How to adjust any bodyweight exercise to your own level

One of the most important concepts in exercise is train to win. Every repetition that we do sends a message to the body about the correct way to perform an exercise: no amount of mediocre work is going to sum excellence.

For example, Elliott Hulse recommends that we never take an exercise to failure, as we should train the body to overcome resistance. The difficulty is that, when we train with our own bodyweight, the modification of an exercise is not as easy as with weights. With external weight we can simply add or take away weights to perform the reps with good form, but how can we do this with bodyweight exercises?

This is the reason for bodyweight exercises to work with progressions. Progressions are structured steps that, if you follow, will take anybody to perform exercises as difficult as a Manna. Just as progressions make an exercise harder, regressions make it easier.

In this article I will explain the methods that bodyweight training uses to make an exercise more or less difficult. It is about the principles behind the progressions and regressions, a knowledge with the one we can adapt any exercise to our own level, so we can build step by step complex movements.

Progressions and regressions use the following fourteen methods:

  1. Lever manipulation. In bodyweight exercises, the more horizontal the body, the harder the exercise becomes. For example, a chin up is easier than a front lever pull up, and a planche push up is harder than a handstand push up. This is tricky because we have to consider than the planche push up or the front lever pull up are unsupported exercises. If we talk about exercises like rows or push ups, where the body is not fully suspended, the rule is that in bent arm exercises, the more vertical the body, the harder it is, and in straight arm exercises, the more horizontal the body, the harder it is. For example, if you cannot perform a full push up in the floor, you may try to do it against the wall and lower yourself with time until you reach the floor level, and from here start raising the feet until you get to a handstand push up. On the contrary, if it is an straight arm exercise like the planche the easiest position will be vertical (handstand) and the hardest will be horizontal (planche).
  2. Body length manipulation. In closed kinetic chain exercises like bodyweight exercises, the farther of our body is from the point of contact, the harder it becomes. This is why a tuck front lever, where you put your legs to your chest, is easier than a full front lever, where you extend the whole of your body.

    Credit to Coach Sommer and his students for the great pictures.
  3. Muscle length manipulation. A muscle can exert the greatest amount of tension at it’s mid length. You can check this when closing a gripper: if you move your wrist from the neutral position to the sides, your hand will be much weaker. Therefore, when bodyweight movements use straight arm exercises this means that the muscle can only exert very little tension, as they are in the end range of the muscle length. If you’re able to do a maltese with straight arms, this means that your muscles (specially the brachialis) are so strong that they’re able to do the movement at their hardest position. This is the reason for straight arms exercises being harder than bent arm exercises, as in the first ones the arms are not necessarily prime movers but levers through which the scapula can exert force. Hence, the great strain they cause on the connective tissue.

    The muscle length-tension relation curve.
  4. Connective tissue involvement manipulation: A support position on the rings is harder if we turn the rings out, and a planche lean is easier if we place the fingers pointing forwards. This are two examples of how an exercise may increase or decrease its difficulty by modifying the position so the connective tissue is more or less taxed.
  5. Joint stacking manipulation: If you think about it, your skeleton is hold up by the muscular system (besides others) being tensed or relaxed to keep the bones in place. In a good postural position, the joints should be stacked one on top of each other: shoulders over hips, hips over knees, knees over feet. This alignment relies on the good positioning of the joints, so the muscles don’t have to spend unnecesary energy to keep the skeleton in balance. Any deviation from this alignment will put greater pressure on the musculature. One can see the way bodyweight exercises uses this to create harder exercises in the difference between a normal handstand and a japanese handstand, where the arm width in the second one requires a lot more strength rather than good stacking of the joints.

    Credit to Yuval Ayalon for the perfect handstand.
  6. Kinetic coupling manipulation. If you show the palm of your hand to the front, what happens to the arm? Palms to the front are usually coupled with external rotation of the shoulder. This is a kinetic coupling, meaning movements that tend to happen together in the body. But, as Ido Portal puts it: “When training,
    Credit to Gymnastics Bodies.

    always apply some inefficient means to increase specific capacities. When moving – look for the most efficient way – the path of least resistance to gain maximal benefits from the ‘engine’ you built in…training”. This is true in bodyweight exercises. For example, when doing a korean dip the best possible grip considering that you want to retract the scapula and put the chest out would be hands facing forwards, but a gymnast may perform the dip with an undergrip to challenge the body’s tendencies and getting stronger.

