It is hard to remember a time before gyms existed. A time when you couldn’t use weight and cardio machines to get fit and you had to eat a hell of a lot if you wanted mass gains. Now we take all this equipment for granted. It helps us achieve our fitness goals in a shorter time frame and allows us to mix up our routines to optimise our progression.
However, before all of this came along, bodyweight training was effectively utilised in order to gain strength and muscle tone and it is still a consistent component of fitness training in the armed forces today. You only had to look at the physiques of the gymnasts competing in London 2012 to know that bodyweight exercises pay off! Want another modern example of awesome bodyweight training? Batman in the dark knight rises. If you haven’t seen this film and don’t know what I’m talking about, shame on you!
Bodyweight exercises have been empirically proven to be effective. I would imagine that this is because they are fundamentally different from most weight bearing exercises. They engage muscle groups which are often ignored in the gym, don’t place incredible pressure on joints and improve overall athleticism through a wide range of movement.
The other brilliant thing about these exercises is that once you know what do to in order to effectively engage your muscles, you get to be your own gym. This saves you time, money and allows you to have greater flexibility in terms of where and when you workout.
Bodyweight training can build muscle rapidly, particularly if you progress to more difficult variations of the exercise. In order to optimise your gains you need to aim for significant loading and tension. Low reps of more difficult exercises will get you much further than high reps of easy exercises like ordinary push-ups or crunches. 3 sets of 4-10 reps is ideal. You can also try imposing the 2-1-2 rule (convict conditioning). This means that you take 2 seconds to lower into the movement, hold the most difficult position for 1 second and then take 2 seconds to return to your starting position. By completing each rep slowly, you gain better control, co-ordination, mind-muscle links and strength all at the same time. This will produce significant increases in muscle tone and size because you are ensuring that your muscles do the work, not the momentum of the movement itself.
By no means am I suggesting that you replace your gym workout with bodyweight training (although you may prefer this option). A mix of weights, bodyweight training and sport specific training will be the most effective combination for building muscle and achieving your ideal physique.
Below is a list of excellent bodyweight exercises for strength, endurance and overall fitness. If you are tired of the same old routine, this is an excellent way to mix things up. Some of these exercises are easier than others, but they can all be adjusted to increase the difficulty if you need to. If you find the exercise too easy, modify it. No pain, no gain.
The Bear Crawl
Get down on your hands and knees (no, this isn’t the bedroom workout), keeping your hands on the floor lift your knees up and stand on the balls of your feet. The object here is to keep your body as close to the ground as possible as you crawl. Move your opposite hand to leg forward. To vary this exercise, try crawling backwards.
Start with your feet together and place your hands on the floor in front of you as close to your feet as possible. Now walk your hands out in front of you until you are in the press-up position, hold this, then walk your feet in towards your hands. That is one rep. To make it harder you can add a press-up into each set.
The Power Jump
Start in a stable squat position, from this jump as high as you can and tuck your knees into your chest. Land back in a squat position.
Start in the press-up position. Bend one leg in towards your chest so that your foot is on the ground as close to underneath your chest as you can get, and then switch legs. This is one set. Try to avoid bouncing in between each movement. Avoid using momentum to continue your reps even when you are getting tired.
Many people fail to master this move without momentum. If you can do 3 sets of 10 of these in a controlled manner, you are a fitness warrior! Begin by hanging from a bar with palms facing away from your body. Complete a pull up. From this position push down onto your hands and push your upper body above the bar until your waist is level with the bar. Lower yourself back to pull up position and then back to the hanging position. Notice how I didn’t talk about swinging your legs like a crazy person in a bid to complete this ;).
Start in a sitting pike position on the floor (or for beginners on parallel bars or a raised surface). Place your hands either side of your legs just in front of your hips. Lift your lower body off of the ground and hold. To make this more difficult, raise your feet as high as possible and hold.
Begin in the press up position. Lift one arm off the floor and rotate your body to face the side while lifting your free arm towards the ceiling. Once you have formed a t-shape, hold the position. Slowly return to the press-up position, complete a press up and begin on the other side.
Reverse Plank with Knee Raises
From a sitting pike position place your hands next to your hips. Lift your hips towards the ceiling, placing weight onto your hands beneath you. You want to aim for a straight diagonal line from your shoulders to your toes. For beginners, holding this position will engage your core effectively. If you want to push yourself, lift one foot off the ground and bend your knee in towards your chest. Pulse this here for between 4-10 reps and place your foot back on the ground. Switch legs. Make sure when you lift your knee, you do not let your glutes drop to the floor.
Dynamic Prone Plank
I hate to reference the bedroom workout again, but think man in the missionary position. Prop yourself on your elbows in the normal plank position. Then lift your hips slightly (in the way you are not normally supposed to in the plank position) and then lower your hips towards the ground. The more controlled you are, the better ;).
Headstand Leg Raise
Perform a headstand. Once you are in an extended headstand (forming a straight line toward the ceiling), lower your feet toward the floor until you form a pike position. Slowly lift your feet away from the floor and control your body until you are back in the extended position. I would recommend light reps of this if you are not used to being upside down.
