The bodyweight training prescription — lessons from the trenches

It is coming up to a year since I started training solely with bodyweight movements. Here’s what I’ve learned about strength and hypertrophy training sans-weights through practise and study.

What started as a healthy experiment has become somewhat of an obsession for me. Bodyweight training was an intriguing pursuit to begin with — the notion you can build strength and muscle with virtually zero equipment is quite a tantalising prospect and completely the opposite of what we learn about exercise through popular media and infomercials.

Since that time, I’ve learned that bodyweight training is not only a desirable add-on to other forms of training, it can be a totally self-sustaining lifestyle option.

In this post I outline why bodyweight training approaches and programs need to be practiced differently than traditional weight training.

Two distinctions that make the difference

In Bret Contreras’ recent book, Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy, he talks about different approaches to designing a training program based on bodyweight exercises. He recommends the whole body routine that is performed several times per week. This tended to rub some people the wrong way and it is precisely because they’re applying a weight training mentality.

I’ve come to learn that the main difference between weight versus bodyweight training is that, obviously, you can increase weights and maintain the rep range you want. By progressively adding weights you create the continuing stimuli to build muscle and strength.

However, there is another, often overlooked difference between the two training modalities: Weights will tend to fatigue the central nervous system (CNS) faster and more completely than bodyweight exercises.

So these two distinctions need to be accounted for in designing bodyweight programs. This is one of the reasons why Bret Contreras recommends the whole body approach several times a week. Because you can’t increase the weights, and because the overall stress to the CNS is less; bodyweight training is more effective when done more frequently.

The high frequency approach

If you read enough about strength training, you’ll often see the phrase “strength is a skill”. This has two implications for bodyweight exercisers:

  1. A high training frequency will stimulate more neural adaptivity
  2. Performing higher reps than traditional weight training is a valid means of progression in the place of adding additional weights.

Rarely do we see strength training routines advocate high reps. For the most part, you can use higher reps with bodyweight training as a bridge to creating the strength necessary to tackle the next, more difficult exercise. With some exercises it may take a certain number of preparatory reps to create the stress necessary to recruit more muscle fibres (thereby increasing the strength training stimulus).

Don’t get me wrong — you do want to train in lower rep ranges as much as possible but higher rep training with a low intensity exercise is a good way to develop the muscle and joint strength to handle harder exercises.

You are what you do everyday

If you think of strength as a skill, then daily practice becomes a no-brainer. Old school strength athletes learned this and knew that they had to keep the CNS fresh so that they could go again the next day. Repeated daily practice with the right intensity will increase strength, as long as you’re always progressing the exercise.

My current routine:
I am performing this routine up to 5 times per week. I’m using this as a transition from strength and hockey training to a more focused hypertrophy regime (summer is coming here in NZ). If you choose to use a circuit routine like this, take into account recovery ability and if you feel fatigue from yesterday’s workout, take a days rest. Over time your recovery ability will increase and the task of progression keeps your muscles stimulated.

**This circuit style routine is a good for beginners and one you can progress nicely (as I have). Over time you’ll want to perform a more focused routine (which I will provide in another post). The concept of periodisation means you will change your program up as you progress.**

A: Box Jumps / Side-to-Side Push-Up / Skater Squats
B: Inverted Rows / Dead Bug / Glute Bridge March
C: Short-Lever Inverted Curl / Side Lying Hip Lifts / Push Backs
D: Y, T, W, L / RKC Plank / Close Push Ups
E: Wall Sits / Inverted Rows / Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Notes:

  • All exercises clustered in threes. Perform each exercise one after the other without rest. Rest 30s between clusters.
  • The routine is structured so that each each exercise in the cluster rests the muscles exercised previously. Exercise selection in each cluster is designed to manage fatigue and means there is a degree of freshness with which you can apply to each exercise.
  • Notice I’m performing 3 sets of the big movements: Knee dominant (squats, wall sits, box jumps); Hip dominant (glute march, side lying hip lift, hip raises); Upper body pushing (push up exercises, push backs); Upper body pulling (inverted rows, short lever curls). I do 2 core movements and one specific movement for a trouble spot  — Y, T, W, L for posture improvement.
  • Choose exercises appropriate to your level of development.
  • Accept only good quality reps. Once your form starts eroding you’ve gone too far.

You could easily structure a double set routine where you pair exercises that don’t interfere with each other (e.g. Squats paired with Push ups) and do 3 sets that way. This would be a more focused approach than the big circuit style I outline above.

Whatever program you choose, remember frequency is your friend and make sure it is challenging without burning you into the ground. Above all, have fun!

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3 responses to “The bodyweight training prescription — lessons from the trenches

  1. Ondrej, Czech Republic

    Hello,
    I scanned the market for the best bodyweight training advice I could find. I am an INTJ personality, and have like 40 weight training books:)) I have dumbbells and bench but bodyweight training intriques me for the reasons you mentioned. In short, I found only two solid book options: Contreras: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy and Baye: Project Kratos. What is so great about Kratos? It is a complete book, yet simplified to the core. Simple and ccurate diet, supplement and workout advice. It is HIT style. So you basically train two or three times a week, single set to failure. The key here is unique progression system. You manipulate range of motion and timing, which creates 5 levels of difficulty of each exercise and this was tested on very weak, as well as very strong people. This means you can stay in that ideal time range and the progress is smoother. I have both books and I have to say Kratos is the best book on training I’ve read in terms of organisation, simplicity, readability and completeness. So high frequency/high reps is not the only way. I’d say it’s a tie overall, though, and plan to test the approach of Contreras. But if someone new to training wanted one book, I’d pick Kratos. Baye shows all positions and really leaves no stone unturned in terms of instructing readers. I am his long-term reader so it didn’t surprise me. Check it out, I’d be interested in Your opinion. cheers!

    • viewfromreality

      Dobrý den Ondřej a děkuji Vám za vaš názor. I read your review on Amazon and am intrigued by your recommendation of Drew Baye’s Project Kratos. I had never heard of it so I will definitely purchase it and take a look. From your description it sounds like a valuable contribution to the whole bodyweight training field. I too have a very obsessive personality when it comes to learning.

      Bret’s Strength training Anatomy book is gold to me because I already have an excellent understanding of strength and hypertrophy training already. I was ready for a more scientific research based book to expand my understanding of bodyweight strength and muscle training, so it is a really valuable book for me. In saying that I still think a beginner could get a lot from it (though it really isn’t structured in a programmatic way, which could confuse beginners).

      In short, the science helped me expand my understanding of training with and without weights. I am a hockey player so I wanted to adapt my strength training to the demands I have on the ice.

      The other book I recommend people read is convict conditioning. Some people have a negative opinion of that book but I love the way he progresses his bodyweight movements. Kratos sounds like it delves even further in to how get the most out the intensity and progression aspect so I am excited by your positive comments on it.

      Na slyšenou, Fred.

  2. Ondrej, Czech Republic

    Another very important point. In Kratos, you can do TSC Pullovers, TSC Arm Curls and TSC Simple Row. This means that you can progress forever with literally NO equipment, just the floor, and your back will not be a problem. This is kind of stuff Contreras could have offered as well, but didn’t, so his workouts aren’t really equipment free.

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