And if you stop lifting, will you lose it?

By Mallory Creveling
June 18, 2020
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You already know that lifting weights will help you build muscle. (And that heavy lifting won't make you bulky!) But if you're working out at home with no equipment except your own body, you might wonder whether you'll still see gains—or, frankly, lose some you worked hard to get previously. The simple answer: You certainly can still build muscle without all those weight plates and barbells. But, of course, there's a little more to the story about using bodyweight training to add muscle. Here's what you need to know.

Can Bodyweight Exercises Build Muscle?

If you're used to lifting super heavy at the gym, grabbing barbells, or moving weight on machines, replicating that at home can prove somewhat difficult, says Alexis Colvin, M.D., an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon at the Mount Sinai Health System. But that doesn't mean you can't build muscle if you're limited to bodyweight exercises; it just means you'll have to switch up the way you typically train. Maybe for you, that means moving through exercises much more slowly or upping the reps, sets, or timing of each move. "In order to build muscle, you need to challenge the muscle," says Colvin. So, whatever change it takes to challenge your muscles, that's the goal. And figuring out what works best for you or what tests your body that most? Well, that'll take some trial and error.

The advantages of bodyweight exercises are that you're doing functional, compound movements that let you focus on form without the added resistance. You'll get stronger in movement patterns you use in everyday life, plus you'll work multiple joints and muscles at one time with exercises like squats, push-ups, and lunges, says Colvin. You also work many smaller muscles, particularly when doing stabilizing exercises, like bird dogs, planks, and single-sided moves, she adds. These types of moves target your upper and lower body, along with your core, challenging muscles you don't always work with weights.

Some research has compared loaded exercises with bodyweight moves, showing similar results in how much muscle the participants gained. For example, one small study comparing a loaded bench press to a bodyweight push-up demonstrated similar muscle gains in the pecs and triceps after an eight-week period. Another small study on post-menopausal women at high risk for type 2 diabetes found that 12 weeks of high-intensity bodyweight interval training increased muscle mass to a similar extent as a combination of aerobic and resistance training. And, in another study, one group did a series of elbow flexion exercises (think: bicep curls) with a heavy load, and the other did the exercises with bodyweight, making sure to maintain tension throughout the full range of motion. The bodyweight group had a comparable increase in muscle size to the group with a heavy load.

To help you understand exactly how bodyweight exercises can build muscle, though, it's important to know how your muscles get bigger in the first place.

How Does the Body Build Muscle?

Building muscle mass—known in science as hypertrophy—involves challenging muscle tissue and increasing protein synthesis, which is the process of cells building new proteins, explains Molly Galbraith, C.S.C.S., co-founder of Girls Gone Strong. You can do this via exercise in three ways: creating mechanical tension, metabolic stress, or microtrauma. While most types of training will incorporate all three ways to induce hypertrophy, which results in the biggest benefit (plus, these systems tend to work together), different workout techniques may target one method more than the other, says Galbraith. You don't need to design your workouts to focus on one or another, but it can be helpful to understand precisely how each method builds muscle:

Mechanical tension: Mechanical tension typically comes into play during weightlifting. You load the muscle with enough resistance to create tension, causing cellular and molecular responses that then lead to gains, says Galbraith. Upping the number of reps and sets (aka the total volume) you do of each exercise can increase mechanical tension, too, which provides muscle-building benefits. (This is also part of the science behind progressive overload.) Slowing down the eccentric action or downward phase of a move, like lowering into a squat, might also provide some extra tension. For some people, certain bodyweight exercises offer enough resistance on their own, as well, like in a push-up or a pull-up.

Metabolic stress: That burning sensation you feel when you're pulsing through squats, holding the bottom of a push-up, or on that final rep of sit-ups? That's a result of metabolic stress, which occurs when metabolites (aka waste products that form as a result of exercise, such as lactate) build up in the muscle tissue, explains Galbraith. This causes hormonal, cellular, and growth factor reactions, offering another way to pump up your muscles. It can increase anabolic hormone release, (hormones like testosterone or growth hormone that stimulate protein synthesis), lead to cell swelling, and lead to an increase in growth factors, proteins that can stimulate tissue growth by promoting cell reproduction. (Related: How to Improve Your Lactate Threshold)

Microtrauma: This is when you get small tears in muscle tissue thanks to exercising—but, namely, resistance training. Your body then works to repair that damage and that jumpstarts muscle growth, says Galbraith. While any exercise can do this to your muscles (squats, planks, deadlifts, you name it), new moves you haven't done before or haven't performed can also cause this microtrauma. Dance, running, bodyweight moves, etc. can cause microtrauma—it's not always a result of mechanical tension.

