The Fundamentals of Bodyweight Strength Training

The Fundamentals of Bodyweight Strength Training

This article is taste of the book Overcoming Gravity: A Sytematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength.  The book is available in digital format in our online store. It is also available on Amazon.

I’ll say it straight: Overcoming Gravity is the best book money can buy on gymnastics and bodyweight strength–period! This book reads like what it is–an absolute labor of love, an all-encompassing masterpiece written by a bona fide genius in the field. This book wasn’t written to make a ton of money. There is so much advanced training information in this huge volume that it could have easily been watered-down and split into ten books…maybe more. Overcoming Gravity has the power to change the way you train–not just for a handful of workouts, but for an entire lifetime. Buy this book!

—Paul “Coach” Wade, best-selling author of Convict Conditioning and Convict Conditioning 2

If you have any further questions, feel free to leave a comment, sign up on our subreddit, and buy the book.




Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Decreased leverage is the key to strength
III. Skill development
IV. Exercise selection
V. Exercise selection summary and importance of mobility and flexibility
VI. Resources for finding exercises, goals, and equipment needed
VII. Routine construction
VIII. Summing up the parts
IX. Conclusion



Introduction / To the top


Having trained seriously with bodyweight exercises for about 4 years now, I strongly believe that they are slightly superior for strength development compared to weight training in the upper body.

However, since the legs are much stronger than the upper body they require weighted stimuli to make optimal progress. Additionally, for those with other goals such as gaining mass, a combination of bodyweight exercises and barbell work or strict barbell work will get you better results. See our Barbell training recommendations for that.

In addition to the impressive levels of strength that can be built, bodyweight strength training for the upper body requires excellent proprioception and kinesthetic control. Manipulating the body in space increases feedback via mechanoreceptors, cerebellar system, and other neural factors, which when combined altogether likely gives a correctly programmed bodyweight exercise a slight advantage over weights in terms of upper body strength development. Since force output is based upon cross sectional area of the muscle, angle of attack on the joint, individual limb length, but most importantly neural factors, developing these neural factors quickly in conjunction with the strength and mass will help you gain impressive results quickly.

Anyone who has developed both barbell strength and bodyweight strength can attest that the transference from one to the other is strongly in the favor of bodyweight exercises (in most cases and with comparable strength skills).

Try it for yourself!

Note: I will not be discussing any bodyweight leg exercises. You can add them for your own measure on your own time – the template I will discuss does allow for them to be put in though.


Decreased leverage is the key to strength / To the top

The brief summary is that force is force. Thus, if we can apply the correct stress to the muscles through various exercises we can see increases in both strength and mass.

Rather than increasing weights or adding weight to the body, gymnastics and other bodyweight sports provide structured progressions through which the stimulus on the muscles can be increased without increases in body mass. This is done through decreasing leverage.

Decreasing leverage in exercise is primarily employed through two different methods.

1. Changing the body position is the obvious way to decrease leverage. For instance, both planche and front lever have changes in body position to make the exercise more difficult.


Progressions of the planche series

What happens is through extending the body position, the center of mass is shifted further away from the fulcrum (joint angles). This increases the torque which is the force applied around an axis of rotation. Since our bodies are built on leverage methods (muscles move our bones), all forces on the muscles can be thought of in terms of torque on the muscles at certain joint angles. This is the basis of biomechanics.

2. We all know that muscles are strongest at near resting length as that is the point where the most contractile fibers overlap. Thus, if we lengthen or shorten muscles and then place the same load on the body, we are effectively requiring more force from the muscle when it is weaker.


muscles are strongest at normal resting length

Typically this is seen with more advanced strength moves on rings where the arms are held in straight arm position. The straight arm position places the biceps as maximal length and thus requires significant amounts of strength and mass to do the skills safely.

Similarly, in the planche the primary shoulder muscle (anterior deltoid) is placed in an extended position (compared to an overhead press where you get more leverage out of it). This requires more force output to perform.

Note: Increasing reps increases endurance! This is not the answer. We who try to develop bodyweight strength primarily stick to the lower repetition ranges just like training for strength in barbell lifting. We will discuss this more on why later.


Skill development / To the top


Skill development for bodyweight strength training is much different than in barbell work.

