Getting really strong at the big three -the bench, squat, and deadlift is awesome and necessary for long term strength and ability. Too often though, people prioritize these moves over the ability to move their body through space.
During a fat loss phase or when trying to get lean, leaving out bodyweight movements is a huge mistake. Ability to execute difficult calisthenics exercises is a great predictor of body fat percentage.
This is because advanced variations of bodyweight moves rely on a high strength to weight ratio. This means that the more weight around your midsection, the less likely it is you’ll be able to do a muscle-up or a one arm pushup.
By focusing less on the scale and more on bodyweight abilities you’ll get the body you want faster by harnessing the power of your body’s adaptive tendencies.
In this article you’ll see:
Why bodyweight movements signal to your body to drop the fat.
Where a lot of people go wrong adding in bodyweight movements.
The “Secret Weapon” of bio-hacking your way to a lean body.
How you stack up against the best with five bodyweight challenges.
Want To Get Stronger? Lift Heavy & Lose Some Fat… Simultaneously
The body is an amazingly adaptive machine. However, if you want to go from chubby to ripped, you can’t just ask nicely. It takes hard work in the kitchen and in the gym to force your frame to make the change you want.
For proof of this look no further than Olympic lifters. By continually lifting heavier weights, their bodies get stronger, more muscular, and their bones become thicker and denser as a result.
So if our goal is to get leaner, we have to present our body with the correct stimulus that nudges our evolutionary mechanisms and says “in order to survive, we need to drop non-essential weight”.
The best way of doing this is not by adding plates on our bench press or deadlift. Instead we need to add in exercises where being lean is not only an advantage, it’s a necessity.
This is a simple concept, but one that a lot of people get wrong because these moves often have a steep learning curve or are extremely intense.
Where People Go Wrong
Most lifters screw up this concept by simply picking boring exercise. If your idea of a bodyweight workout is pushups and lunges, you’re simply not challenging yourself enough to make meaningful changes.
There are literally unlimited variations of bodyweight exercises that you can do to make them harder or easier depending on your level, so being resigned to the four basic moves that you see in every gym is doing a disservice to your physique.
We know that the general rep range for the following are pretty set in stone:
Strength 1-5 reps
Hypertrophy 6-15 reps
Muscular Endurance 15+ reps
So doing sets of 40 pushups is not going to send the right signal to your body.
So we need to pick the exercises that challenge you in those rep ranges in order to get the results we want.
Make the Switch
Pushups can graduate to 1-Hand Elevated Pushups, Archer Pushups, and finally 1-Arm Pushups.
Bodyweight Squats progress to Bulgarian Split Squats, Skater Squats, and finally Pistol Squats.
Pull ups can be advanced to Archer Pull ups, Clapping Pull ups, and finally Muscle Ups.
The Secret Weapon
You’ll start to see physical changes just by changing out some of your regular exercises for advanced bodyweight variations. However, if you want to take this body signaling to the next level, use the secret weapon of developing a lean muscular physique… Hill Sprints.
Just like you would expect from a routine that promises above-average results, it takes above-average effort.
Since most of us haven’t hit our top speed in a while, we do these sprints on a hill in order to slow us down and avoid any potential injuries. After a good warmup, the goal of these is to work at close to our all-out maximum effort.
Hill sprints are much more like a 3 rep max squat than they are like traditional cardio, and should be respected as such.
Once you’ve completed a thorough warmup, which should include at least 3 hill sprints of 40-50 yards at increasing intensities, set a timer for 20-30 minutes.
Sprint the 50-yard hill focusing on consistent breathing. Walk to the bottom and take your time to recover almost completely. If you go again while you’re still gassed, you’ll lose out on some of the intensity. This is the key element.
Repeat as many times as you can in the time you set. Next time you do your hill sprints, shoot to improve by getting at least one more ‘rep’.
Start off with this workout just once per week, but you can do them anywhere between 1-3 times after acclimating.
Adding Bodyweight Training to Your Strength Program
If you’re already doing a heavy strength based program like Dr. Rusin’s Functional Hypertrophy Training program you can still add these moves in effectively just as JR did with that nasty high rep bodyweight squat heart rate ramp in Phase 1!
By using them as finishers, you can still get the benefits, while building fluency in difficult bodyweight exercises.
Use the lower body moves as finishers on the upper body days, and vice versa.
To make these an effective finisher, pair one of the bodyweight moves with a more cardiovascular component like Airdyne bike sprints, rowing intervals, or even a farmers walk.
Shoot for between 4 and 8 rounds.
