What do you think of when you think about physical strength? Do you think of a giant powerlifter squatting a barbell loaded with 300kg worth of plates? Or do you think of a smaller, more agile athlete going straight from a set of muscle ups into a set of one-armed press ups?

Whatever your training ideas, philosophies and preferences are, few people would argue that both are not clear examples of great physical strength. This article will focus on the latter – calisthenics, or in Lehman’s terms, bodyweight strength training. Follow these eight rules to get stronger using just your own weight.

 1. Use your Environment


One of the many benefits of bodyweight strength training is that you don’t need to be a member of a gym to do it, making it a very convenient (and much cheaper) way of increasing your physical strength.

In fact, for many bodyweight exercises such as squats, lunges, planks and all their variations, you don’t need anything but your own body. For other exercises that do require a basic bit of equipment, try being creative by using what’s around you. Around the house for example, things like chairs and tables can be used for dips or for press up variations.

Outside, low walls are an opportunity for plyometric jumps or low hanging branches in the garden or the frame of the swings or monkey bars in the local park can be great for pull ups, muscle ups and rows. Regardless of where you are, with a little imagination, you can all but guarantee that there’s an opportunity for a whole body workout, giving you no excuse not to try some bodyweight training.

2. Learn to use your whole body

Yes, generally every bodyweight exercise is designed to target a specific muscle or muscle group but in every single exercise that falls into the bodyweight strength training category, many other muscles need to act as support to complete the exercise properly.

Let’s take a basic gym-based chest exercise for example and compare that to its calisthenics equivalent – the bench press and the press up. In an average bench press, you are lying, torso supported, on a bench using mainly your pectoral muscles with a bit of help from your triceps and perhaps your front deltoids to lift the bar.

In a press up however, your pecs are again the prime mover with a bit of help from triceps and front delts, but you are also having to brace your core to keep your torso rigid as there is no support from a bench, you are also having to contract your glutes in order to keep the lower part of your back straight.

This principle is true of any bodyweight exercise and as such, learning to use your body as a whole and contracting all the necessary muscles at once is essential in order to get the most out of your bodyweight strength training programme.

3. Don’t overestimate your ability

This one’s pretty simple. You may have seen athletes like Frank Medrano on YouTube doing muscle up after muscle up or doing the human flag for what seems like an inhuman length of time. It’s understandable to want to get straight into what he’s doing as it looks very impressive and is likely to be a new and exciting style of exercise to add to your routine.

However, the chances are that if you’re new to bodyweight strength training, your body won’t allow you to even get close to completing such advanced exercises and more importantly, you will be much more susceptible to injury. The trick is to start simple and progress each exercise as you get stronger. This leads nicely onto rule number 4…

4. Progression

Bodyweight strength training is no different to any other type of training method in that progression over time, or progressive overload, is vital. In a weight lifting programme for example, tracking variables such as weight used, rest periods and number of reps with each exercise for every workout is the only way to ensure that you are progressing towards your goal.

While this rule also applies to bodyweight strength training, do not be worried if progress is slow. As already mentioned, doing too much, too quickly can cause unwanted injuries, and let’s face it, advanced bodyweight exercises are extremely difficult to master.

If your goal is to achieve such an exercise like a muscle up, make sure you progress in stages i.e. once you’re comfortable doing a set of ten pull ups, try doing super slow pull ups or pull ups with a more explosive concentric phase before you actually attempt a muscle up as this will naturally lead you into and prepare your body for the more difficult and physically demanding exercise.

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5. No cheating

Cheating when it comes to form, that is. Yes, you’ll be able to push out more dips if you don’t extend your elbows to lockout, and yes, doing partial reps like this will still hit certain muscles, but it’s not ideal when looking to create overall body strength (don’t forget rule number 2).

You want to be using a full range of motion and make sure that the prime movers in each exercise are getting the full stretch and contraction throughout the whole movement of the exercise as this will help to recruit the most muscle fibres and lead to better strength gains.

Don’t get me wrong, partial reps have their place, in bodyweight strength training, this is at the end of a set when you’ve reached the point of failure and all you can manage is two or three half reps.

6. Focus on TUT (Time Under Tension)

In a world where “how much do you bench?” is probably the most frequently asked question in most gyms, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the weight you’re lifting isn’t actually all that important. Your muscles have no idea what weight you’re lifting or even how many reps you’re doing, all they know is time and tension.

This rule is particularly useful to weight lifters but also applies to bodyweight strength training. When considering how many reps of which exercises you’re going to do, think about how long your muscles will be under tension for.

Maybe say to yourself, rather than doing 10 press ups for example, do press ups for 40 seconds or a minute, as long as each press up is completed with perfect form, the number of reps done in that time is irrelevant.

Once you’re able to do this, you’ll find that you’ll be able to do them for a longer period and you’ll also be able to move on to a more advanced variation of the exercise.

7. Watch what you eat

You can’t escape it, regardless of your preferred training style, nutrition is key of you want to achieve your goals. Logic tells us that a man weighing 20 stone with 25% body fat is going to struggle to pull his chin over a bar or hold his bodyweight on just his hands much more than his 14 stone, 12% body fat competitor.

Nutrition is also important when it comes to fuelling your workouts and recovering from them. Your energy and strength will always suffer if you are not getting a balanced macro nutrient ration of protein, fats and carbohydrates throughout the day.

Healthy fats from sources such as oily fish like salmon, nuts and seeds and olive oil and low GI carbohydrate sources such as sweet potatoes, brown rice and wholemeal bread are ideal as they will provide the body with prolonged sources of energy, and with the aid of the amino acids found in protein, will help your muscles recover from each workout.

8. Be Consistent and Patient

Last but not least, be consistent with your training programme and patient with your progress. When you don’t feel like you’re getting any stronger or any better at the exercises, it’s easy to lose focus and give up.

Be aware that with bodyweight strength training, mastering the more difficult exercises is likely to take longer than in most other forms of training as bodyweight exercises are often more biomechanically challenging than those requiring barbells, dumbbells and benches.

If you are new to bodyweight strength training, it will take considerable time to master the likes of the muscle up, human flag and pistol squat but if following a proper programme, you will notice strength gains doing the more basic exercises in just a few weeks.

Once we’ve started working towards a goal, most of us let ourselves become discouraged by looking at how far we still have to go to reach these goals when actually, if we look back on how far we’ve come, we feel much more positive.

Truth be told, there are potentially hundreds of rules to follow when following a bodyweight strength training programme, but these are my top eight. If you’ve never really used calisthenics as part of your training before, why not give it a go now? It can be a cheap, convenient and effective way of increasing your overall body strength and will definitely provide a great new challenge.

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