Bodyweight training is an amazing mode of exercise for promoting total body conditioning (i.e. strength, endurance, flexibility, balance, and coordination). Unfortunately, if building muscle mass and size is important to you, this mode of training is not the fastest or easiest way to accomplish your goal. Regardless, it can be done and requires very specific focus and attention to training technique and a good understanding of the body to get maximum results. The “Bodyweight Training for Muscle Growth” series will provide valuable information on how to maximize your bodyweight workouts for optimal results.
With focused concentration performing each exercise, and creative modifications to promote a higher degree of challenge and overall work, building muscle mass with bodyweight training can be as fast as with traditional resistance training. Recruiting more muscle fibers, both consciously and subconsciously, results in more quality work. With more work, energy systems are taxed, muscles fatigue faster, and more microdamage occurs in the muscle fibers, producing a greater adaptive response. If you’re looking to do “more effective work, in less time, with greater results”, take the time to build the mind-body connection and see the gains in muscle size and mass take shape!
Three principles that can increase muscle size and promoting muscle growth for resistance exercise, including bodyweight exercise, consist of:
- Progressive overload
- Time under tension (TUT)
- Exercise intensity
In order for a muscle to grow, or gain strength, the muscle needs to be presented with a tension or load at a magnitude great enough to cause a significant physiological change. Our muscles need to be repeatedly challenged beyond their “comfort zone” in order to see continued improvements. The following are ways to increase demands imposed on the body:
- Increasing the resistance (or load)
- Increasing the training volume (total number of repetitions)
- Decreasing the amount of rest
- Doing new exercises or activities (or modifications of existing exercises)
- Combination of all of the above
By placing demands on the body, causing microtrauma and triggering the process of repair, your body must make the necessary changes and adapt as quickly as possible. Simply going through the motions and doing the same exercises at the same level of resistance is not enough to produce change in the muscle.
Time Under Tension
Time Under Tension training (aka. “TUT”) is the practice of slowing down exercises and prolonging each muscle fiber contraction in an effort to increase muscle size. This principle is focused on engaging as many motor units (and the associated muscle fibers) as possible, in a set amount of time, for maximum results. During intense work, motor units fire in sequence based on how quickly they can respond. Type IIa and IIb fibers initiate the muscle response, but do not have the endurance to last the length of a complete set. Type I fibers are then recruited to help out and complete the remaining time under tension. This results in more overall muscles working to fatigue (causing microtrauma) than a traditional resistance training set.
The amount of time your muscles should spend under tension, to promote muscle hypertrophy and growth, is approximately 30 to 70 seconds per set (with one to two minutes rest in between).
Exercise intensity is the amount of work invested in a specific exercise or workout. Exercise intensity and duration are closely related. As a general rule, the higher the workout intensity, the shorter the duration of the workout (and vice versa). With bodyweight training exercise intensity should be high with short rest intervals in between exercises.
To avoid overtraining or potential injury, exercise intensity should be closely monitored to ensure the proper amount of overload to working muscles is applied.
Neuromuscular Activation and the Mind-Body Connection
One major difference between resistance training with weights and bodyweight training is the mental focus required to get an effective workout. With weight training, the muscles are taxed by virtue of the added resistance from the external load. For example, you could be doing a set of dumbbell curls while watching TV and still get muscular benefit even though you are not even paying attention. With bodyweight training, the intensity of the exercise is dependent on the quality of each movement (i.e. form, positioning, affect of gravity, and joint angles) and the conscious contraction of the muscles during each repetition.
For every exercise, regardless of whether you are using additional resistance or your own body weight, there are four ways to increase the intensity of the work performed:
- Proper form and technique through the full range of motion
- Focused contraction of target (primary) muscles
- Focused contraction of supporting core and joint stabilizing muscles
- Create an unstable environment
Proper Form and Technique
When it comes to performing any exercise, proper form includes many aspects of the movement:
- Spinal alignment and posture
- Hand and/or foot placement
- Joint angles (front, back, side-to-side)
- Coordination of movement across multiple joints
Proper form throughout the kinetic chain (the combination of successively arranged joints involved in a movement) ensures the proper sequence of muscle coordination and overall safety. If the body feels safe and strong during an exercise, it will be ready and willing to challenge itself further. Otherwise, the body will be hesitant to attempt an activity and the load necessary to produce change and adaptation will not be applied.
