The Bodyweight Program

I’ve written a bit before about how the body is a barbell and some folks barbells are loaded a bit heavier than others. The nice thing about doing bodyweight training is it is always available to you. You don’t need special equipment (but that does add in more options), and you don’t need special places for it. Really all you need is gravity and breathable air. However, since we can’t just add weight to the bar we have to do different things to make the program more challenging and to progress it accordingly with time. My goal here is to offer up some basic programming and then after that give you some progressions on how you can just focus on bodyweight training if that is all you have available.

Programming

Since you are working with bodyweight how you can improve your performance is to add in volume by increasing the number of sets or reps. There are ways you can change the leverage of an exercise in order to make it harder for progression. For now figure when you can do a set of 12 reps with no issues of technique breaking down then progress to the harder version of the exercise. You can also invest in something like a weight vest to easily be able to add weight to the movement (or you can gain weight, but this will be much harder to accomplish). Below is a basic programing that you can use with bodyweight to help yourself improve with time.

Week Sets Reps Total reps
1 5 5 25
2 5 6 30
3 6 5 30
4 6 6 36
5 5 7 35
6 4 8 32
7 3 9 27
8 3 10 30

 

Now this progression might be a bit too aggressive for most, but just an idea of how you can go about this. Aim to add a rep to each set each week, another set, or at the least increase your total number of reps performed each week. Play around with this and find out what level of progression works best for you and your body.

Aim to train the movements at least once per week, but with bodyweight don’t be afraid to go up to 4 or 5 times per week. As always follow your body and a simple one day on and one day off programming can work well. Follow your body and how well it recovers to figure out if you want to add in more days of training each week.

Progressions for the upper body pushing

When people think about upper body pushing most people will think about simply doing push ups. This is a great start, but here is a basic table of how things work for progression and regressions.

Push up variations Handstand push up variations Dips
Push ups on knees Pike push ups Bench dips feet on floor
Push ups on toes Pike push ups feet on bench Bench dips feet on bench
Push up feet on bench Kipping Handstand push ups Bar dips partial ROM
Diamond push up Handstand push up partial ROM Bar dips full ROM
One armed push up Handstand push up full ROM Ring dips partial ROM
One arm and one leg push up Handstand push up on paralettes Ring dips full ROM

As always focus on technique and only progress to the next movement once you have conquered the previous. You should be able to google a video of any of these and if you have questions about any of them as always please just leave a comment. Play around with hand placement when you can to get slightly different recruitment patterns and find out what works best for you.

plus size handstand push ups.jpg
Hand stand push up with a weight vest on. Notice the lack of pluralization on the “push up”.

Progressions for the upper body pulling

With the pushing work you need to balance things out to be sure and have enough pulling volume to keep in balance here is the basic progressions to use for pulling exercises.

Pull up variations Low row variations
Jumping pull up Knees bent high level low rows
Pull up negative only Legs straight high level low rows
Iso hold pull up Legs straight low level low rows
Pull ups Feet elevated low level low rows
Pull ups chest to bar Feet elevated low level low rows with iso hold
Pull ups with one arm negative Feet off ground low rows
Muscle ups One arm low rows

Same rules apply on pulling in that you can try different hand placements to have slightly different effects on recruitment and how the exercise will feel. Play around with this to find what feels the best, or just change on occasion to give yourself some more variety.

Progressions for the lower body

This one can be hard to find progression with, but play around with foot placement, tempo, and don’t be afraid to go crazy with the volume and do sets of 20+ repetitions once you get in good enough shape.

Squat Variations Lunge Variations Hip Thrust Variations
High box squat Hands supported on rails lunge Two legged hip thrust
Moderate box squat One hand supported on rail lunge Heels together frog thrust
Low box squat Lunge One legged hip thrust
Bodyweight squat Walking lunge Shoulders elevated hip thrust
Deck squat (can use variation on lateral lunges like this) Shoulders elevated one legged hip thrust
High box single leg squat    
Moderate box single leg squat    
Low box single leg squat    
Single leg squat    
Single leg deck squat    

You can apply the same lunge variation progression to exercises like Bulgarian split squats. Choose what works well for you and your mobility.

Progressions for the “core”

We will apply the same methods that we applied before only now to basic core exercises. Here is a list with some progressions.

Sit up variations Leg raise variations Plank variations
Crunches Knee raise Elbows and knees
Sit up hands on hips Straight leg raise Elbows and toes
Sit up hands on chest Knees to elbows Elbows at forehead level and toes
Sit up hands on head Toes to bar Hands in front of head and toes
Sit up arms over your head   (can apply this to side planks to
V ups   Star side plank
dragon flags
Dragon Flag demo. Yes that isn’t in the table, this is harder than V-Ups

Take and work your way up the ladder when you can. At some point your duration and volume are going to peak out.

Summary

So that is the basics of how to program and progress bodyweight exercises. You can get in good physical condition and moderate levels of strength by just using body weight exercises (especially in the upper body). Don’t be afraid to experiment with different exercises and schemes and use a good bodyweight exercise on each of your training sessions. Nearly all bodyweight exercises can be modified to be easier or harder so play around and program to the level you are at. Now when you get strong enough it is time to look at external loads like barbells, but as a good starting point (and inexpensive one) the body is a barbell so go lift it.

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