If your fitness goal is I want to get big, then we’ve got a pretty simple solution. When it comes to getting big in the gym, the word BASIC is about as big of a compliment you can get; as in “he does all the basic exercises, that’s why he looks so great.”
What’s more, bodyweight exercises like pull-ups are among the most effective of those basic, tried-and-true physique developers. So, if “I want to get big” is your new fitness and health goal, read on, as this article delves into the wide variety of bodyweight exercises and how they keep you looking jacked.
The Case for Body-Weight Exercises
There’s a reason why bodyweight exercises like pull-up/chin-ups, push-ups, and sit-ups have been a staple of military workouts over the course of history—it’s because they get you in shape, fast. In fact, it’s possible to develop basically every muscle group on your body—quickly and effectively—by utilizing this type of approach.
Moreover, bodyweight exercises are also a great indicator of a person’s overall strength—which is probably why Arnold was so big on them. In fact, when you look back at many of the photos taken of Schwarzenegger in his ‘70s heyday, you can see him performing variety after variety of these exercises (as evidenced here and here).
I Want to Get Big: The Power Principle
Need to know where you are strength-wise in the gym? Load up on 30 pull-ups and see how your body reacts and you’ll find out real quick.
Of course, when attempting to achieve maximum gains, we’re hardly advocating that you stick to bodyweight exercises only. However, by using them as a stepping-stone to a heavy weight-lifting routine, you’ll cultivate the type of raw strength you need to perform those heavy movements like squats, deadlifts, and bent-over rows.
Bodyweight Exercises: More Than Just Pull-ups
While it may come as a bit of a surprise, the last three exercises actually count as bodyweight, or closed-chain kinetic, exercises.
“In closed chain exercise, the foot or hand is in contact with the surface on which you are exercising. In open chain, they are not,” Dr. Eric Hegedus, founding chair of the doctor of physical therapy department at High Point University in North Carolina, explains.
So to be clear: exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and pull-ups are classified as closed-chain kinetic exercises, while movements such as leg curls (where the lower leg swings freely and avoids contact with the floor) is an open chain.
Closed Chain vs. Open Chain: What the Science Says
The NCBI Study
Its subjects were tested prior to training and at the completion of the study’s prescribed training period. Barbell squat, isokinetic knee extension, and a vertical jump test were used to monitor the effects of participants’ training. The study notes that while significant improvements were seen in both groups, in the barbell squat test, the closed kinetic chain group improved significantly more than the open one. The same was also true of the vertical jump test (with improvements in isotonic strength from neither group transferring over to the isokinetic knee extension test results).
More Reasons to Incorporate Bodyweight Training
Many Americans simply can’t find the time to hit the gym as much as they’d like. Therefore, as a home or office-based gym alternative, bodyweight exercises just make sense. Pull-ups, for instance, can be done with equipment like this stationed in the home or office, while exercises like sit-ups and free squats require no equipment at all (except maybe a sturdy couch to help stabilize your feet).
Bodyweight exercises may also help you live a longer, healthier life according to a study that appeared in the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study looks at the association between participation in strength-promoting exercise (like bodyweight exercises) and long-term outcomes related to mortality.
It found that, on average, participants who regularly participated in strength training (i.e., two sessions a week totaling 50 to 60 minutes) displayed a 23% reduction in all-cause mortality and a 31% reduction in cancer mortality.
Furthermore, the benefits of body-weight exercises vs. their free-weight or machine equivalents were found to be basically the same. “A very encouraging finding and a finding… was that there was not much difference [between gym-based or home-based strength exercise],” says lead author Emmanuel Stamatakis.
Brief Survey of Bodyweight Exercises
We should make a distinction between pull-ups and chin-ups from the start. While they’re both effective, they’re not the same thing. The basic difference between the two is the grip you use to perform them.
(Don’t lose your grip: also note that, prior to performing each of these exercises, you may want to consider chalking your hands or using wrist straps in order to avoid losing your grip/sustaining an injury).
When performing a chin-up, your palms are turned toward your body, in an underhand grip. This position forces you to pull primarily with your biceps; therefore, it’s no surprise that it’s this body part that benefits from this variation on the pull-up. Keeping your core tight throughout, pull yourself up (by the arms) in a smooth, non-jerky motion and don’t go back down until your chin clears the bar. You can even pause at the top for an extra-effective muscle burn as Joe DeFranco owner and founder of the world-famous DeFranco’s Gym demonstrates in this video.
Note: Other body parts worked during chin-ups include the muscles that comprise the lower lats, as well as the lower traps.
Pull-ups, on the other hand, are a great tool to build your back. To execute one properly, your palms should be turned away from the body this time, in an overhand grip. From here, the procedure is similar to its brother, the chin-up: you keep your core tight and pull yourself up (this time leading with your back/rear delts) in one smooth, non-jerky motion. You also want to pull your elbows to your hips. Finally, you have the option of touching your chest to the bar or stopping just short of doing so (to focus on different parts of the back).
Note: Overall muscles worked by pull-ups include the rear (posterior) delts, middle traps, and upper lats.
3. Free Squat
This one is about as low-maintenance as it gets. Simply place your legs at shoulder-width and your arms out in front of you. Descend slowly (imagining that your feet are on sponges and in your journey toward the floor, the water is slowly running out) until your rear-end is a few inches from the floor. Then, using your sponge visual again to ensure that you’re not coming up too fast and your entire thigh is getting worked, slowly ascend back up.
4. Gorilla Chin-Up
This one works your abs and biceps simultaneously. Keep your knees bent at a 90-degree angle (throughout the movement) and your hands positioned about 12 inches apart.
5. Weighted Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups
The mechanics with this variation aren’t any different—in fact, you can perform weighted pull-ups/chin-ups using just about any other technique on this list. What does change is that you need a sturdy weight-lifting belt (with chain, loops, and clamp attached). From here you slide a weight plate through the chain, clamping it, and begin. The purpose of weighted pull-ups/chin-ups is to give you more of a challenge and also to help you bust through routine plateaus.
Amino Acids and Pull-Ups Make a Great Team!
Bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups can work together with an essential amino acid supplement to help stimulate the production of new muscle protein. Exercise readies the muscle to speed up muscle protein synthesis, but it can only go so far if there aren’t enough essential amino acids available to build that muscle. Taking essential amino acids before and after your workout can help stimulate muscle protein synthesis and enhance the muscle-maximizing benefits of pull-ups.