How to Make Bodyweight Push-Ups and Squats Exercises Harder

Motion

Bodyweight-based exercises can (and should be) progressed similar to traditional resistance-based exercises.

The SAID Principle (specific adaptations to imposed demands) applies to everything done in the gym.

Cardio, weight training, Yoga, stretching and mobility work.

If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you alway got.  

In other words, gains will come to a screaching halt when your body becomes efficient at handling the stress being placed upon it.  

And to be clear, developing efficiency is not a bad thing.  You don’t want every physical experience in life to redline your system.  

We attack goals in the gym so the sub-maximal events of real life seem easy.  

Anyways, with bodyweight trainig, more specifically push ups and squats, one simple, effective and resourceful way to make impressive gains in strength and coordination and progress is to pursue unilateral variations.  

One arm push ups and single leg squats.  

More pressure must be applied o achieve the next set of goals.  

Switch things up, bust out of the comfort zone and embrace the next challenge.  It’s the only way to move forward

A simple and effective way bust progression bodyweight exercises is by transitioning the exertion from 2 limbs to 1 limb.  

Bilateral to unilateral.  

The squat pattern goes from a traditional bilateral air squat to a single leg squat, sometimes referred to as “pistol squats”.

2-arm push ups transition to 1-arm push ups.  

Single arm push ups are one of my favorite upper body strength builders.  I avoided them for a really long time because they seemed like a circus exercise.  

When I committed to more palatable progressions leading to the single-arm push-up, my opinion changed completely.

Single limb training makes SO MUCH SENSE.  

A lot of life and sport require single limb performance.  Yes, ideally we execute tasks using two arms and two legs, but it’s not always the situation.

Walking, running and climbing stairs are great examples of where single leg performance shines.  

Plus, training one side at a time can reveal some major asymmetries that you otherwise wouldn’t notice.  

One-arm push-ups are also secretly one of the great core training exercises.   

It’s amazing how incredibly sore the torso musculature can be in the days following one arm push up training.  The obliques in particular.  Tender to the touch.  

Side-note:  Mobility training with change your life…

MyMobilityDaily.com

If you desire ongoing progress from your workout time, increasing the challenge steadily is a necessity.

The human body is a brilliant adaptation machine.  It will reshape, re-organize, re-calibrate in order to adapt to stress.

Activities that once seemed impossible become possible through the process.

Fitness is amazing when you think about it from that perspective.

If you’re willing to put in the time and work, you can have ANY result you want.

We, adults, need these reminders.

You were born to move, move well and move A LOT.

Anyways, nothing creates enormous self-inflicted frustration like performing the same exercise for the same reps/sets/tempo day in and day out and expecting a different outcome.

It’s like smashing your hand with a hammer over and over, expecting the next impact to feel good versus elicit extreme pain.

The body becomes so efficient that it’s no longer work.

And it’s not your body’s fault for having this built-in efficiency mechanism.  Building efficiency is a good thing.  We don’t always want to feel like we are redlining the system while doing basic tasks.

Push-ups and squats are two essential exercises that can add value to anyone’s workout regimen.

One effective way to progress the basic bodyweight exercises like the push-up or squat is by migrating toward single limb variations, also referred to as unilateral training.

Unilateral exercise = one arm or leg does all the work
Bilateral exercise = two arms/legs do all the work

Bilateral exercises distribute the weight evenly between both limbs.  Each leg is moving 50% of the load.

Unilateral training requires one limb to move the entire load through the range of motion.

In addition, decreasing the base of support creates a significant balance challenge that amplifies as the muscles tire during the work set.

Indirectly, one arm push-ups rank extremely high on the effective core training exercise list.

I would put one arm push-ups up against almost any other isolated core exercise.

Maintaining rigidity from head to heel will blow apart your mid-section. Expect soreness in the days following.

People often get confused with how to make bodyweight-based exercises harder, often opting to add reps versus increase the load. High repetition work sets can provide benefit, but transitions the effort toward work capacity and endurance gains, versus strength.

Endurance training = higher repetitions, low load, and extended work sets.

The lower the load, the more reps can be achieved because the muscles are challenged as aggressively.

I’m not bashing endurance-oriented training.  It certainly has it’s benefits.  I actually engage in aerobic-based training 2-3 days per week, which is night and day different from what I used to employ for cardio training.  It used to be high-intensity intervals all day every day.

But that isn’t sustainable, and I think for a lot of people it’s doing more harm than good, despite the same EPOC after-burn studies authors keep twisting and referencing in their books.

In the time it takes to burn an extra 100 calories via blowing my body apart in a HIIT session, I’ll instead choose to take 3 fewer bites of calorie-dense food.

