how to make progress with bodyweight fitness exercises

How To Make Real Progress With Bodyweight Fitness

Parkour, playgrounds and pistol squats — all have one thing in common: they’re all exercises in the new school of fitness known as bodyweight.

Lately, people are ditching gyms in lieu of “old school” workouts involving nothing more than the ground below and sky above…

A few months ago, a friend recommended the courses at Gold Medal Bodies, whose courses promise a physically autonomous future.

“Sounds cool,” I said then promptly forgot about it.

A few weeks later, I heard that one of my favorite podcasters was training with a bodyweight-gymnast.

Coincidence? Maybe.

… or maybe not. The American College of Sports Medicine recently reported that bodyweight fitness would be the second most popular fitness trend in 2016.

So it’s not just me.

Why was I just hearing about it?

Is are there any real benefits to bodyweight fitness compared to lifting weights?

I had to know…

Is bodyweight fitness just another fad?

I poked around a bit and it seems that bodyweight fitness:

1) Is definitely a growing trend

2) Has a dedicated fan base

3) Some benefits over gym routines

Signs of a trend

As turns out, proponents of bodyweight fitness are quite vocal. I came across was this one on Collective Evolution, where the author writes:

I, along with many others, strongly believe that calisthenics is the future of fitness. It’s already taken off in some countries and is now showing its spark here in Western culture -and for good reason. Many people I talk to lately seems to be looking for something different, as if they are bored of the same old gym/weight routine just as I was. It also seems people want to have more fun when they work out.

Interesting point of view. I can certainly relate to “getting bored” with diets or workout routines.

However, sticking to the same diet or routine for a long time is key to making real progress, and switching just for the sake of variety actually hinders progress.

By his definition, bodyweight fitness is another shiny object, no better than switching diets when you don’t lose 20 pounds in a week.

I kept searching, and found this article on Lifehacker, saying:

When I first started out, I expected to lose a lot of the strength I’d fought for in the weight room. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised…I’m having fun again. These days, the world is truly my oyster-gym. Freedom from the weight room has allowed me to get creative and view almost everything as a fitness possibility. A tree branch? I can use it as a pull-up bar. Stairs? Step-ups, crawls, and calf raises. A bench? Oh, man, that’s the bodyweight workout jackpot.

Sounds awesome… Never having to go to the gym again — or rather, always being in the gym. What a beautiful feature that would be.

Again, someone ditching the gym to have some fun.

Something thing I’ve learned from 5 years of working out: the gym isn’t always supposed to be fun.

Sometimes, it’s hard f**king work and really painful.

Bodyweight fitness is no different. In fact, I’ve also felt the pull to quit my gym membership and just do yoga, run, walk and just be one with mother nature.👌 Omm. 🙏

But here’s the thing — I recognized that feeling for what it is: a form of resistance.

That desire for “release” from the monotony and grind of lifting weights is my body’s way of saying, “I want to give up.”

No thanks… 

I’m in this for the long run.

Why sacrifice years of progress and growth because it doesn’t seem fun anymore.

What’s “fun” anyway? I realized that taking my gym routine to the next level would be more fun than mixing in a variety of tough mudders, jungle gyms, bouldering, and anything else that seems cool.

Looking back on the things I’m most proud of in life, it’s the times I persisted. Ditching something for “fun” was often an excuse not to do the work because it was scary or painful.

And one thing’s for sure — going from an intermediate to advanced lifter will be a lot of work. It probably means changing my lifestyle in a lot of ways that would be uncomfortable. But means I’ll be doing the shit that most people only talk about, not dipping out for the sake of fun.

It means passing on the bodyweight fitness trend and, like a boring fellow, being that #gymaddicted guy, showing up at the same time day in and day out to lift heavy weights and drink protein shakes.

It’s no glorious, and yeah it hurts. But to me, that is fun.