  7. Weight manipulation. It is possible to add weight through ankle or wrist weights, vests, or to reduce it with elastic bands, dream machine (counter weights) or partner assistance. Elastic bands, nevertheless, must be used with caution in dynamic exercises. This is because they interrupt the sticking point in the strength curve, which means the hardest part of an the exercise, that usually corresponds with the change of direction from eccentric to concentric. For example, the sticking point of the strength curve of an squat would be around the middle part when we are raising up, the same as in a bench press. This problem does not exist in static exercises.
  8. Tempo manipulation. Most of the exercises will be harder if we perform them slower or faster. For example, a push up that last 60 seconds will require lots of strength, the same as an explosive push up. Gymnastics takes advantage of this by performing many plyometric exercises. The momentum generated in an exercise like the Muscle up as performed in Crossfit may also reduce the difficulty of it. As you can see in the next chart, the force a muscle can produce has an inverse relationship to the velocity of its contraction. This means that rapid contractions can use less force and slow contrations can use more force, even if in both cases we use a maximal effort. On the contrary, on eccentric actions this is the opposite. What is the practical implication of this? That if want to increase the difficulty of your pullups but do not have access to weights, you can make them harder by raising very fast and lowering very slow. If you had weights, gravity would make you raise slower and lower faster. Whenever you want to put this into practice, do your eccentrics slow and your concentrics fast, so you may match the contraction requirements of the exercise and hence receive more strength output.

    The force-velocity relation curve.
  9. Volume manipulation. It is simple: just raise the number of repetitions and the exercise becomes harder. In fact, in bodyweight exercises, contrary to external weights exercises, its much more useful to work around the concept of volume than to do it around intensity. But it is also truth that the volume of an exercise is inversely proportional to its intensity. For this, we must look for reasonable limits to not get into a military type training, as after certain number of reps we are working strength endurance and not maximal strength.
  10. Complexity manipulation. An exercise is more complex if it involves more planes of motion, muscles or patterns. For example, if you can already do a handstand push up, you can work the exercise called Bowers, Hollow back press or 90 degree push ups which is a multidimensional exercise and therefore a lot harder and more complex.
  11. Work direction manipulation. If you cannot perform a full movement, you may work on negatives, which means the eccentric part that helps you gain strength for the concentric one. The eccentric or negative part is where the main muscles are elongating, and in which gravity helps us for the movement. The concentric or positive part is where the main muscles are contracting, gravity is against us and it is harder to do the exercise. For example, a push up starts with the eccentric part (lowering), but a pull up starts with the concentric part (raising). You may also use this principle in a Press to handstand by kicking against a wall and lowering your feet slowly until they touch the floor, and eventually you’ll be able to perform the inverse movement. A negative should last at least 10 seconds, and maximum 30 seconds.
  12. Range of motion manipulation. It is a lot harder to do a Reverse muscle up than a Headstand push up, because in the first one the range of motion is greater than in the second one. So, if you cannot perform an exercise, try reducing it’s range of motion and increase it progressively.
  13. Apparatus manipulation. Different exercises will be harder on different apparatus. The most common apparatus are the floor, some parallel bars, pull up bars and gymnastics rings, although you may also use estrange objects like bottles that can raise the difficulty of an exercise. The apparatus that generally requires the most strength are the rings.
  14. Mechanical advantage manipulation. On the Deadlift people sometimes use chains or bands so when the exercise starts, which is the sticking point of the strength curve, the exercise has less weight, and when the person gets up and the exercise is easier, the chains increase the difficulty and the exercise is equally hard during the whole range of motion. This also teaches the person to accelerate during the initial part of the movement, and may also be applied to bodyweight exercises, in three ways. The first one would be to concentrate on developing strength in the sticking points of the strength curves, for example by holding the middle part of a pull up, or by concentrating on the transition part of the Muscle up. The second way would be to manipulate the assistance of an exercise. For example, to work on a one arm chin up you can increase the fingers of the assisting hang at the initial portion of the movement and reduce them at the top of it, until you don’t need them anymore. A third way is shown in the next picture, where on the upper part of the movement (the easiest) most of the strength is coming from one arm, but in the lower part of the movement (the hardest) the strength is coming from both arms.
OAHSPU assist.jpg
Jim Bathurst from Beast Skills

This last method can be seen in this video, where on a Planche push up a tuck position is used on the upper part of the movement (straight arm, harder), and a straddle position on the lower part (bent arm, easier), to match the difficulty of the exercise through its whole range of motion.

These are the methods that bodyweight exercises use to make an exercise more or less difficult. By understanding the principles behind the progressions and regressions, you can literally work every movement that you desire at your own level: you can now train to win.

If you’d like to know more about these topics, I recommend the work of Steven Low and Coach Christopher Sommer

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