A lot of you have read my interview with Hit from the calisthenics kingz. In that interview he mentions that he doesn’t train with weights. Hit is built like a tank and is amazingly strong too. So now you realise you can get an effective workout if you’re on the road and have no access to weights, or if you just don’t want to use weights, or if you just want to learn some of those extreme body weight exercises. This article explains exactly how to do it. In simple terms. There’s a workout plan as well so you can get started on getting strong without iron.
Why don’t I need weights to get bigger or get strong?
The reason is simply this: You need resistance, not weights. Adding weights is a great way to increase resistance and therefore the difficulty of an exercise so there’s nothing wrong with just using weights, but it’s not the only way. Maybe you’ve been doing hundreds of push-ups and hundreds of crunches but don’t feel like you’re achieving the strength or the body you want. When you lift weights you typically do 1-5 reps for pure strength development and 6-12 if you want to increase mass as well. So why would it be any different when you’re not using weights? If you want to focus on endurance rather than strength or hypertrophy then it’s fine, but if not you need to drop the reps. There are countless people who’s goal is to either get stronger, get bigger or both, but they still do hundreds of reps with bodyweight exercises. You don’t see them do hundreds of reps when bench pressing but they like to do hundreds of push-ups and crunches.
So what do you do if you can do hundreds of push-ups? Do you stop when you get to five? That wouldn’t be much use either. So you increase the resistance just like you would with weights.
You might have to be a bit more creative but it can be done, and here’s how.
How to add resistance to body weight exercises
There are a number of ways to do this, and here are some of them.
Partial range of movement-Let’s say you want to do a one leg squat but you can’t do it all the way to the floor. One option is to do it as far as you can, and then increase the depth as you get stronger. Some people are against this but it worked for Paul Anderson-the legendary weightlifter, power lifter and strongman. I would use a box if you’re doing squats as it can support the knees. As you get stronger use a lower box or maybe a step on a staircase.
Weight distribution between limbs-Let’s say you’re finding the gap between a two arm push-up and a one arm push-up too big. What now? You can use both arms but do the following. One of your palms is flat on the ground, but on the other hand, you’re only using you’re thumb and first finger on the floor. This way there is assistance with one arm but there is more weight on the other arm and it has to do more work. Eventually you can remove the finger and only use the thumb. Then remove the thumb until you’re only using one arm.
Straightening/ bending the joints-See my dragon flag tutorial on my site for an example of this. When I have my knees bent, the exercise is much easier, but if I keep my body completely straight, it’s much more difficult.
Elevating the feet/hands-Take a normal push-up. If you elevate your feet by putting them on a box you make the push-up harder, and if you elevate your hands but keep your feet on the ground you make it easier.
So as you can see, there are many different ways to add resistance to any exercise, just like adding plates to a barbell. There is no limit to the number of increments you can have either. For example, you can elevate your feet by 30cm, 32cm, 31.4cm etc (obviously it would be stupid to be so exact but you get the point I’m trying to make), so even though gaps do exist between different variations of an exercise, you can bridge the gap as slowly or quickly as you need to. Don’t worry about being exact. Just get a feel for the difficulty level.
Now you’ve got an idea of how to add resistance to body weight exercises, here is the workout plan. It has three exercises, of which you will use different variations as you progress, but you can add other exercises or switch one for another. More on that later. These are compound or multi-joint movements that teach your body how to work as a unit. There’s an upper body pressing movement, an upper body pulling movement, and a leg movement, so it’s balanced, and it doesn’t take up much time. Here are the exercises.
Push-up variation-This will train the chest, triceps, shoulders and core. It’s your pressing movement
Pull-up variation-Trains mainly the lats but also other assisting muscles in the shoulders, back and arms. It’s your pulling movement
Squat variation-So you don’t neglect your legs-Trains mainly the thighs and buttocks.
Okay so here are the different variations you can use. Going down the list, the exercises get more difficult. I’ve also written what I think would be a good method of adding resistance to that specific variation. See how far down the list you can go. These lists don’t contain all of the different variations, there are a lot more, but you don’t need all of them. Let’s start with push-ups.
Wall push-ups-Some people are too weak to do even knee push-ups so they can start off on a wall. It’s the same thing, but instead of pushing yourself away from the floor you push yourself away from a wall. The wall is obviously 90 degrees from the floor and if you reduce this angle it makes it more difficult. Maybe you could find a slope at roughly 45 degrees for example.
Knee push-ups-Most people are strong enough to do knee push-ups so this can be a good starting point for someone who can’t do full push-ups yet.
Full push-ups-There are different versions of this. The main ones are arms out-where your elbows go outwards during the movement and elbows in, where they stay close to the body and point backwards and work the triceps more. To make this exercise more difficult you can elevate your feet and put them on a box. On the other hand, the gap between knee push-ups and regular push-ups might be too large for some. In that case you can make the exercise easier by putting your hands on a box while leaving your feet on the floor instead.
