Drop to the floor and do 20! It sounds like an order from a drill sergeant, doesn’t it? Push-ups are more than a punishment for an insubordinate military recruit. They’re a classic bodyweight exercise. Bodyweight exercises probably don’t make up the bulk of your workout, nor should they, but they come in handy when you’re on vacation or in a situation where you have limited room to work out. Plus, they’re a way to add diversity to your workout. So, don’t be too quick to put bodyweight exercises on the backburner. Certain bodyweight exercises are popular because they work several muscle groups simultaneously and you can do them almost anywhere.
Push-ups, pull-ups, and planks fall into this category. The problem with bodyweight exercises is your body adapts to them and stops changing if you do them without modifications over time. As you know, you need progressive overload to build muscle size and strength. With bodyweight movements, you can’t easily alter the resistance to make the exercise harder, and if you’re trying to build strength, it’ll be hard to lift with intensity near your one-rep max. Yet, there are ways to make bodyweight exercises more effective. Let’s look at some of them.
Increase the Number of Reps
This is the obvious way to make an exercise harder, do more reps. This approach works well in the beginning, but once you can easily whip out 15+ reps, doing more increases muscle endurance more than it does muscle strength. However, you can take advantage of this technique to make bodyweight exercises more challenging when you first start out – by simply doing more. If you don’t think this is effective, do as many push-ups as you can and see whether your arms and chest burn!
Use Impeccable Form
Here’s a simple way to make bodyweight exercises more effective, use good form. Sloppy form takes some of the focus off the muscles you’re working and makes the exercise less effective. It also increases the risk of injury. When you do a bodyweight exercise, concentrate on the movement rather than letting your mind wander. Feel the muscles you’re working, and make sure you’re breathing properly. In general, you should exhale as you contract the muscle (the concentric phase) and inhale during the phase where the muscle lengthens. (the eccentric phase) When you’re doing bodyweight exercises, every rep needs to count to get the full benefits of the exercise.
Make Bodyweight Exercises Explosive
When you make a movement explosive, you recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibers. An appropriate exercise for using this technique is the push-up. Once in position, lower your chest toward the floor as you typically do with a push-up. Once you’ve reached the bottom, explode up. This is somewhat similar to a plyometric push-up, although your hands don’t have to leave the mat. This is also a good way to build power in your upper body. A powerful upper body comes in handy if you play certain sports like tennis or volleyball.
Slow the Movement Down
Making bodyweight exercises fast and explosive builds strength and power, but slowing the movements down increases the time the muscle stays under tension. This helps recruit and fatigue more motor units. It also creates more micro-trauma to the muscles you’re working. More microtrauma creates greater damage that needs to be repaired and this can lead to greater muscle growth and strength gains.
How can you do this? When you’re doing an exercise like push-ups, lower your body down to the floor slowly (the eccentric phase) so that it takes 5 to 7 seconds for your chest to approach the floor, then push yourself back up at the normal speed. We previously talked about speeding the movement up and making it explosive. Now, let’s focus on slowing the movement down and increase the time under tension.
Slow or fast – which should you do? If your primary goal is to build muscle size, slowing down and keeping the muscles under tension longer is your best bet. Whereas if you’re trying to develop strength and power, increasing the speed of the exercise and adding an element of explosiveness helps you accomplish the job. But, it’s also a good idea to stimulate your muscles in different ways, so why not do both?
Elevate Your Legs
With an exercise like the push-up, the ultimate bodyweight exercise, you can make the exercise harder by placing your legs on a higher step or another platform. When your feet are higher than your arms, it shifts more weight toward your upper body when you push up and this makes the exercise more challenging. The higher you elevate your feet, the harder the exercise will be.
One thing to keep in mind, elevating your legs shifts the emphasis of the exercise away from the chest and toward the shoulders. The muscles in your upper back work a bit harder as well. If you have any type of shoulder problem, keep this in mind. If you don’t want to place your feet on a platform, make the movement more intense by lifting one leg off the floor when you push up.
The Bottom Line
To get the most out of bodyweight exercises, you have to progress them over time. At first, doing more reps is enough, but you’ll eventually need to use other techniques, like increasing time under tension or making the move more explosive, to continue to challenge your muscles. As you can see, there are ways to do that.
Bodyweight exercises are a good addition to your training arsenal, especially for times when you don’t have access to weights. Add them to your routine but keep their limitations in mind and make them part of a training routine that also uses weights, barbells, or bands to maximize the benefits you get.
Mayo Clinic. “Is bodyweight training effective as a strength training exercise?”
Strength and Conditioning Journal. 32 (2): 52–55. doi:10.1519/ssc.0b013e3181d5575c