The Art of Bodyweight Training

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Editors note - This is a guest post from Khaled Allen at Warrior Spirit.

If you ask most people how to get stronger, they immediately recommend weight training, using barbells, dumbbells, or kettlebells. If you are starting from a very low level, pushups or situps might be recommended, but these are only as preparation for the serious business of heavy lifting. The truth is that weight training is not the only way to get stronger, and it isn’t even the best way. The world’s strongest athletes, who demonstrate extremely high levels of strength in a range of positions and orientations, are gymnasts, acrobats, and martial artists, well known for their bodyweight training regimens. Even old school strongmen, those who trained in the 1930s, used bodyweight movements for developing strength while demonstrating it on external weights. The problem is that most people are not aware of the higher level bodyweight strength progressions.

Once you’ve mastered the pushup, where do you go from there? You can elevate your feet, but that adds only marginally to the movement and leads to minimal strength gains A better solution is to learn the advanced bodyweight progression. For the pushup, learning how to do multiple reps of straight body, one-arm pushups will usually do the trick. Compared to a heavy bench press, a one-arm pushup done correctly requires much greater levels of muscle tension and nervous activation, so while you might not get massive pecs, you’ll have equivalent or greater pushing power, not to mention some amazing core strength and shoulder stabilizers.

Benefits of Bodyweight Training

The benefits of bodyweight training are numerous. First of all, because all you need is your own body (and maybe a pull-up bar or tree branch) you can train literally anywhere you have room to lie down. More advanced movements can utilize some equipment, such as hanging rings, but the cost of this equipment is far less than that of a full set of weights. Developing strength in the entire range of motion and more angles also helps protect the joints more reliably than weight training. Because you have to use your bodyweight to adjust the difficulty of exercises, you learn how to utilize your entire body in any given movements. While a bench press is largely an arm exercise, a one-armed pushup requires the entire core and hip musculature in addition to the pressing arm.

Principles and Methods

Most people don’t realize that strength is much more than simply the amount of load a muscle can lift. Muscle tension is combined with stabilization and focused force to generate strength in any given movement. Additionally, neurological elements, such as clarity and strength of the nerve signal, can enable relatively small muscles to generate tremendous amounts of force. Traditional weight training methods neglect the development of these factors.

The reason is simple: weight training relies on moving a load in the most efficient manner possible (a straight line), while bodyweight training tends to distinguish itself by utilizing disadvantaged positions. By using such awkward positions, you force the muscles involved to learn how to create more tension that they would normally have to in order to move the weight. The principles of bodyweight training are slightly different than weight training. In weight training, you simply have to increase the weight slowly over time and wait for your muscles to adapt. Bodyweight training still relies on increasing load to develop strength, but the ways this is done is mainly through decreasing the leverage of the muscle group involved.

As an example, take the L-sit, a movement in which the athlete holds their legs out at a 90-degree angle from the body. This movement can be made much easier by allowing even a slight bend in the knees, but locking the legs out will make it an extremely difficult abdominal exercise. A few centimeters can make a huge difference. Another way to alter leverage is by keeping your hands or legs in a particular range of motion (doing a diamond pushup instead of a regular pushup, for example. The other way bodyweight training increases the load on the muscles is by training a single side at a time. This has the benefit of not only increasing the load on the muscle being used, but the unilateral nature of the movement forces the rest of the body to stabilize and the working limb learns to focus its force output.

Examples of High Strength Bodyweight Moves

• The one-armed pushup (done with legs together and chest parallel to the ground)

• The one-armed pull-up

• The single leg squat

• The planche

• Front and back levers on rings

• Handstand presses

• Strict muscle-ups on rings

• Ring dips

• Iron cross

An Example Strength Progression: The One-Armed Pushup

The one-armed pushup is a good example of how you can use several bodyweight principles to get really strong using just your body. A lot of people will say that they can do these, but when asked to demonstrate, they will stick one leg out far to the side and twist their body to favor stronger muscles in the back.

A true one-arm pushup is done with a straight body and feet together, just like a regular pushup.  Like all bodyweight moves, maintaining strict form is vital. You can cheat by going faster and using momentum or bounce, so all movements should be done slowly and under total control. If you cannot yet do a regular pushup, work up to that, using similar principles. Being able to execute 30-40 slow, controlled wall pushups, or 20-30 slow, controlled knee pushups is a good way to do that. Once you have worked up to 20 regular pushups, you can start working on one-armed pushups.

One simple method, which mirrors the progressions of single-leg squats, is to do one-armed pushups on a wall and slowly lower where you place your hands over time using tables, chairs, and blocks. This will increase the load on your working arm until you are doing your pushups on the floor. Make sure to keep your body in a straight line by consciously tightening your abs and your glutes. If you suspect you are twisting to make the movement easier, back up and work at a lighter load for a while. You should be able to do 10 slow reps at each height before you move to a lower support for the working arm. Another progression starts on the floor.

1. Once you’ve mastered regular pushups, work up to 20 reps of close-grip pushups (sometimes called diamond pushups).

2. Elevate one hand by placing it on a ball. Evenly distribute your weight, which will mean that the fully extended arm should feel like it has more weight on it at the bottom of the pushup. 10-15 reps is a good goal for this progression.

3. Assume a regular pushup position. Now, when you lower to the floor, only one arm bends normally. The other remains straight and slides out to the side. To push back up, you can push with the straight arm, but it has to remain straight at all times. 10-12 reps.

