Bodyweight Exercises – Why aren’t I gaining muscle mass?

There’s nothing worse than putting a huge amount of effort into something, and then not getting what you wanted out of it. This is a huge problem for a lot of people who do bodyweight exercises – so many people want to gain muscle mass, but don’t seem to be able to achieve it. That can only mean one of two things:

  • They’re not doing the exercises correctly


  • Bodyweight exercises can’t help improve size

It probably won’t be a surprise when I tell you that the purpose of this blog is to establish which one of those statements is correct.

Let’s clear up what we mean by bodyweight exercises. We’re talking about a method of strength training – but unlike most techniques, bodyweight exercises tend to not require equipment and use your own weight to provide the resistance. This form of training, like most others, is used to train endurance and/or strength.

Let’s consider the advantages of using bodyweight exercises then:

  • The single biggest advantage of using this training method is that it doesn’t require you to have access to equipment. So whether you can’t afford to go to the gym, or even if you don’t have the time to get to one, this is always a possibility. I’m not exaggerating when I say these exercises can be performed almost anywhere.
  • No matter what age you are, training this way can provide benefits. Young children do it in P.E., and some people do it well into their later years – in fact, Bruce Forsyth and Gary Player’s usage of bodyweight exercises has been fairly well documented
  • Bodyweight exercises require more flexibility and balance to perform reps, when compared with weight training. As a result, the more you do these exercises, the more you will improve both your flexibility and your balance.

But there are disadvantages as well:

  • If your body is providing the resistance, then the weight that you are working with will only ever be equal to your body weight. This can hinder strength training because often you won’t be hitting your one rep max, which is essential.
  • And obviously the most talked about disadvantage has already been mentioned – without using weights people often find it difficult to find improvements in size when training with bodyweight exercises.

Here are just some of the exercises used:

  • Pull-ups
  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Crunches
  • Lunges
  • Squats
  • Burpees
  • Dips
  • Plank
  • Leg raises
  • Calf raises

Now as you can probably tell after reading that list, it’s completely possible to do a complete full-body workout by just using bodyweight exercises. But if that is the case, why do a lot of people not achieve what they want?

A lot of this comes down to how the exercise is being done. For example, you might be able to do 40 pull-ups, but if you’re doing that as quickly as possible and swinging around all over the place, then you aren’t going to gain serious amounts of muscle mass.

The key aspect to bodyweight exercises is time under tension. As the name should suggest, it’s the duration of time that the actual muscle is being used. So yes, it might impress people when you tell them you can do 60, 70, 80, or however many push-ups – but it’s quite possible that someone else might only do 30 push-ups and be gaining far more muscle than you are.

I’m not going to tell you that bodyweight exercises will give you the same results as weight training – because they won’t. But I also won’t tell you that they can never build serious muscle mass – because they can. It’s all to do with how you do the exercises, and more importantly, how you change the variables of each exercise.

So rather than doing as many push-ups as you can in a minute, try using a 4-4-4 method: a 4 second contraction, a 4 second hold and a 4 second extension.  And this doesn’t have to just be with push-ups.

Your body has patterns of recognition, so if you change your routine your will body react immediately. So if you want to use bodyweight exercises to increase muscle mass then keep adjusting your routine slightly to get that reaction, and remember that time under tension is imperative!


Ollie Lawrence
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