For years strength training has been synonymous with barbells and weight plates, but it’s certainly not the only way to go.

Before we get into the nitty gritty around how to best build strength let’s just be clear, strength building exercises are not just for bodybuilders. Building strong muscle is the secret to shaping a toned physique, fortifying the bones, protecting our joints and burning calories throughout the day. With this in mind, strength training is something we must all embrace.

So what’s the best way to build strength?

Lifting the same weight time and time again has limitations – it’s constant challenge that creates change. That’s where the principle of progressive overload comes in.

Progressive overload is the ongoing adaptation that occurs when we escalate the stress placed on our muscles. We can do this using incrementally heavier loads. In most cases, whether the incremental overload comes from a weight plate or from our own body weight makes no difference whatsoever.

Choose to lift weights and the progressive overload comes from regularly adding a smidgen more iron to your barbell. The actual exercise you do remains the same, only the weight increases, so the progressions are typically very smooth.

When it comes to bodyweight exercises the progressive overload can come from more creative variations in the exercise, for example once you are handling your body weight with good form – adding a power (speed) element can provide the added challenge to keep the changes coming.

If you’re doing full push-ups and you’re ready for the next challenge try this variation. Place an exercise bench long ways under your chest. Now repeat your push-up by exploding off the floor to jump your hands onto the bench – then walk your hands back down and repeat. All of a sudden you’ll go from doing 25 conventional push-ups to only being able to do 10 of these bad boys – voila – new challenge – big results with body weight alone.

For anyone cranking out 50 bodyweight squats without breaking a sweat, try jump squats using the same range of motion. Drive out of the bottom of the squat to jump as high as you can then use your squat to absorb the landing and repeat.

When we measured the effects of these types of power exercises on a group of active adults we saw increases in strength of between 15 – 20 per cent in just six weeks. These types of changes are usually only seen with heavy loaded weight exercises – highlighting the effectiveness of including speed elements to improve strength with body weight or light weights.

So, weight based strength training certainly isn’t the only way to go, you can build serious strength with nothing but body weight – and a commitment to constantly upping the ante in order to drive change.

Bryce Hastings is a leading New Zealand physiotherapist and fitness expert. As Les Mills Head of Research he leads research into the most effective approaches to exercise and plays a pivotal role in structuring all LES MILLS workouts. Bryce’s passion for effective exercise is born from spending 30 years in physiotherapy, where he saw “people getting their lives wrong” every day and felt like he was acting as an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. By working in fitness he gets to be the fence at the top.

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