When gyms shut down across the country back in March, we all had to suddenly pivot our fitness routines. Unless you were one of the lucky few who either already had a home gym or had the foresight to order equipment before shelves were completely wiped, body-weight workouts became the most realistic way to incorporate resistance training into your new normal.
Your body can actually be a phenomenal piece of equipment. “The body is super resilient and adaptable, and if anyone is able to get in any type of workout at home, that’s awesome during this time period,” says Dillon Caswell, DPT, a sports conditioning specialist (SCS) and audio experience host at The Prehab Guys.
Even though you’re not adding external weights, there are some things you can do to progress body-weight workouts — meaning, make them more challenging as your body adapts and gets stronger.
Altering rep and set counts, adding in plyometric moves and increasing the amount of time you hold a certain position are all convenient ways to make body-weight exercises harder, says Chelsea Long, a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) and exercise physiologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
But is it a good idea to do body-weight workouts every day? Here’s what to expect if you do.
Your Muscles Will Get Stronger — to an Extent
“Body-weight exercise is a form of resistance training,” Long says. “It breaks down the muscles so they can build back stronger.”
How much daily body-weight workouts are going to help you build stronger muscles depends on how strong you are going into it, says Dean Somerset, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and kinesiologist based in Edmonton in Alberta, Canada.
“If you’re going from couch to doing body-weight workouts every day, you’re going to see adaptation,” Somerset says. If you’re going from really heavy lifting to only body-weight every day, probably not so much. “The biggest thing to consider when it comes to producing results: Is whatever you’re doing enough to make your body adapt?” Somerset says.
“Would you download a really big movie if the battery status on the phone was in the red? Think about the battery status of your body and your mind.”
Many people are concerned they won’t be able to maintain their strength when they don’t have access to weights, Caswell says, but there’s some evidence that you can — at least for some time, and as long as you keep progressing and changing up the movements.
For example, a small October 2016 study in Physiology and Behavior found that contracting a muscle as hard as you can through a full range of motion increased muscle size similarly to doing the same exercise with a heavy weight after 18 training sessions. (Keep in mind these results will vary person to person and depend on your current fitness level.)
Additionally, a June 2017 study in the Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness that compared bench presses to push-ups (with the positioning adjusted to have the same amount of resistance as the bench press) found comparable strength gain after eight weeks of training.
“Progression can come in a lot of ways,” Somerset says. You can squeeze the working muscle harder, shorten rest periods, move faster, add more reps, hold in the hardest part of the exercise for longer (working the muscle isometrically) or make other tweaks like elevating your feet during a push-up.
When you’re hitting your rep and set goals and they feel easy, it’s time to make things a little more challenging.
“But there’s going to be a ceiling,” Caswell adds. That will happen at a different time for each person, but at a certain point, if you’re looking to really pack on muscle mass, you’re going to have to add weights, he says.
Your Cardio Fitness Will Improve
Body-weight workouts can help improve your endurance and stamina. “You can get your heart rate up really high with your body,” Caswell says. Cardiovascular fitness is important not only so that you can walk up stairs without feeling winded and run races if you want to, but so that you can keep your heart healthy and stave off disease.
Adding in cardio intervals, or progressing some strength moves into plyometrics (such as doing jump squats instead of regular squats), are both easy ways to turn body-weight sessions into more intense cardio.
Compound movements are another way to reap cardio benefits from body-weight workouts, says Craig Lindell, DPT, CSCS, chief content officer at The Prehab Guys. Compound exercises work multiple muscle groups at once. For example, a squat works the glutes, quads and core. “The more muscles that you have involved, the more cardiovascular demand there is going to be,” Lindell says.
One thing to keep in mind: Jumping also puts a lot of stress on the joints, Long says, so you may run into some issues if you’re doing plyo every single day. “You can mix them in on some days, but plyometrics should only come after proper form and a baseline of strength have been established.”
Your Calorie Burn Increases
Any activity can be beneficial for weight loss if it’s coupled with the nutritious eating habits, Somerset says. “If you want to do nothing but body-weight workouts, you’ll see weight loss as long as you are achieving a caloric deficit,” which means you’re eating fewer calories than you’re burning.
A March 2013 study in Obesity found that ramping up their exercise routine to five days of cardio per week helped people lose weight over the course of 10 months, even with no diet restrictions. So, moving more is always a good thing.
