Bodyweight Exercises & Athletic Development
The short answer to this question is… yes! However, I’ll take a little bit more of your time and give you my reasonings for this answer. Over the course of this post I’ll go over some of the benefits of bodyweight training and how it can be incorporated into an effective strength and conditioning program.
I can say with certainty you’re already using body weight exercises in your programming. Where you’re using them differs from person to person. Using bodyweight exercises, or calisthenics, in warmups is a pretty common practice. For many people this is where the buck stops and that’s a shame. There are so many benefits to this type of training and they’re extremely easy to implement.
Through this post I hope to give you a better understanding of how and why you should be incorporating bodyweight exercises in your exercise selection. Let’s first look at some of the general benefits.
· Do not require equipment
· Low risk
· Easily repeatable
· Minimal teaching involved
· Raises core body temperature
· Lubricates involved joints
· Improve flexibility over time
· Improve posture over time
· Promote proprioception
· Groove movement patterns
· Activate targeted muscles
· Increase range of motion of joints
· Prepare tendons for load
· Increase mobility
Bodyweight Exercises in General Warm-Ups
Body weight exercises are a great choice for general warm-ups. They give the coach a lot of freedom in programming, as they do not require equipment. An extremely large group can perform this simultaneously. The group size is really only limited by the space you have and your ability to provide the information to that group. These types of exercises are low risk and require a minimal amount of teaching. Teaching also becomes less involved as the individuals become more familiar with the movements. Depending on the exercises you select, and the flow between them, it can be really easy to get the body’s core temperature raised quickly and efficiently. On top of this, these types of exercises can provide some “behind the scenes” benefits. Increased proprioception, the body’s ability to move itself through space, and flexibility are major benefits of this type of exercise. Ultimately, using bodyweight exercises in your general warm up can be a really efficient use of your time and space while also providing sufficient benefits to the individual.
Not surprisingly, in a warm up, it’s best to keep the exercises general in nature. Exercises that target large muscle groups and are complex in nature are going to provide you the best bang for your buck. These exercises will force blood flow into the major muscle groups, will increase the heart rate and body temperature, and will prepare the joints, muscles, and tendons for the work that is to come later.
Bodyweight Exercises for Preparatory Work
A general warm up of body weight exercises is a great place to start, but it doesn’t have to end there. Bodyweight exercises can be the perfect choice for joint or muscle specific preparatory work as well. For many of the same reasons listed above, this type of exercise can save you and your athletes time, while lowering the risk of injury.
Prep-work is a great place to throw in bodyweight exercises. They can provide excellent benefits with little down-side. An example of prep-work would be ankle dorsiflexion exercises performed prior to front squatting. This is the kind of exercise that could easily be implemented into the general warm-up, but it can also be done at a higher intensity prior to squatting to better fit the program. Knowing the population and their common mechanism of injuries can go a long way into programming these types of exercise effectively. The good news is, much of direct prep-work can be done with just bodyweight exercises.
Bodyweight Exercises for Strength
Building strength can be extremely simple or it can be extremely difficult. It’s really dependent upon the individual and their current strength levels. I would argue that nearly anyone can use bodyweight training to increase their strength in some way. Strength can be a bit of an ambiguous term. Usually strength refers to absolute strength, or the maximum strength a person has. However, some exercises might have the goal of increasing relative strength instead of absolute strength. Relative strength is maximum strength an individual has in relation to their body weight.
Exercise selection is a major component of an effective strength and conditioning program. Sometimes it’s easy to overlook bodyweight exercises because they seem too easy, but it’s important not to confuse simple with easy. A pushup is a simple exercise. Despite this, many individuals in college athletics can’t perform a single push-up correctly. Pushups are simple but not easy.
The great thing about bodyweight exercises, like the pushup, is they are easy to progress and regress to meet the needs of the individual. For someone who can’t perform a push up properly we can dial the exercise back and allow them to put their hands on an 18inch bench, which will make the movement easier. For the individual who can do pushups all day, we can add some external weight to their back, or raise their legs onto that same 18inch bench to increase the difficulty. When working with a large group this is great because you can have everyone in the room doing the same exercise, with different variations, and still meet the demands we were programming for.
Another great thing about using bodyweight exercises as strength work is the ability to focus on unilateral strength. There are plenty of people who can squat 400+ pounds, but can’t perform a single pistol squat. Determining whether that person needs to perform a pistol squat is a different subject, but let’s say we are training them for general athletic purposes. Bodyweight exercises like lunges and pistol squats can go a long way towards building strength through a single limb and ultimately the robustness of athletes. Once again, these exercises would be easy to manipulate in order to ensure each individual within a group is getting what they need from the program.
Perhaps my favorite way to use bodyweight exercises to build strength, is during an introductory training period. This can be a great transition between an off period and a training cycle devoted to building muscle. By using bodyweight exercises you can prepare the body for increasing loads, without adding too much stress. For these same reasons, this is a great way to introduce new athletes to training. This style of training provides a great deal of benefits to the athlete, but also gives the coach an idea of how the new athlete moves and performs as well as both their relative and absolute strength levels.
Bodyweight Exercises for Muscular Endurance
Muscular endurance work is another great way to fit bodyweight exercises into programs. They are a natural fit into this traditional rep range. Bodyweight exercises can be easy to master, which means you will progress out of an exercise fairly quick. In order to get the same benefits as before, you need to find a way to make the exercise more difficult. You can do this by increasing the volume your completing to chase a different adaptation. This brings us to a point where the benefits you’re receiving are more related to muscular endurance than strength.
There are certainly times where muscular endurance is the primary goal of a training cycle. There are also times where a certain population should be focusing on muscular endurance, such as a group of young teens who are just beginning to get involved in training. More commonly muscular endurance work is synonymous assistance work. In this case you use a certain exercise, usually at higher volumes, to address weak points after your primary focus for the day has been completed.
For this quick example I’ll use a group of volleyball players. Due to the nature of their sport, these athletes tend to rely on their quadriceps, more than their hips, to produce movement. They’re “Quad-Dominant”. Knowing this, you want to put more of an emphasis on training their hamstrings and hips to produce and handle force. On a day where the primary strength movement is a conventional deadlift, you may decide to have the athlete’s complete bodyweight hip bridges at the end of their workout. The goal of this would be to accumulate volume and reps in the area you have determined to be weak, the hips and hamstrings. These exercises are programmed to help the athlete “bring up” their weak point in order to make them a more resilient and effective athlete in their sport.
Bodyweight Exercises for Plyometrics
This one is easy. Plyometrics are almost always done as bodyweight exercises. Running and jumping are plyometric activities and are rarely done with external loads. Plyometric exercises, like a general warmup, should already be a part of your well-rounded strength and conditioning program. All athletes need to sprint and jump, so incorporating these exercises into the program is a no-brainer. The tricky part becomes the volumes, intensities, and frequencies for these types of exercises. There are entire books written on that subject and for that reason I will not go down that rabbit hole.
There are plenty of other ways to incorporate bodyweight training into an effective strength and conditioning program. There are also an infinite number of exercises you can use. Your imagination is the only thing that will limit you.
The ultimate goal of this post was to open your eyes and remind you that not all training has to be flashy or use fancy equipment. You can get the same results, sometimes more, just by using the human body as resistance. Anyone who has spent time at a small underfunded program is familiar with this concept. If you have spatial or equipment limitations, bodyweight exercises might be your only choice at times. There are too many benefits to list, but overall bodyweight exercises are a great tool and should be used when working with athletic populations. They are simple, build strength and endurance, create a more proprioceptive athlete, and improve flexibility and posture. Those benefits alone are enough to warrant the addition into your programming.