Whether you are on vacation, travelling for work, or stuck at home, bodyweight training is one of the most foundational ways to build muscle, strength, and fitness. While some individuals may respond to a higher degree from bodyweight exercises like push ups, squats, and lunges, there are strategies that lifters of all levels can employ to continually progress muscle growth, and in the very least, maintain muscle mass.
So, can you maintain muscle mass with bodyweight exercises? Yes, you can maintain muscle using bodyweight exercises. However, there are some realistic expectations that must be met first. For example, many beginners can see improvements in muscle growth, strength, and at the very least maintaining muscle mass simply by training bodyweight movements. More experienced and advanced lifters will have a more difficult time building muscle and strength.
That said, even advanced lifters can benefit from performing bodyweight exercises, and with the strategies below both beginner and advanced lifters alike can continually progress themselves without weights if needed.
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Maintaining Muscle: Expectations for Beginners vs Advanced Lifters
As discussed above, beginners often will find progress with performing bodyweight and any type of resistance training, due them starting from the beginning. As a beginner progresses, they will need to increase loading, achieve higher levels of training volume, and continually progress movements to stay ahead of the adaptation processes that occur.
More advanced and experienced lifters, say those individuals who have been training for more than 6-12 months, may find that doing bodyweight movements for 10-20-30 reps is not challenging enough to stimulate muscle failure (and ultimately growth). Muscle maintenance, however, can still occur even if training is not as intense as usual.
You might also be interested in whether or not bodyweight exercises can build muscle.
How Quickly Can You Lose Muscle Mass and Strength?
Within a few weeks of doing no physical activity, research suggests that significant muscular detraining can occur in as little as 2-3 weeks.
This same article cited multiple studies indicating that individuals with higher amounts of fast twitch muscle fibers (weightlifters, powerliftings, bodybuilders, sprinters, power and strength based athletes) saw a 6-7% decrease in muscle cross sectional area as compared to their training state. More endurance athletes saw less of a drop in muscle cross sectional area, most likely due to their lower initial starting levels of fast twitch muscle fibers and fiber cross sectional area.
Strength performance however, seems to have a slower rate of decrease, with research indicating that there are little decreases in strength within the first 2-4 weeks of training cessation. There are however, noted decreases in eccentric stretch capacities, indicating decreases in neurological performance during those times.
Be warned however, that strength performance did see decreases in individuals who were not training past the 6-8 week period, with significant decreases of maximal force development and peak torque. It is important to note that detraining levels were still higher than baseline levels in individuals who performed 8 weeks of strength training followed by 8 weeks of a detraining period.
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10 Strategies To Maintain Muscle Without Weights?
Below are ten strategies to maintain muscle mass without weights. It is important to note that more advanced lifters and strength/power based athletes will find it more difficult to maintain muscle mass without weights than beginners or endurance athletes. This is most likely due to bodyweight exercises not providing enough external loading to drive muscular stress and physical responses for more advanced lifters.
1. STAY ACTIVE
One of the easiest ways to maintain muscle mass is to continue to train. It is clear that an inactive lifestyle and detraining periods can decrease muscle mass and strength, so having a routine is better than nothing. That said, choosing an exercise program that trains compound movements, employs progressions and periodization, and is programmed in a way that develops muscles throughout the body will produce beneficial results in not only maintaining muscle, but building muscle too.
2. PROGRESS BODYWEIGHT MOVEMENTS TO BE MORE CHALLENGING
Bodyweight movements are foundational pieces to any fitness program.
Exercises like push ups, squats, lunges, split squats, pull ups, dips, and more are all exercise that beginners and experienced lifters should master. As you progress however, you can start to incorporate movement variations, change angles, and even change tempos, rep ranges, and overall training volume within a workout to continually progress and challenge muscle growth (see strategies below).
Never get complacent with workouts, as over time your body will become more efficient at doing the same tasks, meaning that workouts that you started with and saw results, over time will not reward the same results due to you becoming more advanced, fit, and strong!
3. TRAIN MUSCLES TO MUSCULAR FATIGUE
When weight training, it’s not always the best idea to train a muscle to complete failure every set. While it is important to train muscles and produce some stress, breakdowns in form and pushing a muscle to repeated failure can result in injury.
That said, many beginners can benefit from training bodyweight movements to close to failure levels, and see results. Progressing movements weekly by challenging oneself to perform a few more reps each set can suffice, for at least the first month or so.
As a lifter progresses, bodyweight training can become less stressful on the muscle, which is why training to higher failure may be necessary. Performing sets of 20-30-50+ reps may be in store for some
individuals with things like push ups and split squats. While increasing reps is one way to push a muscle closer to failure, it is not the only (and not even the best) way to do that. Be sure to continue reading the below strategies to find other ways you can progress movements and push yourself.
Related Article: Muscle Memory For Bodybuilding: What Is It? How Does It Work?
4. TRAIN BODYWEIGHT MOVEMENTS, MORE FREQUENTLY
Another way to maintain muscle mass using body weight training is to train the muscle more frequently. This can mean instead of performing 4 hard sets of push ups twice per week, you can perform 1-2 hard sets of push ups, 4-5 times per week.
