Can body weight exercises like push-ups and sit-ups be as effective as lifting weights?

Monday, July 18, 2011 • Chicago, IL 60657


Joining a health club always seems like a great idea, especially around the beginning of January. That’s why 41.5 million Americans pay a total of $18.7 billion a year for health club memberships. But by February many of those new members have discovered that going to the gym can be inconvenient, time-consuming, and sometimes a bit intimidating. On the other hand, buying exercise equipment for the home is an expensive proposition. One solution is to do your workout at home (or in a hotel room or a park or wherever you happen to be), using your own body weight instead of barbells or weight machines for resistance.  

            There’s a little doubt that convenience can be a big factor in how well people stick to their exercise programs. A review of studies by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2005 found that patients with conditions like heart disease who were prescribed exercise were more likely to stick with home-based programs than with programs that required them to visit a nearby gym or hospital to use specialized equipment. In the highest-quality study, 68 percent of the home-based exercisers were still doing the program two years later, compared to just 36 percent of the center-based exercisers.

            The effectiveness of body-weight exercises depends on your initial fitness and goals. A Japanese study in 2009 tested a body-weight exercise program on a group of volunteers with an average age of 66. The exercise program consisted of leg exercises such as squats, lunges, calf raises, and knee extensions. After 10 months of training twice a week, the volunteers had increased maximum leg force by 15 percent and maximum power by 13 percent. But a closer look at the data revealed that the largest gains were obtained by the subjects who started out weakest, since they had to work hardest to lift their own body weight.

            This finding highlights the key weakness of body-weight training: as you get stronger, the weight you’re lifting stays the same (or perhaps even decreases, if you’re lucky!), which makes it hard to continue progressing. Of course, there are ways to adjust the difficulty of classic exercises like the push-up. You can put your feet up on a chair or use only one arm at a time to increase the difficulty. Adjusting the distance between your hands also changes which muscles are emphasized: if they’re closer together than your shoulders, you increase the load on your triceps and deltoids; spreading them farther apart shifts the emphasis to your chest.

            If you’re a bodybuilder trying to sculpt a Schwarzeneggeresque body, these sorts of adjustments won’t be enough to replace the highly specific exercises that you can do at the gym. Similarly, if you’re really trying to maximize your strength and power, the weights and machines at the gym allow you to do a wide variety of exercises targeting different muscles while controlling the exact weight, which you simply can’t duplicate at home. But for general strengthening, either for fitness or as part of your conditioning for a sport like tennis or basketball, you can get all the challenge you need from a mix of push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, chair dips, squats, and other body-weight exercises. And the price is right!