It is unlike barbell training where you can begin learning the more complex movements (such as the Olympic lifts – snatch and clean and jerk) as a beginner and reach a decent level of proficiency within a few months. In fact, with barbell work this is preferable because it allows for years upon years of meticulous training to reinforce proper movement patterns to do it under heavy loads.

Bodyweight skill development follows a different tract. The levels of progression are separated by competency in previous skill development in combination of strength development.

For example, a basic skill such as a handstand and its various progressions has many different levels to work through such as:

  • The basic static hold upside itself developed from the wall to free standing,
  • developing a proper straight arm press,
  • obtaining a freestanding bent arm handstand pushups,
  • obtaining a one arm handstand,
  • controlling various positions in handstands or one arm handstands
  • potentially one arm press handstands

(This may be a good point to touch on handstands quickly…If you are interested in the handstand in particular, you should know that this is covered brilliantly in the book The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide by Chris Salvato. He also put together a 28-Day Handstand Challenge to help people get started on the handstand immediately.)

The complexity of progressions and the varying nature of many peoples’ ultimate goals make progressing in pure bodyweight work extremely difficult if you are not under the tutelage of someone who knows what they are doing and can offer correct progressions and tips on what to work on next.

Skill development work will play an ultimate role in developing proper strength. It is to be included in every session. As one’s individual skill, strength, and work capacity improves exercises that may have been previously classified as “strength” skills may become skill work.

Thus, it is important every 6-8 weeks to reassess your goals exercise selection in the context of what constitutes skill work and strength work as your training progresses. We will talk about how to properly do this later.


Exercise selection / To the top


Concepts of bodyweight strength routine construction

  • The shoulder is the lynchpin of the upper body just like the hip is for the lower body.

All upper body moves go through the shoulder. For this reason alone I believe most of the exercise selection of a routine should be based upon the different articulations of the shoulder.

Bodyweight skills have the unique quality that many of them require excellent upper body flexibility/mobility to perform. For example, proper handstands require 180 degree shoulder mobility and strength in that position. Likewise, manna, back lever, one arm pullups, etc. all have shoulder mobility requirements that need to be properly developed to ensure success.


the shoulder – image from exac.com

  • Keeping the shoulders (glenohumeral / scapular articulations) operating optimally is the key to bodyweight strength success.

This is not to say we are going to ignore the elbows, wrists, and rest of the articulations in the upper body. Rather, focusing on the shoulder will allow us to correctly select exercises that will build a properly balanced routine.


The simple method of exercise selection


There are two methods of selection I use. One is very similar to the push-pull system. This is what I would use for beginners namely because it is easy to follow.

  • Any exercise in which the center of mass of the body is moving towards the hands is a pulling exercise
  • Any exercise in which the center of mass of the body is moving away from the hands is a pushing exercise

This works for most exercises in almost all cases.

The primary static exercises that everyone wants to learn that are pulling exercises are the back lever, front lever, and iron cross. And the statics that are pushing are your planches and inverted cross. The maltese and victorian are at the borderline which is fitting because they are full body tension exercises to the highest degree.


full back lever and full back lever


iron cross and planche


inverted cross and V-sit


The a-bit-more-complex method of exercise selection


I am writing this section not to confuse you but to delineate an applicable method of selecting exercise according to planes. This will be invaluable when we talk about keeping proper balance of the shoulder in the section after this.

Fortunately, bodyweight exercises have a limited amount of articulations of the shoulder that we train with.

There is very little “elbows out” in gymnastics in any type of shoulder flexion unlike what you can do with barbell and dumbell pressing. This is because of lack of control. Handstands with elbows coming out to the side will inevitably be unstable – the elbows need to be tucked in front of the body to adequately correct the body as a balancing lever as it moves in plane.

Most people who randomly do handstand pushups (HSPUs) or add them as supplementary barbell work do them with elbows flared out. While this is stronger (because of the added trapezius involvement in scapular elevation) this does not allow proper development of strength.

For this reason, our “pushing” is in flexion based shoulder work only.


Shoulder flexion – image from purdue.edu

There are the occasional exercise with transverse flexion such as rings flys or one in abduction such as inverted cross. in some of the upper level strength development exercises. However, these will not be covered because they are not for beginners or even semi-intermediate level strength. Once you know how to structure your own routines you should be able to program these in properly for yourself.

