Bodyweight training is simply, purely, and utterly awesome.
It’s free, accessible to all fitness levels, and can yield tremendous results regardless of experience.
Sure, bodyweight exercises get knocked for being too “easy”, not good for building muscle, and only “effective” for burning calories and losing weight.
But, the simple truth of the matter is that bodyweight exercises can be used to build incredible amounts of strength.
The reason many individuals fail to continue seeing results from bodyweight exercises is that they’re doing the same old exercise variations for the same old number of sets and reps.
When viewed in this light, is it really the exercise’s fault for lack of results, or the exerciser?!
Today, we’re going to give you 10 ways to make bodyweight exercises harder for those of you who have progressed beyond simple push ups, pull ups, and bodyweight squats.
Let’s get started!
Top 10 Ways to make Bodyweight Exercises Harder
#1 Change Leverages
By simply adjusting the angle of your body, you can make an exercise easier or more difficult.
A common example of this is the push up. For many individuals, the push up is a staple exercise for building a chiseled upper body. But, after some time, the regular push up doesn’t offer much challenge.
To increase the difficulty of the movement, you can elevate your feet on a box, bench, step, or ottoman.
This angle adjustment increases the demand on your chest, shoulders, and triceps by forcing you to press a greater percentage of your bodyweight off of the ground due to the angle of force.
The feet elevated push up also mimics the same movement pattern as the incline dumbbell/barbell bench press, which emphasizes the clavicular head of the pecs (upper pecs).
On the flip side, if the standard push up is too hard for you, you can regress the movement and make it easier by elevating your hands on a box, bench, step, or ottoman and keeping your hands on the floor. Then, as you gain strength and the elevated push ups become easier, you can lower the height of the platform onto which your hands are placed.
Changing leverages can be applied to just about any bodyweight exercise, including pull ups and inverted rows.
#2 Increase Range of Motion
Another simple way to make bodyweight exercises more challenging is to increase the range of motion.
The greater distance over which your muscles are stressed the more work they do, which is another means of progressive overload.
Using the push up again as an example, you can use push up handles or place your hands on top of 45-lb plates or thick textbooks. This slight elevation will allow you to drop your chest below the level of your hands, which places a greater stretch on the pecs, ultimately forcing them to do more work while making the exercise more challenging.
This can also be applied to leg exercises like squats, lunges, and step ups. You can increase how low you squat, how deep you sink into a lunge, or how high of a platform you step onto when performing a step up. You can also elevate your front foot onto a book, plate, or exercise step as you did with a push up to increase the range of motion on exercises like split squats and reverse lunges.
#3 Paused Reps
Pauses reps are truly diabolical, but they provide a powerful muscle building stimulus while also ingraining proper exercise techniques and forcing your muscles to work harder by eliminating the stretch reflex.
With pauses, you typically hold an isometric contraction in the most difficult portion of the exercise. But, you can also incorporate pauses in any other portion of the lift where you might feel weak or unstable.
For instance, when performing bodyweight squats, instead of bouncing out of the hole as soon as you reach the bottom, pause for 1-3 seconds while maintaining whole-body tension. This pause increases the time under tension for your muscles, allowing more metabolites to build up, which increases the burn and the challenge of the exercise.
To make back exercises like pull ups and inverted rows even more challenging, incorporate pauses at the top of the movement (the point of peak contraction). This will light up your back muscles and make even the strongest lifters struggle with bodyweight exercises.
#4 1.5 Reps
Still another way to increase the challenge of bodyweight exercises, as well as the time under tension, is to use 1.5 reps. Note, that these also help build mental toughness as you’ll soon find out for yourself that 1.5 reps are incredibly taxing not only physically, but psychologically too.
The execution of 1.5 reps is pretty simple as you’re about to see.
Again, we’ll use the humble push up as our example exercise. To perform 1.5 reps, descend into the bottom position of the push up where your chest is touching the floor, press halfway up to the top, then lower to the bottom again before finally pressing all the way back up to the top.
This same technique can be applied to squats, lunges, split squats, floor leg curls, pull ups, rows, and just about every other bodyweight exercise you can think of.
Give it a try for yourself and see just how challenging 1.5 reps can be!
#5 Use Compound Sets
Compound sets are a type of superset in which two exercises are performed back-to-back with no rest between. Unlike traditional agonist-antagonist supersets which pit two opposing muscle groups together, compound sets combine two exercises that hammer the same muscle groups.
This increases the total time under tension of the muscle groups as well as the total amount of work they’re doing before getting a much deserved rest.
Some great compound sets to incorporate into your training programs are:
- Dips supersetted with push ups
- Pull ups supersetted with inverted rows
- Squats supersetted with lunges
- Sliding leg curls supersetted with hip bridges
#6 Try 21s
“21s” are another advanced training to help you intensify the challenge of bodyweight exercises.
Most commonly, 21s are used with bicep curls, but the truth is that you can use the technique with just about any exercise you use.
To perform a set of 21s:
- Perform 7 reps from the bottom to the midpoint, then
- Perform 7 reps from the midpoint to the top, then
- Perform 7 reps using a full range of motion
As with the other techniques outlined above, 21s increase the amount of work your muscles are doing by exposing them to increased time under tension and greater metabolic stress.
“Elevator” reps are where you incorporate mini-pauses or stops throughout the range of motion of an exercise, similar to an elevator stopping at different floors as it goes from the top of the building to the bottom and vice versa.
How many stops you make along the way is up to you, but realize the more stops you do, the greater the challenge each rep will be as these stops help reduce momentum and increase time under tension, both of which make your muscles work harder.
If you’re going to give elevator-style reps a shot, start slow with only incorporating one or two “stops” on the way down and up until you get used to the technique.
#8 Slow Down the Tempo
Yet another way to make bodyweight exercises harder is to slow down the speed with which you perform the exercise. This increases time under tension and creates a ton of metabolic stress, which supports muscle growth.
Instead of lowering in one second and immediately lifting in one second, take 3-5 seconds to lower to the bottom position of the exercise, and then lift your body up, either in a typical fashion or using an elongated concentric phase.
The longer you make each rep last, the more fatiguing (and harder) each rep will be.
If you really want to up the ante, try combining a slow lowering tempo with a pause in the hole and then trying to explosively press back up to the top.
Speaking of moving explosively…
#9 Be Explosive
Incorporating elements of plyometrics into your bodyweight exercises can also make them harder since the more explosive and powerful you contract a muscle, the greater amount of muscle fibers are recruited.
For instance, if bodyweight squats are a breeze, try exploding from the bottom as powerfully as possible. The more explosive you try to make the concentric, the harder your muscles have to work, which increases the challenge.
Now, when discussing “explosive” movements, many individuals think it involves some kind of jumping, and it can, but “explosive” can also mean trying to move as rapidly and powerfully as possible. This is important to keep in mind if you have a history of injury or joint pain and can’t perform typical explosive movements like jump squats, jumping lunges, or plyometric pushups.
If you can perform these movements, that’s great! But if you can, you can still try to perform the concentric (lifting) phase of each rep as rapidly and powerfully as possible to increase the challenge and do more work.
#10 Wear a Backpack
Just about everyone has some kind of book bag or backpack at the house. If you do, throw some heavy books in there or some soup cans or weight plates (if you have them), and strap it on your back.
You’ve now added some external loading to your body, which increases your bodyweight, and makes your muscles have to work harder to move your body through space.
If you’ve never trained with a weighted backpack or weighted vest, you’ll find that even walking briskly for prolonged periods of time can be challenging.
Weighted backpacks are great to use for lower body exercises, like squats and lunges, as well as push ups and inverted rows.