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This is a strange question and it's more theoretical than practical, but still I've been thinking about this a bit and it looks like an interesting topic to talk about.

Is it possible to train muscles by doing an exercise without any weight or resistance?

For instance, considering doing a bicep curl without any weight, but squeezing your muscle as hard as possible, just like you were really lifting an heavy weight. It certainly looks stupid and it won't work out your muscle as much as actually doing a bicep curl, but does it work at all?

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  • And the purpose is? If you want to train where you have no access to gym equipment, there are body weight exercises. – Danubian Sailor Jun 8 at 21:41
  • Anectodally, Arnold Schwarzenegger refers to flexing during posing practice as a form of exercise in his book Modern Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. Bruce Lee was also a proponent of isometric exercises (squeezing muscles against immovable objects such as a wall) – JoJo Jun 13 at 8:09
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Is it possible to train muscles by doing an exercise without any weight or resistance?

Yes, in this study they had 16 young men (9 flexing, 7 control) follow a flexing protocol for 3 days a week. After it was over, it was shown that the training group had significantly increased torque as well as muscle thickness. They concluded

"That maximal voluntary co-contraction is applicable as a training modality for increasing the size and strength of antagonistic muscle pairs without increasing involuntary coactivation level."

Going one step further, there is lots of research out there that shows that thinking about muscle contractions is enough to stimulate muscle growth, and prevent atrophy.

Strength Gains:

  • Study 1: Four groups including, mental contractions of little finger abductions, mental contractions of their elbow flexion, physical finger abductions, and a control group. Physical finger abductions increased strength the most, followed by both mental contraction groups, with the control group not changing.

  • Study 2: Testing the effect of mental imagery in the training of new motor actions. Again, overt action beat out mental, but mental came in a close second, only lacking an increase in reaction time. They still improved on muscle strength, power, and work though.

  • Study 3: In this one they studied the torque of plantar-flexor muscles of the ankle. Three groups including a imagery training, a low-intensity strength training, and a control group. In this one the mental group actually outperformed the low intensity group. (the low intensity group had results very similar to the control group though.)

Muscle Atrophy:

  • Study: They put casts on 29 healthy individuals wrists. 14 individuals were told to perform mental imagery of strong muscle contractions 5 days per week. At the end of 4 weeks the group who mental contractions had preserved significantly more strength.

I could go on with several more studies, but you get the point. Not only is it possible to gain muscle by contracting your muscles, but simply imagining muscle contractions is enough to stimulate growth or slow down muscle atrophy.

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  • Just based on personal experience with trying to provide my own resistance, the primary drawback is that you have to focus on providing the resistance, versus an actual physical resistance where, even if your focus slips or you get tired, it's still pushing or pulling back. – Sean Duggan Jun 8 at 12:50

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