How to Increase the Muscle-Building Benefits of Bodyweight Exercise

So many options! There are numerous methods for switching up your typical bodyweight workout—even small changes can lead to bigger muscle gains. But Galbraith offers a few concrete tips for challenging your body and encouraging muscle building. These are in no particular order and the best way to incorporate these strategies is individualized. (Relayed: The Best Bodyweight Exercises for Getting Fit Anywhere)

Try one or all five of these tactics in your next workout and see what tests your muscles the most:

  1. Increase reps and sets; decrease rest time. The more you do an exercise, the more you'll increase the metabolic stress you put on your muscles. Do more reps and sets of bodyweight exercises than you'd typically do at the gym with weights for similar results. You also want to limit breaks between those reps and sets, too, without sacrificing proper form. This puts more stress on the muscle, promoting growth. In fact, research shows that low-load resistance training (with a light weight or bodyweight) combined with little rest may enhance metabolic stress and increase muscle size even more than lifting heavy weights and taking longer breaks. If you typically lift weights for about eight reps in the gym, try doing that same move for 20 reps at home with just your body.
  2. Change the angle or tempo of the exercise. To increase microtrauma, try taking your lunges for a walk or stepping out on a diagonal. Or add an incline or decline to your push-ups, suggests Galbraith. Changing the angle can both incorporate other muscles into the move, but also work different parts of the same muscle group. It's also a good idea to slow down the eccentric or downward phase of an exercise (like when you lower to the bottom of a deadlift) and then explode up (quickly moving up from a deadlift or hinged position). Another option: Slow down the entire exercise. For example, lower into a squat on a count of three, holding at the bottom for three, then stand up on another count of three. This increases the time your muscle is under tension, meaning you're more likely to create microtraumas within your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which have more endurance capacity than fast-twitch fibers. (Try it: This 20-Minute HIIT Tempo Workout Plays with Speed In an Insane New Way)
  3. Add some holds and half-reps. This can add more metabolic stress to the muscles, thus resulting in more gains. For example, if lunges feel easy, hold the bottom of the movement (both knees bent 90 degrees) for a few seconds before standing up. Or, step back into your lunge, lift halfway up, then drop back down before you come back up to standing. Also, try stopping short of standing all the way up from a squat or lunge, or stop short of lowering all the way down in a glute bridge. This works because you're putting the muscle under tension for a longer period of time, or eliminating any points in the movement where the working muscle gets a break. (Related: Why You Should Add Partial Reps to Your Training and How to Do It)
  4. Do more plyometrics. To increase the tension on your muscles, add some explosiveness to your moves. Squat jumps, lunge jumps, hinge jumps, burpees—they all count toward more muscle building. When a muscle is stretched, it leads to nerve firing that signals a concentric contraction (shortening of the muscle). A quicker stretch (like what happens during the explosive portion of a plyometric exercise) leads to a stronger nerve firing and greater resulting contraction of the muscle. That stronger contraction means your muscle is working harder, and will likely result in more microtrauma and thus more gains. One study on young soccer players found that those who performed plyometric moves had similar muscle gains to those who did resistance training.
  5. Perform single-sided exercises. Switch your typical bilateral (or two-sided) exercises to unilateral (or one-sided) movements. That means turning a squat to a pistol squat, making your glute bridge a single-leg bridge, or turning your plank into a single arm (and/or leg) plank. These simple switches can increase the microtrauma to a muscle, as well as add more tension or load to that muscle, says Galbraith. Think about it: One side is handling all the weight rather than splitting it. (Related: What Is Unilateral Training and Why Is It Important?)

Never Stop Progressing

As with any type of exercise, there's always a risk of hitting a plateau if you keep doing it over and over again without playing around with any variables or continuing to test your muscles in new ways. That's why it's important to progress your program, adding variations to the exercises and increasing the challenge on moves with the methods Galbraith mentions above—that's how muscle building continues to happen.

"If everything starts to feel really easy, you're probably not gaining much [muscle]," Colvin says. Keep that in mind as a sign to switch up your routine. If you're working out at home and looking for a way to add external load, you can always try these moves with household items that trainers love.

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