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.