Strength to weight ratio is an important concept for any athlete. In sports that place a high value on both endurance and speed, such as swimming and running, your strength to bodyweight ratio is a good measure of your overall efficiency—that is, how well you can propel your body through the water or on land for a given bodyweight. In gymnastics, your strength to bodyweight ratio is incredibly critical to your ability to suspend yourself throughout various positions. A high strength to weight ratio is favorable. To develop your strength without gaining excessive body mass, bodyweight exercises are the way to go. These movements will increase your functional strength: strength that utilizes your whole body rather than isolating parts of it. Most strength programs will have a combination of bodyweight and regular weighted exercises to achieve various strength goals. To delve into this topic further, let’s analyze one extremely valuable bodyweight exercise: the pullup.
Pullups: Purpose, Benefits, and Technique
Pullups are an excellent measure of your baseline strength to bodyweight ratio (there are numerical ways of calculating this, but for the purposes of training, you can assess your strength using your pullup capability). This exercise requires the complex integration of various muscle groups to lift your entire body. It is also a dynamic exercise—like many bodyweight exercises, you can vary the position of your grip, add a weighted belt for higher resistance or a stretch band for lower resistance, and use different types of equipment (ropes, still rings, bars, etc). Pullups develop the exact strength you need to pull your own bodyweight without adding unnecessary muscle mass. The exercise also develops greater neuromuscular coordination than isolated movements (e.g. lat pull-downs on a machine) as you train various muscles to simultaneously contract. Importantly, pullups reveal your weak or under-developed muscle groups. You need not only arm and shoulder strength, but also strength in your core, posterior chain, and chest.
The technical components of pullups and other bodyweight exercises are just as important to master as they are for lifting weights. A common mistake made during pullups is letting oneself hang fully extended from the bar with your arms stretched out before pulling. This puts all the stress on the small tendons and ligaments in your shoulders and arms instead of your muscles. When you hang from the bar, keep you shoulders down, away from your ears, closer in their sockets. Engaging your lats will help this. Beginners often neglect their lats and try to pull up using only their arms. Your lats should be the first muscles to engage as they contribute a significant force to your pullup. Have your strength coach or teammate tap on the muscle group at the beginning of each set to remind you to engage them quickly. Over time, this will become automatic. Intuitively, pull your chin over the bar. On the rep that you can no longer do this, you are done with your set. Keep tension in your back the entire time. During a pullup, you need to maintain good posture in your upper back by having a slight arch away from the bar. Many beginners focus so hard on clearing their chin that they develop a hunch in their shoulders to reach the top. You will have to engage your abdominal muscles to keep this slight arch in your back throughout the exercise.
Other Valuable Bodyweight Exercises
There is a wide range of bodyweight exercises to maximize your strength to weight ratio. Some examples to get you started are single-leg squats (also known as pistol squats), pushups and pushup variations (different foot or hand positions), and front bridges. Single-leg squats challenge your hip stability, core and glute strength with a simple motion. They reveal any discrepancy in strength between the two sides of your body (which is quite common). Pushups, with proper technique, target your core and posterior chain in addition to your shoulders, chest, and arms. Front bridges demand stability and muscular endurance from head to toe. These exercises can be done anywhere and are easy to add to your repertoire.
A Complete Strength Program
It is possible to reach a point where pullups and pushups do not sufficiently challenge you anymore. To continue to progress, you can always add resistance to your bodyweight exercises. A combination of weightlifting and bodyweight exercises is necessary to create a complete strength program that also develops the power and explosiveness many sports demand. When it comes to building better a strength to bodyweight ratio, all you need to lift is you.
Below, we will take you through a series of pullup variations. The first in the sequence is the assisted pullup, great for athletes who are just starting their training or athletes who cannot quite yet do a bodyweight pullup. You can also use a partner to assist in this exercise. Next up in the series is the bodyweight pullup. Mastering this movement is vital to progressing to more advanced variations of the pullup. The towel grip pullup will give you the same benefits as a bodyweight pullup, plus it will significantly increase your forearm strength. Having strong forearms is extremely useful in many sports and to be able to handle heavier dumbbell and barbell loads while strength training. Next in the progression is the lateral pullup. This movement isolates the side of the body you are moving towards, adding extra strength and stability in the targeted shoulder, bicep, tricep, and core. Last in the progression is the weighted pullup. This exercise is extremely difficult, so only progress to it when you are able to complete 12-15 pullup reps with relative ease. Adding weight in this case will make the pullup a strength exercise, whereas adding more reps will make it a muscular endurance exercise.
Do you incorporate strength work in your athletic regime? Check out this article to see if you should train before or after your practice.