Therefore, our “pushing” is comprised of flexion based shoulder exercises is divided primarily into two categories that we can use namely:

  • Flexion exercises in flexion
  • Flexion exercises in extension/hyperextension

Flexion work in flexion is primarily horizontal and vertical pushing work such as press handstands, handstand pushups, planche work, most pushup variations, etc.

Flexion exercises in extension/hyperextension are exercises where the elbow pass behind the midline of the body and initiate flexion in the concentric phase. These are all dip variations, muscle ups, very deep pushup variations, and some odd exercises such as german hangs or back lever can be classified into this category as well.

On the flipside is the “pulling” based exercises which is based in shoulder extension. We have one exception in this case – adduction –since we will will need adequate mobility in for proper shoulder development. This will eventually be used for development of wide grip pullups, bulgarian dips, iron cross, etc.


Shoulder extension – image from purdue.edu

These are divided into two categories:

  • Extension exercises in flexion + adduction
  • Extension exercises in extension/hyperextension

Extension exercises in flexion + adduction is compromised of most of the vertical pulling variations such as pullups, front lever progressions and pullup variations, and the aforementioned bulgarian dips, iron cross, etc. Most of the bodyweight type rowing exercises can be categorized here too.

Extension exercises in extension/hyperextension are very few and far between. The most obvious one is manna, and to an extent V-sit. Some of the high pulling body row variations also fall under here in the plane of transverse extension.


Where most people go wrong…


The lack of extension exercises in extension/hyperextension is the part where most people go wrong with routine construction. Extension in this plane requires two things that most people neglect to develop strong scapular retractors, posterior delts, and external rotators.


Manna

This is why I highly encourage everyone to start training manna if at all possible. It has done wonders for my shoulder health and strength as it effectively balances out a lot of the pushing work.

Most routines are also so pushing heavy that there is very little pulling work as named above. These need to be kept in balance to ensure that strength and muscle tension/length issues at the shoulder do not develop.


Exercise selection summary and importance of mobility and flexibility / To the top

Note that horizontal pushing means that the hands are moving in that plane with respect to the body. Thus, horizontal pushes would be all pushup variations, planche, bench press, etc.

Vertical pushes would be both handstand pushups and dips. They will be distinguished by “upward” push — handstands and variations — and “downward” push dips type movements.

The same goes for pulling exercises.


If last section was too complicated for you basically it boils down to this:

  • Do one vertical push upwards and downwards, and one horizontal pushing exercise
  • Do one vertical pulling exercise down, and one horizontal pulling exercise.
  • Do manna OR add in another horizontal pulling exercise OR vertical pulling exercise upwards

It is best if the vertical upwards pushing starts out as handstand work. Handstands are critical for the development of body proprioception and control. Progression in this skill signifies the level of ability of the user. Very few people develop strong bodyweight abilities without proper handstand work.

A proper handstand has the body in alignment stacked on top of each other part by part. There should be no arch, and if at all maybe a slight hollow position.

Proper vs. Improper Handstand Form
Proper vs. improper handstand – used with permission from The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide

In a perfect world everyone would work both manna and handstands as coupled skills. I like this for multiple reasons:

1. Development of strength in active flexibility positions is the key to dominating bodyweight movements. These will drastically increase your proprioception and ability to control your muscles through all range of motion.

Handstands work proper overhead flexion range of motion of the shoulders, and manna works the limit of extension range of motion of the shoulders.

2. Both handstand and manna have built in core control and strength work. Thus, less time needs to be spent on core conditioning, and more emphasis can be put in on skill and strength development.

3. As previously mentioned, developing these skills simultaneously will ensure that imbalances of the shoulder will be less likely to develop.

The alternative is additional scapular retraction work (another horizontal pulling exercise) or an inverted pulling exercise (such as inverted pullups) to keep the pulling and pushing exercises balanced.


Now that we have identified the major movements in bodyweight skill development, it is time to begin putting a routine.

Let me note that if people have previous injuries or impaired posture/mobility/biomechanics/strength imbalances then certain work may be needed or integrated to correct these deficiencies concurrently with bodyweight strength work. Unfortunately, this is a whole other topic, but I am going to at least put together a sample routine here and explain the reasoning behind such exercises.

