Weighted resistance workouts are said to be the best way to build muscle and get fit, at least according to people can't imagine a workout without involving some barbells and dumbbells. Interestingly enough, athletes who prefer bodyweight training – a.k.a. calisthenics – will say exactly the same, which doesn't really help beginners to choose one approach over the another.
A similar question must have been circling around the minds of the Turner Twins, a pair of "British adventurers who have undergone a host of world-first expeditions to aid medical and scientific research", a description lifted verbatim from the duo's rather fascinating website. The name might give this away, but Hugo and Ross are twins, better still, identical twins.
In a 10-week long self-study, the twins compared the benefits of a weighted vs bodyweight fitness programs, with Hugo working the weights and Ross relying on his bodyweight only in order to increase performance.
Identical twin studies will always have an advantage over research performed on 'regular' people: the former group is essentially the copy of each other from a DNA point of view so using identical twins in a research can focus on environmental factors and the results are often quite surprising. Which also seems to be the case here.
We sat down with the Turner Twins to find out more about the results.
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T3: You guys did different comparison challenges before. What made you try this one now?
Hugo: With Covid-19 closing gyms and changing our lifestyles, we wanted to know what the differences would be in training results if one of us did a home workout (bodyweight only), and the other trained with weights (we used an old weight set from our parents’ house).
Ross: I think we all assume that home workouts (bodyweight only) in general would not be as efficient when compared to the benefits of using weights. We set out to answer this simple question and to highlight any differences between them. We could then adapt our training programmes to be more efficient when training for our expeditions.
T3: What did the fitness program look like? Did you guys do the same exercises every day? How long was the program?
Ross: The program ran for 10 weeks, training about 4-5 times a week. The weighted program was based on an endurance program so high reps, low weights. We aimed to keep as many of the movements and lifts in both programmes as similar to each other as possible. For example, bench press (weighted) and a press up (bodyweight). The programme was designed for expedition fitness so focused on a full body workout, including strengthening our weaker areas (hamstrings, shoulders and core).
An example of the workout the twins performed as below
Ross was working with bodyweight exercises only...
- Bulgarian split squat: 4 sets/14 reps (each side)
- Hanging knee raises: 4 sets/14 reps
- Lateral lunge: 4 sets/14 reps (each side)
- Windscreen wipers: 4 sets/20 reps (each side)
...while Hugo used a combination of weighted and bodyweight exercises.
- Hamstring stability ball curl: 4 sets/14 reps
- Dumbbell lateral bound / high knee: 4 sets/ 15 reps (each way)
- Press up: 4 sets/14 reps
- Medicine ball rotations (15 kg): 4 sets/20 reps (each side)
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T3: Did you both have the same diet? Did you monitor macro intake, most importantly protein?
Ross: Although we didn’t specifically stick to the same diets, we both had deliveries from Mindful Chef deliveries which provided the same meal plans and most importantly calorie intake. We ate the same things and have the same eating habits so we were eating about the same calories and food types.
T3: What equipment did you use?
Iron Fitness - Body Technics 2.5-25kg Adjustable Dumbbells (Pair) | Buy it for £349.99 at Amazon (UK)
We would say this is a cheap Bowflex alternative but the Iron Fitness adjustable dumbbell is actually not that cheap so we'll go with only saying that it is a 'Bowflex alternative'. These bad boys come in pairs and each dumbbell replace 10 individual dumbbells, making them super space-saver. Highly rated on Amazon!
T3: Looking at the improvements in performance, I must ask: does Ross have any regrets for not doing the weighted version of the program?
Ross: The only regret that I had, was that I didn’t have a visual to what I was lifting. I didn’t have an olympic bar or weights to look at and use as motivation. I never had or got a huge amount of motivation when in the gym because I was only using my own body. I’m one of those gym goers who needs to lift heavy weight to feel as good as possible.
T3: It seems Ross' VO2 max and bench performance improved more. Why do you think that is? I get the VO2max increase but the bench 5 rep-max difference is an interesting result.
Hugo: This was a big result and surprise too. I would think it was because Ross’s tempo when working out was quicker. When working out using your body, you naturally lift and move quicker than if you had weight. This over 10 weeks might have produced a better nervous system response on his chest muscles and therefore gained more strength. It’s worth noting that we don’t train our chest area particularly hard because it’s not essential to have a strong chest on an expedition so he might have just responded really well to press ups and working that muscle group.
T3: What are your takeaways after completing the fitness program?
Ross: Biggest takeaway is that bodyweight exercises are hugely beneficial if you don’t have access to weights or a gym. Even if during the week, work commitments mean you can’t get to a gym, doing a home workout is going to be hugely effective at keeping your fitness up and health levels higher.
T3: Have you got any advice for people trying to build muscle and improve their physical performance?
Hugo: Keep it regular – even if it’s a 15 minute workout or stretch, that’s better than nothing. Also remember the more you do the easier it will become and the better you’ll feel. And that using your body to train will get you results, it just takes a little longer than using weights.
The final results
The percentage increase in performance from physiological tests (comparing weighted to bodyweight fitness programs) were as follows:
|Performance indicator||Hugo (weighted training)||Ross (bodyweight training)|
|Pull up max||+85%||+50%|
|Press up max||+150%||+60%|
|Bench press max||+50%||+33%|
|VO2 subliminal test||+2%||+8%|
Looking at the results, it's clear that both ways of training has its benefits and are equally as great to increase performance. It's no surprise that higher rep range and more explosive moves used by Ross resulted in VO2 max increase: using smaller weights and higher rep range is said to increase muscle endurance the most (as opposed to strength/size).
Regarding the bench press increase 'anomaly', it's also clear what happened there. If you want to get better at bench press, you must not just do bench press. Performing other types of chest exercises, such as push ups, pecs flyes, dumbbell pullovers etc. will strengthen the pecs but also provide a different stimulus at the same time.
Therefore, doing press ups will result in better bench performance than before. that's a good advice to everyone trying to overcome a workout rut: you will see results sooner by not trying to out-lift yourself but by changing muscle stimulus. Stuck on deadlifts? Try kettlebell swings. Ab roller not challenging enough anymore? Try hanging leg raises or hardstyle planks.
And a final note: despite Ross gaining a significant amount of fat mass, at least on paper, both twins started off and ended up being pretty lean, a little over 10-11% body fat. Both Hugo's and Ross' bodyweight increased the same amount (6.6 lbs / 3 kg) and judging by the pictures, they were and still are super lean. The takeaway: numbers can lie and it's always best to asses all other details first before you make a judgement.
This is part of T3's Fit for 2021 programme, which will be running throughout 2021 to get everyone fit and healthy. We aim to bring you tips on diet, lifestyle and exercise that will help you shape up for what is certain to be a challenging year for many. One thing we can guarantee: it WILL be better than last year. And hopefully we'll help you get the most out of it.