[Julia Zwierzynski is a graduating senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill studying Exercise and Sport Science. Julia is participating in the Athletic Lab coaching mentorship program.]
Structured, programmed weight training can be incredibly challenging. Weight training at home is even more so. With the onset of the COVID-19 shutdown, many people now suddenly face the additional challenge of trying to maintain their strength with limited or no access to weights. Fortunately, body weight training has the potential to be extremely effective in maintaining or even increasing strength.
There are four main acute variables that can be manipulated when resistance training: Load, volume, tempo, and rest periods. Altering some or all of these variables will result in vastly different physiological effects. Different amounts of muscular endurance, hypertrophy, strength, speed, and power will result depending on the combination of the aforementioned variables.
Load is simply the amount of weight or resistance of each exercise. The higher the load, the fewer repetitions can be performed and vice versa (Haff and Triplett, 2016). Increasing the load of an exercise will result in greater increases in strength and hypertrophy for the involved muscles. Decreasing the load of an exercise will increase the muscular endurance of those muscles.
At first glance, the load for any given body weight exercise may seem immutable. After all, body weight is body weight. However, depending on the exercise, there may be many ways to alter the load of your own body weight. Let’s look at your standard push up. If you drop to your knees, the load decreases. If you stagger your hand placement so one hand is further in front of you than the other, the load increases on one arm and decreases on the other. Next, let’s see how the load of a bodyweight squat can be modified. A standard, 2-legged squat involves half as much load per leg as does a 1-legged pistol squat. Staggering your feet to perform a split squat provides an intermediate, as does elevating either your front or back foot on a box or chair. Each of these alternatives, along with many more, result in a different load on your body. Additionally, studies have shown that a greater variety of exercises results in increased motivation and adherence to an exercise program (Baz-Valle, 2019).
Volume is the amount of work performed for each exercise, taking into account both sets and repetitions. For example, 3 sets of 8 repetitions is 24 total repetitions. The effects of volume are closely tied to any changes in load that may go along with them. Generally, increasing the total volume of an exercise will usually result in greater muscular endurance for the involved muscles. Decreasing the volume will result in an increase in strength and hypertrophy (Haff and Triplett, 2016).
Volume is very easily altered in body weight training. With only the load of your body weight, it may be tempting to simply train to failure. However, “Training to failure may not be necessary to improve maximum muscular strength and is likely not necessary for maximum gains in strength” (Suchomel, 2019). Outside of training to failure, there are no hard limits on the volume of any exercise. The load and volume of any exercise are very closely related and should be considered together. It is useful to have a specific goal in mind when manipulating volume. For example, if your goal is to increase your max strength, you should adjust the variables of load and volume accordingly by increasing load and decreasing volume. If your goal is to increase endurance, you should decrease load and increase volume.
Tempo is the speed at which an exercise is performed. The slower the tempo, the more total time is spent doing each exercise. You may have seen tempo denoted as a series of numbers: 4/2/1. In this example, the eccentric or downward portion of the movement is meant to last 4 seconds with a 2 second pause at the bottom and then the upward portion is meant to last 1 second. Tempo may also be denoted in a more qualitative way. For example, “slow on the way down, fast on the way up” or “slow and controlled.”
Tempo is another easily manipulated variable in regards to body weight training. Simply increasing the duration of each repetition of each exercise will result in greater time under tension. Time under tension is the total time a muscle is contracting, be it eccentrically, concentrically, or isometrically. More time under tension will result in greater muscle hypertrophy for the muscles involved. Hypertrophy, or simply an increase in muscle size, is related to muscle strength. Greater hypertrophy goes along with more strength. On the other side of the spectrum, performing an exercise very quickly will increase muscular speed and power. A good example of this concept is a push up with a 4/2/1/ tempo compared to a ballistic, clapping push up. The movement is essentially the same, but these two exercises are performed very differently, will feel very different, and will result in very different physiological effects.
Rest period is the amount of time between each set of an exercise. In a superset, the rest period is the amount of time between the different exercises in the superset. Typical rest periods can range from zero up to five minutes or more, depending on the desired physiological effects. Shorter rest times are more commonly used when developing muscular endurance or hypertrophy while longer rest periods are more common when developing strength or power.
Much like tempo, the rest period during body weight training is easily manipulated as it is simply a factor of time. Once again, having a specific goal will be useful when determining rest periods. A rest period of 3-5 minutes between sets is ideal for developing power and maximal strength as it takes time for muscles to rest and recover in order to be utilized to their full potential for the next set. Shorter rest periods of 90 seconds or less are often better when developing hypertrophy and muscular endurance because greater stress of the muscles is needed to elicit these effects.
Body weight training may seem intimidating, frivolous, complicated, or anywhere in between. The sudden onset of COVID-19 related shutdowns has left many people high and dry without weights or many of the things they are used to training with. Fortunately, social distancing does not eliminate the possibility of body weight training. It is possible to get a full workout in using just yourself, or just yourself plus maybe a chair or pull up bar. It just takes a solid goal, a little creativity, and some knowledge of the acute variables and how they interact with your body.
- Baz-Valle, E., Schoenfeld, B. J., Torres-Unda, J., Santos-Concejero, J., & Balsalobre-Fernández, C. (2019, December 27). The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31881066
- Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2016). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Riebe, D., Ehrman, J. K., Liguori, G., & Magal, M. (Eds.). (2018). Acsm’s guidelines for exercise testing and prescription (10th ed.). Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer.
- Suchomel, T.J., Nimphius, S., Bellon, C.R. et al. The Importance of Muscular Strength: Training Considerations. Sports Med 48, 765–785 (2018).
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