Talk about time savings.

Anyways…

… a lot of people use the wrong rep and loading schemes to achieve goals.

You can dig a 20-yard trench with a screwdriver.

However, we can both agree there are probably better tools for the job.

High repetition/low load work sets will do very little to increase strength.

You might feel tired with burning muscles, but increased strength is not the end-product of these efforts. 

For now, ditch the high rep/low load schemes.  Increase the loading, lower the reps, take more rest, get aggressive.

If building lean muscle and optimize movement is of interest to you, is strength is a critical physical characteristic to improve.

This is a blind and generalized statement, but I do honestly believe most people would be happier with results (both from a time investment and effort perspective) from gym work if steps were taken to increase the intensity/loading of the exercise, versus piling on more volume.

Unilateral training is a great way to do this.

A large chunk of life’s daily tasks requires single limb performance.

Why not load unilateral movements during workouts?

It’s resourceful, both from an equipment and time standpoint.

The return on investment is significant.

One-arm push-ups and one leg squats effectively increase the load of the working limb while simultaneously decreasing the base of support.

Transitioning from bilateral to unilateral squat requires navigating instability through the range of motion.

The stabilizing muscles of the hips have to get involved, the intrinsic muscles of the feet contribute as well.  Yes, your feet have muscles and they are vitally important. 

Staying balanced on the way down and up is difficult.

In time with practice and exposure to the balance requirements of single leg squats, your body will develop an understanding of how remain stable on each repetition.

Adaptation is a beautiful thing, but it takes time, patience and plenty of practice.  A lot of people give up before known benefits have time to take shape.

In the beginning, bodyweight alone will be sufficient to receive a training effect for single limb exercises.

But in time, the body will become efficient and adding weight, adjusting the tempo or increasing reps will become necessary for further gains.

Don’t underestimate the impact of adding 3-5 seconds to the eccentric descent of an exercise.  It will humble the hard asses of the world, and it takes discipline to slow down the tempo of a movement to savor the pain.

The nice part about adding load to unilateral exercises is you shouldn’t need much weight to challenge yourself.  Adding 10-15lbs in the form of a kettlebell, dumbbell, sandbag, small child or a spare weight plate will be enough to shock the system.

Add enough weight to challenge the movement, but not so much that it degrades technical form and posture.

In a real-world chaotic situation, anything goes to survive.  In the controlled environment of the gym, form matters.

The end goal of exercising is betterment, not injury and regression.

Compared to the sheer amount of equipment needed to strength training using bilateral squats, single-leg training can be very resourceful.  Very little goes a long way.

 

5 Bodyweight Push-Up Variations

Animal Flow, Bodyweight Workouts, Ido Portal

The push-up is a fundamental human movement pattern effective for building athletic performance and improving aesthetics.

Calisthenic exercise solutions are HOT right now, and for good reason.  

Push-ups are a premiere bodyweight-based upper body exercise capable of building useable strength, endurance and sculpting a lean physique. 

It’s easy to get stuck doing the same variation of push-ups, which can make training dull and potentially lead to skipping workouts.  There’s a whole world of push-up progressions and variations worth exploring.  

The draw to bodyweight based training makes sense.  First and foremost, bodyweight training is FREE.  

Second, bodyweight training is natural movement.  How?  Why?  It’s just you managing your own weight against gravity, which makes this form of exercise pretty damn realistic for everyday life.  

Seems logical to improve one’s ability to handle their bodyweight in various positions and patterns.  The ability to press oneself up from the floor (to do other things like crawl or walk, etc) helps us stay mobile and live life.  

Bodyweight training can be as advanced as a person wants, or going the other direction, scaled for any beginner. 

Push-ups, squats, lunges, crawling and vertical pulling exercises pull-ups/chin-ups are the foundation of before external weight ever enters the equation.

Traditional Push-Ups…

When someone says “push-ups”, a lot of people immediately picture a max set of pumping up and down.  And yeah, you’re right, these are definitely push-ups, but these are just one variation done in isolation, in one body position, to nausea.  

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the traditional push-up, but you’re leaving out a lot of AWESOME variations if you stop exploring there.

It’s a reasonable thought that many people would find a renewed interest (and results) in controlled physical activity if they delved a bit deeper into the hundreds of different push-up variations that exist.  

The traditional push-up doesn’t (and shouldn’t) be the end of the road variation-wise, which is why I’ve had some serious motivation to share exercise variations lately.

That being said, pay your dues with traditional push-ups before departing for the “sexier” variations.  The basics are the fundamental pillars from which all other movement is built.  

