Bodyweight exercises are strength training exercises that do not require free weights or machines as the individual's own weight provides resistance against gravity. It is recognised that bodyweight exercises can enhance a range of biomotor abilities including strength, power, endurance, speed, flexibility, coordination and balance. This type of strength training has grown in popularity for both recreational and professional athletes, with a range of sports disciplines using bodyweight resistance training as part of their fitness programs. Bodyweight training utilises simple abilities such as pushing, pulling, squatting, bending, twisting and balancing. Movements such as the push-up, the pull-up, and the sit-up are some of the most common bodyweight exercises.
Bodyweight exercises are the ideal choice for individuals who are interested in fitness but do not have access to equipment, because they do not require weights or specialised machinery. While some exercises may require some type of equipment, the majority of bodyweight exercises require none. For those exercises that do require equipment, common items found in the household are usually sufficient (such as a bath towel for towel curls), or substitutes can usually be improvised (for example, using a horizontal tree branch to perform pull ups). Therefore, bodyweight exercises are a good choice when travelling or on holiday, when access to a gym or specialised equipment may not be possible. Another advantage of bodyweight training is that there are no costs involved, such as gym membership fees.
Most bodyweight exercises can be progressed or regressed to match the individual's abilities. This progression/regression strategy allows people of nearly all levels of fitness to participate. Some basic methods to increase or decrease the difficulty of a bodyweight exercise, without adding extra weight, are: changing the amount of leverage in an exercise (such as elevating the feet for a standard push-up, or performing the push-up with knees on the ground), performing the exercise on an unstable platform (such as performing push-ups on a basketball), modifying the range of motion in an exercise (such as squatting to a 45 degree angle rather than a 90 degree angle), incorporating unilateral movements as opposed to bilateral movements (such as performing a one-armed push-up), and adding isometric pauses during the exercise (such as holding for a few seconds at the bottom of a push-up).
Gymnasts make extensive use of isometrics by doing much of their training with straight arms (such as iron crosses, levers, and planches). When compared to weight lifting, bodyweight exercises often require much more flexibility and balance.
Bodyweight exercises have a far lower risk of injury compared to using free weights and machines due to the absence of an external load that is placing strain on the muscles that they may or may not be able to deal with. However, the lower risk of injury is only provided that the athlete/trainee is progressing through the correct progressions and not immediately skipping to strenuous movements that can place undue and possibly harmful stress on ligaments, tendons, and other tissues. Although falling on the head, chest, buttocks, and falling backwards can occur, these are far less harmful injuries than dropping a weight on a body part, or having a joint extended beyond its natural range of motion due to a weight being used incorrectly.
Bodyweight exercises also give the advantage of having minimal bulking and cutting requirements that are normally utilised in free weight and machines training. This is due to bulking bringing extra fat that decreases the performance of bodyweight exercises, thus bodyweight exercises not only remove the need for a bulking or cutting phase, but can help a person retain a low body fat percentage all year round.
Bodyweight exercises also work several muscle groups at once, due to the lack of isolation and the need of a large majority of muscles to perform a movement properly. For example, in a pushup, the body must form a rigid straight line, and the elbow joint must move from a straight angle to the smallest angle possible, and thus the core muscles, chest muscles, triceps, and legs are all involved in ensuring proper, strict form.
As bodyweight exercises use the individual's own weight to provide the resistance for the movement, the weight being lifted is never greater than the weight of one's own body. This can make it difficult to achieve a level of intensity that is near the individual's one rep maximum, which is desirable for strength training. Another disadvantage is that bodyweight training may be daunting to novices and seen to be too easy for experienced athletes. Women, in general, also find it more difficult to do bodyweight exercises involving upper body strength and may be discouraged from undertaking these exercises in their fitness regimens.
Bodyweight exercises can be increased in intensity by including additional weights (such as wearing a weighted vest or holding a barbell, kettlebell, sandbell or plate during a sit up), but this deviates from the general premise that bodyweight exercises rely solely on the weight of the individual to provide resistance.
However, difficulty can be added by changing the leverage, which places more emphasis on specific limbs and muscles, e.g. a one legged squat works a leg far stronger than a two legged squat, which not only requires strength but progressing to a one legged squat builds strength along the way. The same can be seen with one arm pushups, pull ups, and many other exercises.
Difficulty can also be added by increasing volume, adding explosiveness to the movements, or slowing down the movement to increase time under tension.
Bodyweight exercise for older adults
Some bodyweight exercises have been shown to benefit not just the young, but the elderly as well. Older people undertaking bodyweight exercises benefit through increased muscle mass, increased mobility, increased bone density, decreased depression and improved sleep habits. It is also believed that bodyweight training may assist in decreasing or even preventing cognitive decline as people age. In addition, the increased risk of falls seen in elderly people can be mitigated by bodyweight training. Exercises focusing on the legs and abdomen such as squats, lunges and step ups are recommended to increase leg and core strength and, in doing so, reduce fall risk. These bodyweight exercises are preferable to using specialised gym equipment as they provide multi-directional movement that mimics daily activities.
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