Strength Training Without Weights – General Concepts

Posted January 5th, 2012 by Mackey and filed in Fitness, lifting
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My Situation

I’m presently doing rotations in San Francisco for a couple months (working at California-Pacific Medical Center‘s Pacific Campus); as such, I am a long ways away from Dartmouth’s free-for-student gym access and the resources it offers. Unfortunately, my current finances and location are such that I have no close, cheap gym options to get my iron fix on. At this point, it’s a bona fide jonesing to lift heavy; there is something deeply satisfying to me about a heavy pull or nailing that last squat in a set  that is hard to recreate elsewhere, but necessity is the mother of invention, and here I am needing to gear up for another season without my old, comfortable training allies.

So, what’s the alternative? There are a range of options for the aspiring trainee without a power rack:

KB Swing

  • Acquiring a decently-weighted kettlebell enables a lot of strength and power work without a lot of expense or equipment
  • Likewise, a TRX setup allows for several motions (I’m thinking of inverted rows and other pulling movements, but also unstable pushups, ab “rollouts” and bulgarian squats with an unstable rear foot) that broaden the palate of strength training options.
  • Finally, the best implement to master is the one that you carry with you every day – your own bodyweight. Many challenging movements exist that push not only your strength, but your balance and aid in the development of athleticism.

In the interest of not paying excessive baggage fees, I opted against bringing my kettlebells out here – I have put together a homemade TRX setup for under $30 that I highly recommend (though they just came out with some elastically-rigged “Rip Trainer” that I’m dying to emulate as well). I’ve been using it mostly for inverted rows but there are many, many options to incorporate this into one’s training.TRX Inverted Row

General Concepts in Strength Training

But enough about that – the meat of this post is about bodyweight strength training. A general review of the notions of how to improve strength includes a few options:

  1. Moving a heavy load. This engages the nervous and (depending on how heavy and how long) muscular system to both improve the capability to express the strength you have, as well as stimulate muscle growth with enough volume.
  2. Moving a less-heavy load, at high speed. This method focuses more on engaging the nervous system – with an intent to move at full speed, you recruit more muscle units and therefore train more of your muscle mass on a movement. This is generally the case when doing olympic lifts or dynamic effort work on the basic lifts.
  3. Moving a less-heavy or light load to the point of fatigue or failure. This method, often used by bodybuilders, is intended both to maximize time under tension for a given muscle group (believed to be a prime variable for stimulating muscle growth); additionally it’s thought that the last few reps of each set occur at a point where the smaller, weaker muscle units are so fatigued that you cannot help but recruit the larger, more powerful units, allowing you to stimulate a large percentage of the muscle to adapt, grow and improve overall strength capacity.

My personal bias has always been more for methods 1 and 2 – with method 3 you lose some of the nervous system training component (typically one ends up “training slow” doing bodybuilding work and not developing athletic qualities such as speed and explosiveness; there’s also the notion that this encourages adding less-functional muscle mass.  If you’re training for speed, every pound of excess weight, be it fat or muscle, that isn’t making you faster is slowing you down; I’m also not fond of training to failure on a regular basis, as it tends to promote more lasting fatigue and injury risk). With bodyweight work one ends up necessarily trending more toward the low-load, high-rep end of the spectrum, but there are ways to keep efforts challenging enough to develop real strength.

Increasing the Degree of Difficulty

This is something I plan to focus on – if our sweet spot is somewhere less than 15 reps/set to maintain at least some strength development, it’s important to progress in the type of movement being done to keep it challenging. Examples of this are progressing from a split squat to a Bulgarian (rear foot-elevated) split squat, or adding range to reverse lunges by doing them off of a step, or elevating one’s feet while doing pushups. One does not need weight to make such progressions.

Another way to go about this is to regularly change the exercises done. If after a few weeks pushups are feeling too easy or taking too long to get the effect you want, experiment with handstand pushups against a wall. Return to pushups again later, try a different progression, and see if allowing your body to “forget” the movement doesn’t allow it to become useful again.

High-speed Work

An additional way to go about this is to add a high-velocity component to the exercise. Again, time under tension and doing slower movements can be good for stimulating growth, but it fails to develop explosive athleticism; rather than (or ideally, in addition to) doing slow, controlled reps of your split squats, try an explosive variant like split squat jumps or scissor kicks (or work the absorptive rather than generative side of explosivity with some jumps to lunge position landings). One could even combine methods and start with an explosive variant and transition to a more controlled version once fatigue makes the explosive version too hard to sustain.

Diminishing Rest Intervals

Finally, if there’s anything I’ve learned from Crossfit it’s the magic of incorporating a time element. Sure, you might be able to do 50 pushups at one go, but how long does it take? What if every 10 pushups you alternate with some lunges or air squats? What if these pushups are at the bottom position of a burpee? If you’ll pardon this coming from a scientist, there’s something magical about what happens when you take routine exercises and integrate them into a larger circuit, when you track time and incentivize doing more work with less rest – this probably also relates to the time under tension concept, where it’s not only the overall volume, but the density, that stimulates the hormonal responses that encourage growth.

More to Come

Those are the general considerations. I’ve decided to follow more of a set program for my bodyweight training rather than wing it entirely (based off of the Vertical Jump Development Bible‘s bodyweight strength program – incidentally, the whole thing is a great read for some grounding in basic concepts of athletic training), but I’m hoping to actually lay it out more specifically along with the rest of my training plan in a future post.

6 Responses to “Strength Training Without Weights – General Concepts”

  1. Tara Martin says:

    Hey Mackey,

    I was wondering if you might do a post on the topic of recovering from injuries. Searching the archives I found your post about how 88% of ultimate players suffer from injuries and I know a ton of people who have had whole seasons lost or possibly been knocked out of high level play permanently due to injuries. A lot of people also end up with chronic problems because they don’t recover well. I sprained my ankle pretty severely just before regionals last year, and I’m on the hunt for good information on how to rehab and get back in shape. The physical therapist I’m seeing says I’m not allowed to run yet, so I’ve been lifting regularly to keep core and upper body in shape, but I feel very limited and it seems to be taking FOREVER to heal (over 3 months already!). Sounds like you’ve been through injuries of your own, do you have any advice?

    Thanks!

  2. [...] Tara Martin, I saw your comment on wanting some injury-related writing, specifically on recovering & managing them – great topic! I’d definitely recommend checking out Injury Timeout for some basics on common injuries. Jamie Nuwer is right now what I hope to be in 5+ years; if I find the time I’d love to write and expand on that in more depth though! I’ve coached & played with a fair number of folks nursing injuries or bouncing back from them and could definitely offer some perspective there. [...]

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