One arm push-ups-Again there are different variations of this exercise but the same rules apply. Elevate your arms to make it easier and elevate your feet to make it harder. You can also do negatives (just the lowering part) if you want, until you’re strong enough to also lift yourself up.
Psuedo planche/hip push-ups-Well actually these could maybe go before one arm push-ups on the list but I’ve put them here because they might be something you use to work up to planche push-ups which are extremely advanced. Hip push-ups are like push-ups but your hands are placed by your hips instead of your chest. They can be tough on the wrists for some people so you can do them on fists or use paralletes. Elevating the feet for this exercise does not make it more difficult. Try it and you’ll see.
Another thing you can do to work up to the planche push-up is to practice static holds with the planche progressions, as well as practice push-ups in the tuck planche positions.
Negatives-A lot of people can’t do pull-ups so what you can do is to just do the lowering part of the exercise at first. Get on a chair to get yourself high enough so that your chin is over the bar. Then push the chair away from you and lower yourself from the bar in a slow and controlled manner until you’re hanging from the bar with your arms locked out. You might have to bend your knees if the bar isn’t high enough. Also, you might want to have a spotter the first time you try this, or until you’re confident of being able to do negatives with no problems.
Pull-ups-Once you can do negatives easily-say 2 sets of 5 reps you can try a full pull-up. You can have a partner help you as you pull yourself up if you need to in the beginning. You probably won’t need one though if you’ve been training negatives and are good enough at them. A tip-when you reach the bottom, lock out your arms completely and dead hang. It’s harder to do this than to cheat a little and start pulling yourself up before you’ve reached the bottom but it will help you in the long run.
Assisted one arm pull-ups-These are a lot harder than normal pull-ups and a great way to increase the difficulty of the exercise and train for one-armers. The way to do these is to hold the horizontal bar (pull-up bar) with one hand and have the other hand holding a vertical object. This can be the vertical support bars at the sides holding the pull-up bar in place or you can throw a rope over the pull-up bar and hold onto that. So now the side that’s holding onto the pull-up bar has to do a lot more work. The way to increase the difficulty with this variation is to hold the rope lower down. You will start out high, holding the rope/vertical bar only slightly lower than where you hold the pull-up bar and as you become stronger you will move lower down until eventually you’ll reach around hip level. After this, you can begin to loosen the grip you have with that hand (you’re still gripping the pull-up bar tightly though).
One-arm-pull-up negatives-So the next stage is to move onto slow, controlled negatives with only one arm. Pull yourself up with both arms and then lower yourself with only one arm. When you first start it might be a good idea to loosely hold onto your bicep or shoulder with the free arm just in case you over-estimate your strength and injure yourself while crashing down. Once you know for sure you can control the descent you can let go completely.
One-arm-pull-ups-Reach this stage and you’ve attained a very, very difficult skill to attain. Congratulations!
Body weight squats-Most people should be able to do body weight squats easily. Read my article on squats for some advice on technique. It’s on my site. Again, if you’re not strong enough you can do partial range like Paul Anderson did and increase the depth as you get stronger.
One leg squats-From my experience the best way to learn this is to just do partial range and increase the depth slowly. Use a box or something though, or it could put a lot of stress on the knees. Maybe you could lift yourself with only one leg every time you get up from a chair. Gradually increase the depth by using a lower box/chair/step/whatever you want, until you can go all the way to the floor. In the beginning when you reach the floor you can roll back so your back touches the floor and then push yourself forward and spring up using the momentum to lift yourself up. This could mess up your form though if you’re not careful (which could mess up your knees) so be careful with this one. Eventually you won’t need any momentum. Once you can do the exercise easily, you can grab some weights, which kind of defeats the object of this guide but whatever. I guess you could grab some big water bottles or something if you don’t have weights. Maybe adding more water to the bottles could be a way of adding weight…. Anyway you could also add a jumping movement to the squat as you lift yourself up and explode through the movement rather than lifting yourself slowly.
The training programme variables
So here is what the training programme variables look like.
Days of rest for each exercise-You can train each exercise 5 days a week or even as infrequently as every 5 days. You’ve got two options. The option you choose will affect the number of sets you do, which I’ll get onto later. Option B is recommended for those also wanting to gain some mass along with strength. If you’re only bothered about strength and like to train each exercise very frequently you could pick option A.
Option A-train each exercise 3-5 days a week
Option B-Train each exercise 1-2 days a week with at least 3 days rest in between each training day. You could do all three exercises on one day but you don’t have to. You can split it if you want to.
