Ensuring success with bodyweight strength training

Bodyweight training as a valid strength building tool is breaking into the mainstream and people are again starting to see its value beyond that of simply an endurance or supplementary exercise method.  Whether it be from lack of access to facilities or simply not feeling drawn to the standard modern fitness environment more and more people are seeking out alternative ways of training that are convenient but still provide the stimulus necessary to be able to keep progressing. With the right approach it is possible to massively increase your strength with bodyweight training (whilst fulfilling your other fitness goals at the same time).Let’s get started….

Take it seriously  - In my experience, paying for the gym is a motivating factor to actually go there.  Packing your gym kit and going out of your way to get to it means once there you’re likely to put a bit of effort in and stay for an appropriate amount of time (though sometimes too long).  Working out at home doesn’t give you that “well I’ve paid for it and I’m here now” factor but don’t let it kill your motivation.  Using a calendar or diary to plan your workouts will help with this. Also, just because you’re not training with weights doesn’t mean you can’t apply the same type of training protocols (or that you can’t also train with weights for that matter). Keep some kind of a workout log, as subtle variations in technique can change an exercise’s intensity be sure to take down notes as well as numbers. Your training log should be reviewed often to ensure steady progress

Do the right moves - I’ll keep it simple: You need to push in front of you and from over head – e.g. a push up and a shoulder press type move. You need to pull from in front of you and from overhead – this means a rowing movement and a pull up type movement. You need to squat or lunge. You need to (should) do some kind of move hip based movements  - think deadlift or kettlebell swing (for bodyweight this could be a hip raise or bridge variation). Thats 2 x Push, 2 x Pull and 2 x Lower Body.A big plus with bodyweight training is that, provided form is good, your core will also be trained by having to maintain stability during most exercises. For core specific work use harder variations for low reps over endless crunches and “chasing the burn”

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Single leg squat progression. Warning! Use a stable platform.

Progress it - This may seem obvious but it’s a point that many miss, or only focus on increasing repetitions as a measure of improvement.  Once an exercise becomes easy enough that you can do 20  repetitions with good form you need to start looking at ways to make it more challenging. Once your body becomes more accustomed to exercise it is a good idea to choose a variation that you can do for a maximum of 6-12 reps, this is a good range for most people’s goals as it is considered optimal for both fat loss and muscle gain.

Form form, form, and don’t forget technique.  I used to be able to do loads and loads of push ups.  But they weren’t quality ones – way too fast, full of bounce, devoid of range of movement and usually at the most “comfortable” angle in order to be able to do as many as possible.  Simply by paying attention to technique you will reduce the repetitions you are able to of a given exercise and therefore increase its effectiveness. Choose a slightly more challenging position (eg arms more tucked in rather than right angles from the body on a push up), maintain posture by keeping tension throughout the body ,ensure full range of motion, slow down the tempo (which will in turn reduce the stretch reflex that helps “bounce you up”).  All of these will make your exercises more challenging and will provide a solid foundation of attention to technique which is essential to progress.

Angles and elevation - Taking the example of a push up, we can simply make it easier by raising the height that the arms are pushing from and progress it by raising the height of the feet relative to the arms.  If we then raised one leg off the ground and drew the knee up towards one arm we would further increase the weight over the arms (and bring on more core activation at the same time). This carries over into…

Archer press up. The more the weight is shifted over one side the harder it becomes.

Single limb emphasis which is really the crux of getting stronger with calisthenics. If we think of a simple lunge we’re aware that most of the pushing is done through the front leg. We can take this further by raising the rear leg onto a platform into what’s known as a Bulgarian split squat. With a push up we can consciously shift our weight over one arm using the other for light assistance.  This can be applied to any exercise and the progressions can be subtle and gradual until we can eventually move onto fully single limb exercise such as one arm press ups, pistol squats and even one arm pull-ups (I dare you!).

Tempo - Playing around with tempo is an easy way to increase intensity and again can be infinitely varied.  Performing slow reps will reduce momentum on the concentric phase (eg upward part of a push up) and increase intensity and control required in the eccentric (downward) phase. Pausing at the bottom of a movement will remove the aid of the stretch reflex which helps to “bounce us up” and several pauses can be added in both upward or downward movements. All of the above will contribute to “time under tension” which is an important aspect of hypertrophy, the building of muscle mass.

Explode  - Continuing on from the theme of tempo it is important to sometimes focus on performing movements with as much power as possible, power being force x speed. This could be a slow eccentric (downward) and fast concentric (upwards) movement, like in a deadlift type exercise where you drive powerfully through the hips. Power training will also come in the form of Plyometric exercises where you would be getting “air time” by exploding off the ground (or bar) in a jumping, pushing or pulling movement. This type of training has always lent itself well to bodyweight exercises for obvious reasons – picture doing a jumping push up compared to throwing a barbell in the air over your face!

Add external resistance - This is kind of an obvious one. Resistance can be added easily and safely in the form of bands, weighted vests, dumbells, barbells, everyday heavy objects or the help of a willing friend. Some might say it’s no longer strictly BODYweight work but it certainly still falls under the category of home workout. I see no need to be a purist about such things, you will essentially be doing the same exercises but just as though you weighed more, and in the real world we often have to lift, carry and move with a heavy load. While adding weight is not essential for achieving peak performance in calisthenics strength training, it is a simple variable and may help to fill in the gap between standard  bodyweight exercises and their more challenging single limb counterparts.

So there you have it, an arsenal of ways in which to up the intensity of your home or outdoor workout. All without the need for anything fancy or expensive. As this is a general guide please see future posts on specific exercise progressions or contact me for advice on getting started.