It also depends on what your baseline is before starting this daily habit, Long says. “You want to increase your normal amount of activity for the day in order to reach your weight-loss goals,” she says. ‘If that’s through body-weight training, then that’s fine.”
If weight loss is your goal, you’ll want to focus on doing exercises that get your heart rate high and increase calorie burn every day. Some good examples include mountain climbers, burpees, jumping jacks, high knees and plank jacks.
Your Motivation Might Falter
There’s a reason experts often say “the best workout is the one you’ll actually do.” If you dread your workouts, you’re going to have a tough time getting motivated for them.
For some people, doing the same activity every day can get boring. Switching things up and adding variety can help you get more mentally involved, Somerset says. Maybe that means just having a bunch of different body-weight moves in your rotation so that you’re not doing the same exact thing every day or every week.
But if you’re a person who likes your routine, stick with it. “There are people who want to do the same exercises every single day,” Somerset says. There’s nothing wrong with that (as long as you’re also giving your muscles plenty of time to recover — more on that below).
Lindell says that you also want to make sure you feel more accomplished after than defeated. “In order for our brain to want to get into exercise and want to stick with it, it needs its reward circuit to be happy with what’s going on,” he says. “For that to happen, we need variability and challenges that push us but also allow us to be successful.”
“If you keep failing over and over again, your brain is going to be like ‘I’m done,'” Lindell says. Setting small, achievable goals is a good way to slowly progress, see yourself improving and feel good as you do it.
Your Muscles Might Need a Break
Giving your body adequate time to recover is an essential piece of the fitness puzzle. If you never let your muscles rest and repair, you’ll increase your risk of injury and burnout.
The thing is, there’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast rest prescription when it comes to body-weight exercises. “There really isn’t anything inherently wrong with doing body-weight workouts every single day,” Lindell says. “It’s just a matter of knowing how much and picking the right pace for you.”
So, how can you know if you’re overdoing it or if your daily routine is OK? “If you’re not energetically up for the workout or feel too sore to move from yesterday’s workout, or you’re feeling progressively more sore as the days go on, you might need to take a day off,” Somerset says.
A little residual soreness or muscle tightness isn’t necessarily bad. But if you’re so sore that you feel it going about everyday activities, that’s a sign you could use a recovery day, Long says.
If you’re a tad sore and it goes away during your warm-up, that’s good. Keep doing your thing, she says. But if it doesn’t go away after you warm up or feels worse, stop and rethink that day’s plan.
You also want to consider how your body’s feeling outside of just soreness — which requires being really in tune with yourself, Caswell says.
Did you sleep well last night? Have you been eating the right foods and hydrating? Or are you exhausted, hungry and/or dehydrated? If you’re feeling off, it’s OK to skip or change your scheduled workout, Caswell says. “It doesn’t have to be strenuous every day.”
So, How Often Should You Do Body-Weight Workouts?
Think about your body like your cell phone, Lindell says.
“Would you download a really big movie if the battery status on the phone was in the red? Would you do that before charging your phone? Think about the battery status of your body and your mind,” she says.
“On days you’re in the green, go for it. You’re charged and should be able to handle it. But if you really pushed it the day before and you’re in yellow or red, maybe you should consider having a recharge day.”
Your body is smart, and it’s pretty good at letting you know what it needs. You just have to take the time to listen to it and honor its requests.
Plus, adding some flexibility and variation to your routine isn’t a bad idea. If you are limited to body-weight workouts, expand your idea of what a body-weight workout is, Lindell says.
Besides just changing up the specific exercises, consider trying something completely different, like going for a walk or starting a yoga practice. It’ll help break up the monotony and reduce that chance that you’ll overwork the same muscles from doing the same movements over and over again. Being flexible with your routine and allowing changes based on how you feel will set you up for success, Lindell says.
And finally, remember that if you do intend to hit the heavy weights after doing nothing but body-weight workouts for months, you need to meet yourself where you’re at. You’re not going to be able to go back to the same weight right away, Long warns.
“You don’t want to go back to the gym and get injured immediately, so you want to make sure your body is ready and in pristine condition with form and technique and mobility,” she says.
Body-weight workouts are a great opportunity to focus on proper form because you don’t have weight or equipment as a distraction. It’s just you and your body, moving, sweating and being better off for it.