Thanks to the modern gym movement, people often think of exercise and resistance training as something that requires a lot of special equipment: a big pile of weights; a roomful of machines; some contraption with elastic bands or springs; or some high-tech gadget with lots of buttons and light-up displays that makes bleepy bloopy sounds.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Humans have gotten fit and strong using their own bodies, gravity, and some imagination for thousands of years. This isn't to say that additional exercise equipment isn't useful - it certainly is, especially if well chosen and appropriate. But bodyweight training can be a great addition to your "exercise toolbox": it's versatile, you don't need anything besides your bad self, you can do it almost anywhere, and it can be applied to a number of goals or tailored to an individual's ability. It also gives you loads of stability and balance, especially as you get more skilled and start doing movements with only one hand or leg.
Bodyweight movements fall into a few categories:
- Pushing. Pushing motions work the shoulders and triceps primarily, and these can be in three directions: pushing overhead (as in a handstand pushup); pushing horizontally away from you (as in a regular pushup); and pushing down (as in a dip).
Pulling. Pulling motions work the back, biceps, and forearms primarily. With bodyweight exercises these are usually in two directions: pulling something down from overhead (as in a pullup or chinup); and pulling horizontally (as in a row, but for a bodyweight exercise this would be a horizontal pullup, which looks sort of like an upside down pushup).
Squatting. One of the best all-round exercises for developing leg strength. Bodyweight squats are a good challenge on their own, especially if you set yourself the task of very high rep sets (100 or even more). Try varying foot position and experiment with a range from very wide to very narrow stance.
Jumping. Jumping practice is useful for helping improve performance in many sports. There are lots of ways to jump: explosively upwards from a squat position; over things or onto things (such as a step); in different directions (front, back, sideways, zigzags); moving the feet around (e.g. switching feet rapidly in midair to alternate landing in a lunge position); or even jumping rope.
Bridging and static holds. These are helpful for training isometric strength (namely, the ability to hold a particular position), and many holds help improve the strength-endurance of midsection muscles (such as the spinal erectors and abdominal muscles). Examples of bridges are the classic wrestler's bridge, the plank position of yoga (essentially the top position of a pushup with weight on hands or forearms), and the modified glute bridge (where you lie on your back, feet on floor and knees bent, then squeeze the glutes and straighten out the body, lifting the butt off the floor).
Now that you've got the basics down, there are lots of ways to mix it up.
- Try movements with one arm or one leg. For instance, you can squat with one leg held out behind you, in front of you, or to one side. You can jump on one leg, push up with one hand, or do a one-handed pullup (if you're really tough).
Try movements with body weight asymmetrical. For example:
Try movements in different directions. For example, try lunging to the side, or 45 degrees in front of you. Or try a plank position with body facing one side.
Use explosive movements. Once you've mastered the basic technique, experiment with making some movements explosive. For example, try clapping your hands underneath you with each pushup - you'll have to push up powerfully and explosively to get enough airtime to make this work.
Change the angle of the movement to make it easier or harder. For example, elevating your hands will make a pushup easier; elevating your feet will make it harder.
Add intensity/duration. Work up to as many reps per set as you can, or try going for more but shorter sets (for instance, 10 sets of 5).
- Pushups with most of your weight on one side, over one hand
- Pushups with one hand elevated
- Pushups with one hand in front and one behind
- Pullups using a small towel or rope hooked over the bar, so that one hand is on the bar and one hand is lower down, gripping the towel
- Pullups where you pull towards one side