My recommendations for barbell work from “How to construct…” has always been something along the lines of structuring a routine based on 2 pushing exercises, 2 pulling exercises, and 2 legs/posterior chain exercises. This is similar to what I am going to do here except we are going to select exercises from each of the categories we have previously determined in both shoulder flexion and extension planes.

For those with no experience with exercising you should start out with 2 pulling and 2 pushing exercises.

For those with some experience with exercising, I tend to like 3 exercises for push and pull starting out, and then integrate it down to 2 with an increase in skill work as work capacity increases.

I use this structure for two reasons. First, getting the person to work in many planes of motion is going to help extensively learning to manipulate themselves in space. This is a bit unlike barbell training where you want to stress few fundamental movements. Secondly, distributing the volume over another set of exercises will help because it is harder to keep strict technique. Barbell work you can tell when form degrades and make load adjustments; in bodyweight work the body will inadvertently adjust to improper technique which decreases forces applied often significantly. Once technique becomes more ingrained then this is less of a problem.

For our “pushing” exercises we want ones that are based in flexion in flexion and flexion in extension. For beginners, the best things to choose that will give the most benefit are in the veins of handstands, planche, and dips.

For our “pulling” exercises we want ones that are based in extension in extension and extension in flexion. For beginners, this would be pullups, some sort front lever or back lever work, and inverted rows or inverted pullups.

For legs there are lots of things you can work on such as sprinting, pistols, plyometrics, or other methods such as this. I do still recommend weights should be used, but sometimes people have no access to equipment so they have to make do with what they have.


Mobility/flexibility work


First, proper flexibility and mobility work will go a long way to improving upon the effectiveness of the workouts by keeping joints safe. This is needed in both barbell and bodyweight work. The older you get, the more you will realize the truth of this.

Mobility work may be integrated into warmups and/or as skill work, during workouts, or even post workout.

One of the more effective things I have personally done for my manna progressions is to do my shoulder stretching (german hangs / skin the cats) directly before so as to allow better movement of the shoulder girdle pressing into hyperextension.

Both german hangs and wall slides + band dislocates are musts as they will help improve proper shoulder range of motion in extreme flexion and hyperextension for handstands and manna respectively. Not that this is all of the work that should be done, but they are the more important of the two.

Ido Portal has produced a good set of videos on scapular mobility and stability which you should definitely think about incorporating into warmups or cooldowns.

Scapular mobility
Scapular stabilization

Additionally, proper leg and core/back flexibility are important to develop as well. Obviously, for the legs you have your classic splits that need to be worked on as well as ankle stretching. These are obvious.

Handstand Splits
Splits are critical for development of handstand press variations – used with permission from The 15-Second Handstand: A Beginner’s Guide

For the back, there are some good posts on Gymnastic Bodies on how to start developing these which should be integrated into the warm up or cool down.

Improving back flexibility 1
Improving back flexibility 2

Likewise, wrist flexibility and strength should be developed as well.

Wrist pushups are good, and so is rice bucket for strengthening.

So all in all we want to develop proper mobility and flexibility of our: ankles, hips, back, shoulders, and wrists. These will all be crucial to developing a lot of strength we need, so they should not be neglected.


Resources for finding exercises, goals, and equipment needed / To the top


Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength.is the 542 page book I wrote which will cover the above topics in far greater detail as well as the actual programming we will get to below in greater detail as well. Also, the book is available on Amazon.

One of the posters on reddit typed up OG’s charts on exercise progression if you want to take a look at the tiers for progression of various exercises.

Integrating Bodyweight and Barbell training is a great article on how to do that if you are interested in both methods of training.

We list a multitude of good goals and potential exercises in our Setting and Achieving Goals article.

Similarly, DrillsAndSkills lists many good exercises. Roger’s articles are also a gold mine for some of the particular techniques and nuances that need to be developed as well.

Jim’s Beast Skills site has many skills that people want to strive for as well.

Gymnastics WOD has a bunch of different gymnastics video resources talking about technique and such. I would not recommend their programming for strength based work, but they have some decent conditioning workouts if that is what you are looking for as well.

This sticky post I made on PMenu has more more gymnastics specific resources.

