You don’t have to lift weights to get strong.
Or to build muscle, keep your bones strong, or burn fat or any of the other benefits of strength training.
There are many ways to reach all of these goals.
If you enjoy lifting weights there is no reason why you shouldn’t use them to reach your goals. But it is important to recognize that weight training has a very big limitation.
You can’t do it without the weights.
So if you are traveling and can’t find a gym (or the gym has a different type of weights than you are used to), don’t want to pay for a gym membership or invest in your own set of weights, or are quarantined during a global pandemic...
Then all of a sudden you have lost your ability to get into shape or maintain your fitness.
Luckily you don’t need weights to get in shape. There is only one thing you ever need to train your body, not including your body.
The Only Thing You Ever "Need"
There is one thing that will allow you to get (or stay) fit. If you don’t have it you won’t be fit no matter how much fancy equipment you have or whom you hire to help you.
If you are struggling with your fitness then it is also probably something you need.
That thing is a positive attitude.
People got fit before the invention of any machine or piece of equipment.
Which means you can get fit without them as well!
So, if you have the right attitude and are ready to learn, there is an entire universe of fitness training that doesn’t involve weights.
Let’s take a look at some of the types of training that the universe offers.
Types of Training
Once you have the right attitude what do you actually do to achieve your goal?
You will still need resistance (a fancy way of saying “weight”) to get stronger or build muscle. There is no way around that.
When you aren’t using external weights, you need to use internal weights.
Meaning: You have to use yourself as the weight.
There are many systems that use your body to get you fit. Let's look at 3 popular ones and decide which is best for strength training.
This is a sport that requires incredible amounts of balance, strength, flexibility, agility, coordination, and endurance.
If you have ever tuned into the Olympics you probably have an understanding of how incredible these athletes are.
But the key thing to remember here is that it is a sport. Unless you are ready to find a coach, and invest 10+ hours a week into training you probably won’t make good use of this excellent system to get fit.
And if you want any real success you need to start when you are 5 or 6 years old.
While this is an effective way to get stronger, it is not the focus. The focus is on improving at the sport, and getting stronger is just one of many factors needed to improve at this sport. Because of this (and the time and money investment), it is not the best way to get strong without weights.
Full disclosure: I am a Registered Yoga Teacher. I started doing yoga 10 years ago and have spent a lot of time studying for myself and teaching.
Yoga is a great way to build strength, flexibility and most importantly a healthy body, mind and soul.
One of my pet peeves about yoga practice is that most people focus on the poses (asanas) and ignore the other 7 limbs of a complete yoga practice.
While a regular asana practice will get you stronger, the focus isn’t on building strength– it is about finding the correct alignment for your body in static poses and enacting fluid transitions between the postures.
Because asanas are just one piece of a complete yoga practice and mostly focuses on the strength of holding a static position (isometrics) instead of applying force (dynamic strength), this is also not the best route.
This is one of the most misunderstood systems of training out there.
Most people who are familiar with the term think of it as bodyweight exercise.
But bodyweight exercise is a category that includes the two previously mentioned here and many other forms of exercise. You might not have thought about this but running is obviously a form of bodyweight exercise.
Calisthenics comes from two Greek words “Kalos” which means beautiful and “Stentos” which means strength. It is effectively the art of using your body to build strength.
Which means it is more involved than just push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks.
This is your winner: the system that focuses on building strength is the best for building strength!
Getting Set Up for Calisthenics
You effectively don’t need any equipment to get started with calisthenics training.
But there are some things that will make your training more effective and fun.
Let’s cover 3 things that will help you train with “no equipment” and 3 very useful (and inexpensive) pieces of equipment.
Floor space – You will still need a place to work out. The minimum requirement is a floor. There are an endless number of exercises that just involve a little bit of floor space.
Sturdy wall – Having a solid wall opens up a ton of options for your calisthenics training. Whether it is modifying a push-up until you are strong enough for the floor or working on headstands, a clear (i.e. no pictures or mirrors) and sturdy wall is a valuable addition to your training space.
Surfaces of different heights – Counter tops, chairs and sturdy tables are all useful tools for improving your strength. Since your body on any given day is about the same weight we often use leverage to make exercise more or less difficult. While many people (especially women) struggle with doing a full push-up almost everyone can do it against a wall, and after that is too easy moving to a counter will increase the difficulty.
