Today’s MANDATORY Coursework: Bodyweight Training 101
We have all heard the phrase, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Well, that is what this article will do for you. This is not just a handful of exercise variations for you to slot into your routines. These are 6 techniques that you can apply to countless exercises to keep your bodyweight training progressing.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a large or even small gym in their homes. However, we all have a floor and our own body. That’s as simple as bodyweight training needs to be. There are certain times in life where bodyweight training may be the most convenient way for us to train… during a nation wide lockdown, for instance! So let’s look at bodyweight training, it’s limitations and some opportunities.
Firstly, with bodyweight training, there is a misconception that “it gets too easy” or that “you can’t really get strong” with only bodyweight. Well, that of course, is pretty silly. I understand that you can ultimately move more pounds when you have external loading, but there is A LOT of manipulation of exercises and setups that can keep you progressing in bodyweight training for quite a while. Dare I say that quite a few strong people would be very humbled by an all bodyweight workout.
So let’s start with the understanding that STRENGTH is NOT just defined by the max total pounds of certain arbitrary lifts. My own personal definition of strength is the ability to exhibit more control (and handle more load) over different rep ranges, under different tempos, and through different positions and ranges. So long as we are increasing our ability through any of those elements, I would argue that you are indeed getting stronger.
The limitation of bodyweight training is simply a lack of knowledge or creativity in how to load and progress your exercises. Most people will rely entirely on adding more reps or more pseudo-wannabe “plyos” to every exercise they can. This looks like trying to do a bazillion jump squats or an IG staple of combining 4 exercises into a series done for minutes on end. And while there really isn’t anything specifically wrong with series and complexes of exercises done for an endurance challenge, the ability to continually progress with that solo strategy is small.
In this article I’ll cover 6 loading and positioning strategies for you to apply to your bodyweight training and exercises. I’ll provide a few examples of how you would do this, but you’ll be able to take the techniques and apply them to more exercises on your own.
6 Bodyweight Training Techniques To Keep You PROGRESSING
Here are those 6 strategies in your own bodyweight training to make continual progress.
Manipulate your points of contact to change the angles of loading via different loads in unique stretched positions.
Utilize intelligent superset strategies to pre-fatigue or potentiate target body parts.
Utilize fast impulse eccentrics to get a powerful contraction in a stretched position.
Manipulate tempo (slow or pauses) to create additional overload on targeted muscles.
Change (shorten or lengthen) range of motion to get specific adaptations.
Change torso positioning to change how the load is hitting your body. The torso is generally the heaviest part of your body, so it gives us the most opportunity to change the loading into exercises.
At home, and without equipment, it’d be more challenging to perform bodyweight training splits, so my preference would be to plan around full body workouts. From there, just follow the Pain Free Performance Specialist Certification 6 foundational movement patterns to create your own workout. Simply perform one exercise per pattern. How you choose sets and reps is up to you.
Lunge aka Single Leg
Push (Horizontal and Vertical)
Pull (Horizontal and Vertical)
Carry aka Locomotion
Lets simplify the process of bodyweight training first with a focus on well rounded movement pattern integrity, which will THEN allow us to amplify the affects of these smarter bodyweight training methods to keep you progressing.
#6 Manipulate Points of Ground Contact
Example Foundational Movement Pattern: Squat
When we load the squat with external weight, we need to be aware of spinal positioning as having movement between vertebrae under additional axial loading may be more dangerous for the spine. However, when we are not under additional load, our spine (barring preexisting injury) should be totally fine to flex and move. This means that we should be able to explore some larger ranges of motion (depth) that perhaps we haven’t been accessing while squatting under load.
We are going to prioritize squat depth through a variety of squat stances (we might even find that we can get deeper in some of these stances than standard squat recommendations!). We are NOT going to worry about a butt wink, lumbar flexion or what we are doing with our arms (feel free to lift your arms in front of you for a counter balance) in this particular drill. We are trying to achieve novel loading on tissues through positions they don’t regularly get loaded through.
The squat drill: 20 reps, each squat change a foot position. (Demo what this looks like) We’ll have duck feet, staggered feet, heels up, narrow, wide, etc etc. The goal is with each of these positions to actively pull yourself as low as you possibly can, exploring positions you likely haven’t been in before. The active eccentric and hyper focus of depth can improve your mobility. It may likely create some novel soreness as the new positions and purposeful eccentric action is pretty damn good at making you sore AF.
Damn near everyone has done this manipulation of contact points with pushups (narrow for triceps vs wide for pecs) yet the strategy is not employed as much as it could to keep challenging other movements. Think through the points of contact: full foot vs partial foot, stance width, stance staggering, foot angle, foot heights… where you struggle is where you could spend more time.