Contraction of Target Muscles (Voluntary)
Although proper form is a good start, it doesn’t guarantee that the muscles are firing properly. For example, when observing someone doing a lunge, which looks correct, you assume they are getting maximal benefit from the movement. In reality, they may not be firing the muscles in the proper sequence or engaging their protective core stabilizing muscles. The exercise may look right but they are only getting a fraction of the potential benefit from the movement. Effective movement requires conscious, focused contraction of the muscles.
The easiest muscles to consciously contract are prime movers. These muscles tend to be the larger and are the ones you can easily locate and “feel” activating during a contraction. For example, you can consciously contract the quadriceps muscle with more force, when performing a squat, by extending the knees further and for a longer period of time to “feel the burn”. You can put your hands on your thigh to feel the added contraction. By understanding which muscles are being worked in a given exercise, you can focus a greater degree of contraction with each movement for improved results.
Contraction of Supporting Muscles (Voluntary)
Smaller, deeper muscles of the core and surrounding joint capsules are more difficult to target. These include the muscles of the lumbo-pelvic-hip region, shoulder girdle, and the supporting muscles surrounding the joints. Because these muscles are deep within the body and smaller than prime movers, they are much harder to target. It takes time and practice mastering deep tissue muscle contraction effectively. Regardless, activation of these muscle fibers significantly increases the volume of work performed by the body, causing fatigue in a shorter amount of time, and a greater degree of microtrauma.
Challenge Core Stabilizing Muscles (Involuntary)
The human body is constantly working to maintain its center of gravity and remain stable in an effort to avoid injury or potential harm. Spinal reflexes play a significant role in maintaining balance and posture as they involuntarily control trunk and limb muscles whenever we move. All skeletal muscles contain receptors that sense changes in tension (Golgi tendon organ) and length (muscle spindle), relaying this information to all levels of the nervous system. This information shapes reflex responses and is at the root of maintaining balance, stability, and good posture.
The stretch reflex occurs in response to a quick change in the length of a muscle. The muscle immediately contracts to avoid further lengthening, protecting the muscle from possible injury. An example is the patellar test (a.k.a. knee jerk test). The Golgi tendon reflex occurs in response to an excessive contraction of a muscle. When Golgi tendon neurons are stimulated, the muscle relaxes. An example would be trying to catch a heavy sandbag thrown into your arms. When you catch the heavy bag, your muscles initially contract. Because the weight of the sandbag is too much for the muscles to handle, they are signaled to relax and the sandbag drops to the floor.
In addition to spinal reflexes (which control muscles of the extremities), the central nervous system utilizes two principal control mechanisms, anticipatory postural adjustments (APAs) and compensatory postural adjustments (CPAs), to maintain balance. The central nervous system adjusts to the activity of postural muscles prior to, and in response to, a disturbance in motion (i.e. loss of balance). For example, when arms are lifted in front of the body, the hips subconsciously move backwards to maintain a stable center of gravity. The APA is a subconscious response to a conscious movement. Alternately, when you slip on a patch of ice unexpectedly, your body will involuntarily shift, resulting in a CPA response, to avoid falling. The more we challenge the position of our center of gravity, the more we trigger subconscious activation of postural muscles.
If the goal is to activate and fatigue the maximum number of muscle fibers in a given exercise, challenging balance and stability will trigger involuntary muscular responses to produce a greater adaptive response. This can be accomplished by:
- Changing the base of support (the smaller the base, the less stable the object)
- Changing the height of the center of gravity (the higher the center of gravity, the less stable the object)
- Moving the center of gravity (as you move the center of gravity outside the base of support, the object becomes less stable)
Fitness accessories are commonly used to challenge balance and stability and include:
- Wobble board
- BOSU Stability Ball
- AIREX balance pad
Coming Up Next …
The next article in the series will include a breakdown of the front plank, the first of five exercises discussed in this series. The information will include teaching cues for:
- Demonstrating proper form
- Activating target muscles
- Activating supporting muscles
- Changing the base of support