• Hanno van Vuuren // MSc Sport Science – in

Understanding & Implementing of Functional Bodyweight Training


The concept of functional training has in recent years been over-used but under-defined in the field of sport. The 3 criteria for exercise to be classified as functional are, 1) the body position of exercise which must be similar to the sport, 2) the source of joint stability being similar to sport participation, and 3) it should incorporate multi-joint movement[1]. The ideal functional training program incorporates different aspects of training starting at bodyweight training and progresses gradually, with the vision of educating athletes in training. A clear distinction should be made between sport-specific training and functional training as these two are commonly mistaken.

There exist two main paradoxes which have arisen from the idea of functional training that needs to be mentioned in order to progress. The first paradox can fall under the multi-joint movement concept, in which training of a single isolated muscle can improve the functioning of a multi-joint movement. For example, an isolated hamstring exercise being able to improve the squat movement pattern. The second paradox is that loading of exercises performed in spinal flexion is necessary, which has relation to the multi-planar as well as body position aspect of the definition[1]. Each coach or trainer should, however, use discretion when loading athlete in spinal flexion as it could shift into the domain of unsafe training. Further, this article will focus mainly on functional conditioning with regards to strength and power for athletes without gymnasium access.

Body weight training benefits

Bodyweight training can be defined as using one’s own body as means of resistance to perform work against gravity[2]. Functional training is usually started at bodyweight training level to screen for correct movement patterns and create a large base from which to progress[3]. The screening of a bilateral squat is one good example of such an exercise which could give strength and conditioning professional’s insight into developing safer training programs. Using such bodyweight exercises as screening tools could give the coach a valid indication of muscle imbalances or individual focus areas which need improvement. According to Behm et al. (2010), the use of bodyweight training of primary muscles offers a decreased risk of injury prevalence. The benefits related to bodyweight training is that it is specific to each individual’s anthropometrics, as well as improving body control, being low-cost and allowing development of relative strength. Due to the variation in anthropometrics between individuals, single joint strength machines may not be ideal to all, but bodyweight training uses personal limb length as well as individual tendon and muscle insertions[2]. The greatest asset to bodyweight training is that there are progressions and regressions to each exercise in which variables can be manipulated to adjust level/load. The different energy systems can also be trained as well as different variables like strength, power and stabilization[5]

Strength development with bodyweight

Even though bodyweight exercise is limited to the weight of the athlete numerous techniques are used to increase the relative load[6]. Increasing the number of repetitions will increase the intensity and shifting the targeted outcome from strength to strength-endurance. According to Snarr and Esco (2013) changing the movement pattern increases the muscle activation, for example, suspending athletes legs when performing push-ups. Haff also mentions the use of altering the base of support (using single leg exercises compared to double leg) in bodyweight exercise to progress athlete. Progressions in any exercise could prove challenging, but the focus should be on technique, timing and tension in the muscle[2].

In a team environment, it is quite challenging to explain, demonstrate and observe each athlete individually as they perform the movement. A method used is to pair up players and make them responsible for their partners form whilst coaches provide feedback. This has also proved to be a great learning tool as the players positively correct one another they also create cues by which they can improve their own form.

Power development with bodyweight training

By definition, power is the ability to generate an excess amount of force as fast as possible or can be seen as resistance training at a higher velocity[8]. The definition relays that the greatest difference between strength and power is the tempo at which it is performed. Power is however not to be confused with plyometric training which is quick, powerful movements which incorporate a pre-stretch and uses the Stretch-shortening-cycle[6].


Experiences when implementing bodyweight exercise

One of the greatest challenges that come to mind is the tempo at which athletes perform bodyweight exercises. Firstly the athletes see the bodyweight exercises as simple and try to perform the movements as fast as possible when the focus is strength and not power. Having athletes complete exercises on a tempo you dictate could bridge this problem. Another method of challenging athletes is by placing different emphasis on the tempo of the concentric and eccentric movement. For example when performing a bodyweight row the ratio of concentric to eccentric could be 1:3 (pulling body up towards bar within one count and having to lower body slowly in 3 counts).

Implementation and periodization

With rugby, we use basic bodyweight training during the off-season to increase the work capacities of players over the first 2-3 weeks. This time is used to screen and the emphasis is on volume rather than load. A ‘Tabata’-inspired bodyweight program, with 20s work to 10s rest ratio can help improve work capacity. Thereafter a strength phase should be implemented for a minimum of 6-8wks to allow for adaptations to occur. The focus then shifts to the preseason in which the movements are progressed and strength maintenance occurs. Traditionally, the preseason is seen as a time to get the miles out of the athletes. At this time, the bodyweight training fulfils injury prevention and strength maintenance purposes.

The above example of implementation involves rugby, but the core principles can be applied to a wide spectrum of sports. Although bodyweight training does not create major increases in absolute strength it does increase relative strength. Another key aspect of bodyweight functional training is that there are progressions and regressions available for the movements. The greatest asset of relative strength training is that it incorporates more joint stabilisation as well as core activation and is specific to each individual’s anthropometry.

  1. Boyle, M., 2016. New Functional Training for Sports. Human Kinetics.

  2. Harrison, J.S.,( 2010). Bodyweight training: A return to basics. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 32(2), 52-55.

  3. Kritz, M, Cronin, J. and Hume, P, (2009). The bodyweight squat: A movement screen for the squat pattern. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 31(1) 76-85

  4. Behm D.G., Drinkwater, E.J., Willardson J.M. and Cowley P.M. (2010) The use of instability to train the core musculature. Applied physiology Nutr Metab. 35. 91-108

  5. Sonnemaker- Link: http://search.alexanderstreet.com.ez.sun.ac.za/view/work/1859755

  6. Haff, G.G. and Triplett, N.T. eds., (2015). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition. Human kinetics.

  7. Snarr, R.L. and Esco, M.R., (2013). Comparison of electromyographic activity when performing an inverted row with and without a suspension device, 26(4.2), 22-23.

  8. Nogueira, W., Gentil, P., Mello, S.N.M., Oliveira, R.J., Bezerra, A.J.C. and Bottaro, (2009).Effects of power training on muscle thickness of older men. International journal of sports medicine, 30(03), 200-204.

#Conditioning #Functionaltraining

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