#5 Utilize Smart Supersets & Fast Impulse Eccentric Rebounds
Example Foundational Movement Pattern: Hinge
The hinge is typically a pretty challenging drill to load with only bodyweight due to the size and strength of our posterior chain. Training it in a bodyweight setting may feel silly if you are easily pulling over double bodyweight loads. However, we can utilize a superset strategy and a fast deceleration impulse type loading to get the most out of a bodyweight hinge drill.
The hinge drill (this is a superset). We will go with a max effort bodyweight glute bridge where you are trying to crush imaginary walnuts between your cheeks. Try 8 reps of a 7 second aggressive butt cheek squeeze followed immediately by 15-20 reps of sumo drop hinge hops. In both of these drills, unlike the squat, we politely insist on keeping a neutral spine. Not because it’s dangerous (it is NOT inherently dangerous to flex the spine when folding) but because we don’t want to have repeated flexion>extension in the lower back which can cause an uncomfortable lower back pump.
In the bodyweight hinge rebound drill, the goal is to have your feet hitting the ground while your hip flexion is at it’s own individual end range without moving into spinal flexion. (you likely won’t be able to touch the floor without rounding). This fast impulse loading at close to end range is very challenging. We want to feel that quick impulse “catch” in a stretched position at the bottom of the hinge (which is hindered if you are flexed through the low back). The “catch” is different than moving INTO the end range. The way this becomes hard with just bw is that having to “catch” in the stretched position requires the muscles to instantly contract with lots of force to stop the downward momentum.
Why this works nicely: the aggressive isometric with max intent should do a great job of recruiting more motor units due to the max effort isometric. That max effort should not just pre-fatigue the glutes but also potentiate them to fire faster in the following bodyweight training hinge rebound drill. In the hinge rebound drill the muscular contraction to stop and reverse the movement will require a powerful firing of the posterior chain.
Where else can this be applied in bodyweight training? Catching in a flexed position in pull-ups, rows, push-ups, and other lower body drills.
#4 Manipulate Tempo and Ranges of Motion
Example Foundational Movement Pattern: Lunge
Single leg work could and I’d argue should make up the bulk of your lower body bodyweight training. Changing stance distances, manipulating torso positions, changing tempos and specifying ranges of motion creates endless ways to consistently improve our ability to demonstrate strength in unique ways. We’ll be working a bulgarian split squat variation to target your upper outer booty.
The lunge drill: set up for a bulgarian split squat. Right leg forward with toes pointing slightly in, left shoe laces down and pigeon toed (this will help keep hips square). Left hand reaches across and hugs right shoulder to pull the upper body into slight protraction on the left side (which increases the stretch on the posterior oblique sling to potentiate a spicier glute emphasis) and to help encourage a ribs down position to discourage a lower back extension strategy. The right arm is going to get handsy and I want you to actually have your hand on the upper outer part of the glute.
This is partly to accentuate your awareness of what we want to feel in the drill, but it also (when coupled with the left arm bear hug) will encourage your torso to rotate to the right a bit, again placing the entire posterior oblique sling into a slightly longer position which should help you to feel that glute med and glute a bit more than your normal quad dominant Bulgarian split squat.
Finally, we will take a fairly aggressive forward torso lean to push even more loading into the hip vs quad. We should maintain a vertical shin angle for this entire drill. Aside from the set up being different we will play with tempo to make this drill more “fun”. These will be one and a half reps, lower all the way pause, come half way up, pause, lower and pause, then come all the way back up.
The body positional set-up of this drill simply specifically targets your hip muscles preferentially compared to the standard setup of a bulgarian split squat. The tempo and range of motion has us spending more time in the stretched (aka generally weaker) positions to elicit more #gainz due to time under tension. The pauses also rob us of our ability to use elastic and mechanical advantages making it a harder strength challenge even at just bodyweight.
#3 Change Torso Angle To Make Easy Aspects of Movements HARDER
Example Foundational Movement Pattern: Push
Let’s do a push-up drill that encourages a bit more core and shoulder stability than a standard push-up. It’s not quite horizontal, it’s not quite vertical…. it’s a push in the “in-betweenies” as I say ever so scientifically.
The push drill: Perform a push-up but while raising reach through the ground harder with one arm while shifting your torso back into a down dog like position and reaching the opposite hand back to it’s opposite foot. The shoulder stability challenge comes from that down arm, make sure it is very active. Ideally we do this drill without changing hand position (of course change it as needed) but in order to do so, you’ll be having your shoulders travel further in front of your hands than you normally would, which will challenge your core even more than a normal push-up. This drill is great for mobility of the lower body, the lats, but mainly it is about the shoulder stability (which everyone needs!).
The torso positioning is really what makes this push-up drill unique. As you reach under your torso is inverting relative to the ground making this more of a vertical-ish press drill and requiring more stability at the shoulder complex. As you lower into the push-up, due to the shorter distance between hands and feet your torso will move out in front of your hands more than normal which makes the core demands even higher than a standard push-up.
