Never mind all those fancy fitness machines. Forgo the barbells and dumbbells, too, if you wish. These days, some of the fittest, strongest and most agile people around are embracing old-fashioned bodyweight exercises.
That’s right, one of the hottest trends in fitness is to keep it simple and use the weight of your own body for workouts that build functional strength and endurance.
While yoga and Pilates involve plenty of bodyweight moves that build strength and flexibility, the bodyweight workout craze tends to focus on calisthenics. Push-ups – lots and lots of them – are back. So are burpees, that old-school gym class and boot-camp staple. Squats, lunges, pull-ups, dips – the basic movements and all kinds of variations to make them progressively harder – are being performed in gyms, public parks, hotel rooms and in front of TVs at home.
Led by the 2010 best-selling book “You Are Your Own Gym” by Mark Lauren, who once trained men and women in military special-forces units, strength and conditioning gurus of all kinds have begun offering their takes, leading to a hot sub-category of fitness books.
Some of the inspiration comes from those hyper-toned and powerful Olympic gymnasts. Some of it comes from the military. And yes, fitness professionals have even taken note of the legendary workout routines inside prisons, where barbells and dumbbells have been banned in recent years.
The bodyweight trend does not mean weightlifting doesn’t work. It does. But bodyweight workouts are often more convenient, cheaper and more sustainable, according to the experts.
“What if I told you,” Lauren writes in his introduction to “You Are Your Own Gym,” “that you already have the most advanced fitness machine ever created? Your own body. And what’s so great about this fitness machine is that it’s always there. It is the one and only thing you are never without.”
Lauren’s book includes 125 bodyweight exercises, including variations that make them easier or far more difficult “to work any muscle you want, anywhere you want, for the rest of your life.” His routines are also available in a phone app of the same name that includes video demonstrations and a variety of 10-week workout plans.
“It turns out, you don’t need weights to get strong,” said Allyson Seconds, a trainer and co-owner of BodyTribe Fitness on North D Street in Sacramento.
Seconds is a proponent of sound technique, advising newcomers to “do as many reps as you can with good form, then rest. People tend to have a number set in their mind and they do the number whether the form is good or not. If five burpees are done really impeccably, they can be pretty intense, depending on your skill level. When they’re done well, move up to 10.”
Form is crucial, Seconds said, “so we don’t fall apart later.”
At CrossFit Sacramento, members have the chance to do an organized body-weight-only workout every Wednesday night, performing a circuit of exercises that showcases CrossFit’s signature intensity. Much of the motivation came from the chiseled gymnasts who can push and pull their own weight with power and apparent ease, said CrossFit Sacramento owner Jaime Llopis.
“If you think about it, gymnasts are some of the fittest athletes on the planet. … They just train with their body weight. CrossFit took that and added high intensity.”
A CrossFit circuit might look like this: five pull-ups, followed by 10 push-ups, then 15 squats, repeating the sequence as fast as you can for 20 minutes, pausing to rest when needed. If the athletes make it to the end, they’re gasping for air and their muscles are so taxed they can barely move.
Llopis calls squats, lunges, dips, push-ups, and pull-ups the “fab five” of bodyweight exercises.
Certain bodyweight exercises have become benchmarks for strength and endurance. YouTube videos show athletes performing dozens of grueling burpees (squat, push-up, jump, repeat), pistol squats (one-legged squats) and muscle-ups (a pull-up that transitions to a press above the bar). Variations have become cult favorites online, led by a troupe of bodyweight masters called the BarStarzz.
The wide range of exercises appeal to beginners and hardcore fitness junkies alike. Some want to lose weight. Others want to build muscle and power for sports.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sacramentan Shiloh London spent hours in the gym lifting weights. When she started running six years ago, weights no longer fit into her busy lifestyle.
These days, London is doing a variation of bodyweight exercises using the TRX suspension trainer to make the classic exercises more challenging. She participates in a 45-minute class twice a week at Urban Flex Fitness in Carmichael and doesn’t miss hoisting iron.
“I feel like an overall better athlete,” London said. “There is a perception that unless you’re spending a couple of hours in the gym lifting really heavy weights, you’re not going to increase strength.”
Nate Simon, an anesthesiologist and family man, was looking for something that would improve his fitness without tying him down. He bought a $30 portable pull-up bar to install at home and gets in a bodyweight workout at the playground when he takes his kids to the park. He’s doing dips, pull-ups, burpees and more.
“In 2015,” he said, “a lot of people want something that’s affordable, accessible and time efficient. Bodyweight exercises fit the bill.”
Jess Milbourn, a 6-foot-3 professional chef, started bodyweight workouts out of necessity. He had just turned 40 and was close to 300 pounds. His doctor gave it to him straight.
“He said you either need to do it or you’re going to be in a world of hurt the rest of your life.” He joined a gym and enlisted a trainer, who gave him a circuit that involves high-intensity interval training, known to fitness buffs as HIIT.
“I hadn’t lifted a weight in 15 years. I wasn’t trying to gain a lot of muscle. I needed something to get fit and active again,” Milbourn said, noting that he has lost 35 pounds in eight months.
Still not at the point where he can do a pull-up or tackle some of the more challenging bodyweight exercises, Milbourn says he is feeling better than he has in years.
His advice to others? “Have fun with it,” he said.
Sample bodyweight routines
High intensity routine: Perform a sequence of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats one after the other. Rest, then repeat. Try to go for 20 minutes. Adjust the reps and time to your ability level.
Form and function routine: Do as many burpees as you can with good form, then rest 1 minute. Repeat three times. For easier burpees, skip the push-up.
Employ the same rep pattern for squats. To make squats more challenging, try single-leg pistol squats, using a chair at first to catch you or hold a pole or beam to assist in getting up.
Do the rep pattern for push-ups. Start by holding a plank push-up. For harder push-ups, try Spiderman push-ups, drawing out your right knee to meet your right elbow as your lower yourself, then do the same with the left knee.