Do The Five-Step Bodyweight Challenge To See How You Stack Up
Below are five challenging bodyweight moves, along with the basic level of reps you should shoot for. If you’re already crushing the base number of reps, start working up to the advanced reps.
Only the fittest people will be able to hit these exercises for the advanced reps, so if you can’t do them all yet, don’t worry. The journey to get there will lead to the results you want.
Try this Bodyweight Challenge and let me know how brutally tough was it in the comments below. Or better yet, comment in on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram! Be sure to use the #JRxBWChallenge hashtag! Looking forward to seeing your feedback and results. Good luck!
#1 Pistol Squats
Foundation: 3 reps per side Advanced: 10 reps per side
A big predictor of success in this exercise is ankle mobility, so if this is an area you struggle with, make sure that you’ve done some mobility work before going right into the move.
If you’re still struggling with balance, put a five pound plate under your heel, or hold a plate in front to give you a slight counterbalance.
Make sure to control this rep as you lower, and avoid ‘falling’ to the bottom position.
#2 Single Arm Push Ups
Foundation: 3 reps per side Advanced:10 reps per side
Start off with both hands on the ground at your bodies midline, and the legs wide. Lift one hand and put it on your thigh.
Lower slowly, making sure to keep tension through the whole body at all times.
If starting on the ground is too hard, make these easier by doing them on a bench or a smith machine.
As with many other exercises, this one breaks down if the total body tension is lost. Most of the time you’ll feel sore in the obliques the day after attempting these for the first time, so ensure that your ribs are locked down to your pelvis, and that you don’t shift weight side to side during the rep.
#3 Dragon Flags
Foundation: 10 midway reps Advanced:10 full reps
Start off by lifting the legs and pressing the hips up into a shoulder stand position. Make sure that the shoulder blades are pulled back like a row to support and protect the neck in this position.
From here, tighten the core, glutes, and quads hard and begin to lower yourself.
Lower to a point where you have control before bringing yourself back up to the top position. Repeat, adding extra range of motion each time.
Don’t let your hips sag here. Keep the glutes engaged at all times.
Often trainees will try to go too low to fast, resulting in a sloppy rep or loss of control. Instead, Only go to a position where you have complete control, and progress the exercise by generating more internal tension from knees to shoulders.
#4 Front Lever
Foundation: 20 seconds single leg Advanced:20 seconds
Coaching Notes: Start off with the single leg version with one knee tucked to your chest. Hold a hollow body position, and think about pulling your arms down to meet your body just like you would with a straight arm pulldown.
If holding for any length of time is too difficult at first, you can start by doing reps. Hold for one count at the top of the movement before lowering under control.
Make sure that the full body is held in tension, and that there is no ‘sag’ in the hips.
When first starting off, it’s easier to begin with some tension in the lats and upper back, so don’t start from a dead hang.
#5 Handstand Pushups
Foundation: 5 reps
Keep tension through the whole body as you press by squeezing glutes and quads through the whole move.
These are often best done in a cluster set. This means you set up and do 3-5 reps before taking a 15 second break. Then do another 3-5 reps. Repeat.
Don’t overarch your back as you press up.
Since this is such a difficult move, there’s a potential to do more “grinding” type reps on this exercise. Avoid doing that by terminating the exercise before you get to technical failure.
Avoid this by doing sets of “cluster sets”. Do about 50% of your maximum reps, drop down and take 10 deep breaths, and repeat the set.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Your Bodyweight
If you exercise for the long-term benefits on health and strength as well as wanting to look good naked, bodyweight movements should be an integral part of your training plan.
By getting the ability to move your body through space in a range of different motions, planes, and exercises, you’ll have a huge advantage over those who only train with weights.
Use these challenges as guidelines to get more able and athletic, while looking like someone who can carry a couch of a flight of stairs with ease.
Nate Palmer has an old-school, strength-first philosophy that he applies to himself and his clients, and he believes that getting stronger mentally and physically will cause a trickle-down effect into the rest of your life that will provide unbelievable benefits. Nate is a husband, coach, writer, and adventurer, and spends his time coaching clients online, jumping off of tall things, and writing on N8 Training Systems.
Nate is an internationally recognized coach, speaker, and writer, whose work has been popularized in media outlets such as The Huffington Post, Testosterone Nation, Breaking Muscle, STACK Media, and The Personal Trainer Development Center, to name a few. Nate is the owner of N8 Training Systems, an online fitness platform geared toward synergizing the best of evidence based training principles and behavior science to create results for life.