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The 5 secrets of effective body weight training

by Men’s Fitness

Black exercise lady

A common misconception is that you need to lift heavy to build serious muscle… But the reality is that your muscles can’t tell the difference between your body weight and a barbell.

Warning: your whole concept of strength training is about to change. How can we be so sure? Because for years, fitness insiders have told men that body-weight training is an excellent Plan B—perfect for vacations, business trips, and days you can’t make it to the gym. They’ve championed it as a system for boosting metabolism and building endurance, and decreed it a smart starting point for guys embarking on strength programs. “And all of that is true,” says BJ Gaddour, C.S.C.S., author of the new book Your Body Is Your Barbell. “But so is this: Your body weight can be even more effective than iron for packing on muscle.”

It’s all in how you use it, as you’re about to discover. Paired with the movements in “The Body-Weight Workout that Will Kick Your Ass!”, the body-weight training secrets revealed on this page can help you increase not only the size and strength of your muscles but also your power, mobility, and balance. “Instead of training to look like a hulking beast, which most guys do without realizing it, you’ll train to look like some of the fittest men in the world: boxers, gymnasts, soldiers, MMA fighters—guys who sculpt chiseled physiques without ever lifting a weight,” says Gaddour. Best of all, you’ll do it without ever having to set foot in a gym. Welcome to your new Plan A.

Secret 1: Dial In Your Diet

Body-weight training incentivizes an entirely different body type than weightlifting does. “With weight-lifting, the heavier you are, the more pounds you can lift—not because you have more muscle, but because the extra mass gives you more leverage and momentum,” says Gaddour. “So there’s little motivation to fix poor eating habits.”

The exact opposite is true for body-weight exercises, in which the extra mass becomes a limiting factor for both performance and athleticism. “Carrying around an additional 20 pounds is like wearing a weight vest,” Gaddour says. “So the incentive is to get lean as quickly as possible, and exercise alone won’t do that. You also need to dial in your diet.”

Start by eliminating added sugar, particularly in the form of empty liquid calories. Then focus on increasing your intake of protein and produce. The recommended daily allowance of protein for the average adult male is 56 grams. “Shoot for at least double that,” says Gaddour. In a recent USDA study, men who consumed twice the recommended amount of protein lost more fat and maintained more muscle than those who consumed less. “Take the opposite approach with carbs,” says Gaddour. “Try to limit your daily carbohydrate intake to around 100 grams, and eat most of your nonvegetable carbohydrates after your workouts.”

Secret 2: Prioritize Strength

“A common misconception is that you need to lift heavy to build serious muscle,” says Gaddour. But the reality is that your muscles can’t tell the difference between your body weight and a barbell. “They know time and tension—that’s it,” Gaddour says. “As long as an exercise is sufficiently challenging, you don’t need to add weight to trigger muscle growth.”

Think about that the next time you drop and do 20 pushups, or bang out a set of 50 body-weight squats. “If your goal is to increase size and strength, then most of the body-weight sets that you do should be challenging in the 5- to 10-repetition range,” Gaddour says.

Secret 3: Focus on Form

“Every rep of a body-weight movement recruits more muscles, better engages your core, and places a greater demand on your nervous system than most weight-based exercises,” says Gaddour. That makes technique all the more important. “You want to put yourself in a position that maximizes your training effect while minimizing wear and tear,” says Gaddour.

Each exercise has its own technique, but many share a few key points. Remember this mantra: “Vertical shins for lower-body moves, vertical forearms for upper-body ones,” says Gaddour. Vertical shins shift more load to your hips and hamstrings, taking pressure off your knees. Vertical forearms shift more load to your pecs and lats, taking pressure off your elbows. In both cases, the results are healthier joints and faster gains.

Secret 4: Master Fewer Moves

“Next to lack of motivation, the biggest roadblock for people who are just starting a fitness program is ‘exercise ADD,’” says Gaddour. “When you constantly switch things up, you never fully master the skills associated with executing an exercise perfectly.” You also never fully realize its fat-burning and muscle-building potential.

That flies in the face of what many guys are told—that constant variation is the key to avoiding plateaus and maintaining muscle growth. “But most guys are better off sticking to fewer exercises and milking every benefit from them before moving on,” says Gaddour.

Start with the exercises on this month’s workout poster. “They cover what I call the ‘body-weight 8,’ or the eight key movements for sculpting a fit body: hip hinge, hip thrust, deep squat, single-leg squat, row, pullup, pushup, and handstand pushup,” says Gaddour.

Secret 5: Use Your Body Daily

Body-weight moves generally require more skill than machine-and weight-based exercises do, so your brain and body need more time to learn to perform them efficiently, says Gaddour. Speed the process by practicing easier variations, such as the ones described on the poster, during your off days. “Do 1 set of 10 reps per move,” says Gaddour. Moving around in a deep squat for 5 to 10 minutes a day or holding the top of a hip thrust for 20 seconds every 20 minutes you’re at your desk can also be a mobility game changer. “You’ll activate your glutes, open up your hips, and take pressure off your lower back,” says Gaddour. “Get mobile, and muscle will follow.”

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Read more in Men’s Health

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