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What are Bodyweight Exercises?

By Jessica Gore
Updated May 17, 2024
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Bodyweight exercises are movements designed to increase strength, endurance, or cardiovascular fitness using only the weight of the body for resistance. Also known as calisthenic exercises, examples of equipment-free movements include squats, push-ups, sit-ups, and chin-ups. Military, athletic, and martial arts programs often make use of this form of exercise, due in part to the adaptability and flexibility bodyweight programs offer. Other popular fitness methodologies, such as yoga and Pilates, employ bodyweight exercises in conjunction with stretches and breathing techniques to promote total body fitness.

Those without the means or inclination to participate in gym-based activities often turn to bodyweight exercises to increase muscular strength and endurance. Most people can achieve a high state of fitness employing bodyweight exercises alone. Common calisthenic routines begin with a series of cardiovascular exercises, such as jumping jacks or squat-thrusts, to warm up the muscles, followed by strengthening exercises and stretches. Push-ups, chin-ups, and dips work the muscles of the upper body, while squats, lunges, and calf-raises exercise the lower body. Core exercises, which work the abdominal muscles and lower back, include crunches, planks, and back extensions.

Pilates and yoga employ the use of bodyweight exercises to attain fitness, but in subtly different ways. Typically executed in a more gentle, controlled manner than the calisthenic workouts associated with sports and military training, these methodologies focus on mental concentration in addition to physical exertion. While the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably, each has its own history and utilizes bodyweight exercises in a unique way.

Yoga postures aim to achieve balance and symmetry both on a mental and physical level. Its routines tend to focus on the flexibility and strength of all the body's muscles, alternating bodyweight exercises and stretches throughout the session. Postures are often carried out from a standing position, with special attention paid to breathing and concentration. Additional resistance is typically attained by performing progressively complex movements as the skill of the practitioner increases.

Originally developed in Germany by Joseph Pilates near the beginning of the 20th century, Pilates was conceived with allusions made to the early Greco-Roman gymnastics. Bodyweight exercises employed in Pilates typically focus on the core muscles, as well as the hips and buttocks, collectively referred to as the powerhouse. Most postures are carried out from a seated or reclining position, either on a mat or a specialized Pilates machine. Resistance is generally increased or decreased by altering the angle of the legs to add or remove leverage. In this way, progressive overload can be achieved without the use of additional weights.

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