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Take Your Bodyweight Workouts to the Next Level — Without Adding Weights

Take Your Bodyweight Workouts to the Next Level — Without Adding Weights

Bodyweight exercises are a convenient and effective way to improve strength and fitness without the need for any equipment. However, as your body adapts to the demands of these exercises and you get stronger, you may find yourself looking for ways to make them more challenging — and to keep your progress from stalling. 

Luckily, there are several ways to intensify your bodyweight workouts without adding weights. By doing more reps, adjusting your speed, adding pulses or holds, or increasing range of motion, you can continue to challenge your muscles and achieve your fitness goals. 

So, get creative, stay motivated, and enjoy the endless possibilities of bodyweight training.

Anna Victoria

1. Increase Reps or Sets

One of the simplest ways to intensify bodyweight exercises is by increasing the number of reps or sets. By performing more reps or additional sets, you will fatigue your muscles more thoroughly, promoting strength gains and muscular endurance.

A good rule of thumb: The last two reps of any set should be hard but doable (with good form!).

“I really like using RPE (rate of perceived exertion) for determining rep/set range, especially on the road,” says Amy Schultz, PT, DPT,SCS, CSCS, physical therapist for the Fit Body app. “Keep your RPE around 6 to 8 out of 10 for most activities if you’re trying to make a muscular adaptation.”

2. Adjust the Tempo

Altering the tempo of your movements can significantly increase the difficulty of bodyweight exercises. By slowing down the eccentric (lowering) portion of the exercise or speeding up the concentric (lifting) phase, you increase the time under tension for your muscles, placing a greater demand on them and forcing them to get stronger.

“Eccentric training is a great way to improve not only muscular strength, but also tendon health!” Schultz says. “This can really help improve your ability to slow down movement and absorb forces. For example, when on a hike, your ability to descend quickly and safely can be improved upon by working on eccentric quad strength.

To incorporate this style of training, take squats for example. You’ll lower your butt toward the floor for a count of three, then press back up to the top for a count of 1. 

Heads up: “Eccentric exercises can increase muscle soreness though, especially if you are not used to it,” Schultz says. “So make sure to recover with proper rest and nutrition following!”

3. Add Pulses or Holds

Incorporating pulses or holds midway through a bodyweight exercise can provide an extra challenge. 

For example, if you’re doing leg day at home, during a lunge, add three small pulses at the bottom, lifting and lowering just a few inches. Or you could hold a glute bridge at the top point before lowering to the starting position. Just like adjusting the tempo, these variations increase your time under tension and make your muscles work harder to maintain a contraction for longer than you usually would.

4. Shorten the Rest Time

By reducing your rest periods between sets, you can transform your workout into a high-intensity interval training (HIIT)-style session. Shorter rest times keep your heart rate elevated, increase calorie burn, and enhance cardiovascular fitness, all while challenging your muscles in a different way.

Just as with increasing reps and sets, a good measure of just how short your rest periods can be depends on your goal and RPE.

“Try to keep the RPE above 6 out of 10,” Schultz says. “If you’re using the programs in the app for getting a total-body workout — including the benefits of cardio — limit the rest to as little as possible so long as you maintain good form for the same amount of load.”

“If you feel your form becoming sloppy or feel you need to decrease the intensity, try to rest a bit longer between sets,” she says.

5. Perform Supersets

Similar to decreasing the rest between sets, you can perform supersets of exercise, which decreases the time to essentially zero. Supersets involve performing two (up to four) exercises back to back without rest. 

This technique keeps your muscles engaged continuously, providing a demanding workout. For instance, you can combine push-ups with squats or lunges with triceps dips to work multiple muscle groups, keep your heart rate (and calorie burn) up, and intensify your routine.

6. Incorporate Unilateral Exercises

Unilateral exercises — using only one side of the body at a time — create an additional challenge for your muscles, while helping improve balance, stability, and core strength. 

For example, try single-leg squats or one-arm push-ups. These exercises engage your core and smaller stabilizing muscles more effectively.

7. Combine Two Exercises

Combining two exercises into one fluid movement is an excellent way to make bodyweight exercises harder. For instance, you can perform a curtsy lunge followed by a squat, which engages multiple muscle groups — and some of the same muscles in a different way — and increases the difficulty level.

A few more examples include: push-up to downward dog, reverse lunge to knee lift, mountain climber to push-up, and side lunge to sumo squat.

8. Add Plyometrics

Plyometric exercises involve explosive movements, such as jumps or bounding. By incorporating plyometrics, you introduce an element of power and explosiveness to your bodyweight routine, providing a whole new level of intensity. 

Options include squat jumps, lunge jumps, tuck jumps, speed skaters, burpees, clap push-ups, and mountain climbers.

If plyo is too hard on your knees, you can also “fake” it by adding a calf raise at the end. For example, you can lower down into a squat, and as you raise up, swing your arms behind you and press up onto your toes.

9. Increase the Range of Motion

Expanding the range of motion in your bodyweight exercises can effectively intensify the workout. 

“By increasing your range during workouts, you will inherently use more muscle fibers, burning more calories and leading to more strength gains!” Schultz says. It also helps improve mobility and reduce the risk of injury, she adds.

For example, during at-home arm workouts, you can perform deeper push-ups by lowering your chest closer to the ground or elevate your feet for a decline variation. These modifications engage muscles differently, promoting strength gains.

10. Utilize Variations or Progressions

Lastly, substituting exercise variations or progressions is an effective way to challenge yourself further. For example, progressing from knee or incline push-ups to full push-ups or from regular squats to pistol squats or squat jumps can provide increased difficulty and keep your body continually adapting.

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