Stand with your back against a wall, feet shoulder width apart. Slide down the wall until you are in a seated position. The lower you are, the harder your legs will be working. Hold this position for as long as possible initially, and then gage your optimum rep length from this.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart, rise onto the balls of your feet maintaining balance, then lower. To make this more difficult you can stand on the edge of a step to increase the range of movement or you can stand on one leg and perform a whole set before switching to the other leg.
From a standing position, lift one leg in front of you while keeping it extended. Begin to squat on the leg you are standing on. Again, the lower you go, the harder your legs will be working. It is important to keep this exercise slow and controlled so as not to fall over backwards.
This is great for the legs but it also engages core and arms too. Step forward and perform an ordinary lunge. Ensure that your legs form a 90⁰ angle (at the knee) on both legs. Holding this position rotate your torso toward the front leg, stretch out your arms so that they form a t-shape and look toward your back hand. This is a killer if you hold the perfect position. Hold for at least 20 seconds and then begin to gently pulse your arms in a forward and backward motion for another 10 seconds. Switch to the other side without a break to make it even more difficult.
Jump onto a box. That is pretty much it. The height of the box is completely up to you and you can increase this as you progress. Just make sure it is stable. Jump onto and off of the box to complete one rep. Ensure that you do not do a preparation jump. Jump from a standing position.
Chest & Back:
Begin in a press-up position. Surprisingly you will be moving your lower body for this exercise. From this position, jump both feet off of the ground bending your legs at the knee (so that you kick your glutes or as close to this as possible). Return back to a press-up position being careful to maintain good posture. Donkey sound effects are optional.
Kick up into a handstand position against a wall to help with balance when you perform this exercise. Ensure that you do not arch your back in this position; keep your glutes and stomach tight to maintain a good shape. Bend your arms and lower yourself towards the floor, then push up. This is great for the shoulders and arms as well as engaging the chest, back, core and glutes for stability.
Increase your spinal range of motion with this exercise. Lay on your back with legs bent and feet placed on the floor. Place your hands on the floor with fingers pointing down towards your shoulders and point elbows towards the ceiling. Push up onto your hands and feet. If you have limited flexibility, hold this position. If you are looking to increase the range of motion you can place your feet together and try to push your legs into an extended position. This will move your body further over your hands and really stretch your back, chest and shoulders.
Lay on your stomach with arms outstretched in front of you. Lift your arms and feet off the floor to form a banana shape. From this position, move your arms slowly down towards your sides (without touching the floor), then bending at the elbows with palms facing toward the ceiling scoop through towards your neck and head and stretch them out in front of you again. If this is hard to understand, it is basically breaststroke arms. The closer you keep your hands to your body on the way through, the higher you will have to lift your chest from the floor and the more you will engage your back.
Perform a press-up and then push off your hands and land back in a press-up position. If this is too easy, see how many claps you can do before you land or try one-arm.
Shoulders & Arms:
Hold onto the edge of a bench/step with your fingers facing towards your body. Stretch your feet out in front of you so that your body is just off of the bench/step. Bending your arms, slowly lower your body as close to the ground as you can without touching it, hold for one second, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
This is a great way to vary up your training. It is great for both cardio and to strengthen your upper body. If you have a punch bag, the resistance will improve the workout. Aim to shadow box for 1 minute intervals. You will soon feel the aching in your arms. Vary the punches by throwing jabs, hooks and upper cuts on both arms. It helps to picture someone you really dislike; the intensity you feel will improve the power of the punches you throw.
Yes, they are one of those horrible exercises you did in PE at school, but they are highly effective. Start with your arms in a straight t shape then slowly move your hands in circles perpendicular to your body. Vary this exercise by moving from large circles to small circles and back again.
If you are a gymnast/ tricker/ trampolinist you can probably walk on your hands pretty well. If you can’t hold a handstand for at least 5 seconds, try this with your feet against the wall. Begin in a press-up position with your feet next to the wall, reverse so that your feet begin to climb the wall. Once you are as close to handstand as you dare go, begin to walk your hands slowly away from and back towards the wall. You will be amazed at the stability you gain in your shoulders from this exercise.
A little more cardio thrown in the mix for you here! Perform jumping jacks with 3 variant arm movements (or more if you can think of something different to try); From a T position to clap in front of your chest (in the T push your arms back as far as possible to get a great stretch), clap low behind your back and high above your head and parallel arms with palms facing forward above your head and below your hips (preferably pushing past them as this will engage the core).
I hope that this list will inspire you to try a new kind of workout. There really is no excuse to be out of shape. Mix some or all of these exercises into a circuit to optimise muscle strength gains.
In order to kick start your bodyweight training, try Primaforce AAKG. It is a great pre-workout supplement which will give you the energy you need to push yourself during this workout!
In order to optimise muscle size and strength gains, make sure you are getting that extra protein into your diet. For the fastest and most effective way to replace protein post-workout, I would recommend whey. Optimum Health Gold Standard Whey is absorbed quickly by the body to ensure that muscle breakdown is minimal and muscle growth and repair is at its peak.
Convict Conditioning – Paul Wade
The Naked Warrior – Pavel Tsatsouline