Dream Big: Lift Your Bodyweight

Push your muscles to lift the number you see on the scale.

by Beth Shapouri Health Writer

There's no doubt about it--you'll feel like quite the rockstar when you increase your strength so you can benchpress your own bodyweight. But working towards that hefty goal also comes with some serious health benefits, including stronger bones and a healthier heart. This 4-week plan isn't going to be easy, but every push and pull will be worth it in the end. Let's do this!

Week 1: Prep Your Body

Here’s the science: Want to feel like a superhero? Increasing your strength so you can benchpress your own bodyweight will help get you there. And while the sense of accomplishment sounds great, the health benefits you’ll get along the way via the strength training it takes to get there are even better. A few: strong bones, weight management, and upping your quality of life, according to the Mayo Clinic—oh and according to a 2018 study in JAMA, boosting your mood).

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your aim this week is to get used to the movements that will train the muscles involved with a benchpress (the chest muscles, anterior deltoids, shoulders, and triceps), says Jamie Costello, MSC, certified personal trainer, functional movement specialist, and vice president of sales and fitness for Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami, FL.

But first, bear in mind that your starting point matters a lot. Realistically, says Costello, for even a seasoned lifter, “you should expect to be 20 to 25 percent stronger by the end of the month.” For example, if you’re 150 pounds, you’d want to be lifting about 75% of that (around 115 pounds) at the start of this program to make it to your bodyweight by the end. But for everyone else, the goal here, really, is to get you stronger.

This baseline test will tell you what’s realistic: After a warm up (like 10 minutes of cardio followed by 10 bench presses done with a weight you can easily lift) and with a spotter present, load up the bar with a heavy (for you) weight you feel confident you can push up one time. After you successfully lift it, wait a few minutes, add a bit more weight and try again. Repeat until you hit the absolute max of what you can lift one time. That’s the baseline you’ll need to keep in mind as you kick off your program.

The plan: Proper form on these exercises—especially when using heavy weight—is crucial. If you’re not familiar with the exact way to perform any of these moves, now is the time to book an appointment with a personal trainer to go over the exact placement and any modifications you may need for each. And having a spotter who can step in and grab the weight when you’ve pushed your limit a little too far is key to safety!

Monday, Wednesday and Friday perform three sets of each of these moves: benchpress, chest fly, shoulder press (seated or standing), and tricep extension. You’ll want to do each move with progressive overload, so for the first set use a weight that gets you to muscle failure in 10 reps, then rest for a minute. For the second add weight to get to muscle failure in 6. Then for the third, add weight to max out in 2 to 3 reps. Any of these moves can be done with free weights or on a weight machine if you prefer.

Then on the weekend, take at least one rest day or, if you’re feeling up to it, try an active recovery routine like yoga.

Top tip: Train your back on your days off! Although this specific plan is focusing on the benchpress, weight training your back on the in-between days will ensure you don’t end up with imbalances that can throw you out of whack says Costello. His suggestion: Train as if you’re doing the corresponding challenge for a pull-up. The moves that would get you there: Assisted tricep dips, lat pull-downs, reverse flies, and bicep curls.

Week 2: Up the Ante

Here’s the science: OK, we’ll level with you: You’re probably going to feel very, very sore at some point this week. And that some point might even be a day or two after your workout. It’s called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it’s totally normal. It happens to even seasoned athletes as the body repairs the muscle fiber tears that happen when you max out your weight load. A study in Frontiers in Physiology found that the best ways to ease this kind of pain include massage, compression garments, and water immersion (hello, bath time!).

Move-the-Needle Monday: Here it is, ladies and gents, this is the first week you’ll be increasing your lifting weight. But don’t freak out! Instead, test out this mental trick from Jamie Costello, M.S.C., certified personal trainer, functional movement specialist, and vice president of sales and fitness for Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami. Just take a few minutes to visualize yourself doing the lift perfectly right before you start. “Imagine yourself being successful in lifting that weight,” says Costello. It may sounds simple, but “it can make enough of a difference that it’s worth trying!”

The plan: Repeat the moves from week one, aiming for an approximate 5% increase (give or take). Monday, Wednesday, and Friday perform three sets of each of these moves: bench press, chest fly, shoulder press (seated or standing), and triceps extension. For each set, select the weight that gets you to muscle failure (you can't do another rep) in 10 reps, then 6, then 3. On the weekend, try to get in a little active recovery with stretching and massage to help soothe aching muscles.