Others share my sentiment. Eric Stevens at Breaking Muscle addresses the sanctimonious attitude pervasive in bodyweight fitness:

In general, I am a big believer in the old school (weightlifting). New school (bodyweight) pretends that exercise can be, is, or should be fun. By “fun” I mean pleasurable with the intention of distracting yourself from the discomfort of exercise. Don’t get me wrong; I look forward to my exercise and get genuine satisfaction and contentment from it, but it ain’t fun. Old school is hard.

“You call this fun?!”

What’s more insightful about Eric’s comment is that bodyweight exercises, when done properly, are subjectively less fun than gym counterparts.

Just take a look at this list of top bodyweight exercises:

  • Push ups
  • Pistol squats
  • Pull ups
  • Pistol squats
  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Burpees

Essentially, all the horrible conditioning routines you do during football or wrestling practice in high school. The type that leave you depressed, injured, and generally hating the sport.

I wondered why, given the opportunity, someone would actually think bodyweight is more fun. Having tried every popular bodyweight workout, it’s pretty clear that they 1) are not fun at all, and 2) are less effective than traditional workout routines for building strength.

And like sports practice, people tend to get injured… a lot.

According to several investigative reports, including a recent piece in the Huffington Post, issues like rhabdomyolysis (the rapid destruction and breakdown of skeletal muscle) is increasingly common in bodyweight-centric activities like.

With that in mind I was left scratching my head, wondering…

Why would anyone switch from the gym routines to bodyweight exercises?

Fun and injuries aside, enough of my health-conscious friends have switched to bodyweight that I’m curious about its benefits.

Working outside certainly would be healthier than a fluorescent lit gym with pounding EDM, but I’ve found plenty of outdoor gyms while traveling. And though rough around the edges, they had enough weight sto get the job done.

Measuring progress

What’s more, progress is slow, hard to measure, and you have to be intrinsically motivated to stick to it, meaning 95% of people (including myself) won’t stick to bodyweight fitness routines. “This week I did one more pull up than last week!”

On the other hand, I’ve been able to consistently hit the gym for the past 4 years, despite living in more than 10 cities on 4 different continents.

So when I hear that “my world is a gym” or that bodyweight fitness provides an “unlimited variety” of workouts, I can’t help but think that it’s all missing the point.

I need clear, measurable results to know that I’m progressing.

I need a separation between the gym and the rest of the world, else it all blurs together.

It seems that bodyweight is severely lacking here. How do you know you’re making progress? 

Despite my concerns, it’s actually not that hard.

Here’s what the top bodyweight fitness trainers suggest:

How to make real progress with bodyweight fitness exercises

1. First, increase reps (or time)

Start with basic workouts like pull-ups, sit-ups and push-ups. Pick a number sets and a rep range you’re comfortable with. A good place to start is three sets of eight to twelve reps: 8-12 x 3.

Once you’re able to do 12 reps for 3 sets, increase the rep range (eg, 15-20) or number of sets. For any bodyweight exercise, there’s no need to do more than 5 sets of 20 reps in a single workout.

Many bodyweight exercises are “static holds”, requiring that you hold a certain physical pose for some set amount of time. Examples include the front lever tuck (video) and L-sit progression, pictured below:

how to do the l sit

How To Do the L-Sit, Photo by Antranik

With static holds, sets consist of holding a position for a set period of time, usually 10-30 seconds. A simple way to progress is increase the time, until you can do 3 sets of the hold for 30 seconds.

Once you’ve mastered an exercise at the max reps and sets, it’s time to…

2. Second, increase total volume

Sometimes it’s tough to increase reps within a set range.

Case in point: pull-ups. A common pull up routine is three sets of 12 reps. However, if you’ve ever mastered this routine, then you that doing three sets of 13 reps is much more difficult.

For example, you’ve been stuck at a set of 12 max pull-ups and the 13th repetition seems impossible to achieve. To break through the notorious 12-rep plateau, just do more sets. Instead of three sets of 12 for a total of 36 reps, do four sets of 10 for a total of 40 reps (11% more total volume).

