One of the biggest questions in the fitness industry is that ‘can you use body weight training for muscle hypertrophy?’
Seriously, can you build muscles with body weight training? Yes, but there is a specific way to do it. You won’t build a physique like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but you can build substantial muscle mass.
First, let me clarify something. When I say build muscle I’m talking about muscle hypertrophy, making your muscle grow. Not building muscles where you don’t have any, like the tip of your elbow!
To help precisely my answer, we first need to look at the science of muscle development,
To stimulate muscle growth, a stress needs to be imposed (like lifting a weight) which will challenge your muscles beyond their present capacity. This is a concept called the principle of overload. If a muscle is not sufficiently overloaded on a regular basis, it has no incentive to develop.
So, here how it works when you train. When you lift weights (your body or a barbell) that challenge your muscles, your body sees it as a threat to its survival. Then your body adapts by getting bigger and stronger so that next time it will be able to deal with the same stimulus. This adaptation, the process of muscle development, continue that way as long as the muscle is overloaded by applying physical stress.
Then, it’s as simple as overloading on a regular basis and I’ll get arms like Arnold?
Body Weight Training for Muscle Hypertrophy
Don’t be over excited yet, let me continue…
At first, when performing a new exercise/movement the first adaptation that will occur will be by the nervous system. Your muscle will find a more optimal way to coordinate movement patterns. You’ll go from chaotic, choppy movement to fluent, efficient ones. Then your skill level will augment until the movement is acquired. This neurological response brings significant increases in strength without the benefit of muscle hypertrophy.
Once you’ve gained more fluidity with the exercise technique, you’ll be able to exert a greater amount of force during a given exercise. It is then that your muscles will begin to get larger. Muscle growth is attained by the increase in both the size and number of the contractile proteins, actin and myosin, that perform the movement.
Promoting muscle growth
There are 3 factors that are essential and need to be taken care of for muscle hypertrophy:
- Muscle Tension
- Muscle Damage
- Metabolic stress
1. Muscle Tension
This is the total time that your muscle is in contraction.
To augment your time under tension, you need to look into tempo. The tempo is often written with 3 or 4 numbers. For hypertrophy, the 4 numbers tempo is better because it takes into consideration every step of the movement.
Let’s say you do push ups with a 3-1-1-1 tempo, this is what it means:
- The first number (3) is the eccentric, or the lowering phase.
- The second number (1) denotes any pause at the midpoint (at the bottom).
- The third number (1) is the concentric or the ascent.
- Finally, the fourth number (1) denotes any pause at the top.
The third number – the concentric part of the movement – is best if done dynamically. Instead of a “1”, you could see an “x”. This would mean dynamic.
The dynamic effort method ensures that you are maximizing motor unit recruitment and teaching your body to react as quickly as possible. An increase in acceleration increases muscular tension that enhances the training effect of the exercise. It is important to note that it is the brain’s intent – not the actual velocity of your body – that dictates the training outcome.
The fourth number – the pause at the top – is not a resting pause. What you want to do there is a maximal contraction of the muscles targeted by the movement. If we take the push-up, you’ll want to contract your triceps and pecs.
2. Muscle Damage
When you train a movement for the first time or you do a lot of sets and reps of a movement, you often get sore after. This phenomenon is called delayed-onset muscle soreness (D.O.M.S) which generally shows up after 24 hours after and the peak effects are seen two to three days post-exercise. A certain amount of soreness may benefit muscle hypertrophy but too much will be counterproductive. You’ll be feeling crippled and won’t be able to train. So you’ll need to adjust the training volume (sets and reps) and your training frequency.
The D.O.M.S are micro tears in both the contractile protein and surface membrane (sarcolemma) of the working muscle. This causes a signal of acute inflammation and causes the body to start a process or “reparation” that leads to a growth response that will strengthen the muscle tissues to withstand future muscle damage.
3. Metabolic Stress
This basically means training to feel a pump. The pump happens because blood gets pumped into your muscle by the arteries. Continuous muscular contractions will prevent the veins from letting blood escape, leading to a high level of metabolic stress and cell swelling.
Limitations of body weight training for muscle hypertrophy
So, as we just saw, once the nervous system as adapted to the demand, muscle growth will happen as long as you keep overloading the muscle and ensure to target the 3 factors mentioned above.
But your muscles will react differently if you’re new to training compared to someone that has been training for a long period of time.
A beginner will experience faster muscle growth because his body has never experienced the demand. It was never challenged that way.
The new kid on the block who’s at his first attempt to do bodyweight training can grow muscles without paying too much attention to everything I just wrote. He will, without a doubt, eventually hit a plateau and will have to pay attention and apply the principles or muscular hypertrophy if he wants to keep gaining mass.
An advanced trainee’s body already went through the neural and muscular adaptation demanded by more movements and loading patterns. He will too, eventually hit a plateau.
That is when you have to start overloading with more than your bodyweight, you’ll have to include weight. A weighted vest can become increasingly useful at this point. It will allow you to still perform bodyweight exercises/movements thus making stronger and permitting the muscle growth to continue.
Here is a table of guidelines for muscle hypertrophy.
# of sets per exercise………………………3 to 4
# of reps per set……………………………8 to 15
Time under tension……….20 to 40 seconds
Rest…………………………….…….1 to 2 minutes
Rest your muscles to get big
It is not the workout that will build muscle but the opposite, the resting period. You must not underplay the role of rest in your quest for muscle hypertrophy.
You are breaking down your muscle tissues when working out and protein synthesis is largely suppressed. It might seem counter intuitive to have to break it down first but think of a kitchen remodelling in your house. You have to tear down the cheap laminate counter top before installing the nice high-end heavy granite one, right?
Older muscle proteins have to be broken down first and removed to allow newer and better protein to take place. It is after you are done exercising that muscle tissues are rebuilding. During this time, muscle protein synthesis increase dramatically and breakdown gradually decreases. During this time, your muscles super-compensate by growing larger.
- Why your body needs a rest day
Yes, it is possible to build a considerable muscle mass when training with your body weight but you can’t grow muscles by just going at it in every possible way unless you just starting to train. At the same time, instead of just throwing stuff at the wall and see what sticks, having a smart approach guarantee faster success.
There are factors and guidelines to respect to optimize your muscle growth potential. A strategically planned program needs to be put together to ensure maximum results.
Enjoy the training and your bigger muscles!
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To your health and fitness,