Coach Sommer’s Building the gymnastic body has pages of picture demonstrated exercise progressions.

There are many youtube video channels that now have a lot of the different exercise progressions.

As always we strongly recommend that you obtain a pullup bar and a set of rings. For most people, the things that work best are a doorway pullup bar and a good pair of rings. The rings may be hung off of the pullup bar, so you do not need to find somewhere outside to hang them unless you so desire.


Routine construction / To the top


For beginners, I recommend that a full body routine of 3x a week (so MWF for example) of 2 pushing, 2 pulling and 1-2 leg exercises be used.

Skill work can be used on top of this if you need to. I typically recommend that both L-sit and handstand work be done in the beginning as “skill work” as HS and manna progressions are paired together effectively to balance the shoulder.

So for a beginner with some training behind their belt, a sample program would begin with:

skill work:

  • 5-10 minutes of wall handstand work
  • 60s of L-sit and/or straddle L

pushing:

  • 60s of planche
  • dips or support hold work on rings

pulling:

  • 60s of back lever
  • 60s of front lever

+ 1-2 leg exercies of your choice. For beginners, I typically recommend barbell lifts such as squat or deadlift because they are superior to bodyweight lifts for building strength. However, bodyweight exercises such as single leg squats / pistols, sprinting, hill sprinting, box jumps, stair training, etc can be used effectively as well.

As you become more advanced (2-3 more cycles with appropriate rest weeks of the above cycle of 4-8 weeks), the program morphs into:

skill work:

  • 5-10 minutes of freestanding handstand work and/or working on straight arm press handstands
  • L-sit / straddle-L– or if sufficiently advanced progressing towards manna work
  • support hold work

pushing:

  • planche
  • appropriate multi-plane pressing or dipping variations
  • Another exercise IF necessary (vertical or horizontal pushing)

pulling:

  • back lever
  • front lever
  • another exercise if necessary (horizontal pulling related)

+1-2 leg exercises of your choice.

At this point, if skills are obtained such as back lever or front lever, or if it is not sufficient volume then you can start to add multi-plane pulling movements or such things as rope climbs. Weighted pullups/dips or progression pullup/dips are good. Multi-plane pressing, pulling, or combination exercises such as muscle ups can be integrated into each specific category.

Quality of work is more important than quantity. More is not always better, especially in the case of bodyweight work where significant energy must be expended into the skills to not only learn them correctly but also perform them correctly. Form deteriorates much more easily with bodyweight work than barbells.

If you are thinking about adding more exercises consider how your body is reacting first:

~Are you making progress week to week?
~How do you feel within the first 24-48 hours after workouts?
~Is the quality of your other lifestyle factors such as sleep/school/family/etc. deteriorating?

If there are other factors that are causing problems such as lack of sleep or outside stressors then it may not be a good idea. If you are struggling with soreness of any kind whether it be muscle or especially joint then it may not be a good idea. If you are making good progress then why change what works for now?

Clearly, undertraining is not good, but overdoing is generally far worse in most cases. It’s always a good idea to push your limits once in a while to see where they are at. This will give you an idea what you are capable of at that particular point in time; however, you have to realize that you will likely need to back off after you push past your limits so you can properly recover without developing overuse injuries. When in doubt, take a couple of extra rest days and then see how you feel.

From here as you start to achieve your goals, you need to progressively implement harder exercises.

Creating a routine is covered in detail in Overcoming Gravity.  The details fill 3 chapters and over 50 pages.


One alternative I would like you to consider is routines with little or no isometric work. I tend to prefer more movement based routines over strict isometric work. You do not necessarily have to work the isometrics to obtain the isometric skills, but it will be faster if you do. I have built up to crosses, straddle planche, full front lever, etc. without the use of much if any isometric work during training.

The way you would program something like this is that instead of the additions of planche, front lever, back lever, etc. to your program you would substitute in extra exercises for those. For example, for the planche we would go with a horizontal pushing exercise such as a planche pushup progression, pseudo planche pushups, or other rings pushup variations. With front lever we can do front lever progression pullups, or even delve into barbell or dumbell work with bent over rows or one arm dumbell rows. You can also go with reverse flys or weighted inverted rows.

