Does BODYPUMP Work? The Science Behind the Workout

BODYPUMP is a resistance workout that uses barbells with very light weights and very high reps. They claim their workout is scientifically proven, so let’s see what the science says.

Brock Armstrong,
Episode #385

Photo of a barbell class

After doing some undercover investigation into the Orangetheory Fitness gym chain, I received a flurry of email requests from listeners to look into other new gym fads like Pure Barre, Soul Cycle and BODYPUMP. So today, thanks to listeners Susan and Alyssa, I once again don my fake nose and mustache to get to the bottom of BODYPUMP.

The owner and creator of BODYPUMP (and yes, it is supposed to be in all-caps) is Les Mills who provides group fitness and team training programs for gyms all over the world. Les Mills offers strength, plyo, cardio, weights, martial arts, indoor cycling, and 30-minute high-intensity interval training all set to a custom playlist of music. They also sell clothing, workout equipment, music, and snacks. The company was founded in 1968 and is based in Auckland, New Zealand.

The BODYPUMP Workout

Their theory behind the combo of light weight and high reps is to “exhaust your muscles so you don’t get bulky, you just get strength and tone.” Which makes very little sense, if you break it down.

In a nutshell, BODYPUMP is a 30-, 45-, or 55-minute resistance workout that uses a barbell with very light weights and very high reps. Their theory behind the combo of light weight and high reps is to “exhaust your muscles so you don’t get bulky, you just get strength and tone.” Which makes very little sense, if you break it down, bodybuilders exhaust their muscles and so do marathon runners and you couldn’t find two more diverse body types if you tried. But I will get into that later.

During the workout, you go through five or six specific exercises, in different combinations and end up completing approximately 800 to 1000 reps in one 55-minute session. The BODYPUMP website says “The secret to BODYPUMP is The Rep Effect – a breakthrough in resistance training that helps create long, lean muscles and a toned, strong physique.” Again, I will get into the science behind this so-called Rep Effect later.

The exercises you can expect at a BODYPUMP workout are:

  • Chest Press
  • Squat
  • Deadrow
  • Clean and Press
  • Lunge
  • Reverse Curl

To complete the minimum of 800 reps, each exercise will have to be done 133 times during the workout. As they say in New Zealand: "that's a lot of reps, mate!" Having watched pretty much all the videos on the BODYPUMP website, it looks to me like there are a lot (and I do mean a lot) of Clean and Press going on.

Obviously, people who are new to BODYPUMP won’t start at 800 reps, they will work up to this, or at least they should (too much, too soon, anyone?)

Music is a big part of the BODYPUMP workout and each exercise is done to the rhythm of a particular song. The program has specific music tracks for all levels and the tempo increases as the class continues. For that reason, beginners are encouraged to only do the first few songs while veteran pumpers will do them all.

An enterprising thing about BODYPUMP is that it is taught in most locations around the world as a group class but you can also buy the music tracks and SmartBar (their branded barbell) and do the program at home. Doing the workout two or three times a week, mixed in with one of the other Les Mills cardio workouts, is what they recommend, whether you are doing it as a class or at home.

The BODYPUMP website says “This full-body barbell workout will burn calories, shape, and tone your entire body, increase core strength and improve bone health.” I agree that many of the exercises involved in BODYPUMP are multi-joint and use many muscle groups. As you can read about in the article 10 Tips to Build Muscle Fast, this is one of the best ways to get fit. Single joint movements like biceps curls or triceps extensions do not build muscle quickly. Multi-joint exercises like cleans, deadlifts, and squats not only work more muscles in less time, but they also allow you to use much heavier weight than you can lift with single-joint exercises. But that isn’t important here since the whole idea is to use a light weight.

The Science Behind the Rep Effect

Their website also says “This program is based on THE REP EFFECT, a proven formula that exhausts muscles using light weights, while performing high repetitions - this is the secret to developing lean, athletic muscle.” However, that exhausted and burning feeling you get from doing all those reps is likely just lactic acid building up faster than it can be flushed from your muscles. And although that is a marker of working hard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the muscle is getting lean or more athletic.

As far as their claim of not bulking up and only developing these “lean athletic muscles,” (I’d like to know which muscles they consider to be non-athletic) that doesn’t make much sense either. In a rather famous study from 2015, the last nail was put in the coffin as to whether high reps with low weight or low reps with high weight developed more muscle mass. And it was a draw!

In the study, eighteen young men, who were experienced in Resistance Training, were matched according to their baseline strength and then randomly assigned to one of two groups:

  1. Low-weight routine where 25-35 repetitions were performed per set per exercise.
  2. High-weight routine where 8-12 repetitions were performed per set per exercise.

If you want to create muscle, you can do it either way but if you want to get strong, you need heavy weights.

Their findings indicated that both ways of training—"to failure," which is when you can’t manage to lift the weight one more time—can elicit significant increases in muscle hypertrophy (muscle building). The only difference was that the high weight training turned out to be better for maximizing strength gains.

So, if you want to create muscle, you can do it either way but if you want to get strong, you need heavy weights and low reps. Huh. So the BODYPUMP definition of the rep effect is a little questionable but at least we know you will put on some muscle doing this workout, assuming you don’t choose such a light weight that you don’t get to failure even by the end of the 800 reps.


About the Author

Brock Armstrong

Brock Armstrong is a certified AFLCA Group Fitness Leader with a designation in Portable Equipment, NCCP and CAC Triathlon Coach, and a TnT certified run coach. He is also on the board of advisors for the Primal Health Coach Institute and a guest faculty member of the Human Potential Institute. Do you have a fitness question? Leave a message on the Get-Fit Guy listener line. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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