Bodyweight Exercises That Really WorkWritten by Paul O'Brien
I don’t know when it was exactly, but bodyweight exercises seemed to go away from people’s training routines for a long time. They where deemed to be not hard core enough and people opted for barbells and dumbbells instead.
Just lately however there seems to be more of an increase in the use of them – possibly due to the better advice from top strength and conditioning coaches that is now available online. I was one of those people who shunned them for many years only really using classics such as pull ups and dips. Then I started to use more variations in my training , I found that the push up was a great exercise for the chest and triceps …..it just needed some weight loading on my back to make it more challenging and productive. Fast forward a few more years and I now use bodyweight exercises even more. Every person that I train uses them and for good reasons – they work and generally feel more natural than equivalent exercises involving barbells and dumbbells. The real beauty as well is that the learning curve to do them is far easier than comparable exercises involving barbells and dumbbells and they are far safer too. This makes them brilliant for people who are just started to train , why would I possibly get a complete beginner to flat barbell press when I can get them to do a push up and achieve the same effect. I can get someone performing push ups with great technique in 5 minutes where as the barbell bench press is a different story …..I have been training 17 years and bench pressing still does not feel completely natural and I am still working on my technique.
People also forget that bodyweight exercise is challenging enough for beginners especially if they are on the heavier side. An 18 stone man performing push ups will find it very challenging indeed. Once a person can knock out a decent amount of reps with bodyweight I will then increase the intensity by elevating the feet onto a bench or by using extra resistance such as plates , chains , weighted vests to load the exercise and provide the necessary stimulus for strength / muscle growth to occur. I have one guy I train who can knock out reps with 80kg on his back and with a close hand position - that is strength !!! he has never benched pressed once in all the time I have trained him and he has probally put on more muscle than any other person I have trained – interestingly he also does the most simple workouts you can imagine and only trains with weights twice a week – but that’s a story for another article.
Il now take a look at my favourite bodyweight exercises and describe the benefits of each one and the variations you can use.
Push Ups : As you may guess from the introduction above I am a big fan of push ups , they are one of the best exercises to build a good chest and triceps and they are one of the simplest / safest exercises you can do. They actually improve the health of your shoulders which is why they should be a staple in most people’s routines. As mentioned above you can load them with weighted vests , chains or even plates if you have a training partner , you can also make them harder by elevating your feet onto a bench – this turns it more into a upper chest exercise and also increases the range of movement , or you can use trx or gymnastics rings to add some more difficulty . One important thing to mention is that when performing press ups your elbows should go back in line with your forearms not out to the side which puts stress on your shoulders. Another important aspect of the push up is that it also builds core strength , as martin rooney said “ the push up is a moving plank “ . This gives this exercise even more appeal especially for someone who trains people like myself. I might have a person for one session a week , in that one session I want to do as much as I can to improve that client – having an exercise that will not only improve upper body strength / muscle development but will also improve core strength is a great exercise to have…..training economy at it’s best. You can also use the push up to develop your triceps even more if you bring your hands in closer together – when loaded this is a great tricep builder.
Divebomber Push ups - This is a great exercise for shoulder development / strength and it is very challenging especially with added weight. you basically start with your hips high and dive down so your head goes towards the floor and forward , you then reverse the movement by pushing your head back through which really works the shoulders hard. I have been using this an assistance exercise and general muscle builder after my heavy sets of standing presses.
Handstand push ups - this is an old skool movement performed by athletes , gymnasts and also great strongmen from years ago such as the legendary Paul Anderson. This exercise has now become popular again mainly due to crossfit competitiors doing this in their training / competitions. This is a tough exercise and progression takes a while but you can use a wall to put your feet against or a training partner can hold your feet ( this is my preferred option ). This exercise again is a great shoulder builder and feels strangely natural – well apart from being upside down !!!
Inverted rows – this is a great upper back exercise and I get all my clients doing it , It is also great for larger individuals and beginners who can not do pull ups yet. Again you can increase the intensity by raising the feet higher onto a bench and by using plates , weighted vests , chains etc…This exercise feels really natural and is also great for shoulder health and upper back development. I use gymnastic rings for all my inverted rows and pull ups as it is even more natural than a bar and is kinder on the wrists and elbows. With your feet on a bench and your body in a straight line you pull yourself up as high as you can - I like to hold at the top for a brief second to enjoy the view and to ensure correct technique. You can also use towels wrapped around a bar to really work and improve your grip.
Pull ups – Not much needs to be said here – an all star exercise that will work wonders for your back/arm development / pulling strength and also works the core as well. To avoid elbow/shoulder problems perform them on rings or do your heavy work with a neutral grip rather than a wide grip. You can use a variety of grips to target different areas from underhand , neutral , wide etc…. At the end of the day just do them !!! As with inverted rows you can do them with towels or ropes to work your grip.
