Many people believe that bodyweight exercises are limited to basics like push-ups, squats and pull-ups. If I tell the average gym rat that all I do is bodyweight training, I get the “Do you even lift?” look.
Perhaps the reason is that progressing with the barbell is simple: You just add a weight plate. Progressively adding weight to your lifts then will make you stronger. It’s straight-forward.
To up the difficulty of a bodyweight exercise though, you need a bit of creativity.
I’m gonna show you that progressing with calisthenics is also very intuitive, once you understand some simple principles. Here it goes.
Points of Contact Distribution
The first thing you can do to change the difficulty of any exercise – without any additional equipment – is changing the distribution of your points of contact (POC). POC are the things that support your weight, which are usually your hands and feet.
In the picture below you see me doing a regular push-up and a diamond push-up. For the regular push-up, my POC are distributed in a way that allows for effective pushing. This is the sweet spot where triceps, shoulders and pecs assist each other optimally. By putting my hands closer together or wider apart, I’m disturbing this equilibrium.
Putting my hands wider apart let’s my chest work harder than it’s used to. Shoulders and triceps cannot help stabilize my body while pushing. Same goes for a closer hand placement (diamond push-up): My chest cannot be effectively activated because I manipulated the leverage of my arms. Triceps and shoulders have to work harder.
This is applicable to a vast variety of bodyweight exercises. Try changing your grip on pull-ups or bodyweight rows. Experiment with different stances for your squats.
Doing single limb variations sounds and sometimes looks simple, but it ain’t easy. Not only will you have to manage more weight with your remaining limbs, but you will almost always put your body under asymmetric tension. Doing one-arm push-ups requires significantly more tension throughout your body than regular push-ups. The abdominals (especially the obliques) get a phenomenal workout from these exercises.
Leverage is the most common method to ramp up the difficulty of any basic exercise. This is the only time you need some kind of equipment. But usually, with enough creativity, you can use your surroundings or find cheap alternatives like boxes, stairs, bars at a playground, etc. Perhaps you’ve seen me use this principle for the progressions to the one-arm push-up or the handstand push-up.
There are two things that usually make an exercise easier or harder by changing the leverage.
- The weight of your body distributes differently between your POC.
- Different muscle groups are utilized for different angles.
The push-up is a perfect example for this: By elevating your feet for this move, you’re “stacking” more weight on your hands. Therefore, you’re effectively pushing more weight.
The reason why there is more weight stacked on your hands is the height at which your center of mass is placed in relation to the POC. My experience is that this is not intuitive to everyone. Therefore, I made a pretty graphic that explains how this works.
The length of the arrows indicates the amount of force that is put on your POC (this is just for illustration purposes, so all you mathematicians and physicists: please don’t hate me). A longer arrow means more weight is distributed at this point. By putting your feet up in relation to your hands, the weight that rests on your feet decreases while the weight on your hands increases.
As you see, you can manipulate the leverage progressively so that more weight has to be handled during the movement. But that’s not all that’s going on here.
When you try a decline push-up (i.e. feet elevated), you will notice that your triceps and shoulders need to work much harder than they would for a regular push-up. The reason is the different angle, because now you’re not only pushing horizontally. You added a vertical pushing component. Your chest is less activated now and your shoulders and triceps have to bear more resistance. Usually triceps and shoulders are weaker compared to the chest muscles, which is why this is harder. You’re simply not used to push at this angle, so you haven’t established an effective muscle activation pattern to do this exercise with more ease.
Also very simple: Do the move very slowly or as explosive as possible. Doing 10 slow-mo push-ups (like 5 seconds down, 5 seconds up) is much harder than doing 10 push-ups with a “natural” speed.
It also works the other way around: Try to do a very hard exercise, like a one-arm push-up, in a very fast and powerful manner. This will up the intensity quite a bit.
As with all the progression methods: Only attempt these variations if you have stellar clean form. Doing half-assed speed push-ups is for douchebags.
Increasing Range of Motion
We’re gonna stick to the push-up example: Get two boxes with the same height, or a couple of books that you can stack up to stacks with the same height (about 8 inches/20cm). Place your hands on them to do push-ups. Go down as far as possible (nose touches ground).
Congrats, you’ve increased the range of motion (ROM) of your push-ups. This will activate more muscle fibres, probably the ones that are not used that often. So this will naturally make the move harder.
You can apply this method to almost all bodyweight exercises: Chest-to-bar pull-ups, ass-to-grass squats, handstand push-ups on parallettes, toes-to-bar hanging knee raises and the list goes on.
Sticking points are an awesome method to progress very linearly with bodyweight exercises! I stole this idea from Pavel Tsatsouline, from his book The Naked Warrior.
We’ll again illustrate this with push-ups: Get into the starting position. Now lower yourself halfway down and stop right there. Maintain your form, the straight posture, tight core and neutral neck. Hold the position for 1, 2 or 3 seconds.
The really neat thing about sticking points is: You can choose multiple sticking points and vary the “sticking time”. You could, for example, choose 3 sticking points for the push-up (1/2, 3/4 down and the bottom position, without touching the ground). You could progress to push-ups with 3 sticking points, each held for 3 seconds, in 9 tiny steps. Spiffy!
This trick allows you to progress in a pretty linear fashion, much like putting more and more weight plates on the barbell.
Note that adding sticking points to a movement is not the same as decreasing speed. If you only varied the speed, you’d go through the complete move and every point of the move get’s a small portion of the time you needed for one rep. With sticking points, you’re paying attention to one specific part of the move. This is often the most difficult part (imagine holding a pistol squat halfway through). This requires a different kind of tension.
If you are really stuck on a progression, try to implement sticking points to your current progression step. It may do some wonders for ya.
There you have it. These are the basics to progressing with calisthenics, making continuous progress and busting plateaus. Leave me comments down below if I left you with question marks over your head.
Photos: Sabine A
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