By training muscles more frequently, but in smaller doses per training session, you can spread your overall volume out over the course of the week. Additionally, the quality of the sets and reps you are performing will often be higher since your overall fatigue in that exact moment you are performing the movement, may be less.
In short, sometimes higher quality work done more frequently, yet in small doses per session, can yield the same (and often better) results than performing moderate to high quality work, and a lot of it, in one single session (and let’s be honest, often those 20+ set workouts tend to leave you performing moderate quality repetitions the last 25% of the workout).
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5. SLOW REPS DOWN
While you can add more repetitions to drive muscular stress (mainly due to increased time under tension), you can also increase stress by slowing the repetitions down.
In a push up, for example, you could lower yourself to the ground slowly, pause at the bottom while hovering off the floor, and then come back up to the start (as opposed to just performing them at regular speeds). This not only makes the movement more challenging, it can help build strength throughout the entire range of motion, challenge muscle coordination, and drastically increase the tension demands on the muscle.
Furthermore, increasing eccentric strength by slowing down the lowering phases of a bodyweight exercise can help minimize eccentric strength decreases often seen during detraining periods.
Related Article: How To Train Your Hamstrings At-Home (12 Must-Try Exercises)
6. SPEED REPS UP
Adding speed into any exercise can increase the muscle coordination, eccentric demands, and power outputs of a muscle. As stated previously, fast twitch muscle fibers are the first to go during detraining periods, especially in individuals who are more strength and power based lifters/athletes.
Adding plyometrics, such as plyometric push ups, jump squats, and split squat jumps are all ways to challenge the nervous systems to stay efficient at power production as well as continually stimulate both fast twitch and more endurance type fibers.
7. KEEP PROTEIN INTAKE HIGH
We all know that protein intake is key for muscle gain and performance, however in times when training is less than optimal (or even detraining is occurring), it is important to remain eating high quality sources of protein to decrease protein breakdown. Often, this can be done by increasing protein intake and inversely decreasing carbohydrate intake slightly while still maintaining caloric total.
Note, that I am not saying (not in the very least) to strip carbohydrates away from your diet, however during times when you are not training as hard or training at all, decreasing carbohydrates by 30-50 grams per day (roughly 120-200 calories from carbs) could be a good recommendation, and then replacing those calories with protein sources.
Related Article: Can Bodyweight Exercises Build Glutes? (Yes, Here’s How)
8. DO NOT CUT CALORIES TOO MUCH
As briefly mentioned above, during a period of detraining or not training as hard, it is important to slightly decrease caloric intake as you are not needing as many calories per day since you are not working out).
Many individuals however cut calories too drastically. In reality, dropping calories by 10% can be a good starting point when going from a training state to a detraining or less rigorous training state, mainly by cutting out some carbohydrates (and keeping protein higher).
For example, let’s say you are someone who trains hard and has a fairly active lifestyle, and typically eats 3,000 calories per day. During detraning periods, you could eat rough 2,700 calories per day, with the 300 calories per day decrease coming from eating roughly 50-70 less grams of carbs, per day). Just be sure that you maintain eating roughly .8-1.0 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight, and eat roughly 1 gram of carbohydrate per day. If you are doing that, then you need to cut some fat as well if you are still needing to cut some calories to hit that 10% mark.
Finally, you do not need to decrease calories, as this can also help you maintain muscle mass, however you would then need to be OK with potentially adding some body fat since you are not training. So, the fix… do bodyweight exercises, and reread strategy #1 and #10.
9. TRAIN UNILATERALLY MORE OFTEN
Bilateral movements like squats are a great way to build strength and muscle mass, however in the bodyweight form they can be not as effective due to the decreased muscular demands on the individual.
Increasing the usage of unilateral training within bodyweight programs, such as by ways of incorporating lunges, step ups, single leg hip raises, and split squats (lower body exercises) can increase leg strength and muscle mass greater in relation to their bilateral counterparts in the same individual. This is due to the simple fact that during unilateral exercises, more stress is placed on the muscles of one leg than dispersed across both limbs.
Related Article: Check out our 1-Hour Outdoor Workout
10. DOING SOMETHING IS BETTER THAN NOTHING
Remember, doing ANYTHING, is better than doing nothing when it comes to detraining and maintaining muscle. While most people overestimate how much they need to do to maintain muscle, there still needs to be some sort of stimulus to delay muscle loss after an initial 2-3 weeks of detraining.
Maintaining muscle mass is possible, and for many can be done fairly easy with training bodyweight movements using the strategies above. As previously mentioned, many beginners will find it far less challenging to maintain muscle mass during a period of detraining and less intense training simply because they do not have as much muscle mass to maintain in the first place (as compared to more experienced and advanced lifters). In the end, remember that doing anything, even if it is 10-20% of your normal training volume, is better than nothing at slowing the progression of muscle loss (however not effective as training as consistently as possible).
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.