The Often Forgotten “Secret”… 

There’s no special “secret” sauce in fitness, only what you know and what you don’t know.  

And you don’t know what you don’t know.  

If there is a “secret” to push-ups, it’s that they are often overlooked and forgotten during workout exercise selection.  Our eyes drift to objects of weight or other fancy gadgets instead of down at the floor where we can assume the position and start doing work in less than 2 seconds.  

It would seem that push-ups are perceived to be rudimentary, lacking effectiveness or “only for beginners”.

If you find yourself thinking about push-ups in this way, I once again encourage you to dig into this article (and future articles) to explore and try every variation I’m about to share.

I guarantee you’ll be humbled by the potency and cognitively stimulated during most of these variations.   

Adding weight to a push-up is a common strategy to improve upper body strength, and indirectly, improve core strength at the same time.

But what about pushing up in odd body positions?

Having fully adopted and integrated ground-based movements from both Ido Portal and Animal Flow, I’ve been exploring different variations of pressing up from the floor at known and unknown (improvised) times throughout a workout.

This post is all about some of the push-up variations I’ve been toying around with across the last 10-12 months.

Watch the video, read the short description then give it a try.

Explore what YOU can do.  

#1 Resistance Band Assisted One Arm Push-Ups

Resistance bands are a brilliant tool to make exercises like chin-ups/pull-ups, single leg squats or single arm push-ups more palatable.  The band reduces the amount of weight the working arm must move during the exercise, which is often enough to make the exercise manageable.  

I value eccentric-only variations, but there is so much value is being able to go through a full range of motion, with a little less weight.

#2 Lateral Push-Ups

Traditional push-ups are a great exercise and should be taken as daily medicine, but pressing up from a variety of positions will expand your body’s movement IQ. The traditional push-up is very linear and can become boring in time.

Lateral push-ups put your body in a squat position, which from the get-go is unique.  The “fall-out” requires rotation of the torso and soft hand placement.  

Lightly touch your nose to the floor, press back up into the start position.  Performed rhythmically and for long durations, lateral push-ups will tire you out.

Aim for 6-8 reps on each side, but don’t be scared to work these for even longer sets.

#3 Stationary Low Lateral Shifts 

The low lateral shift was my first personal experience with a hybrid push-up.  Hybrid, in the sense that there is no upward/downward motion, yet many of the same muscles involved in push-ups are being worked.

Considering most people find themselves weakest at the bottom of a push-up, this exercise will challenge you to the maximum since you’re hovering at that depth.

Cues:  Shift your body side to side without making ground contact, yet avoiding the imaginary “razor wire” above you.  If you’re familiar with “Archer Push-Ups”, you’ll notice the body position is similar.  The difference is you are not pressing in this low lateral shift, the tension is high and constant throughout the work set. 

Aim for 3 sets of 5-8 shifts side to side.

#4 Dynamic Low Lateral Shifts

I could have tagged this exercise as “Traveling Low Lateral Shifts”, but dynamic sounded more professional and the definition of dynamic fits perfectly:

– relating to forces producing motion.  Often contrasted with static.  

This exercise is a stationary low lateral shift but now you’re moving across space.  I would consider this an introductory exercise to Ido’s locomotion training, though still falling into the Isolation category.  

Cues:  Stay off the floor, but don’t rise too high.

Start slow, maybe traveling 5 yards down and back.  Work up from there, as far as you can handle.

#5 Beginner Lizard Crawl Push-Ups

Lizard Crawl push-ups are a great way to practice pressing in a non-traditional body position.  

The full Lizard Crawl is one of the best exercises I’ve added to my personal workouts in years.

Of all the exercises in this post, Lizard Crawl Push-Ups require the least amount of strength, which doesn’t mean they are easy peasy, but you’ll likely be able to work these for higher repetitions.  Anywhere from 10-15 repetitions per arm.

*** If you want a humbling experience, I do suggest you attempt a full Lizard Crawl to gain some perspective on how difficult the movement pattern is.  Normally I wouldn’t recommend this, but being a body weight crawling pattern performed 2-3 inches from the floor, I see no real danger in trying it.  You’re either going to have the strength, mobility, and coordination to do make it or you’re not.  

No equipment required…

With the exception of the resistance band for assistance on the one arm push-up variation, all of these exercises require no equipment.  

This gives you an opportunity to test these exercises in your next workout.  

If you travel frequently for work, congrats, you’ve got some new push-up variations to play around with your hotel room or the hotel gym.  

Don’t procrastinate, get after it.  

To learn more about Ido Portal and my interpretation of the Ido Portal Method, check out this post.

 

For now… cheers, 

Kyle