The myths of bodyweight training, part 3
Or, why it's hard to be hot without being strong (and why it's a mistake to want to be hot in the first place)
Welcome to the first Ask A Swole Woman edition of She’s A Beast, where I answer your questions about strength, bodies, food, wellness, viral TikToks, and whatever else you want to throw my way. In the near future, these types of posts will be bi-weekly and subscriber-only, so smash that subscribe button if you want to keep receiving them after September 21. Subscriptions are on sale until then!
If you missed the first free-type post, it’s here.
In this edition, I am answering some questions I promised to get to in the previous edition. TW in this one for some light disordered eating behavior talk.
What's the deal with this newsletter saying strength training is overrated? --TL
Have you seen Blogilates shitting on using weights, and the bodyweight movement she is suggesting instead? I know she has done a bodybuilding competition before. --Anon
Wait—I'm barely starting to work out. I don't know anything about working out but my main goal is to get thinner arms. Does [what Blogilates is doing] not work? --Nat
I've written about the overpromises (part 1) and underdeliveries (part 2) of bodyweight training before, but fortunately I never get tired of talking about it! So let's do it some more.
These posts represent two incredibly common criticisms and/or complaints and/or hesitations about powerlifting-style training ("powerlifting-style" meaning, the meat of the workouts are the big compound movements used in powerlifting competitions—squat, bench, deadlift, plus a couple others). They are:
- Most people work out to look good, and training for strength is not specifically designed for that. People who are hot don’t seem to be pre-occupied with being strong. Seems like a lot of unnecessary effort toward what are ultimately mediocre results!
- Lots of people out there—your ripped celebrities, your famous athletes, even your favorite fitness influencers—appear to get by more than fine with just bodyweight stuff. How is it fair that the rest of us should have to work so hard when these other people who are rich and famous are just doing a few bear crawls and squat jumps with their personal trainer, and suddenly all kinds of definition shadows are hugging their abs? It's blasphemous, it's RUDE to tell me I am watching these YouTube videos about "The Three Most Important Moves Chris Hemsworth Did to Get Ripped for Thor 7: Thor He Goes Again" with my own two eyes and not seeing what I'm seeing!
These two points are actually each several points, so I'm going to try and break them down as much as possible. Let's start with the ripped celebrities who somehow manage to be and stay ripped despite that no one ever sees them even look in the direction of the squat rack. In his newsletter, Freddie deBoer specifically cites the example of Herschel Walker, a football player who claimed in his early days that he only ever did bodyweight training (which doesn't mean he wasn't strong; doing a pull-up with your 200+ pound body is still, uh, a lot) yet he was jacked. My man had thighs like two ham hocks. How did he do it, or how does anyone with a similar convenient-sounding storyline do it?
It doesn't matter, for two big reasons. One, there are outliers in everything, and if we presume what Walker is saying is absolutely true, there are surely outliers in "what various types of training stimulus do to various people." One person cannot disprove any rule, including the rule "most people need heavy weights to build significant muscle." "Guy who was a talented-enough athlete to be in the NFL" is not a reasonable comparison to you or me.
"Reason two" starts to unfold if we DON'T believe what celebrities are saying as the whole and unvarnished truth, which is usually the case: There is so much left unsaid when we talk about celebrities' bodies and how they get that way. The main unsaid thing, especially when it comes to men but you'd be surprised how many women too, is growth supplements, especially steroids. Actors getting jacked for their next film role, in all likelihood, use steroids; bodybuilders definitely use steroids. Maybe even your favorite influencer uses steroids. I haven't stopped thinking about something a source told us at VICE Life almost in passing: It's become popular among fitness influencers to use steroids, or sub-steroidal and legal but very untested supplements like SARMs, not to get big, but just to stay lean and keep body fat low.
This isn't a recent or particularly inventive use of steroids, obviously. But the demands on an influencer who needs to post a picture of her flexed abs thrice a week every week on Instagram are, in some ways, greater than they were on a 1970's bodybuilder who would diet and supp until his skin laid over his muscles like crepe paper, but for no longer than a competition season, before gaining back his off-season weight. (This is all presuming we are not talking about the way people look in these movies or in their Instagram posts, in which case: Photoshop, Photoshop, Photoshop, Facetune, Facetune, Facetune. Per that VICE post again, they are out here editing Chris Hemsworth’s muscles onto other actors’ bodies! Yes, in video!)
I'm not a growth supplement expert, but if that's to your interest, it is the near-singular focus of a YouTube channel called "More Plates More Dates." The host of the channel is extremely educated in bodybuilding and the supplements that go with it. He minutely studies and breaks down the routines and physiques of some of our most scrutinized Marvel Cinematic Universe heroes.
Steroids aside, there is also the matter of celebrities' lifestyles: their personal chef, their accommodating schedule, their assistants, and their highly-paid trainer. Their job is to be hot, and hell if they aren't doing it to the capacity that their resources and professional staff allow. Few of these support staff appear in the entertainment magazine articles about what people can do to get Chris Hemsworth's shoulders at home. If the trainer does appear in the article, they're not going to actually give up the goods, both because no one would like the answer and they have no real reason to. So they will say something like "you can start at home by doing some wall push-ups and chair dips." Chris Hemsworth's shoulders did not come from wall push-ups and chair dips. (If I have previously implied Chris Hemsworth’s body comes from bodyweight training, please don’t take that away from all this. The guy who played Jason Stackhouse in True Blood, however, did claim this. Remember the era of guys wanting to look like Jason Stackhouse?)
