What I’d like to do is shatter the myth that bodyweight exercises can’t build massive muscle and serious strength.
And I’m going to shatter that myth with some good-ol’ fashioned common sense … so when someone tells you that you need to lift heavy weights to make progress, you know how to respond.
Here’s the thing: there’s a kernel of truth in the myth…
If you’re doing pushups, dips, and other bodyweight exercises without progressive overload—meaning, you never push yourself to go “harder than last time” (as YouTube fitness guru Greg Doucette puts it)—then it’s true: you won’t make progress.
But that goes for lifting weights, too! If you aren’t focused on progressing—whether by lifting heavier weight, doing more reps, reducing your rests between sets, etc.—then you won’t progress with traditional weightlifting either.
The Key to Making Bodyweight Workouts “Harder Than Last Time”
The author of You Are Your Own Gym: The Bible of Bodyweight Exercises, Mark Lauren, describes four different ways you can make bodyweight exercises more intense.
After listing them, I’ll go into them in more detail:
- Reduce the leverage of your body
- Perform the exercise on an unstable surface
- Pause during the movement
- Turn the exercise into a unilateral (one-limbed) one
To these four ways, I add two more
- Add external weight
- Choose a related exercise that’s more intense
So, number one: reduce the leverage of your body.
That essentially means, change the position of your body to make the exercise harder.
Here are some examples: if you want to make pushups harder, elevate your feet on a chair or other surface. The higher your feet are elevated, the more force you have to exert.
Another example: instead of a pike pushup, go for the full handstand pushup with your legs against the wall. That makes it harder (this is also functionally equivalent to a military press with a barbell).
By contrast, if you want to make the exercise easier, simply increase your leverage. So, for a pushup, elevate your hand placement—on a chair, for instance.
Number two: perform the exercise on an unstable surface. For example, before doing your pushups, try placing your feet on a basketball … or do bodyweight squats on a wobble board (just make sure there’s enough stability that you don’t fall over and hurt yourself).
Number three: pause during the movement. This will recruit more muscle fibers. For example, during a dip, pause at the bottom or in the middle of the motion for a few seconds. That will make the exercise harder.
Number four: turn the exercise into a unilateral (one-limbed) one. So … one-armed pushups. Or one-armed pull-ups. Or one-legged squats (hint: these are all super tough!).
Number five: add external weight. I mean, try pushups with a weighted backpack or weighted vest, for instance. Or squat while holding chains.
Number six: choose a related exercise that’s more intense. For example, try dips on rings instead of on dip bars. Ring dips are a lot harder, but they’re still fundamentally dips. Another example: pull-ups (with palms away from you) are harder than chin-ups (supinated grip).
Think about it: weight is weight—whether it’s your own bodyweight or an external weight such as a dumbbell. To build muscle and strength, you need to create resistance. Just make sure that resistance is progressive (increasingly difficult).
In all, if you know how to manipulate leverage and utilize these other factors, you don’t have to do 500 reps to make your bodyweight training effective. You can actually make each exercise more intense (or, easier, if you need to).
In fact, some of these exercises are so difficult that even elite-level gym goers can’t do them. For example, take someone who can squat 350 pounds—and they probably can’t do even one pistol squat (the most difficult form of one-legged squat).
So these bodyweight exercises take a great deal of skill—and you can build a killer physique using bodyweight exercises alone.
Hey, if you want to do a bunch of different bodyweight exercises while keeping your wrists safe and injury-free, check out Bear Blocks.