Pumping Without the Iron

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

We say often that you don't need big clanky weights to gain strength, that so-called bodyweight exercises -- push-ups, pull-ups and others that require you to move the weight of your body against the pull of gravity -- will suffice. We then typically waltz off and leave you ear-deep in dust bunnies on the floor, trying to recall your last push-up. So let's elaborate.

"There is nothing magical about a barbell," says Todd Miller, an assistant professor in the department of exercise sciences at George Washington University. "If you do three sets of push-ups to failure, that's the same [effect on your muscles] as doing three sets of a weight to failure," provided the weight targets the same muscles. This also applies to pull-ups, squats, sit-ups, chair dips and other bodyweight moves.

But there's a catch: The more fit you are, the less benefit you gain. "If you can only do one push-up, that's a very intense exercise for you" and it will help build strength, Miller says (although doing it with a keg tap in your mouth may compromise the benefit).

But once you can peel off more than about 15 reps without tiring (in flawless form, of course!), you're no longer increasing strength, just endurance.

"This isn't a bad thing," Miller notes, but to continue gaining strength you can add resistance (placing a weight on your back with a push-up or holding milk jugs when you squat). Or you can shift muscle focus by adjusting body position. With push-ups, a narrower hand position will recruit more of the triceps muscles; a wider hand position will focus more on the chest.

You can also boost benefits by slowing down when you lower your body -- what the fitno-tweaks call the "negative" or "eccentric" part of the move.

If you go slower than gravity would normally move you -- for example, by taking four to five seconds to lower yourself from a pull-up instead of just plunging down like a hog carcass -- "you will really feel that," says Steve Farrell, director of professional education at the Cooper Institute in Dallas.

Your bodyweight exercise starter kit includes two things: (1) you and (2) the following pointers.

Push-ups: Work your chest, shoulders, triceps and upper back.

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