So that explains why some people are so hot. But let's assume there is a normal person whose whole and unvarnished truth is that they do only bodyweight training and does appear toned. How could that be possible? This is another fairly simple answer: It takes less to maintain muscle that's been built than it does to build it in the first place.
Some guy who did his time in the weight room during high school football has an easier time bulking up than another guy who didn't and is going to the gym for the first time. This is usually referred to as "muscle memory"; it's real, just not what you think it is. This is why it's so egregious for any fitness influencer who has ever trained hard with weights to claim, or imply by juxtaposition of their body and “quick 5 minute 11-abs workouts,” that they look the way they do because of the minimal workouts they market to their followers. One recent examples is an August 22 Blogilates post, where she implies people can get triceps like hers if they sit on the ground, lean back on their hands, and pump their arms. She is completely serious. She even goes so far as to straw-man people who are enthusiastic about barbells and dumbbells and imply they are misleading. Pot, kettle.
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Generally it's important to remember that people are the result of the hardest things they ever did, not the easiest.
Which brings us, finally, to "why powerlifting-style strength training should be more popular than it is," even if it doesn’t prioritize being hot and you accept that people who are working only want to be hot (which, by the way, I don't in principle, even if it's true). Most of us did not do the aforementioned time in the weight room, hoping to catch the eye of Coach Taylor in the event that QB1 takes an illegal hit while the clock is stopped and is paralyzed from the waist down.
I grew to be a full-sized adult who had even played sports but never touched any weights, for a lot of different reasons: The weight room is too intimidating, the gym in general is too intimidating, I didn't really know what I was doing and lifting looked difficult, it seemed easy to get hurt, and so on. Meanwhile I had only done things that chipped away at what little muscle I had: dieting too much, moving too much in the wrong ways and not enough in the right ways, eating too little protein.
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But lifting weights (specifically heavy weights, specifically free weights and not machines) have benefits that bodyweight training, weight machines, and cardio do not have. Heavy weights can build muscle predictably and quickly, especially the muscles in our legs, which are hard to challenge with any kind of bodyweight stimulus (side note, look how tiny Chris Hemsworth's legs are). Even the r/bodyweightfitness subreddit recommends using barbells for legs.
The best way to both challenge ourselves and move in ways that carry over to real life is to do compound movements (squat, bench deadlift) with free weights (nothing in real life moves on a smoothly grooved track). Our muscles are so good at getting strong at compound movements that they can quickly outgrow baby dumbbells, but only under the the stimulation that heavy-enough weights provide.
The best thing about beginner strength training is that it's not a particularly hard thing to do. It's hard to deadlift, like, 600 pounds, or even 300 pounds, but the vast majority of people probably can, and could get a ton out of, learning to deadlift 135 pounds. We are talking mobility, we are talking capability, and we are also talking "building a strength base." EVEN IF you insist on trying to be hot, it would be a bad idea to pursue the training that causes an alleged "hot bod" without building a little strength first. Chris Hemsworth arms, or as close as a mortal will get without steroids, are more likely to come from curling 35 pounds than 5 pounds. Jennifer Lopez butts are so much likelier to come from being able Romanian deadlift 100 pounds than 10 pounds. People using those tiny weights are literally training in vain for their shapely whatever.
Looking for a beginner strength training program?
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Which brings us to the “being hot” goal of exercise or training. I don’t deny that that’s most people’s goal, as I said. But I hope no one will mind that I point out that, as a goal, it’s not super working out. Most people I've known who go into working out with that goal hate working out, really, really hate it, and becoming hot doesn't change that. (Before you say it, I think lots of very strong people who don’t revolve their lives around being hot, or what we know in the biz as “aesthetics,” are hot. Look at Jessica Buettner and Quiana Welch. Queens!)
Being hot via working out, as we’ve covered here, is quite difficult, and even potentially impossible, depending on the mostly-naked celebrity photo that’s currently everyone's "goals.” I’m of the belief that most people who have an enviable body and claim it doesn’t require a significant investment of time and attention are, for my purposes, lying. By that I mean, maybe they're fine with managing their hunger with “high volume” foods like cabbage, rice cakes, and sugar-free Jello, but I would consider that an impoverished life on this earth. I would go so far as to say it sucks. I’ve been a low weight and a low body fat (TW), and for me, it’s like walking a tight-wire. It means choosing between wine, bread, and dessert and never having more than one, let alone all three. These are things I have done temporarily in service of cycling my body composition to gain more muscle, but as an ongoing lifestyle, it blows. People can spend their time however they want, but the tradeoffs are more significant than they can appear. I don’t doubt there are Hershel Walkers of “general bodily hotness,” but I’m not them.
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And all of this focus on exercising to be hot made it into something I hoped would eventually stop doing. But in reality, I needed to exercise. I’m like a dog, I have learned; you have to take me to the park and let me get my energy out or I will suffer inside and chew your shoes and knock potted plants off their shelves and bark at every sound. Wanting to be hot made working out miserable. But working out for the purpose of "not making my life worse," of "wanting to feel good in the place I have to be," and maybe most importantly, of "having a purpose for my body other than being hot," made a huge difference. The goal of getting stronger turned out not only to be motivating for the purpose of doing the exercise I needed so much, but made many other things about physically existing make sense.
Does anyone who tries strength training have to keep training for strength forever? No. Is it the best way to accomplish being hot? On the outside, maybe not. However, I can’t stress enough how much hotter I find someone who has goals they want to achieve and can take those goals and themselves seriously (but not too seriously) than someone who shares as many physical features as possible with Chris Hemsworth.
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Disclaimer: This content is for education and entertainment purposes only. Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights. Consult a professional for your personal medical and health needs.
Thumb image by Sushil Ghimire via Unsplash.