The Truth About Body Weight Exercise

I’ve been seeing a wave of videos and articles on body weight exercises sometimes also called calisthenics. The word calisthenics comes from the Greek kalos beautiful + sthenos strength so it literally means “beautiful strength.” According to Merriam-Webster online, the first known usage of the word was in 1827 and its definition is “systematic rhythmic bodily exercises performed usually without apparatus.” Another definition from Google is “gymnastic exercises to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement.” The “grace of movement” part is key to this discussion as Burpies and flailing on a chin up bar often look anything but graceful.

Due to the current popularity of body weight exercises or calisthenics it’s important to examine the myths, misconceptions, and most effective uses of these types of exercises.


“Body Weight Exercises Are Safer Than Lifting Weights”
I’ve heard this quite few times and it’s not factHamillually correct. If one compares a very complex weight lifting exercise like a barbell snatch to a simple body weight exercise like a plank then, all other things being equal, maybe. Conversely, if one compared a plyometric depth jump to a lat pull down then clearly the bodyweight exercise potentially more injurious. Both of these seemingly logical arguments are fallacious. Let’s look at the research. In a seminal study by Hamill that examined injury rates in school sports per participant hour, weightlifting and weight training had far fewer injuries than gymnastics or other endeavors using body weight.
Anything that’s done without attention whether it be manipulating an object or not is potentially injurious. One has to apply the principles of Precision, Progression, and Variety to all exercise selection. Applying proper technique to any movement and executing that movement precisely can help avoid injury. Selecting exercises that are appropriate to the level of the exerciser both in complexity and mechanical difficulty (weight, speed, etc) can help avoid injury. Progressing the complexity and difficulty in a systematic way with attention to the progress or adaptations that are occurring in the exerciser over weeks and months can also. Using a variety of movements, methods and techniques can avoid overuse or repetitive strain injuries in a program that isn’t specifically geared towards training those movements for a sport or job task. Even then, variety and doing different types of exercises during different periods or phases of the training program (Periodization) can also reduce the mental and physical wear and tear on the exerciser.


“All You Need To Do Is Body Weight Exercise”
 I like body weight exercises and gymnastics. I like ice cream and Italian ices too. But just because I like it doesn’t mean that that’s all I should do, or eat! There are a number of ways to approach this misconception but the largest, most important concept to apply is that of “Physical Literacy.” Physical literacy is comprised of three components; Locomotion Skills, Body Management Skills and Object Manipulation Skills. Before getting into what each of these is, it should be clear that to be physically literate, one needs all three types of skills. That is, one needs skill in manipulating objects. A bag of cement or dog food, grocery bags, lumber, tools, and even barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, sandbags, medicine balls and other apparatus that are found in the gym to mimic the types of objects we interact with in everyday life.
Locomotion Skills – involve transporting the body in any direction from one point to another. Examples are crawling, walking, running, hopping, leaping, jumping, galloping, skipping and swimming.
Body Management Skills – are usually large muscle activities required for controlling the body in various situations. These skills integrate agility, coordination, strength, balance, and flexibility. Body management skills involve balancing the body in stillness and in motion. Examples are static and dynamic balancing, rolling, landing, bending and stretching, twisting and turning, swinging, and climbing.
Object Manipulation Skills – these skills require controlling implements and objects such as balls, hoops, bats and ribbons by hand, by foot or with any other part of the body. Throwing, catching, kicking, striking, bouncing and dribbling are examples.
“Bigger, Faster, Stronger?”
Can calisthenics make you bigger, faster and stronger? Are they the best way to accomplish any or all of these things? Well, of course it depends on how you use the calisthenic or body weight exercise, what type of body weight exercise you’re using and where you are in your training/conditioning.
“Bigger”
In training terms we use the word hypertrophy to describe an increase in size or muscle mass. Although size and strength often go hand in hand, they are actually two separate attributes. When one gets bigger one typically gets stronger but only to a point. When one gets stronger, one typically gets bigger but again, only to a point. Hypertrophy is an anatomical adaptation, that is, it is specifically a change in the structure of the muscle cells and specific muscle organ itself. Additionally, there are different types of hypertrophy of muscle cells. Typically we call these Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy and Myofibrillar Hypertrophy.
As you can see in the diagram to the right, the way in which we train influences the type of adaptation that occurs. Getting bigger (hypertrophy) can be aHypertrophy_transition result of adding more contractile proteins to the muscle cells (Myofibrillar Hypertrophy) or it can occur with more fluid accumulating in the cell (Sarcoplasmic Hypertropy.) The Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy would not result in a gain in strength as there is not an increase in the number of contractile proteins which are needed to increase force production or strength. Conversely, Myofibrillar Hypertrophy, where contractile proteins are added to the cells would result in both an increase in size and an increase in strength. Since calisthenic exercises like push ups, body weight squats, etc. typically require less force and therefore can be done for a long period of time (e.g. may repetitions), they loan themselves more to the development of Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy, that is an increase in size, not an increase in strength. Charles Atlas’ famous mail order program did not use weights, instead it used body weight calisthenic exercises to gain size and some moderate amount of strength. The exception or caveat to this discussion is a specific type of body weight or calisthenic exercises called Plyometrics. Plyometrics are a type of body weight movements performed explosively. Jumping, bounding, clap push ups and the like are examples of plyometric exercises. When performing this type of exercise, we apply the “speed rule”, that is every repetition is performed as fast as possible and the set is over when the speed cannot be maintained. By giving an all out effort during these exercises, they typically fall in the 1-5 rep range and may result in a increase in strength due to adaptations in the way the nervous system controls the muscles without a concurrent increase in size. Lastly, the term hypertrophy described here denotes a relatively permanent adaptation to repeated training, not the “muscle pump” that occurs due to increased blood flow and fluid accumulation around the muscle cells (not inside them) right after exercise which dissipates within a matter of minutes.
“Faster”
As we began discussing above, the type of body weight exercises called Plyometrics do have the potential to make one faster. However, it’s important to note that these plyoVolumeexplosive types of exercise put a lot more force on the joints and muscles and are therefore NOT for beginners. One must create a base of muscle, tendon, and ligament strength before adding Plyometrics to their program and one must be very careful about the volume of plyometric exercises that one does. Additionally, just because “Plyos” can increase speed and force production that does not mean they should be performed year round or be the only exercise technique in one’s program. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has some useful guidelines and criteria for determining if a person is ready to add “Plyos” plyoIntensityto their program, the progression of difficulty of different plyometric exercises (intensity), and the total recommended volume based on one’s training status.