When it comes to progressive overload, Bodyweight Strength Training and Calisthenics can sometimes be a different beast than weightlifting.
In weightlifting, you stick with some basic movements (like bench, squat, deadlift, bicep curls, etc.), and add weight to the movement over time.
It’s not that simple with bodyweight strength training. But we can make it just as reliable if we know what to do.
The biggest roadblocks to progressing in bodyweight training are:
Read on to find out why they are a problem, and how to fix them.
The biggest difference between bodyweight training and weight training is that with weight training, you will stick with one movement, and load it with weight over time. With bodyweight training, once you get strong with a movement, you’ll need to progress to a new movement in order to make it harder. This is usually done by decreasing the leverage, which increases the resistance on the target muscles. This does mean that each new movement comes with its own technical challenges.
If you’ve been doing bodyweight training for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed that sometimes, this jump from one progression to the next can be hard - if not impossible. It can feel like the equivalent of jumping from a 100lb squat to a 200lb squat.
Scaling is a more incremental change to a movement, rather than a new movement.
Take a Pushup for example. A common progression is:
Instead of jumping from one to the next, we can easily scale it like so:
You can do this with basically any bodyweight exercises, it just takes a little bit more thought than adding weights to a bar.
Even when using scaling, we still need a more incremental way to apply overload. The difference a couple of inches of lean makes in the above example can still be significant. Changing up your scaling is best done every few weeks. So how do you progress week to week and workout to workout?
In a weightlifting program, you might see 3x10r @ 50lbs. In bodyweight training, its usually better to focus on rep ranges instead. Something like 3x10-15r.
Here’s how a program might look:
As you can see, we can still apply an overload week to week using the same progression and scaling. Once we start a new training cycle, we can repeat but with a harder progression. This is the secret to progressing bodyweight movements.
But we can make it even better…
Looking back at our pushup progression example, let’s look closer at the pseudo planche pushup. We had a few different scalings that required different amounts of lean. What happens when you get tired during a set? (You’ll start using less lean). What happens when you come back the next week, or even the next set. How do you make sure you’re using the same amount of lean?
Enter the tape measure.
For the pseudo planche pushup, you can measure the distance from your hands, to a wall in front of you. You’ll then lean so your head lightly touches the wall. And you can keep it consistent that way.
You can also use landmarks to standardize range of motion (another way to scale an exercise). For example, pullups. You may start by only being able to get the bar to under your chin. That’s your scaling, and that’s what you shoot for. When you can’t get the bar under your chin, you’ve reached failure. When you get stronger, you may be able to actually touch the bar to your chest. At that point, that’s your new landmark, and every rep should touch your chest to stay consistent.
So now we have 3 ways to ensure that we are making progress with bodyweight training:
If you’ve ever felt like you’ve gotten stuck and can’t move on to a new progression, make sure you are applying these to your training.