Bodyweight Strength Training: Progressive Gains Without the Barbell

Bodyweight Strength Training: Progressive Gains Without the Barbell

In the winter of 2012 I made some of the biggest gains in relative strength that I have ever made in any span of my training career. The crazy part is that I was living in a mud hut in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, with eight Afghan Police officers and a squad of Marine Infantrymen.

Conditions were less than hospitable for any type of strength training goals. In fact, I only had a makeshift pull up bar made out of a tent pole and some two by fours, a TRX Force suspension trainer, and sand bags that served the dual purpose of fortification as well as providing some extra resistance. I also had two tow chains that were originally used for recovering vehicles that had been stuck in the mud to add to my bodyweight once I got strong enough.

This season of life really taught me the value of bodyweight training and how to find ways to make your bodyweight all that is necessary to provide the all the resistance that you need to keep progressing toward your fitness goals. You don't have to be a forward deployed Marine to reap the benefits of training with your bodyweight.
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3 Reasons to Use Bodyweight Training

#1 - Functional Strength and Size Gains

I know the term functional strength brings to mind a picture someone standing on an exercise ball waving around a 2lb dumbbell but, the strength you gain from moving your own bodyweight is real, useable strength that will help with injury prevention and movement quality. It doesn't get much more functional than learning to move competently with your own bodyweight.

Bodyweight training will give you the ability to develop a solid base of strength, muscle, and coordination that will take your training to the next level. don't believe me? Next time you are watching the Olympics tune in to the gymnastics events. The athletes are extremely muscular.

You are never without a gym. When you have your body providing the resistance you do not need to search for a gym with a certain type of machine or piece of equipment. After that winter I will never have the excuse of skipping a workout or having a subpar workout due to a lack of equipment.

#2 - No Cost or Low Cost

Training with bodyweight is free. As you get stronger there are small things you can buy to add difficulty and variety to your routine but these things are really only a luxury and you can get by without them.

These things include an ab wheel, rope or suspension trainer, and sandbags for added resistance.

#3 - Fat Loss

Conditioning sessions using bodyweight are brutal and often times leave you with a feeling of humility that you did not have at the beginning of the session.
Woman Performing Push Ups

Bodyweight Training Mistakes to Avoid

The biggest mistake that is made with bodyweight training is lack of progression or regression. What this simply means is that we either do the same exercises the same way for an extended period of time and the exercise becomes too easy or people try a more advanced version of an exercise and find it too difficult to perform the exercise.

A great example is the push-up. There are some that find the standard push up too difficult and do not possess the strength to perform a single proper push-up. Then there are those on the other end of the spectrum that can perform 50-100 proper push ups as a warm up.

The key to bodyweight training is finding where your abilities lie and then working towards the next level of difficulty with the movement. There are infinite ways to progress with your bodyweight.

4 Keys to Ensure You Keep Progressing

#1 - Changing the Angle of Your Body

This is especially useful for pushing and pulling movements.

Continuing with the push-up example, you can make the push up more difficult by elevating your feet on a box or park bench or you can make the movement easier by placing your hands higher than your feet which allows for you to distribute more of your bodyweight on your toes than on your upper body.

#2 - Changing the Tempo of the Movement

Slowing the movement down considerably works extremely well for individuals who are trying to add size to their frame as it allows for more time under tension of the musculature, which is one of the main ingredients necessary for muscle gain. On the flip side you can get more explosive and powerful by increasing the speed of the movement.

A great example of this would be a clapping push up or a squat jump.

Unilateral or single arm/single leg training

Pull Ups#3 - Unilateral Training

Unilateral training is a great way to add instability and use more of your bodyweight to overload a muscle group. My favorite unilateral drills are the split squat, single arm push up and pistol squat.

#4 - Increasing the Density

This is a fancy term for performing a set amount of work in shorter amount of time or by performing progressively more reps in a set amount of time. An example of this would be to give yourself five minutes to perform 150 proper pushups then the next time you do pushups attempt to perform over 150 reps if you do 151 congratulations you got stronger.

Bodyweight Training Movements

There are numerous ways to create a bodyweight training routine that you can follow and keep progressing indefinitely. I have broken down the drills by movement type which will allow you to choose the drill that is appropriate for your ability level and give you an idea of what the next step looks like.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list. However, depending on what your starting point may be, you could workout out exclusively with bodyweight for six months or more and never have to darken the doorstep of a gym with the list provided below.

