This year, for the first time, body-weight training topped a list of fitness trends in an annual survey of more than 3,800 fitness professionals. What’s even more remarkable: It’s only the third time that body-weight training has appeared on the list. Clearly, its popularity is growing—quickly.
The obvious appeal is that minimal equipment means minimal costs, which is key during tighter economic times. But the popularity is about more than cost savings, say experts. Instead, people are realizing that body-weight workouts can be fun, empowering, and, most importantly, effective.
“It’s one of the benefits of the CrossFit craze,” says Karen Mahar, PhD, NASM-CPT, chief operating officer of Global Bodyweight Training in Miami. “People now realize that body-weight training isn’t just burpees and lunges. It can include gymnastic moves and really fun things that get people doing what they didn’t think they could do. Women especially have responded to this. They now know they can do a chin-up like anyone else. They can walk into a gym and be a badass. That keeps people coming back.”
A FIRM FOUNDATION
Body-weight workouts are a good way to make sure all of your clients, especially those with physical limitations, develop good movement patterns, says Mahar. “You shouldn’t focus on loading someone until they can perform a deep squat with their own body weight,” she says, which ensures they have the proper biomechanics through their full range of motion.
Ground-based exercises like the beast crawl and crab walk also develop the core strength, stability, and coordination that is essential for successful strength and performance improvement, says Mahar. “We have a lot of physical therapists attending our body-weight workshops because they recognize how functional these movements really are.”
In essence, these moves are the foundation of what you do in life, not just in the weight room, says actor and fitness coach Andy McDermott, NASM-CPT, of Hollywood, Calif. “I always tell people that you have to train for the unknown—not necessarily a sport or activity, though that’s great too, but for all the demands of life. You might have to run through the airport with your luggage or quickly grab and pick up a child. None of those things relate to sitting under a bar for one set every five minutes. Body-weight training activates your core and develops your proprioception [sense of body in space] so you’re better balanced and able to perform sudden moves.”
With body-weight training, your only limit is your imagination.
EFFECTIVE ANYWHERE, FOR EVERY BODY
Body-weight exercises deliver impressive results, but experts agree that it does have its limitations—particularly if reaching maximal strength is your goal. But, McDermott says, you can get pretty close. He knows from experience.
“When I moved to California, we had a tiny house and four kids and there wasn’t much space or time to go to the gym,” he says. “But I needed to stay lean and sculpted for show business. So I worked out in the backyard for seven months. My body composition and weight didn’t change. When I did go back to lifting, I found that I really hadn’t lost much strength in traditional weight exercises. I learned that it’s a very effective way to work out.”
To that end, body-weight routines are perfect for any client who has limited time, space, and/or finances. Because the exercises are easy to do anywhere and require no equipment, they’re accessible to everyone.
“I use it with all my clients,” says Crystal Reeves, NASM-CPT, CES, Master Trainer, who is based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “My client base is largely stay-at-home moms, but I also have a lot of clients who travel quite a bit for work. With body-weight exercises, it’s very easy to provide a workout they can do at home or in their hotel room. You can get in a 30-minute workout and have no excuses about getting it done. That’s a huge draw.”
Of course, not every type of workout is suited to every client. Clients who are very large, especially those who have a limited range of motion, may have difficulty with body-weight workouts. But even these clients can benefit from moving their own weight, says Mahar. And teaching them to move more effectively can reduce the risk of injury.
“The key is performing a good assessment and then making proper progressions and regressions,” she says. For example, she says, if someone can pull a certain load in a lat pulldown, you can work up to pulling their body up to the bar, starting with a leg-assisted pull-up. NASM’s continuing education courses and specializations like Corrective Exercise Specialist (CES) and Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES) can be great resources for these adjustments.
Variety is the key to keeping body-weight workouts stimulating to the mind as well as the muscles. That’s why today’s body-weight workouts aren’t about doing endless squats and planks. They’re about approaching training in an exciting way that keeps you—sometimes literally—on your toes.
“Sometimes you need to take a client through a workout so they can see all the potential,” says Reeves. “You start having them do moves to a certain tempo or lift a leg or stagger their hands or feet and they’ll say, ‘I had no idea you could do so much with a push-up!’ ”
Once you get the hang of it, it’s easy and becomes almost like a game, says McDermott. “You take a person who can do 20 regular squats and have them do single leg squats and then squat jumps and then squat, burpee, push-ups. In this way, you can actually make more progression with your clients because there are countless ways to change things up to challenge their muscles in new ways.”
Finally, though body-weight workouts can be done anywhere, Mahar says her clients find it so fun and engaging it has been a great way to get people to come to the gym who might not otherwise be interested. “Nobody in the gym stops and claps for you when you toss another 10 pound plate on the leg press machine. But when you pull off a handstand push-up or a muscle-up, everyone stops and applauds. That keeps people coming back.