Reps-3-5-I want you to keep it down to 3-5 reps while using heavy resistance. This is the ideal range for building strength. If you’re after some mass as well, you can still get bigger while using low reps and heavy weight. You could increase the reps if you want to but I’d rather you not compromise strength, so an alternative is to make sure you ALWAYS do 5 reps instead of doing 3-5. You might have to use a slightly easier exercise variation in this case.
Sets-if you picked option A, you do no more than 2 sets in a session. If you picked option B, you can do 3-5 sets.
Minutes rest in between sets-3-5 minutes. If you want to increase mass as well as strength, then some fatigue may help you achieve that. You could decrease rest periods to 1-2 minutes, but again I’d rather you didn’t compromise strength, so what you could do instead is to make sure you ALWAYS take 3 minutes rest in between sets and not any more. On the other hand, those who are only interested in strength could take 3-5 minutes rest between sets.
Not training till failure-Don’t train till failure. You don’t want to burn out your central nervous system and compromise strength gains. If you picked option B as your training plan, you can go very close to failure. If you picked option A, I want you to stay slightly further away from failure because you’re going to be training more frequently and need to stay fresh. Make sure you could have done at least one more rep. So if you completed 3 reps and felt like you could do another 1 or 2, don’t do them. Whereas with option B you could carry on and do those 1 or 2 reps (but only if you were 100% sure you could do the reps. Don’t carry on until you attempt a rep and fail to do it).
Exercise variation-Choose a variation that you can do at least 4 reps with but no more than about 8. For example, if you can do 10 normal push-ups, try elevating your feet and then see how many you can do. If you can only do 3, try elevating your feet a little less this time and see how many you can do. Let’s say you can do 7. That’s a good variation to use for the duration of the training cycle.
The training cycle
Okay this part might seem a little complicated but it’s important. If you don’t follow a cycle you’ll probably hit a plateau and stop improving so learn it well.
There are many different cycles you could use but to keep things simple let’s go with a steady cycle that lasts 8-16 workouts. With this cycle you use the same exercise variation until you’re ready to peak in 8-16 workouts. For example, lets say you find out that you can do 6 reps with a one-arm-push-up. You start a training cycle with the one-arm-push-up and after 5 workouts the exercise feels a lot easier and you feel like you could do 8 or more reps. You still carry on doing only 3-5reps and keep doing the same exercise.
After 8 workouts the exercise feels so easy that you feel you are ready to move onto a harder variation. What you can do is reduce the volume for a week (so lets say you train 3 days a week and do 2 sets in each workout. During that week reduce your workout frequency to only 1 or 2 days a week and do only 1 set per workout. However, you’re either going to do more reps (if you usually did 3 or 4 then do 5) or if you already did 5 then switch to a harder variation of the one-arm-push-up (maybe elevate your feet) and do 3 reps.
After this reduced volume week, you’re going to go back to your normal frequency of training (in this example, 3 days a week) but you’re still doing a reduced number of sets (1 set in this example). Now you’re ready for the final part of your cycle. You were doing 3 reps of one-arm-push-ups with your feet elevated. Attempt to do 5 reps with this same variation. If you succeed, wait until your next workout and choose an even more difficult variation (maybe elevate your feet even higher) and see if you can do 5 reps. If you succeed move onto an even harder variation in the following workout until you reach a variation where you fail before reaching three reps. Then after that you could go back to the last variation that you succeeded doing 5 reps with, and attempt to go beyond 5 reps. Take a few days off at the end of the cycle. At the start of a new cycle you begin with a slightly harder variation than in your last cycle. In our example we started the last cycle with one-arm-push-ups. For the next cycle we could maybe start with one-arm-push-ups with legs elevated slightly. You get the idea……I hope.
Adding exercises and final advice
This is just a guide. Don’t worry about following it exactly to the letter. You can make adjustments, add your own exercises to it, experiment with different training programs/cycles etc. Just make sure you know what you’re doing or you’ll be wasting a lot of precious time. I think pull-ups and squats are a must. You could replace the horizontal push-up with handstand push-ups but I’ve kept it simple here.
You can’t really go wrong if you just stick to this guide and train consistently, while resting when you need to, getting good nutrition, enough sleep etc.
Don’t expect to progress from pull-ups to one-arm-pull-ups and from wall push-ups to planche-push-ups without any hiccups along the way. Your progress will slow down, you might get injured, and sometimes you might start doubting whether you’ll ever get to the most advanced variations. It’ll take you many months, even a few years to get to the most advanced variations of push-ups and pull-ups. Don’t give up. This is what separates those few who make it from everybody else. If it was easy, everyone would be strong as hell and then your achievements wouldn’t be so impressive, so just have fun, aim high and train consistently without giving up. Get in touch and tell me about your progress while following this plan, send me videos when you’re able to do some of the cool feats such as one-arm-pull-ups, send me before and after pictures if it’s changed the way you look.