Just when you think bodyweight training is worthless, let me quickly restore your faith.
I know what you’re missing. It’s the same thing most people are missing when they are looking to leverage bodyweight exercise to boost strength, boost power or burn fat.
It’s called progression.
Progression can mean a few different things:
1) Load progression (increase in weight)
2) Skill progression (increase in motor skill demand)
I chose to limit the progressions to loading and skill. Could you say volume is a progression? Of course, but I am convinced that MORE VOLUME IS NOT WHAT MOST PEOPLE ARE LACKING WITH BODYWEIGHT TRAINING PLATEAUS.
Just the thought of marathon sets of exercises that you are already good at makes me cringe. I’m guilty of avoiding essential increases in loading or skill in favor of more volume also. It’s soothing to your ego knowing that you can dominate a bulk set of push ups or squats. I’ve been there, I know first hand. Comfort feels good.
But comfort doesn’t get your stronger, leaner or more athletic. Especially if you’ve got lofty strength or aesthetic goals and you’re attempting to leverage bodyweight training to get there.
So, progression is probably what you are lacking, but the great news is that once you have identified that proper progression is the missing link, the solution becomes rather simple.
Take the push up for example. If you can rip out 20-30 bodyweight push ups no problem, you need to take the next step to either a) rear foot elevated push ups, b) externally loaded push ups c) 1-arm push ups.
In some instances, I am going to suggest going straight to 1-arm push ups to restore that faith.
Why? Because the first time you set up and lower yourself into the bottom of a 1-arm push up, your eyeballs are going to feel like they are going to pop out of your skull, catching on your orbital bones. Seriously, you’ll feel like a weakling. The point of sending you to the 1-arm push up gallows is to expand your thought process to how effective bodyweight training can be if you’re willing explore new realms.
Generally, a lot of people who are great at strict 1-arm push ups also have incredible upper body strength and as a byproduct, a decent physique.
The junction where functional performance meets physique is an ideal point for most people. It really stinks to be all show and no go or all go and less than ideal show. But who am I to make that statement, because if you enjoy either one of those scenarios, it is your prerogative to embrace that happiness.
So as I mentioned, 1-arm push ups aren’t necessarily where I want you to start working your progressions, because the point of exercise progressions is to make one’s way from one challenging movement to the next, progressing as fast as your strength, stability and motor control can tolerate.
In school, most people don’t go straight into Calculus, right? They have to work through the progressions of basics of mathematics before they earn the right to tackle Calculus.
Bodyweight training, heck, all forms of physical effort work in the same way.
The above example involved upper body pressing, more specifically the push up.
However, progressing the lower body, particularly the squat can be just as simple.
As a beginner, you might start with improving your technique, strength and work capacity in the basic bodyweight squat. After improving the aforementioned qualities, you will need to move on to higher level variations of the squat. If you’re adamant about staying true to a minimalistic fitness approach like bodyweight exercise only, the next progression might be to elevate one leg onto a bench or other form of support, and perform what many call Bulgarian split squats, or rear foot elevated-single leg squats.
RFE split squats remove one foot from the base of support while simultaneously increasing the loading on the working leg. Instead of two legs contracting to move your body up and down, you’ve now got one leg doing the work, an obvious increase in loading.
The next progression from the RFE split squat are either assisted bodyweight pistol squats or full bodyweight pistol squats. I mentioned assisted bodyweight pistols because it might be helpful to hold on to something while you allow your body to “feel” the mechanics of an unsupported squat. There’s no shame in assisting yourself until you’re physically read to let go and go for the fully unsupported bodyweight pistol.
As it stands right now, bodyweight pistol squats are the greatest lower body strength exercise known to man. That’s a big and bold statement, but I cannot dream up another exercise that accomplishes as much as the free-standing pistol squat. A bodyweight pistol is just the beginning, because adding load and varying duration of time under tension dropping into and out of the “hole” can both work to advance your performance.
It can be quite interesting to observe the right side/left side differences in balance, strength, stability and skill acquisition.
For me personally, I have found that my right side, which is my non-dominant leg, is much stronger than my left side.
So the bottom line is this… bodyweight training is phenomenal. Just because you don’t have access to weights or you’re simply looking to switch up your training routine, doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice results. The key is to understand your current performance, your goals and then choose the right progression to accelerate your arrival at the next level of performance and goal achievement.
Make sure that you are tracking your performance from workout to workout. It’s important for tracking progress and creating the next plan of attack.
Cheers to bodyweight movement…