For example, with 2 push, 2 pull, 2 legs you could go with something like:

  • pushups progression moving into one arm pushups, or rings pushups progressions
  • dips progression (or handstand pushups progression)
  • pullups progression moving into one arm pushups
  • inverted rows progression moving into front lever pullups
  • bodyweight squats progression into barbell squats or pistols
  • bodyweight leg curl / glute ham raise progression

There are many choices on how to do work. The reason why I like working strictly movements is I want to be stronger in all planes of movement rather than strict isometric positions. Studies have indicate that isometric movements only confer strength within about 30 degrees of the range of motion being worked. For the shoulder 30 degrees is nothing when it almost has 300+ degrees of rotary movement.

Something to think about, but then again I suspect that almost 100% of you are doing bodyweight strength training because you want to obtain such skills like planche, front lever, etc. in which case I would recommend keeping the isometrics in your routines.


Where’s the core work?


Many people are probably wondering why I did not include core work. My reasoning for this is that core work should be developed as part of the flexibility and skill work regimen mostly in the form of compression exercises to improve active flexibility.


Pike and straddle compression exercises – images from drillsandskills.com

For these I would add them to either the end of the workout when you do flexibility work OR you may add them into the beginning where you’re working on your L-sit/straddle-L/Manna work. Both work well from my experience.

Here are some guidelines:
1. Stretch your hamstrings for 30s
2. Arms straight, hands by your knees.
3. Pull your knees up to your face straining your abs as hard as possible.
4. Hold 10s. If you feel lots of cramping when you first start you’re doing it right
5. Repeat 1-4 about 5 times.

If you can get your knees to you face for most of the sets, move your hands closer to your toes.

I am going to assume that most of you are either using weights for lower body in which you are getting adequate lower back work. If you are not, I would recommend bodyweight work such as glute-ham raises, reverse hyperextensions, or other such bodyweight exercises.


Sets and repetitions


This chart from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength summarizes the rep ranges we want to use.

  • For strength stick with 3-8 reps
  • For hypertrophy stick with 5-12 reps
  • For strength and hypertrophy stick with 5-8 reps

As you can see above, strength is maximized the lower reps you go. The problem, however, with sticking in the 1-3 rep range for strength is that you need to do an enormous amount of sets to get adequate volume to force strength adaptations. Working in the 5-8 range for strength for beginners tends to be optimal — many barbell novice programs such as Starting Strength and StrongLifts are based off 3×5 methodology.

Hypertrophy is maximized by the overlap of myofibrillar and sacroplasmic hypertrophy in the 5-12 rep range. This is where you can get adequate volume of reps, but also have the weight heavy enough to damage your muscles which will heal to eventually increase muscle mass.

Thus, if you are aiming for both, try to pick exercises that are difficult in that 5-8 repetition range.

We are not working to failure. Set and repetition selection should be based on being able to complete the first set of an exercise with a repetition or two to spare. If you do this, on the final set of an exercise it will usually be to near failure or failure. Failure is taxing on the CNS and if we overwork it then the quality of our workouts degrade much faster.

Depending on how many exercises you have, we would want to optimize the number of repetitions through a weightlifting chart like prilepin’s table

Prilepin’s table

Although this chart was built for Olympic lifters and subsequently modified for powerlifting purposes, it can shed some light on what we are aiming for.

With 3-6 reps we are working in the 70-90% range. So our optimal range of total repetitions for an exercise is approximately 15-18 repetitions. This can be split up as needed – 3 sets of 5-6, 4 sets of 4, 5-6 sets of 3, or whatever other variations you want to throw in.

One of the ways to get a “feel” for the percentage you are working with is RPE — rating of perceived exertion. If the repetitions feel harder in nature you’re probably closer to the 90%, while if you can bang out the first couple easily you’re probably closer to 70%. It’s a good guage of how hard you are working.

Alternatively, I tend to like the scale of just doing as many repetitions as possible of an exercise stopping about 1-2 repetitions short of failure as I mentioned above. Once you get strong enough to where you can do more than the 5-6 repetitions, you need to implement a harder progression of the exercise and reduce the amount of repetitions.

Update: This article on Prilepin Tables for bodyweight strength isometric and eccentric exercises, which is direct content from Overcoming Gravity, shows how to more effectively structure how to set up the hold time or eccentric time for the isometric strength and skills of the planche, front lever, back lever, L-sits, handstands, elbow levers and for eccentrics involved with obtaining one arm chinup as well as regular dips, pullups, muscle ups, and other exercises.

