Bodyweight workouts don’t have to be lightweight
Many of us are improvising our training at the moment, and if you’re anything like us you’re sorely missing the kit in your regular gym. Sure, it’s possible to workout at home, but we just can’t train how we’re used to. But how can we make the most of the situations we find ourselves in?
There’s no rivalling olympic bars, stacks of plates or heavy dumbbells for strength training, but kit-less bodyweight training has more to offer than you might think. The key is to maximise the difficulty of each movement, which can be achieved in a variety of ways.
We can bodyweight squat to our hearts content, but for many of us it simply isn’t heavy enough.
One way we can improve lower body bodyweight training is to focus on single leg movements. Some of these are more challenging than others, but there’s plenty of progressions to work through.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The simplest place to start is with a Bulgarian split squat. This is essentially a lunge with your rear foot elevated, putting more of your weight on the front leg. Use a chair, bed, coffee table or any other stable object to place the top of your rear foot on. Now lower your rear knee towards the floor, taking care not to let your front knee track too far forwards over your toes.
Progressing from here involves putting all of our weight through one leg in some form or another. We can start with the Hawaiian squat. Begin standing, then lift your left foot and place it on your right thigh, just above the knee. You’re going to maintain that position as you lower down into the squat, as low as you can go. Allow your left knee to turn out as you go down. You can get a tiny bit of assistance by pushing that foot into your thigh as hard as you can — just stop if your left knee hurts at all.
Next up are Shrimp squats, in which we use one or both hands to pin one foot to the glutes, and lower down using just that other leg. Go as far down as you comfortably can, and over time try to get your rear knee to the ground.
Finally, one of the most challenging single-leg squat variations, the Pistol squat. The beautiful thing about the Pistol is that you can choose to add weight by holding something heavy in front of you. It’s truly scalable. In a pistol squat your floating leg is going to come straight out in front of you, while your glutes sink down onto your grounded heel. You’ll probably need to reach the arms forward to maintain balance.
All of these movements significantly increase the weight going through each leg compared to bodyweight squats. They also recruit all sorts of stabilising muscles that don’t often get stimulated, and improve your balance in the process.
For the upper body, playing with both leverage and tempo is key.
There’s so much we can do with pushups!
First, lets play with tempo. Slowing things down has the potential to make the classic pushup so much more difficult. Maybe you can bang out 20 rapid pushups no problem — lets change that. Try lowering yourself down slowly, pausing at the bottom for a 2-count, then explosively firing out to the top. This takes away the elastic ‘bounce’ we usually benefit from, and really makes each rep much harder. Make sure to keep your whole body straight and activated — cheating these movements just hinders your training.
Second, we can change our hand width. Narrow hands and tightly tucked elbows are going to force us to use more triceps, whereas wider hands will require more effort from the pecs. Play with hand spacing to hit your weaker areas.
Third, we can change our hand position relative to the body. A classic pushup sees the hands on the floor at about nipple level. We can make the movement so much harder by lowering that hand position, potentially going as far down as waist level. Make sure to warm up your wrists extensively — this is tough on them. The lower our hands go, the more we start to incorporate our delts and upper back musculature to stabilise and hold position. Make sure to keep your weight positioned forward of your hands. You might find that turning your toes over, so the tops of your feet are on the floor, helps you find the most resistance to push against. 5 reps of this is often more taxing than 25 classic pushups.
Finally, we can increase the load by taking our feet up higher. Use a chair, bed or stack of uni books (finally, they’re useful!). Whatever you can find to shift more of your bodyweight towards the hands.
We can use a sturdy table or chair to hang beneath and do bodyweight rows. Again, we can play with tempo to modulate the difficulty. Take the elasticity out of the movement by slowly lowering yourself down to straight arms, pausing for a a count of 2, then explosively pulling to the top (caution: no bloody noses please).
We can also play with leverage. If you can raise your feet, on another chair for example, the row will get much harder. The higher those feet go, the more resistance you’re pulling against. Just make sure to keep your core strong and stop those hips from sagging.
This may just be the time to finally order yourself a doorframe pullup bar. If you’ve always wanted to be able to do a pullup, you’ve now got weeks to make that a reality. You can start by using a resistance band to give you a hand and take some of your weight. Alternatively, have somebody give you a boost to get your chest to the bar, then lower yourself down as slowly as possible. Keep thee bar attached to a door frame and bang out 3–5 reps every time you pass through. You’ll have wings in no time.
If your pullup game is already strong, well, guess what, play with tempo. An explosive pull to the top (again, mind your head), with a slow lowering down and a pause at the bottom will really deepen your mastery of this movement. You could even pause for 10 seconds at the top, 10 seconds 1/3rd of the way down, and 10 seconds 2/3rd of the way down.
Try changing your grip, too. Wide hands will make the movement harder but encourage excellent form. Turning your palms towards you, into a chinup, will make the movement easier, but could be a fun position to play with the tempo.
If you’re feeling really advanced, you can train one arm chinups. Have the working hand in a chinup grip, with the palm facing you, and the other overhand on the bar. Use primarily that working hand to execute the movement, only assisting with the other hand as little as is necessary. Alternatively, dangle a towel over the bar and hold both ends with the assisting hand.
Handstand Pushups (HSPUs)
This movement is excellent for shoulder strength. It doesn’t get much better than pushing your entire bodyweight above your head (which is effectively what we do with a HSPU).
For many, the difficulty with the HSPU is finding a comfortable position in which to be upside down and perform the movement. I definitely recommend using a wall to kick up against. Your feet can stay on the wall for the whole movement, as long as your hands are taking most of your weight. Try to keep some core engagement, so that your body is one solid object to lift.
Start facing the wall, then place your hands on the ground a little less than a foot away. It’s important to leave this space for your head to slide into as you lower each rep. Now you’re going to swing one leg up towards the wall while pushing away from the ground with the other, which will hop up to meet the first against the wall somewhere above your head. Keep your arms straight throughout the entry. Now that you’re upside down, slowly bend your arms to lower your head towards the floor. Keep your legs straight, but allow your feet to slide down the wall for balance (socks are great here). Gently tap your head to the floor (put a towel underneath if it’s a hard floor) and reverse the movement, using your shoulder muscles to straighten your arms while keeping your core tight.
This is a strong movement, so do low reps but keep that form on point. Try to use as little momentum as possible, to isolate the upper body.
You see, we don’t have to lose strength while we can’t access gyms. Bodyweight can be leveraged to train all muscle groups using these exercises. Spice up your home workouts with some of these, or use them as the core of your training. Not only will you gain strength, but on your return to the gym you’ll have developed some impressive skills to show off.