Top tip: Now that your muscles are getting used to the movements, it’s time to refine your training. To get the most strength gains, focus on the eccentric part of the movement, says Costello, meaning the part where you lower back to the starting position. “You might think you build all your strength in the concentric phase because that's what we keep track of—what you can push off your chest. But it's that eccentric phase—the lowering—that gets you stronger!” That means slowing down the movement of lowering the weight after you lift it. Think: Lift in one count, lower in three.

Week 3: Focus on That Mind-Body Connection

Here’s the science: You might slowly start to feel something clicking in your brain right around now. “There's a neurological adaptation that occurs first when you get used to lifting heavier weight or pushing or pulling heavier loads,” says Jamie Costello, MSC, certified personal trainer, functional movement specialist, and vice president of sales and fitness for Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami, FL. Indeed, a recent study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that when lifting to muscle failure, the brains of participants who lifted high amounts of weight fired more of the nervous system’s motor neurons to the muscles, causing a greater increase in strength gains over people who did more reps with lower weight (despite similar increases in muscle mass).

Move-the-Needle Monday: Your goal is to increase your load by 5% from last week if you can. But take note: If you are feeling too sore from weeks one and two, or don’t feel ready, it’s perfectly fine to repeat the same weight as you did last week and pick the plan back up the week after. If you try to push through, says Costello, “you actually are doing a disservice to your body because you haven't recovered.” If this happens, don’t see it as a failure—your muscles are adapting so you’re still making progress. The important thing is to listen to your body!

The plan: You’ll repeat the moves from week one, aiming for an approximate 5% increase with each step. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday perform three sets of each of these moves: bench press, chest fly, shoulder press (seated or standing), and triceps extension. For each, you’ll select the weight that gets you to muscle failure in 10 reps, then 6, then 2 to 3. On the weekend, rest up or do some light yoga or stretching if that feels good.

Top tip: Sleep! Catching your zzzs is always important, but when you’re in the middle of an intense weight-training program, it’s non-negotiable. After all, it is the body’s repair time, which could explain why a study published just earlier this year found that sleep deprivation following lifting sessions increases the bodies’ inflammatory response. But bonus: a 2018 research review concluded that exercise helps enhance sleep quality, so it’s likely you’re snoozing better these days anyway!

Week 4: Take Note of Your Gains

The science: You may notice your ability to focus at work sharpening this week, thanks to the lean, mean muscles you're building. A study in the Journal of Applied Physiology showed that after five weeks of weight-training, lab animal's brains produced genetic markers indicating the creation of new neurons. Researchers concluded that this indicates the training could help “restore cognitive deficits.“ Muscles and brains of steel? Count us in!

Move-the-Needle Monday: This week we invite you to pay attention to the shift in your body as you work out—you should be feeling more in control, more sure of your movements, and overall stronger. So, take some time to appreciate how much your body can do and celebrate your progress regardless of whether you actually bench-press your weight or just get closer to it! Whatever gain you see, Jamie Costello, MSC, certified personal trainer, functional movement specialist, and vice president of sales and fitness for Pritikin Longevity Center and Spa in Miami, FL, says to remember, “You've hit a new level!”

The plan: On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday perform three sets of each of these moves: benchpress, chest fly, shoulder press (seated or standing), and triceps extension. For each, you’ll select the weight that gets you to muscle failure in 10 reps, then 6, then 2 to 3, aiming for a 3% to 5% increase over the week before. Then, Sunday is the big day—time to check your progress by repeating your baseline test, hopefully maxing out at your bodyweight!

Here’s a reminder of that test: After a warm up (10 minutes of easy cardio followed by 10 bench presses done with a weight you can easily lift) and with a spotter present, load up the bar with a heavy (for you) weight you feel confident you can push up one time. After you successfully lift it, wait a few minutes, add a bit more weight and try again. Repeat until you hit the absolute max of what you can lift one time.

Top tip: Building muscles requires protein—1.2 to 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight, according to The Mayo Clinic. But that doesn’t mean you need to clear out the chicken breast section of your local grocery store! “While you do desperately need protein to repair and rebuild the muscle, it does not have to come with the amounts of animal flesh people traditionally think of,” says Costello. Instead, get the essential muscle building block from plant-based options like legumes, nuts, and quinoa.

Beth Shapouri
Meet Our Writer
Beth Shapouri

Beth Shapouri is an award-winning beauty, health, wellness, and lifestyle freelance writer whose work has appeared in Glamour.com, Elle.com, Health Monitor, Magnolia Journal, Marie Claire, RealSelf.com and more. Career highlights include a multi-year stint as Lead Beauty Writer for Glamour.com and contributing to a New York Magazine package on circumcision that received a National Magazine Award for service.