A Mat – The floor can be uncomfortable, and an exercise mat makes a big difference. But you don’t want something too soft. Yoga mats are my favorite but any exercise mat that still allows you to grip the floor will do.
A Pull-up bar – Many calisthenics systems rely heavily on hanging and pulling-up type movements, which are much easier with a pull-up bar. While you can do these on an open door or ledge outside a doorway, a pull-up bar makes your life much easier. They are inexpensive and easy to find these days. Also check your neighborhood as often there is a park with a pull-up bar that is perfect for your needs.
Suspension straps (or rings) – When you are doing pulling movements (like pull-ups) you have to already be pretty strong to do one. Suspension straps (often called TRX straps for the same reason tissue is often called Kleenex) allow you to change the angle of your body to make these more accessible. (You can also use them instead of surfaces.) These can be set up on a closed door (using a door anchor) or attached to a pull-up bar. Rings can perform a similar job but only if you have the pull-up bar to attach them to.
What exercises should you do?
Remember there are 5 Fundamental Movement Patterns: Push, Pull, Squat, Hinge, and Carry.
Carrying for strength is not impossible with a calisthenics program. Remember, wearing is a form of carrying, even if it's just your clothes (which we might more accurately call training your gain pattern).
For beginners we often fill this pattern with things like marching and crawling.
If you think that you don’t need strength for carrying without any weight then you should try handstand walks or uphill leopard crawling.
Pushing is covered by forms of push-ups and wall push-ups.
Pulling from pull-up variations and bodyweight rows.
Squatting from bodyweight squatting variations.
Hinging often in the form of bridging, but also can be done in the form of squatting.
And if you want some extra work there are some incredible ab (core) exercises that are bodyweight only. Leg raise variations are incredible for the abs.
Can I get a Sample Program?
Here is one of my favorites for beginners.
Push-up/Leg Raise Superset
The exact variation of these exercises depends on your level. For example, if you are doing one-arm push-ups and hardstyle leg raises on Monday you are a tank.
But for a complete beginner we have to use the appropriate variations, for example:
Wall Push-up/ Leg Tucks – 3 rounds of 10 reps/10 reps
Vertical Pulls/ Shoulder Stand Squat– 3 rounds of 10 reps/10 reps
Hip Bridge/Headstand on wall – 3 Rounds of 10 reps/30 secs holds
You would start with these numbers and slowly increase the amount of reps until a predetermined point. Then you would move onto a more difficult version of these exercises.
How to Progress
The simplest way to progress is using a process known as double progression. What it means is that you keep increasing the amount of reps that you can do (known as increasing the volume). After you have hit a predetermined standard you go to a more difficult variation (increasing the intensity) and drop the number of reps back down.
For example, when you can do 3 sets of 50 wall push-ups you are probably strong enough to do incline push-ups on a countertop.
When you can do 3 sets of 40 incline push-ups you are ready for push–ups on the floor, but on your knees.
The process keeps going until you can do one arm push-ups!
The initial rep goals may seem high, but with practice you can achieve them. Once you start getting into more difficult progressions usually the number of reps that demonstrates you are ready for a more difficult version drops. For example, once you can do 2 sets of 20 close push-ups you are ready for uneven push-ups.
Every teacher has his own progression and standards. The above I took from an excellent book on calisthenics called Convict Conditioning by Paul “Coach” Wade. It is a great resource for anyone who wants to learn a system of calisthenics that can take you from a complete beginner to being able to do some really impressive feats.
There are two ways you can look at the possibilities you can gain from adding calisthenics to your workout.
One is the possibility of being able to train anywhere in any condition.
The second is gaining some serious strength while maintaining a lean body. All bodyweight training punishes you for having excess fat or non-functional muscle. You will have trouble finding someone who isn’t lean and can still do things like one arm push-ups or pull-ups.
Calisthenics are not the only way to train using just your bodyweight – there are many sports and systems that have been developed using just your bodyweight to get strong.
But if you want to focus on strength training, and you don’t have weights, then calisthenics will be the most focused and effective way to get there.
If you want more articles like this, sign up for my weekly newsletter.