4. Lower slowly to the floor on one arm, then push back up as in the previous step. Be able to complete 8-10 reps.

5. Full one-arm pushups. Remember, if you have to twist your body at all, you should back up and get stronger in a previous progression before trying again.

In the video is another similar progression. All these methods rely on the basic principles of decreasing leverage and maintaining strict form while moving slowly and consolidating any gains.

This guest post is thanks to Khaled at Warrior Spirit. Please check out his site and also have a look at the review he did of my e-Book……….

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Comments

  1. Raph says

    I think you jump way too quickly into the one armed push-up. If you have “mastered the push up”. I’m not sure what that means exactly. If you can do 30 push ups is that mastering them? If you can do 50? 100? You don’t really “master push ups”, you just have to do more. Same for pull ups. I think they are the best back exercise you can do, maybe rows, and you just have to do more to get more out of them.

  2. Deb says

    This is a great explanation of how weight training using body weight involves so many more of your muscles than simple weight training. And using body weight eliminates all excuses about lack of equipment to train!

  3. Mercy Tan says

    This article is really great guide on how to determine first your body weight. It is like a warm-up before going to a gym. There are steps also listed here and by following the steps carefully and love doing it everyday, somehow you will think that you don’t really need to visit a gym, but just a matter of habit and discipline.

  4. LCR says

    great stuff… beastskills.com has a lot of good stuff on bodyweight training… currently using their muscle-up tutorial/training

  5. Aaron Griffin says

    Just want to give a should out for Dragon Door’s Convict Conditioning book, which covers progressions for 6 hardcore bodyweight movements (one-arm pushup, one-arm pullup, one-legged squat, hanging leg raises, handstand pushups, and standing bridges).

    My current training consists of doing CC coupled with gymastic static holds.

  6. Ville says

    this is really interesting. I have been doing chin-ups and dips, should try others. What about deadlifts, can they be replaced too? Many thanks.

  7. Khaled Allen says

    @Deb: the lack of need for weight is exactly why I love these. I started using high-strength bodyweight training one summer I was working at a summer camp.

    @ville: honestly, the deadlift is a really hard one to replace, because it trains both the back and the legs. Single leg squats and SLS jumps will develop leg strength but to really replace the deadlift you need to focus on developing the spinal and lower back extensors. Hip extensions done slowly and with maximum range of motion, back extensions (which involve flexing the spine), hip & back extensions (google this one or check out CrossFit’s description). Once you can do those reliably, work up to back levers, bridges (done on the floor and from standing), and a gymnastic movement called a mermaid. The planche also relies on extremely high levels of spinal strength. These latter four will pretty much prepare your back for anything; moderately accomplished gymnasts have been known to deadlift 400lbs without having any previous experience in the lift, just from training these bodyweight movements.

    Hope those ideas help.

  8. Fran says

    Great post. I doubt I will ever join a gym again as I believe you can stay in shape very fit using your own body and minimal equipment. A great site I discovered for home workouts using bodyweight training is http://www.bodyrock.tv really inspiring!

  9. Chris says

    Some fantastic comments here. Fran thanks for linking bodyrock.tv some really good twists and takes on conventional bodyweight exercises to be found there…..

    Thanks again to Khaled for writing this and helping out with the response to comments. The one arm pushup is something I am working on myself but is going to take a while to master… The progression video and instructions are great though.

  10. Khaled Allen says

    @Raph: Convict conditioning suggests that mastering a particular movement depends on the movement, but yes you do need to be able to do more than 1. CC’s recommendations tend to be rather high for the lower weight ones, so I usually recommend about 20 done slowly and under control. Being able to do more than that of anything will build stamina, but not strength. Once you can do 10-20 reps (depending on difficulty), move on to a harder variation, otherwise you’re just spinning your wheels in terms of strength development.

    @Aaron: Convinct Conditioning, Pavel’s books, and another by Christopher Sommer are all great resources for bodyweight training, and have informed a lot of my ideas. The best thing though, is that you can make up your own progressions, based on what works for you, as long as you know the principles.

  11. Dave - Not Your Average Fitness Tips says

    Bodyweight training is an excellent way to increase functional strength and is great because it can generally be done anywhere with little to no equipment. As you pointed out, workouts can be made more challenging as well through progressive training.

  12. Jane says

    I am a big proponent of body weight workouts and exercise. Your blog on this was great. More people need to realize that they already have the best machine available to them, their body, and its free.

    Thanks for the post. Love your blog.

  13. Jason - Core Routine Workouts says

    Great progression. Hope you don’t mind but I put you video up on my site to show your progression.

    I can bench 400lbs but can not do a one arm push up like that. I see I have my work cut out for me.

    Thanks
    Jason

  14. G says

    Thanks for reminding me about the possibilities of body weight training.

    I recently injured my sacral plexus nerve areas from explosive barbell work, currently resting and rehabilitating.

    You won’t get the lower body stimulation of barbell squats/cleans/deads from body weight exercises but they’re sound for conditioning everything else. This is where I will be hopefully for the next few months or more and perhaps I’ll stay here too.

  15. renato says

    Hi!
    Is there any suggested progression path to planches? Maybe mastering one arm pushups or raised leg pushups?
    Thanks, and congratulations! This was a great post!

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