Somewhere along the line, bodyweight exercises got a reputation for being for beginners. But we’re here to tell you that some are anything but easy.
“Being able to master your own bodyweight is an underrated sign of true fitness,” says Tennessee-based certified strength and conditioning specialist Hannah Davis. “It is a product of mobility, strength and stability — and is even linked to increased longevity.” After all, moving your bodyweight is a measure of relative strength, meaning that the bigger, taller or heavier you are, the harder the weight actually becomes. That makes bodyweight exercises a pretty good indicator of your body composition, not to mention overall function outside of the gym.
Plus, apart from being the perfect “how strong are you, really?” test, bodyweight exercises open up your workouts in a big way. They allow you to train your body to move in new and unique ways, says SoCal-based trainer, coach and performance-enhancement specialist Mike Donavanik. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a bodyweight exercise that doesn’t force your body to work as a whole. Hello, core strength!
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If you’re ready to take your workouts to the next level with bodyweight exercises, here are the four to master:
“No matter your fitness level, pull-ups are always a challenge,” Donavanik says. They work your upper-body’s biggest muscles, while simultaneously training the core and even the glutes.
How to do it: Grab a pullup bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you) that’s just greater than shoulder-width apart. Brace your core and hang at arm’s length with your legs extended and slightly in front of you so that you’re in a “hollow body” position. Make sure to keep your chest out and proud. From here, squeeze your shoulder blades down and together, and then, pointing your elbows toward the floor, pull through your arms to raise your chest up to the bar. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start. That’s one rep.
Work up to it: Integrate more back exercises into your workout routine, says Donavanik, noting that most everybody doesn’t spend enough time strengthening the muscles that make up the back. As a general rule, for every chest exercise in your week, you need two back exercises. One great option is the negative pullup: Jump up to the pullup bar to grab it in the “top” position with the bar at your chest. Hold for 2–3 seconds and slowly lower and repeat.
If you’re ready to commit to a pullup challenge, try this 21-Day Pushup and Pullup Plan.
2. PISTOL SQUAT
Besides taking you through a full range of motion — all the way down to the floor — pistol squats are great in that they load one leg at a time. “You’ll find out if you have any muscular imbalances for sure with this one,” Donavanik says.
How to do it: Stand tall on one foot with your opposite leg extended in front of you and down toward the floor. Hold both arms straight out in front of you at shoulder height. Brace your core. From here, slowly and under control, bend your knee and hip to lower your body until your glutes are stacked on top of your planted foot. Make sure to keep your chest up, back flat and weight balanced between the ball and heel of your foot. Pause, then drive through your planted foot to reverse the motion and return to the start. Repeat on the opposite side.
Work up to it: It might sound strange, but holding a weight straight out in front of your body at shoulder height actually makes this move easier, Donavanik says. Other options include holding a TRX handle in each hand for help when you need it or starting with a partial range of motion. Try squatting down on one leg to touch your glutes to a bench or box, and then press back up to start. Over time, lower the bench until you’re lowering all of the way to the floor.
The amount of strength and stability you need through your shoulders and core to balance your bodyweight on your hands is phenomenal, Donavanik says. What’s more, handstands are an excellent tool for improving your proprioception — or your ability to gauge and control your body in space.
How to do it: Get in downward dog with your fingers spread and shoulder blades pulled down and back away from your ears. From here, bend one knee, then drive through that leg to swing your opposite leg toward the ceiling. As your legs lift off of the floor, squeeze your abs to pull your hips over your shoulders. Keep the crown of your head pointed toward the floor, and roll your inner thighs toward each other to help keep your balance. Hold, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start.
Work up to it: Build strength, stability and just get comfortable with the idea of being upside down with TRX pikes. Get in a high-plank position with your feet in the TRX straps so your body is parallel to the floor. From here, squeeze your core to lift your hips up as high as possible over your shoulders and point your head down between your arms so your torso is completely vertical. Hold, then slowly return to start.
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Building on the original bodyweight star — the pushup — burpees not only train the chest, triceps and core, but also the entire lower body while getting you a legit cardio workout, Donavanik says.
How to do it: Get in a high-plank position with your hands in line with your shoulders, your feet hip-width apart and your body forming a straight line from head to heels. Squeeze your shoulder blades down and together away from your ears, and brace your core. From here, perform a pushup. At the top of the pushup, jump your feet forward to land just outside of your hands, and then explosively jump straight up into the air as high as possible, reaching your arms overhead toward the ceiling. Land in a squat position, place your hands on the floor and jump your feet back behind you to return to start. Focus on performing the entire exercise under control. Don’t roll, flop or let the front of your legs touch the floor.
Work up to it: Perform the pushup portion of the exercise with your hands on a low bench or box. This lightens the load on your chest, triceps and core. Plus, if you have tight hips, it will allow you to jump your feet forward with a bit more ease, Donavanik says.
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