It looks like you’re locked in. Quarantined. There’s a pandemic out there where all your weights are. What will you do?
Bodyweight Training for Strength
When most people think of bodyweight training, they think of people doing hundreds and hundreds of pushups or similar exercise until they drop, covered in sweat. That’s fine if it fits your goals to do a lot of pushups, but taking an exercise to the point of exhaustion and working to prolong that exhaustion is the exact same thing people do when running - it’s endurance training not strength training.
How does bodyweight strength training differ, then? Let’s look at it through the lense of strength training basics:
Number 1: Progression is Key
In order to strength train, you have to be able to make an exercise more difficult over time. We can’t do that by adding weight. So we have to know how to take a bodyweight exercises and make them more difficult.
You might not know or remember physics with vectors and loads and all that, so I’ll try to explain this a little obtusely. With a see-saw. If you have two people on a balanced see-saw, both near the middle, and one person moves slightly toward the end, that side will suddenly be “heavier” and it will unbalance. You could add some weight to the other side to balance it, but if the original person keeps scooting backward, you’ll need to add more and more weight.
That’s the power of leverage. The farther away the weight is on the “lever”, the more force it exerts. For the purposes of bodyweight exercises, this means that increasing the distance or changing the angle of a limb with relation to the weight of your torso is going to make it harder due to a lack of leverage in certain positions. This is what we will use to progress bodyweight work - this lack of leverage, sometimes called mechanical disadvantage.
Number 2: How Heavy and How Much?
The article linked above recommends 3 sets of up to 5 repetitions for basic strength training. And that’s great because we can add very little weight at a time. But reducing leverage often doesn’t allow such fine control.
So for our purposes, we’ll increase our repetition limit to 8. This gives us a little more time with an exercise to overcome the inability to control the next progression as well. That is: 3 sets of 8 repetitions is the goal for a given exercise before we progress to the next. Work on an exercise until you can do that.
One caveat here is that if you switch to a new progression and cannot do at least 3 sets of 3 repetitions, then you’ve progressed too far and either need to spend more time with the previous progression, or need to find a progression that is more sensible.
Number 3: With What Exercises?
Here is where we really get into the meat of how this works: what exercises we choose and how exactly they progress. With the idea of minimizing equipment necessary, I’m going to recommend three primary exercises here, with a forth if you have a pullup bar.
Pushups are the most basic body weight exercise and are amazingly great for most of the upper body.
The video above shows a large number of pushup variations, most changing the position of the hands or body. You don’t need to jump from something like a basic pushup to a diamond pushup, though; you can move your hands by inches. Think of all the steps along the way, if you are struggling to progress to the next pushup.
It’s not shown in the video, but if you need to scale pushups back to be easier, place your hands on a higher, stable object like a chair, a bed, or a bench. You can even do pushups leaning against a wall if you’re still having issues. I vastly prefer this method over kneeling pushups.
Don’t focus so much on the muscle groups in use and what is being “targeted” - when we strength train, the goal isn’t to pump up any specific body part, but to perfect the movement and be strong in that. Choose variations that you like doing, that you think look cool, or any other metric you want.
Lunges are a great way to train strength and flexibility in the lower body.
The goal is 8 repetitions on each leg, for a total of 16 repetitions per set. You might wish to start off alternating - one repetition with the left leg, then one with the right - but when you stronger, focus on one side at a time.
When you get sufficiently strong enough, unweighted lower body training usually needs to include power - you gotta jump. So those single leg squats and step ups will need to be as fast as possible and end explosively with as much power as you can muster on each rep.
For single leg work like lunges, start with your weaker leg first, and stop repetitions when one leg tires and do the same number on both legs. Don’t continue to train the stronger limb for a different number of repetitions.
Hand Walkouts focus on your ability to keep your torso stable, and your overhead strength.
You can do them from your knees as well to scale it back, but I would make sure you find a position where you can get your hands beyond your shoulders. Scale it back so you can consistently take the arms far enough.
You should be tilting your pelvis and squeezing your abs to try to flatten the lower back, and then ensuring it doesn’t move during the motion. This will make it a lot harder and you will have to resist your body trying to let the lower back sag.
Progression here goes from kneeling to standing, and then focuses on getting the hands further and further beyond the shoulders, until your nose touches the floor. At any point you can also work on holding the extended position for 3-5 seconds before returning.
This video covers a way to do this with gymnastics rings, but has some great coaching tips for this exercise. If you have rings, it’s a great option to progress beyond the standing walkout. And the video includes an interesting way to do a similar exercise with leg movement as well.
And finally, optionally, if you have a pullup bar, you should add in (surprise, surprise) pullups.
This is a hard exercise for a lot of people, so I’ve included a video that starts with beginner level progressions. The first two steps are about simply hanging from the bar. In this cases, instead of using our 3 to 8 repetition limits, you should use roughly 5 to 20 seconds. Use a timer - don’t trust yourself to count in your head.
People are always going to ask about chinups (with your palms facing you) compared to pullups (with your palms facing away. Neither is better. They’re just like different types of pushups. At the beginning, choose whichever grip orientation is easiest for you, and progress through other styles that are harder.
Once you can do 3 sets of 8 repetitions with all possible grip orientations, you’ll want to progress changes in grip width - wider and narrower grips can make the exercise much harder.
Let’s Wrap Up
In this article, I hope I presented a sensible at-home program you can use when locked away for a few weeks. Or, really, whenever you want. Even without adding in pullups, I believe it’s complete enough to make people really strong.
Just to bring it all together, you’ll want to:
Three days a week (separated by at least 24 hours in between), perform the following program.
For each exercise, perform 3 sets of 3 to 8 repetitions before moving on to the next. Rest 2 to 3 minutes between sets.
Choose a pushup, lunge, and walkout progression that falls within the range for you, and work at it until you can perform 3 sets of 8. Then choose another progression and repeat.
If you have a pullup bar, also include a pullup progression in the same manner.
Commit to at least 6 weeks of the program before changing anything.
And that’s really it. I’d love to hear from people who undertake this program. The next article, Part 2, will cover indoor conditioning work you can add on the days between strength training to keep your heart and lungs healthy too.
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