An effective bodyweight training program can whip you into shape and even pack on muscle, but “effective” doesn’t look the same for everyone. Some people could do with 10 push-ups, others need 20 and some need to do more sets than others. Even how often you work out is a consideration. Let’s get you up to speed, and craft the perfect workout for you.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhári.
In this instance, effective doesn’t mean simply air squatting ’til the cows come home. Instead, your bodyweight program can be considered pretty effective if it follows these guidelines:
- It’s something you enjoy doing. You can have the “best” program given to you by Thor himself, but if you hate doing it, you’ll never stick to it long enough to see any results, no matter what that “4 weeks to blast arse fat” program will have you believe.
- It’s safe and appropriate for your skill level. If a workout is beyond your skill level, you could injure yourself or get so brutally sore that you lose the motivation to exercise. Simply, if your body isn’t proficient at the exercises and/or you don’t yet have the fitness to properly recover from repeated hard workouts, more challenging programs aren’t even necessarily better for you.
More importantly though, you want to make sure the program is working for you and your schedule because lasting results come from consistently taking action, not from very occasionally doing an optimised protocol or guzzling not-so-magical weight loss shakes.
Learn Your Basic Bodyweight Movement Patterns
Even among bodyweight exercises, you can have compound movements and isolation exercises for both your upper and lower body. If these sound like Klingon to you, check out our primer on fitness jargon, but put simply, compound movements work multiple muscle groups, while isolation exercises work single muscles or groups at a time.
From there, it gets a bit more complicated: the upper and lower body exercises are further categorised into vertical or horizontal push and pull exercises, moving things away from or towards your body. Meanwhile, the vertical and horizontal directions refer to the anatomical planes of your body, but for our purposes, think about the movements that make you go up and down or forward and backward, respectively. Putting these details together, you have:
- Upper body vertical press: Raise your hands into the air and push upward. That’s one way to press vertically, and doing this works out your traps (trapezius muscles), shoulders and upper and middle back. Some examples include handstand push-ups (if you can’t do that, a pike push-up will work, too) and chest dips.
- Upper body horizontal press: The classic example here is a push-up (it’s OK to be on your knees or rest your hands on an elevated, stable surface like a chair or bench). When you do these, you work your chest, shoulders and upper and middle back, along with other muscles like triceps. You won’t be bored of push-ups any time soon after checking out this Art of Manliness article for a crazy number of push-up variations.
- Upper body vertical pull: The money exercise here is the pull-up, which really hammers your lats, shoulders, biceps and other stabiliser muscles. If you can’t do a full pull-up, that’s OK! Try to do negative reps, or try changing your grip. I started out that way too, and over time, got to my full pull-up.
- Upper body horizontal pull: This is typically a row-type exercise, where you’re hanging onto something (a doorway, for example) and pulling yourself towards it. When you pull yourself toward the object, you really put your back into it, engaging your upper back, arms and even legs to keep yourself stable.
- Lower body push: Most of the leg exercises you know are push movements. Exercises like lunges, squats, glute bridges, step-ups and hip thrusts work your thighs, butt, hips, hamstrings and calves.
- Lower body pull: This is essentially the “hip hinge” pattern from a deadlift, where you bend at the hips and push your butt back. You’ll work your entire backside (collectively called the posterior chain). Al Kavadlo, a strength coach who specialises in bodyweight training, wrote in his book that back bridges and bodyweight single-legged deadlifts are great for this. Note that you’d have to work on your flexibility to get to a full back bridge, so don’t worry if it’s difficult.
- Core: While many of these exercises will also engage your core, it’s helpful to work on it specifically with exercises like planks (and any of its variations), hanging leg raise, bicycle kicks and bird dogs.
Together, these basic movement patterns use many of your body’s 600+ muscles. Think about balancing your workout with push and pull variations to strengthen your entire body more evenly.
How to Set Up Your Bodyweight Regimen
Before you begin, access to a pull-up bar and a bench of some sort, like at the park or a playground, would be ideal. Bonus points if you have a suspension trainer (TRX is the brand name) and some resistance bands. While those equipment are definitely optional, having some will expand your arsenal of moves — namely, you’ll be able to isolate smaller muscles like your biceps and shoulders.
We’ll walk you through two ways to set up a bodyweight program: an easier, circuit-training style, and a more advanced weightlifting-style workout split.
Circuit Training Routine
In a circuit training style, you’ll string together about 6-10 exercises, pre-determine how many reps you’ll do for each (or go for a set time), and do them all for a set number of rounds (or again, for time) without stopping. That’s one circuit. Then repeat the whole circuit 3-6 times.
Alternate between 50 seconds of work and 10 seconds of rest for each exercise in the following circuit using the bodyweight 8 exercises that collectively work your whole body from head to toe:
Exercise 1: Hip Thrust Variation
Exercise 2: Pushup Variation
Exercise 3: Deep Squat Variation (watch 35 ways to squat on 2 legs at the link)
Exercise 4: Row Variation
Exercise 5: Hip-Hinge Variation
Exercise 6: Handstand Pushup Variation
Exercise 7: Single-Leg Squat Variation (see the top 37 single-leg squat variations)
Exercise 8: Pullup Variation
His example gives you one full-body workout. If you’d like, you can stick with just this one and do it three to five times a week. For a bit more variety, make two or three more of these routines with the same template, mixing up some of the exercises, and rotate through them by doing one every other day. That way, you have a varied routine that you can follow for several weeks.