Prilepin Tables for bodyweight strength isometric and eccentric exercises

Isometric prilepin chart

Eccentric prilepin chart

See the above link for details about how to use these.


Now that we have discussed how to correctly get reps and sets, we need to talk about overall volume of exercise in regard to push and pulling exercises.

Overall capacity, I would aim for approximately 25-50 repetitions of pushing, and another 25-50 repetitions of pulling work per workout. This can be fluctuated as necessary due to fatigue or improvement in strength, but this is a good range to aim for.

Rest times for strength development can be anywhere from 3-7 minutes in between each set. Having trained for a while I prefer about 5 minutes between my sets. Depending on your conditioning and work capacity you may prefer a bit lower.

Alternating pushing and pulling exercises may allow you to shorten rest times a bit more if you are time constrained. For example, if you are doing planche and front lever isometrics you may do a set of planche and then rest for 90-120s and then do a set of front lever. This will help make you more time efficient, but may blunt your gains very slightly because it becomes a bit more metabolic.


Proper recovery weeks


Every about 4-8 weeks of work is a good time to reevaluate what you are doing and take a rest week.

For newer people since they progress a bit faster and for longer I would suggest more weeks without rest unless it clear they are not making much progress. If this occurs, one day of work may need to be eliminated per week to allow sufficient recovery between sets.

Overall, doing full rest is not productive during a recovery week. I will present a couple alternatives that tend to work well.

1. I would suggest that you keep the intensity high, but cut half of the volume during your rest weeks.

For example, this can be done by eliminating 2 days of workouts. So if you’re on a M,T,R,F schedule of workouts then you may only do 2 workouts such as M,R during a recovery week.

2. Another alternative is to eliminate half of the exercises. This can be done exclusively by eliminating isometrics. I would suggest eliminating the isometrics for a week, as it is more productive in most cases to continue working on full range of motion through the muscles during rest weeks.

3. If it was a particular brutal cycle on the body it may be worth it to eliminate all of the isometrics and exercises and exclusively focusing on the skill work and prehabilitative protocol.

For example, continue to work on handstands and ring supports, and improve shoulder, wrist, back, hip and ankle mobility and flexibliity.

Rest weeks are often very good times to implement more prehabilitative work and stretching protocols to reduce the amount of scar tissue/adhesions in the muscles, and get your mobility ready for the next set of training.


Summing up the parts / To the top


To sum up the parts we looked at, our hierarchy of a routine adheres to the common template:

1. Warmup / mobility work
2. Skill development
3. Strength/power work
4. Cool down / prehabilitative or rehabilitative work


For warm up anything that gets the blood flowing works. I tend to like a short circuit of pullups, dips and burpees.

From there we move into mobility work to warm up the joints to allow successful movement. All of the mobility/flexiblity work I have talked about is listed below. In general, I would save the the static stretches for post-workout cool downs, but anything that helps warm up the joints in the dynamic phase listed below may go into your mobility work in the warmup.

Shoulders:
Scapular mobility
Scapular stabilization
german hangs
wall slides
band dislocates

Jim Bathurst has suggested an alternative to wall slides:

  • I was shown a great/better variation where you sit with your butt against the wall, legs straight out in front of you. Grab some PVC at 90/90 elbow/shoulder degree and press above your head like a wall slide.

Wrists:
Wrist pushups
rice bucket

Hips/ankles/legs:
Splits
Pike
Straddle
Ankles (can be found page 4)
The splits… and more…

Back:
Improving back flexibility 1
Improving back flexibility 2


Skill development depends on the strength level. As you read above, eventually handstands will not become very difficult because you have gotten much stronger.

Anything that you can practice extensively for 5-15 minutes without becoming significant fatigued, but that you still need to master is classified as skill work.

Once handstands or any other movements such as L-sits, straddle-Ls, elbow levers, or whatever else you want to develop becomes like this you may put it in this category.

Implement active flexibility work here or after the workouts when doing flexibility.