That small change is an 11% increase in the total volume of weight lifted. Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean you should switch your sets-reps count each week just to increase volume. The idea is to do just a little bit more each week and sustain a progression over the long term.

3. Third, increase workout density

The density of your workout refers to how much “lifting” you can do in a set amount of time. By increasing your density, you give your muscles less time to recover, thus forcing them to adapt to the same weight with limited resources.

Simply put, you do the same amount of work in less time.

How do you increase workout density? Simple — all you have to do is progressively shorten the time between sets. For example, if your normal routine calls for four sets of five pistol squats with a minute rest between each set, try shortening the rest period to 55 seconds, then 50, then 45.

Oh how it burns…

Just 10 seconds less rest between sets and I’m sucking air.

Another way to increase density is combining two or more exercises into a “superset”. Rather than rest between sets, simply move from one to the next without pause.

Important point: though workout density may sound like an “easy” way to improve your progression, it must come with a warning: go slow. With limited rest time, your body will be under a lot of stress. Don’t make matters worse by rushing through the progression.

Remember that all fitness — especially bodyweight — is a lifelong endeavor. Even a one second improvement each week will be a massive change in a year.

4. Fourth, work on your form

Ah yes, form. If you’ve ever worked with a trainer (for any sport), then they’ve probably told you how “form is everything”. And they’re right.

Doing 10 reps with perfect form is much better than doing 50 with bad form. First, you may actually be doing more work with less reps and second, you open yourself up to injury.

When it comes to doing bodyweight exercises with proper form, focus on developing the following areas of each exercise:

  • Technique. Are you doing the proper form?
  • Time to completion.
  • Effort to completion. Are you grinding out the rep or finishing smoothly?
  • Are you able to slow things down?
  • How slowly can you do the movement? (Moving slowly often reveals form flaws.)

If your form improves in the gym on say, squat or bench, but you do less reps, that’s actually an improvement. With the proper, slow bar movement, you lift far more weight over the course of a rep than if you move the bar too quickly or erratically.

The same holds true with bodyweight. If you do less reps with better form, that’s progress. (You can imagine how it may be tough to monitor progression with bodyweight exercises.)

5. Fifth, do harder exercises

Ok, so let’s assume you’ve nailed each of the first four steps in bodyweight progression:

  1. Increasing reps
  2. Increasing volume
  3. Increasing density
  4. Improving your form

What’s left?

Once you’ve hit a certain level, the biggest challenge with tracking progression in bodyweight fitness becomes making it more difficult… and therein lies my preference for gym routines.

Making an exercise “more difficult” in the gym is a simple matter of adding more weight. Heavier lifting will always be the barometer of progress.

The key to building strength in the gym is by increasing mechanical tension on the muscle — essentially, adding more stress to the muscles each week.

That’s pretty straightforward when it comes to lifting weights. All you need to do is add more weight in the low (3-5) rep range.

When it comes to bodyweight exercises, how do you “add more weight?” The answer: do harder exercises. 

Here are some of the most difficult bodyweight exercises:

  • 1-arm handstand
  • 1-arm pull-up
  • The human flag
  • V sit
  • Planche pull-up

By choosing challenging exercises with complex movements, you will naturally do less reps. Starting out, these exercises are extremely difficult (I still struggle with them after years of training).

With time and practice, they get easier. And like compound lifts in the gym, they are the exercises I look forward to the most.

Keeping track of it all

Regardless of your approach to staying healthy, gym or bw, it’s important that you are actually growing.

Growing is an essential human need, and without it, we’re just wasting time and spinning wheels, not making any real progress.

What it boils down to is this: why are you working out in the first place?

To get stronger? 

To look better?

…to have fun?

Get clear on your fitness goals, and you’ll be more likely to stick to long term fitness goals than chase fitness trends because they sound fun.

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