Healthy Living YMCA Health and Fitness

Ask A Trainer: Is bodyweight effective for strength training?

A group fitness instructor demonstrates push ups at the front of his class

Setting foot in a weight room for the first time can be intimidating. How much should you be lifting? How many reps and sets do you need to do? And what’s that scary-looking jungle gym thing in the corner?! We want to take the guesswork out of your healthy living routine so you can make the most of your time at the gym. So we asked Paul, a personal trainer and group fitness instructor at the Toronto West End College St. YMCA, to answer some of your most frequently asked fitness questions. This week, he’s weighing in on the benefits of using bodyweight for strength training.

Milo of Croton was one of the most celebrated athletes of the ancient world. During his time (6th century BC), Milo dominated wrestling, winning six Olympic titles over the course of a 24-year career. Of all the legends surrounding Milo’s great life, the most popular — and my personal favourite — is the story of how he built his supposedly superhuman strength.

It’s said that one day, while roaming the rolling hills of his hometown, Milo stumbled upon a newborn baby calf. He responded as anyone would: by hoisting the beast upon his broad shoulders and carrying it up a hill. Every day, he would return to the same pasture and heave the ever-growing calf over his shoulders before marching up a nearby hill. Over time, that calf grew into a full-sized ox, but Milo wasn’t deterred. He continued his daily hike through the hills, ox on his back, unwittingly inventing the concepts of both progressive overload and functional training along the way.

Training protocols have evolved since Milo of Croton’s time (ox-carrying is less popular these days), but the general idea remains the same: if you want to get stronger, you need to lift heavy objects on a regular basis, and those heavy objects have to keep getting heavier over time.

In all fairness to free weights and machines, bodyweight training is probably my favourite. I love the convenience of being able to exercise at the gym, in my living room, or at the park, depending on my mood. I love how bodyweight exercises demand my full attention, and how I can focus fully on the muscles I’m using without being distracted by a barbell. I love how my shoulders feel both loose and stable after a series of handstands and pull-ups, and how my hips and knees are rarely sore after pistol squats and bridges.

I love pretty much everything about bodyweight training except for one thing: it’s hard (who am I kidding—I love that, too). Pushups may seem like they’re more appropriate for beginners than, say, the dumbbell bench press, but they’re not. 20 properly-executed pushups can be a challenge for even the most experienced lifter. The key to bodyweight training is to start slowly and take your time with the most regressed versions of the exercises (e.g., pushups from your knees) before advancing to more difficult variations (e.g., one-armed pushups).

If you don’t know where to start, or you’re looking for a challenge, a personal trainer can build you your very own bodyweight workout routine. And if you’re interested in other strength training methods, stay tuned — I’ll cover machines and free weights in my next column.

Paul graduated from Humber College’s Fitness & Health Promotion program (with honours!), earning a certification in personal training and group fitness from the Ontario Fitness Council along the way. His training specialties are bodyweight training, strength training for older adults, and plant-based nutrition.

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