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When asked to write an article on my top 5 bodyweight training exercises- I got to thinking about bodyweight exercises in general, and how often they get passed up in favor of barbells, dumbbells or enticing gym machinery. But one look at a gymnast and you’ll know that bodyweight training has the ability to get you really jacked. I’ve often found that people shy away from bodyweight movements thinking that the only purpose they serve is for conditioning, and they’d be wrong. Bodyweight training applies an entirely different stimulus to the muscles, and more often than not, most people find bodyweight movements grossly humbling. Just because you bench press big weights doesn’t mean you can effectively move your OWN bodyweight with proficiency.
While bodyweight movements are similar to bigger compounds movements (squat/bench/press) in that they have a high level of neuromuscular activation, they are entirely different in that rather than using your muscles to manipulate an external weight (object) through space, you are using your muscles to manipulate your own bodyweight through space. Properly executing bodyweight movements requires a certain degree of kinesthetic awareness, sound muscle control, stability, balance, and most of all a good strength to weight ratio. You have to be capable of moving your own bodyweight through space- and depending upon how large you are- that’s not an easy feat.
There is no point in arguing which is more productive- bench pressing or pushups, inverted rows, or bent rows- they both have their pros and cons and they both have their place in a training program. But I’m willing to bet if you’re reading this, you already do plenty of resistance training using barbells, dumbbells, bands, and machines- but probably perform little to no bodyweight training. However, if you want to be lean and strong, you need to be adding bodyweight movements to your training toolbox. Here are my personal picks for the top five bodyweight exercises to get you started.
1) Bodyweight Squats (Air Squat)
This is one movement I rely heavily upon as a coach to assess an athlete’s strength, kinesthetic awareness, and hip/ankle/thoracic spine mobility. While a bodyweight squat can seem incredibly simple in nature, you’d be shocked at how many people struggle with the movement. Prior to allowing anyone I work with to squat with weight, I always require a sound proficiency with bodyweight squats first. Even in my own training, I often revert back to bodyweight squats to help “re-teach” myself to execute a proper squat.
Bodyweight squats help to build muscle, increase strength and mobility, and when performed at a high intensity or as part of a circuit/conditioning work can really help with fat loss/fat burning.
Pushups are hard. Period. In fact, most athletes I work with can perform very few, if any pushups when I first begin working with them. The reason I love them so much as a bodyweight movement is because even though they are commonly thought of as being a chest and triceps exercise, pushups, in fact, work your body top to bottom, recruiting muscles in the quads, glutes, and abs to help stabilize your body as you press your own weight through space. This makes them, in my opinion, more of a total body movement than just a chest and triceps exercise.
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There are also so many variations of pushups that it’s hard to grow stagnant. There are numerous variations you can use to help continue to progress yourself, challenge your muscles, and stimulate results.
I remember back to when I couldn’t do one pullup- and it took me several months of focus and dedication to be able to rep strict pullups, and I still remember the day I got my first strict pullup. I was beyond proud of myself. Pullups are a great mass builder for the back, but just like most bodyweight movements still require muscle recruitment from top to bottom. Holding your body stable during pullup execution so you can efficiently move your mass through space is crucial in your ability to perform pullups. For this reason again, I view pullups as being a total body movement that not only enhances muscle growth in your back and arms but also helps foster core stability, balance and mind to muscle connection as well.
Like pushups, there are so many pullup variations that it’s hard to get bored. There are countless adjustments you can make to continue to challenge and progress yourself.
4) Elbow Plank
Sometimes the most basic movements prove to be the most challenging. The elbow plank might seem an uncommon selection for a top bodyweight movement but similar to the squat, I can tell a lot about an athlete’s core strength, muscle balance, stability, and mind to muscle control by watching them fight through a plank. Although planks do work the abs, they also largely recruit the quads and glutes to help keep your body tight in an efficient position. Planks help to increase core strength and stability, and can help to decrease low back pain and improve your posture.
I chose burpees because they are basically the king of conditioning movements when it comes to bodyweight exercises. Everybody loves to hate them (except maybe for me, I genuinely do LOVE them) but the fact of the matter is that a burpee is resistance training and cardiovascular conditioning all bundled into one quick compound movement that requires no equipment whatsoever.
Burpees were actually listed by Health.com as one of the top 5 calorie-burning exercises- 10 calories per minute, and to top it off they help to make you stronger, can be done almost anywhere, and can be infused into any workout for an added metabolic boost/calorie burn.
Like pushups and pullups- there are countless burpee variations available as well- burpee pullups, burpee box jumps, burpee lunge jumps, no pushup burpees, and so forth- so there’s no reason to grow stagnant or cease to progress yourself.
Bodyweight training keeps you healthy, keeps you strong, and keeps you lean and best of all it challenges your body in ways that dumbbells and barbells cannot. With endless variations available it’s hard to land in a rut with bodyweight training and the fact that it requires no equipment whatsoever makes these exercises easy to execute just about anywhere. The older I get, the more and more I find myself sticking to the basics of strength training, and utilizing a good amount of bodyweight movements in my programming is one of the ways I stay lean, strong and functional year-round.
Photo Credits: James Patrick Photography, Arsenik Studios, Alias Movements, MM Sports