Push Exercises

  • Push up on knees
  • Push up
  • Diamond push up
  • Push up with feet elevated
  • Hindu push up
  • Handstand push up
  • One-handed push up
  • Dips
  • Ring dips

Pull Exercises

  • Supported pull up
  • Chin up
  • Pull up
  • Towel pull up
  • Pull up using both arms on the way up and one arm on the way down
  • Muscle up
  • Suspended row
  • Suspended reverse fly
  • Single arm suspended row

Knee Dominate Exercises (Quads)

  • Squat
  • Jump squat
  • Lunge
  • Jumping lunge
  • Split squat
  • Pistol squat
  • Reverse lunge off of a step
  • Step up
  • Deck squats

Hip Dominate Exercises(Hamstring)

  • Hip bridge
  • Single leg hip bridge
  • TRX or Valslide leg curl
  • Valslide two up one down

Abdominal and Core Exercises

  • RKC plank
  • Side plank
  • Hanging leg raise
  • Hanging knee raise
  • Toes to bar
  • Ab wheel roll-out
  • Feet suspended pike
  • Supermans

Conditioning Exercises

  • Burpee
  • Squat-thrust
  • Mountain climber
  • Hill sprint
  • Tumbling
  • Burpee pull-ups

Putting it All Together

Once you have chosen which movements you wish to start with you can decide how many days you wish to train and come up with a plan from there. What worked best for me while I was in Afghanistan was an upper-body/lower-body split because I could train more days than not.

Time was not an issue for me during that particular season of training because all there was to do was to go on patrol and workout so I wanted to train more days than not. Here is the exact split that I used while in Afghanistan:

Upper Body Workout

All movements were performed using straight sets with minute rest in-between sets.
  • Push-ups - 3-5 sets of 25 reps. I progressed on to performing the same amount with my feet elevated or with a sandbag across my upper back.
  • Pull-ups - 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps. I varied the grip width on every set once this got easy I would wrap the vehicle recovery chains around my waist for more weight.
  • Hindu Push-ups - 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps. These progressed into handstand pushups.
  • TRX Row - 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps. To progress with this variant I had to really manipulate the speed of the movement and squeeze and hold at the top.
  • TRX Reverse Fly - 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps. To progress I would change the angle of where I was standing in relation to the pull up bar where the TRX was anchored.
  • Burpee - 3-5 sets of 15-20 reps. Burpees were always a challenge and never got easier. There is something about getting down on the floor and back up again that gets your heart pounding and causes you to breathe heavily.

Lower Body Workout

All movements were performed using straight sets with minute rest in-between sets.
  • Squat - 3-5 sets of 15-25 reps. I progressed to where I was holding a sandbag on my shoulder for all sets.
  • Lunge - 3-5 sets of 20 steps. I would also progress to holding a sandbag eventually.
  • TRX Leg Curls - 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps. This move still to this day makes my hamstrings sore. I would really try and slow down the movement with these and feel my hamstrings beg for mercy.
  • Pistol Squat - 3-5 sets of 8-10 reps. I started these using the TRX for balance and assistance in some of the more difficult parts of the movement and progressed to performing them without any assistance.
  • TRX Knee to Chest - 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps. I would eventually progress into the TRX Pike.
  • Mountain Climber - 3-5 sets of 20-25 reps. I performed these fast for conditioning and made sure to keep my butt down to engage my abs.
Hanging Leg Raise

3 Day a Week Bodyweight Training Program

If you are strapped for time I would consider performing a full-body routine three times a week. Try this workout on Monday, Wednesday, Friday for four weeks and you will be amazed how good you feel and how efficiently you are moving.
  • Push-up - 5 sets of 10 or 10 sets of 5. Start with feet on the floor and gradually elevate your feet.
  • Squat - 5 sets of 10. If the two leg version is too easy try moving to split squats 10 sets of 5.
  • Pull-up - Perform the sets 5,5,3,3,2 reps and work up to performing 5 sets of 5.
  • Glute Bridge - 5 sets of 10. Progress to single leg glute bridges for 5 sets of 10.
  • Hanging Knee Raise - 5 sets of 10 or 10 sets of 5. Progress to Hanging leg raise.
  • Burpee - Every minute perform 10 burpees for up to 5 minutes for a total of 50 burpees in 5 minutes.

Take Advantage of Bodyweight Training Benefits

Bodyweight training is often overlooked by people seeking to get bigger and stronger but, there are so many benefits to using your bodyweight for a workout that it should not be excused as something that died with gym class. Whether or not you are just starting training or have been training for years, you can benefit from learning to move your own bodyweight skillfully and efficiently.

Bodyweight training will give you the ability to develop a solid base of strength, muscle, and coordination that will take your training to the next level. Training with bodyweight will also provide your body with a rest from the barbell if you have been hammering heavy barbell lifts for a while.

The best part of bodyweight training is that it does not require any fancy equipment or additional cost, all that is necessary is a basic knowledge of progression, some floor space, and if you want to get really fancy a pull up bar with a suspension trainer or gymnastics rings. Time to get to work.
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