Published on February 1st, 2013 | by Nick Coe0
The Ultimate Guide to Body Weight Training
Paradoxically, at the turn of the 21st century as the technological era really picked up some momentum, people in heavily modernized nations started to desire the physiques of our ancient Paleolithic ancestors. We began attempting to recreate and copy their diets, and pumped billions into the contemporary fitness industry trying to look like them – minus the protruding foreheads, forward slouch, and excessive joint damage from constant walking and running.
On one end of the spectrum you’ve got billionaires that go out with bows and arrows to hunt down and naturally kill their meals to gain perspective, and on the other, an emerging movement of body weight athletes that are foregoing all exterior weights, machines, straps, etc.
It’s a fact everyone knows deep down, but doesn’t want to admit in a consumer culture – the human body alone, coupled with movement and gravity are all that we need to become fitness model material. Of course for body fat percentages, food intake plays a big role. But when you’re eating nothing but clean protein, veggies, fruits, nuts, and berries – that’s the easy part.
From the urban gymnastics of freerunning, breakdancing, bar calisthenics, hand balancing and rope climbing – to a large variety of crawling patterns intended to mimic animals, fitness is dynamically changing through body weight training.
Bar athletes, body weight athletes, and body weight coaches are all titles that more and more people are striving to achieve, and search for; both online as well as in the real world.
This guide is meant to give anyone that’s new to the idea of getting into body weight training a thorough understanding of the discipline, underlying philosophy, implementation of basic body weight exercises, and an idea of how strong the growth is in this industry.
What Exactly is Body Weight Training?
Body weight, movement, and gravity – those are the tools and that’s it. It sounds simple enough, but once you try your first Muscle Up, Archer Pushup, one armed pull-up, Tornado Pull-Up, or a break dancing move like the Turtle Freeze, the illusions of simplicity shatter.
If you did hunt down a Body Weight Coach, they would give you a fitness program that incorporates the entire body in multiple ways, in multiples planes, and moving in multiple directions at the same time. Or, they would start you off with body weight based isometrics like the L-Sit and advanced kinds of planks. We’ll touch on isometrics in a moment.
Strangely enough, most of the people that seem to wander or bump into body weight training, have spent many years doing the traditional thing in gyms with weights and machines. These people and their bodies are tired of that approach. They’re looking for something new, more challenging, and a physical training regimen that stays fresh and new.
Body Weight Training Basics
- Body Weight Training (BWT) is a discipline that is completely, 100% progressive, and it’s nearly impossible to hit a plateau.
- Unlike traditional weight training, which after a while can become mechanized, a person cannot escape a body weight exercise. They must remain present through each movement and every second of an isometric hold.
- For most, it’s about mastering the self, and the body, rather than dominating a certain weight or aesthetic goal.
- BWTers are not “weight haters”. In fact, many incorporate resistance training into their BWT programs.
- BWT is skill based, so working out is a progression of skill, rather than strength. Although strength gain is unavoidable.
The question remains, why do so many people ditch conventional weights altogether and become devoted to body weight training?
Is it because every exercise isn’t a rep, but a pass or fail test? Either you can do that move, or hold that pose, or you can’t. Period.
Is it because it’s free, and the trend is nothing more than a natural response to a second great global fiscal depression?
Is it because people get a greater degree of personal satisfaction from overcoming their own bodies and the obstacles that leverage and gravity present, rather than machines and inanimate objects?
Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.
I’m sure it is a memorable moment in a person’s life when they can bench press a huge amount of weight. However, what is it like to perform your first Human Flag? This is where you fully extend your body laterally out from a pole like a flag. Try that one on for size and see if it’s something you would like to conquer more than those 100lb dumbbells.
What is Progress in BWT?
By adding complexity; through movement and leverage you add tension and increase load. One easy example is going from doing a regular frontal plank on the ground, to doing one in the air while holding on tight with your chin above the pull-up bar.
BWT is versatile. Any goal that has been preached through the mainstream exercise industry can be obtained through BWT, whether we’re talking about strength and hypertrophy, or endurance. The tools of BWT beyond leverage, movement, and gravity are: tempo, volume, the number of reps, and complexity.
When you think about it, the transition is already happening. It went from the more old school Olympic type training, to using all kinds of balance balls, straps, and all else, to BWT.