L-sit and straddle-L sit can be performed on rings, parallettes, or the floor


Elbow lever

If possible I would try to work on anywhere from 2-4 skills at one time but no more than that otherwise it will take too long. Most people do not have excessive amounts of time in their day that they can devote to training anyway.


I recommend that these isometrics be coupled for beginners:

~handstand work with manna
~planche with front lever or back lever

Routine construction should follow the general template of 2-3 pushing and 2-3 pulling exercises for about 3-5 sets of 3-6 repetitions depending on work capacity. You are aiming for a total of about 25-50 repetitions total for each pushing and pulling exercises in your workout. Rest approximately 3-7 minutes between sets. Alternate pushing/pulling work if you are time constrained and shorten the rest periods to 1.5-3.5 minutes.

Remember, quantity is not always better than quality – focus on getting the most out of your exercises. If you are too fatigued to finish exercises properly then simply terminate the workout for the day.

We are not working to failure. Set and repetition selection should be based on being able to complete the first set of an exercise with a repetition or two to spare. If you do this, on the final set of an exercise it will usually be to near failure or failure. Failure is taxing on the CNS and if we overwork it then the quality of our workouts degrade much faster.

You may substitute isometrics or eccentrics for exercises according to the data above.

Cycles should be continued for at least 4-8 weeks followed by a rest week. From there goals may be evaluated and new exercises and skill selected depending on if you completed your goals or are stagnating on exercises.


Cool downs should be focused on improving flexibility as the muscles are best able to do this when they are warmed up. Work on a lot of the splits as well as shoulder flexibility exercises like german hangs here (even if you used them in conjunction with manna work as well).

Implement active flexibility work here if you did not implement it in the beginning with the skill work.

In addition, this is the time to add isolation prehabilitative work as well. For example, the external rotators are a bit neglected in most gymnastic work. Thus, it may be beneficial to do a couple sets of side lying external rotations or the middle part of a cuban press to help keep the shoulders healthy.


Side lying external rotations – image from build-muscle-and-burn-fat.com

Similarly, more band dislocates and wall slides are recommended here as well as wrist pushups and rice bucket wrist conditioning.


Conclusion / To the top


The aim of this article was to successfully educate you on how to properly construct a bodyweight strength routine. The underlying caveat that took me so long to write this was that I wanted to ensure that anything I recommended would be able to keep a person in it for the long haul while mitigating potential injuries. I hope this helped you to be able to do it.

The resources out on proper bodyweight programming are scant so it is with regret that I was unable to get this article out sooner. However, now that it is out I hope it is extremely useful to those looking to exclusively bodyweight strength train.

One of the big problems that most people encounter with bodyweight strength work is that it is very hard to see progress as opposed to adding weight to the bar every session or every other session. However, like any training the key is consistency. If you work (1) hard and (2) consistently you will make good progress. This is key for any type of program whether bodyweight, barbell, or both.

For those of you who wish to do a combination of barbell and bodyweight work you may note that many of the exercises are very similar to pulling and pushing exercises. You may substitute these in for exercises in your barbell routines and it works out fine.

If you still have no clue, Jim Bathurst (BeastSkills) wrote an article for Performance Menu that focuses on bodyweight skill integration with barbell work. I have read it, and it is almost exactly what I would recommend. If you are not a subscriber of PMenu journal it will cost you $2.75 though.

Good luck with your training!

This article is taste of the book Overcoming Gravity: A Sytematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength.  The book is available in digital format in our online store. It is also available on Amazon.

Did you like this article? Check out these related articles:

  1. Integrating Bodyweight and Barbell Training
  2. A Breakdown of Balance Training
  3. Prilepin tables for bodyweight strength isometric and eccentric exercises
  4. Setting and Achieving Goals
  5. Skill Guidelines for Building Strong, Useful, Adaptable Athletes

About the Author

Steven Low, author of Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength, is a former gymnast who, in recent years, has been heavily involved in the gymnastics performance troupe, Gymkana. Steven has a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland College Park, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Maryland Baltimore. Steven is a Senior PCC for Dragon Door's Progressive Calisthenics Certification. He has also spent thousands of hours independently researching the scientific foundations of health, fitness and nutrition and is able to provide many insights into practical care for injuries. His training is varied and intense with a focus on gymnastics, parkour, rock climbing, and sprinting. He currently resides in his home state of Maryland.