Simple Ways to Progress Bodyweight Exercises

Written by Elly McGuinness

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At-home workouts take away so much of the time and effort that can be involved with other forms of fitness. You eliminate travel time and you don’t need to deal with big clunky machines! If you want to keep it really simple, you can even get all your workouts done without using any equipment at all. But perhaps you’re wondering about how to make appropriate bodyweight exercise progressions? After all, when you do them consistently you’ll get stronger and fitter over time and will need some ideas to continue to challenge yourself and see improvements.

The good news is that there are plenty of bodyweight exercise progressions you can try without adding resistance, or any sort of equipment. You just need to understand a few simple principles and learn how to apply them. Here are some simple ideas for taking your bodyweight exercises to the next level.

Lengthen the lever

Certain exercises simply require an adjustment in body position to make them much harder. By lengthening a “lever” (usually your arms or legs), you’ll be required to push or lift a heavier load. Let’s look at some examples:

  • Lengthening your “lever” can be applied to a push up. Simply progress from a push up on your knees to a push up on your feet. In this case the lever is the legs and you are taking them from a bent to a straight position
  • “Leg lowering” is a great exercise to work into the abdominals. It’s the one where you lie on your back with your legs in the air. The easiest option would be to do it with bent legs the whole way through (a “short” lever). Start with bent legs in the air and slowly tap one foot to the floor. Bring it back to the start position before repeating on the other side. Progression one for lengthening your lever could be starting with a bent leg position, extending it to a straight leg position, and then returning to a bent leg position. A further progression could be to start and finish with straight legs
  • If you’re doing exercises with dumbbells as part of your at-home workout program, you can also apply the lever lengthening principle to those. For example, in a dumbbell lateral raise, lengthen your lever (arms in this case) by progressing from a bent arm to a straight arm raise

Make it less stable

When you add an element of instability, your core muscles and other stabilizing muscles are required to work harder to maintain your posture. This can help you become stronger for many activities of daily living that require strong and stable muscles. Here are a few ideas for making your exercises less stable:

  • Progress from using two legs or arms to using just one! For example, a two legged squat can become a one legged squat. A plank hold with four points of contact can be progressed to a hold with only three points (i.e. lift one leg off the floor). Some single limb progressions might be a big jump up from their double leg counterparts. Make sure you ask a trainer if you’re unsure whether you should be doing an “in between” progression level first
  • If you own a stability ball or BOSU® ball this can be a useful way to apply the instability concept to an exercise. Instead of doing your tricep dips from a chair, try placing your hands on a ball to advance the exercise

Make it more complex

Can you think of some ways to make simple exercises more complex? Adding in another dimension to your exercise will require a greater level of co-ordination between your brain and body. It will help you create more body awareness and you’ll probably find you’re working those stabilizing muscles harder yet again.

You can often add complexity by including an extra movement pattern into the mix. Note that you should only consider doing so when you’ve mastered excellent technique with one movement pattern! Here are some examples:

  • At the bottom of a squat or lunge, add a twist to the side and then back to the front before returning to the start position. This brings with it the added difficulty of holding the squat or lunge at the hardest part of the movement (the bottom)
  • Instead of performing consecutive push ups, add a side plank in between each one
  • Add an element of complexity to your squats by combining it with another common exercise – the shoulder press. You’ll need dumbbells for this one although you could always start without using them too. Simply perform a squat and then add a shoulder press onto the end. You’ll notice your heart rate getting up pretty quickly with this one!

Other bodyweight exercise progressions

There are other bodyweight exercise progressions that perhaps require less explanation. Some of these are:

  • Add resistance in the form of weights or resistance bands
  • Do extra sets or repetitions. If you’re choosing extra repetitions make sure the range you choose is still in line with your goals
  • Change the tempo. Try doing your exercises super slowly to really feel the burn. Count four seconds into the exercise and four seconds out instead of rushing through it. You can also try adding holds or pulses at the “hardest” part of the movement (e.g. at the bottom of a squat)
  • Increase your range of motion. This one is simple and effective and should be considered before you do anything else. Make sure you can do the exercise in its full range before choosing any other progression

It’s also worth noting that you should only attempt one progression at a time. You may also find that you need to decrease your repetition range when you’re first building up to a new progression level. This is a good indication that you have in fact made it harder!

What bodyweight exercise progressions have you made lately? We’d love to hear about them so please leave a comment in the box below!

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