Rear leg elevated split squat – This is a great leg exercise that develops single leg strength , balance and athleticism and is also much kinder on the spine than traditional back squats as the weights do not have to be held on the upper back. When you first start out the balance will be tricky but after a few weeks it will be much easier. beginners and heavier guys will find bodyweight challenging enough at first but eventually you will be able to load some impressive weights on this exercise. I trained a guy who tore his bicep and could not hold a bar so instead of bbell squats we used this exercise instead and used a weighted vest and chains along with light dumbbells. He developed some impressive strength and once his bicep had healed we found that his barbell squatting strength levels had hardly been affected at all ….so I know this exercise works !! …the cool thing too is that your giving you back/spine a rest from the load of a barbell. So again this is perfect for people with back issues or beginners as the load is far less due to working each leg seperately and the weight is not on the upper back. To perform the exercise simply raise your back leg/foot onto a bench and squat down - this is also a great flexibility exercise especially for the hip flexors.
Ab Wheel Rollouts / Foam roller walkouts - One of the best core exercises around with out doubt , it is challenging at first but you can build up some serious core strength with this exercise. I bought a cheap little ab roller from tesco and it has lasted me years and works brilliantly. Beginners may want to start on a large stability ball and just work on increasing the range of movement on their knees. Then eventually you can work up to doing sets of 15-20 reps on your knees using the little ab roller. For the really hardcore people out there you can add a little weight on your back or even perform them from a standing start which is seriously tough. Another seriously tough core exercise that I picked up from Joe Defranco is the foam roller walkouts or rollouts , You start with your hands on the foam roller and feet on the floor in the top position of a press up and then you basically rollout your hands on the foam roller so your hands get further away from your body which is similar to an ab wheel rollout I then hold for a count of 123 and then rolling my hands over the foam roller I return to the starting position – shooting for 5 reps of this is a good target to aim for and this is much harder than performing an ab wheel rollout on your knees.
Glute ham raises - I personally love this exercise it builds hamstring strength like you would not believe and for most people bodyweight will be challenging enough. Indeed for people first trying the exercise they will probally have to do slow negatives and push back up from the floor / bench until they can do the full exercise. this exercise can be done a variety of ways - I have used the seat and pad of a lat pulldown machine and simply locked my heels under the pad whilst coming down slowly to a bench placed in front of me , upon my chest touching the bench I then pull back on my heels and reverse the movement. You can start with a bench or aerobic step higher up and then gradually reduce the height over time making the exercise more difficult and increasing the range of movement. These days I perform them at home with a home made device that works a similar way. You can also use a partner holding your ankles but you will need something under your knees as this can be painful on the knees.
Hanging leg raises - another old school core exercise that has stood the test of time , forget those silly machines that have a nice comfy arm rest where you can knock out 100 reps , it’s time to man up and do some leg raises hanging from a bar. Do them strapless and they will also work your grip. They are various progressions from bent leg up to straight legs where you touch the bar with your feet. Either way they are a great core exercise so do them.
Pistol squats - this exercise takes a good while to get the hang off and for a lot of people their lack of flexibility will be an issue at first but you can follow progressions where you will start by squatting down to a bench at first and then gradually progress lower until you can do the full movement.For people who become good at it you can add extra weight to increase the difficulty even further. Either way it is a really useful exercise to develop leg strength , balance and flexibility and you can do it anywhere. It also looks cool as hell !!
Ring Dips / Bar dips – I have put down the two options as I realise most people don’t have access to rings , if you do then I would recommend the rings as they are far better for your shoulders and feel more natural – bar dips can cause people shoulder issues especially when loading quite heavy but if you can do them pain free they are still a great exercise and you will benefit from them whether using just bodyweight or added resistance.
Lower back raises – This exercise is a great lower back/hamstring and glute developer if you perform the exercise correctly and it does not smash up your CNS like good mornings and deadlifts. It is also easy to teach and you can add additional load by holding dumbells / medicine balls and even using resistance bands. A strong lower back is always a must for any person who wants to shift some heavy weight and stay injury free. Just make sure that you do not
Side Planks - Side planks are one of the few exercises that work the obliques hard and so should be used to strengthen that area as strong obliques are really important when performing big lifts such as squats , deadlifts and overhead presses. They are also really simple to do and to increase difficulty you can elevate the feet or even wear a weighted vest.
Front Lever Holds – This is a movement that builds a lot of strength in the back muscles and is performed regularly by gymnasts , it is basically a static hold performed by holding rings or a pull up bar. you basically hang so that your knees are up and bent and your body is pretty much flat almost like an inverted row and you just hold the position for time. People generally forget that as well as being responsible for pulling the back muscles are also holding muscles and this is a great way of developing strength in these muscles. I always like to hold my reps for a second on all pulling movements such as inverted rows , seated rows etc and feel that doing this has really improved my back development and strength. Gymnasts are a great advertisement for bodyweight training as their physiques and strength levels are fantastic , they just learn how to use their bodies at different angles / positions and utilise various static holds and advanced bodyweight movements to overload their muscles.
So if you have not utilised the tremendous effects of some of these great bodyweight movements do your self a favour and start to include some in your training programme. A great training template is to start with an explosive movement - medicine ball throws for upper body , jumps for lower body – then move onto a heavy bbell / dbell exercise and then utilise bodyweight exercises for your assistance exercises before finishing with some kind of weighted carry or sled work as a finisher. Simple but brutally effective !!!