by Nachiketa Shetty
When it comes to working out for your goals, be it fat loss or muscle/strength gains, the most common question I get from my clients is: “Will I have to workout in the gym or can I build an equally great physique working out at home?”
Before yoga professionals, marathoners, and devotees of other exercise disciplines feel left out, let me clarify that other exercise disciplines have their own time and place too. However, in this article I solely want to address the topic in hand.
Bodyweight exercises and working out in the gym with weights, both help in improving your strength and muscle mass. Especially when you are a beginner, you might stand to squeeze out more or less similar gains from both the forms of exercise. However, as you start to get accustomed to all the exercises involved and make progress in terms of skill, you may not make the same progress with bodyweight exercises as you would working with weights.
To understand the reason behind it, we first need to learn the meaning of the term “effective reps”. As proven in studies done on strength athletes, you make the most muscle and strength gains when you reach failure or get close to failure. For example, if you lift a 10kg dumbbell and do bicep curls until you reach 13 reps beyond which even if I hold a gun to your head and threaten to kill you if you do not push another rep, even at this point your arms simply can not manage to move the dumbbell for another rep, then THAT is your point of failure. The 13th repetition is the repetition which gives the highest stimulus for muscle gain. The final 4-6 reps of the set, before you hit failure, are the repetitions which are responsible for almost ALL the gains you make from this set. These meaningful reps which come towards the end of the set where the speed of the repetition slows down, are what we call “Effective reps”.
When you are fairly new to working out, a set of 10 repetitions of pushups and bench press (with equivalent weight), both will require you to put in the same effort, which also means that both will give you similar gains but we also need to remember that a beginner makes faster progress than a seasoned lifter. The same set of 10 pushups will seem much easier after a few weeks. With the bench press, you simply add more load on the bar and 10reps will not be easy still. And therein lies the fundamental difference between pure bodyweight exercises and working with weights: Loadability.
Of course, you can do more repetitions of pushups and hit failure at say, 21reps. But this threshold will keep increasing over time until you reach a point wherein, you’re doing 60-70-80reps in each set just to reach failure. A new problem which crops up here is that even in a set of 60reps, the initial 50-54 reps gave you almost zero stimulus for muscle gains. In other words, you had to do 50-54 reps of pushups just to reach the starting point of muscle gains; final 10-20% of the reps gave you all the gains. In comparison, in a set of 10-12 reps of bench press, it’s still the same 60-70% of the reps which give you all the gains.
Finally, there’s also the fact that if you are an obese individual who weighs 100kgs on your first day of workout, then a set of pushups at this weight will be akin to doing a bench press of 70-80kgs on day-1. On the contrary, you can start off with an empty barbell if you were in the gym and keep adding weights as and when you feel comfortable to.
All of the above arguments are for bodyweight exercises without using anything else other than your own bodyweight and gym workout involving all kinds of weights available to the mankind. Most of the bodyweight training experts, however, tend to use weights to increase the difficulty of the sets instead of increasing the repetitions. You might come across videos all the time, where people place a dumbbell or ask someone to sit on their back while they do pushups. This won’t fall under the category of pure bodyweight exercises as the resistance offered is not only by the bodyweight but some external loads as well.
At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter which one you choose as long as you enjoy doing it. All this talk about optimal way of doing things only count when you do it consistently throughout your life simply because you enjoy doing it. So pick a form of exercise you enjoy doing and try to become the best at it. That alone shall keep you stronger and healthier than even the most optimal training routine in the world to ever have existed!
Nachiketa is a nutrition and exercise coach and have been in this profession since 6+years. He has trained over 2000 clients, including a few celebrities and their coaches too. Apart from coaching, he has been an educator in this field having given 30+ seminars, some of them for esteemed organisations like Vedantu, Capgemini and Dell.