3-Day Split Routine
This second option takes the ideas of a bodybuilding-style split routine, where each workout lets you focus on specific body parts or movements, rather than work the full body. In this instance, we would focus on a push day, a pull day, and a leg day.
To help, I turned to Alexander Ferentinos, a nutrition and training educator from the UK. He suggests this four-days-a-week workout template. Here you create three workouts (press, pull, and legs) with 3-5 exercises each, and go through them throughout the week in the following order:
Day 1: Press + core* (chest emphasis): Push-ups, handstand push-ups, pike push-ups, chest dips, tricep dips
Day 2: Legs: walking lunges, lunges, reverse lunges, side lunges, squats, glute bridges, step-ups, Bulgarian split squats, pistol squats, back bridges, single-leg deadlifts
Day 3: Pull + core (back emphasis): pull-ups (or negatives), rows**, deadhang
Day 4. Legs: can be the same leg workout or choose a few new exercises
* One or two core exercises per workout would be fine. You can choose from planks, side planks, bicycle kicks, mountain climbers and many other exercises.
** If you change the angle of your body, you can make the row more challenging and work different muscles. One example is an inverted row, where your body is almost parallel to the ground. Try incorporating a few different angled-rows as individual exercises on this day.
When you apply this to your actual week, your split routine could look like:
- Monday: Press workout
- Tuesday: Legs workout
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Pull workout
- Friday: Legs workout
- Saturday and Sunday: AKA Fun days
Or mix it up by switching the pull and press workouts. You can even do press day, pull day, leg day and repeat for six days and rest one day; or work out four days in a row and rest three days.
Really, you can do whatever you want here, as long as you keep it consistent. In addition to being consistent, you want to give some time for rest. For simplicity’s sake, avoid putting leg days back-to-back or push days back-to-back. The other limiting factors are your own schedule and fitness level.
During rest days, do something you enjoy, or just watch Netflix and chill (seriously). Remember, you don’t get stronger and fitter from working yourself to the ground.
Frequency, Rest Time And Other Important Things to Remember
Ferentinos notes that the important thing with bodyweight programs is frequency, or how often you work out:
Do enough to tax your body, but not so much that you can’t move nor come back and do it again a few days later. It’s about learning how to move, refining that quality of movement, and then getting stronger in those movements and/or being able to handle more volume, which is the fancy pants term for total amount of sets and the sum total of the weight shifted in the workout.
Since you’re not dealing with heavy loads, you can make up for the lack of weights by doing more: more days, more sets and/or more reps. In addition, here are really important points to keep in mind:
- Form still matters: Even though you’re not lifting heavy weights, doing exercises incorrectly — even as something as simple as a push-up — can be dangerous. Learn proper form and technique, and focus on quality of movement. Plus, as Ferentinos mentions, getting better at bodyweight movements and feeling the “mind-muscle connection” goes a long way in helping you build more muscle and strength.
- Big movements first: Do the bigger, compound exercises in your workout first and then do your “accessory” movements. Pull-ups, push-ups, squats, inverted rows, chest dips and so on all require way more effort and burn more kilojoules. For example, squats are going to burn a hell of a lot more kilojoules than planks. Remember, do big movements at the beginning of your workout when you’re feeling most fresh.
- Workout intensity is important: Each workout probably takes between 20-30 minutes, so keep them intense by reducing the rest time as much as you can handle. As you get fitter, you can reduce the rest time further. If you do circuit style, try resting no more than 20 seconds between each exercise set and 90 seconds between each full circuit. If you can’t do that yet, it’s something to work towards!
- Determine your sets and reps: This tip applies more to the split routine more than the circuit training style. Not including warmup, aim to do three to four sets of each exercise. The principles of setting the number of reps are similar to weightlifting. For difficult movements like pull-ups, push-ups, chest dips and pistol squats, aim between six to eight reps. For exercises that target smaller muscles like tricep dips, you can go upwards of 15-20 reps. Ferentinos suggests you sometimes go as far as 25 reps for a “burnout set.”
Theoretically, a beginner can take either of these bodyweight programs and do them over and over again for months. If it gets boring, you can always supplement with interval training, plyometrics, yoga, swimming or even ease into weightlifting.
Once you feel like you’ve outgrown your program, you can check out our article on pushing past fitness plateaus or read about my experiment on switching to a bodyweight program for tips on increasing your challenge level. Sometimes you don’t need anything drastic: little changes to your grip, the angle of your body (like in a row or push-up) or using one leg instead of two can keep things interesting.
Whether your goal is to be a sexy beast, lose weight, gain muscle or be able to do a pull-up, you can get great results from a bodyweight program, especially if you’ve never followed one or worked out regularly before. Give your bodyweight program a real, honest effort and gauge your progress by seeing if you can do more reps and sets than the last time; or see if you could go from knee push-ups to a full push-up.