Bodyweight training may be a great option if you don’t have access to gym equipment, but it must be programmed with precision and care to produce results safely.
What’s more, while air squats, push-ups, lunges, and burpees performed in a circuit may make for a sweaty workout, bodyweight workouts will only create long-term progress if they follow foundational program design principles.
With so many clients and coaches training at home, we wanted to share with you the knowledge you need to create bodyweight workout program and progressions.
To design bodyweight workouts that create results, you have to understand the dose-response, that is the stimulus or outcome, of each workout.
Three factors should be considered when determining the dose-response: 1. Intention, 2. Modality, and 3. Person.
To define the Intention, ask yourself “what is the goal of this program and why am I working out?”
To define the Modality, ask yourself “what type of exercise will I do?” In this case, it will be bodyweight exercise only, which will put clear restrictions on what you can program.
To define the Person, ask yourself “what are my abilities, skill level, and training age?” These are determined by assessing your abilities.
When you understand the who (Person), what (Modality), and why (Intention) of the program you’re writing, you can control the dose-response, and ultimately the adaptation and results that occur from it.
To program bodyweight workouts effectively, it is important to understand what bodyweight training is and what the limitations inside of it are.
Bodyweight training primarily involves closed-chain activities with relative strength (strength against bodyweight) and strength endurance (the ability to perform repetitions at submaximal loads) as the main limitations.
Bodyweight training has low variability because of the lack of access to equipment and novel means to perform movement patterns. This may mean that you use a lot of repetitions of the same types of contractions. This can become problematic if poor movement patterns are repeated for a high number of repetitions.
Bodyweight training also lacks intensity, true maximal effort, as you do not have access to external loading. This means that strength endurance efforts may be extended into metabolic efforts that become glycolytic, meaning they begin to use the anaerobic lactic energy system. This is problematic as glycolytic training is one of the best ways to lower immunity and create negative metabolic adaptations, teaching the body to utilize sugars for fuel.
Full Body Resistance Training
For bodyweight training program, it is best practice to program full body resistance (FBR), that is, to include upper, lower, and core movement patterns.
The 6 movement patterns and examples of each are:
(Resource: Learn how to create full body resistance training programs in this free course.)
Balance Mechanical and Metabolic Fatigue
Within each training session, try to create mechanical and metabolic fatigue for movement patterns. Mechanical fatigue efforts are usually more intense contractions that should last 10-20 seconds and cause mechanical damage to muscle fibers. Metabolic efforts are lower intensity contractions that can be extended out longer, with fatigue setting in when the muscle fibers can no longer be fueled by ATP (energy).
An example of mechanical fatigue for the Bend pattern is 5 reps of an Eccentric Nordic Raise. An example of metabolic fatigue for the Bend pattern is 60 seconds of Single Leg Hip Thrusts.
An example of mechanical fatigue for the Push pattern is 3 reps of an Eccentric Single-Arm Push-Up. An example of metabolic fatigue for the Push pattern is 25 Clapping Push-Ups.
If you have a very low or very high training age you may not be able to express mechanical tension in bodyweight exercises. In this case, it is appropriate to prescribe only metabolic fatigue bodyweight activities that are higher time under tension.
There are three key ways to progress bodyweight training.1. Increase volume over time, adding repetitions each session.
Workout 1: Push Up @20X0, 8-10 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds
Workout 2: Push Up @20X0, 9-11 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds
Workout 3: Push Up @20X0, 10-12 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds
Workout 4: Push Up @20X0, 11-13 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds2. Increase the speed of the contractions from motor control to strength endurance to dynamic activities.
Push Up @3010
Push Up @1010
Clapping Push Up3. Adjust tempo and increase the eccentric, or lowering, phase of an exercise.
Workout 1: Towel Hamstring Curl @50X0, 4-6 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds
Workout 2: Towel Hamstring Curl @60X0, 4-6 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds
Workout 3: Towel Hamstring Curl @70X0, 4-6 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds
Workout 4: Towel Hamstring Curl @80X0, 4-6 reps x 3 sets; rest 90 seconds
Stick with a simple training split and focus on consistency in training. Alternate full-body resistance training one day with aerobic training the next.
Tuesday: Aerobic intervals
Thursday: Active Recovery
Saturday: Aerobic intervals
Avoid high-intensity, unsustainable bodyweight circuits. Here are 5 reasons you should avoid them:
Design bodyweight workouts that are within your capabilities and progress them gradually over time. Prescribe measures to ensure repeatability by tracking scores, including rest periods, and avoiding “for time” workouts.
Write this (based on your ability to maintain power with assigned work rest):
Clapping Push Ups, max repeatable reps x 4 sets; rest 60 seconds
Jump Squats, 20 reps x 4 sets; rest 60 seconds
Reverse Plank, 60 seconds x 4 sets; rest 60 seconds
Not this (where power decreases each round):
4 Round For Time
20 Clapping Push Ups
20 Jump Squats
60 seconds Reverse Plank
In this article, we explored principles of designing bodyweight workouts. The key to program design is controlling the dose-response of every workout you write. However, fitness success is about far more than just program design. To get results you also need to understand principles of assessment, nutrition, and behavior. For an in-depth exploration of the principles and skills every coach needs to possess, sign up for our free course, the Professional Coaching Blueprint.