Another way to play with manipulating torso position other than the bulgarian split squat or push-up example is to perform an exercise and gradually change your torso position through the set, which changes where the load is hitting hardest.
#2 Amplify Workloads with Isometrics and Pauses
Example Foundational Movement Pattern: Pull
Bodyweight training pulling exercises are very easy to program, provided you have the tools available (pull-up bar, suspension trainer, giant ninja rig… etc) at your disposal and the standard strength ability to perform standard pull or chin ups, or rows. If you don’t have those tools at your disposal you can just go to a park, there is guaranteed to be a bar on a playground that you could use. For our purposes, we will utilize an isometric duration based approach for and endurance challenge to your postural muscles. And we will do so in a unique way that removes the standard grip and elbow flexor strength demands of almost every other pulling exercise.
The pull drill: the reverse plank on benches. Set up by sitting between two horizontal surfaces, drive the back of your elbows and triceps into the surfaces pulling your hips to full extension and keeping your heels on the ground. You should be a straight line from heel to skull. By taking away your hands from this shoulder extension and scapular retraction+depression drill it places it full demands on the upper back, lats, and other armpit musculature. This is unique as quite often the endurance of your grip or elbow flexors is the limiting factor in a pulling exercise revolving around improving high volume tolerance or endurance.
Applying it elsewhere: what other drills might you be able to find an isometric position to challenge specific muscles which often times are not hit as hard as they could be?
#1 Strategic Use of “WEAKER” Joint Angles on Standard Exercises
Example Foundational Movement Pattern: Locomotion
The carry pattern doesn’t always mean “carrying something”, it is how you carry yourself through locomotive patterns. Adding load can accentuate pillar or stability weaknesses. Since we are discussing bodyweight training, we will be doing two locomotive patterns where you are changing the joint position of the working limbs. It’s not quite changing range of motion, it’s not quite an isometric…it’s a combination of those two so we will call it joint angle manipulation because we are performing exercises in a unique joint angle.
The carry drills: bipedal locomotion: a progressively taller walking pattern, going from a duck walk at just below 90 degrees into almost normal gait. Quadrupedal locomotion: bent arm bear crawl gradually straightening your arms into normal straight arm bear crawl.
With typical weight lifting this type of manipulation might be called partials, pulses, or a variety of other terms. There is simply no reason to not employ the same type of technique into bodyweight training.
BONUS #7 Accumulate Fatigue with Iso-Pauses in Short Muscle Positions
Example Foundational Movement Pattern: Rotation
All movement involves rotation in some way, either we are controlling unwanted rotation or we are using rotation to add to our foundational patterns. Sometimes we do want to train that quality more directly, and that is what this drill will do.
The rotation drill: rotational knee drives from deep hip and knee flexion quadruped position. You’ll start in a position from Animal Flow: Loaded Beast. This is where your hips are back over your heels, with knees open just outside of hips and your arms straight out in front of you. This position by itself is an amazing long lever pull isometric for the upperbody. However, we are going to change it a little to create more rotational demands by twisting both feet, knees and hips to the left. That is the start position. You will then take the left knee underneath your body and touch your opposite (right) wrist. Pause in both end positions and squeeze the hell out of your obliques to make them fire in their shortened positions.
Make the MOST Out of Your Bodyweight Training
Throughout all of this it is important to remember my two principle rules of any exercise.
It is safe.
It is accomplishing what you want it to.
This means that we are NOT just doing different stuff for the hell of it! You should think through the WHY of how you manipulate an exercise, and then apply it. The practice of applying that line of thought to each exercise you do will make you a more conscientious trainer and your programs will be better than ever as a result.
See how can you apply these 6 strategies in your own bodyweight training to make continual progress. You can utilize one strategy at a time or layer them on top of each other.
You can endlessly progress your bodyweight training without having to simply resort to higher reps and pseudo-plyo activities. By utilizing these techniques above you won’t just get incredibly strong, but you’ll develop your critical thinking of how and why to progress exercises in unqiue ways.
About The Author
Clifton Harski is the Director of Education for the Pain-Free Performance Specialist Certification (PPSC), an integrated prevention based system for personal trainers, coaches and fitness professional to optimize their client’s fitness and performance around the common presence of pain, dysfunction and injuries. Since 2011, Clif has taught over 300 workshops, courses and certifications in multiple disciplines and education systems including, MovNat, CK-FMS, Spartan Racing, Animal Flow, and Kettlebell Athletics and PPSC, where he has served as a master level instructor in all of these physical disciplines. He also holds advanced certifications from ACE, NSCA, NASM, StrongFirst, CrossFit, DVRT, FMS, Animal Flow, KBA, Spartan and FRC.