a thousand sit-ups, and a million minutes of jogging are not going to build you any muscle?
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