Rather than having the central nervous system communicate and interact with exterior weights, BWT forces it to communicate with and engage itself. The body has to deal with and adapt to the body itself. Thereby linking the kinetic chain, and synergizing the entire musculature at once.
Physiological Benefits to Isometric Strength Conditioning
This is going to be a crash course on why isometric conditioning is a great place to start preparing your mind and body for pure BWT.
In a nut shell when you perform an isometric exercise the muscles being used do not contract, and there should be no movement in the limbs. Yet, isometrics build incredible strength, why?
Simple: every muscle is made up of tiny strands, like a rope, and the brain is programmed to tap into the bare minimum when you need to perform some sort of physical task.
The reason why weight training requires reps to work is because the point is to get some strands tired, force the brain to ask for more help, and so on. The first rep of a bench press uses about 5%, then the next rep needs more, and more, until you either stop from tension, or muscle failure.
What if you squat down and ask your brain to tell your body to lift an immovable object? The brain goes, uh oh, and uses every fiber at once within a matter of seconds. Still the object does not move and what you’ll be experiencing at that point is known as an isometric contraction.
So, you work the entire muscle, every strand, in a matter of seconds vs. 3 sets of 8-15 reps that steadily use more and more.
Now, there is a lot of movement in BWT, TONS! Furthermore, as mentioned, reps are often used with body weight exercises like the planche pushup, one handed pushup, or the huge list of things you can do with a simple elevated bar at a playground. This makes most of BWT isotonic.
However, the first place people start with BWT is holding their body weight against gravity without movement. Furthermore, some of the most impressive feats of BWT strength and prowess are isometric body weight holds. Like the L-sit.
4 Beginner BWT Exercises
1) The L-Sit
This is where you hold your body off the ground and extend your legs out in front of you. It is one of the more basic ways that gymnasts and warriors train their abs. It takes an immense amount of strength just to pull off; maintaining it for reps of time is what truly builds strength and endurance.
Imagine you’re sitting in a chair. You extend your legs out in front of you, keeping them straight. Then you put your hands on the armrests and push up, keeping your legs together and suspended in the air like a gymnast in the rings. That’s an L-sit.
There’s no real way to prepare for them, you just have to get down on the ground, put your hands directly to your sides by your butt, and then get your body completely off the ground so only your hands are touching.
Many find that it’s best to shoot for getting up on your fingertips eventually so you can add a few more inches of space. Much farther along the BWT fitness journey, you will get to the point where you can go from an L-sit, into a handstand; yes seriously.
For most people who have grappled with weights for many years, this simple sounding task becomes a mission! It’s an extremely effective isometric BWT pose.
2) The One-Armed Pushup Progression
First, a note on body alignment: You’re going to need to spread your legs out a bit rather than keeping them close to one another like a regular pushup. Shoulders should be kept parallel to the ground of course. The arms need to be close in, but straight down to the ground where the palms are even with the shoulders. Here’s a four step process to overcoming and mastering one armed pushups.
These should be eccentric motion only, just go down, don’t try to push back up. We’re going to evolve, or adapt into that.
Start in normal pushup position and choose which arm you’re going to work with first. Now, as you go down, let the non working arm stay on the ground, and slide laterally with your fingers pointed out, lightly supporting you as your body descends. Try to keep as much body weight on the working arm as possible to start building strength. It’s best to do them at a slow tempo, and alternate working arms.
Now that you’ve been training the muscles involved, which is basically the entire body, it’s time to start pushing back up, with a little help.
Go down the same way, using the non working arm for light support moving out laterally along the ground, and then do the same thing when you come back up. Again, keep as much body weight on the working arm as possible, but use that other hand on the ground to the side for help.
Ok, so you’re in pushup position, with your legs spread out. Now, take the non working arm and extend it out latterly, but this time in the air. While keeping one arm in the air, go down. As you get to the ground, your non working arm should meet it, and be there to assist you on your way back up. Keep in mind that your chest should touch down before your non working hand.
You should be seeing the progression now, and how you’re actually training first eccentrically, and working into an unassisted push back up.
This is the big one, the thing that will impress everyone at the gym, because you never ever see anyone doing these there.
You should have practiced these other steps and progressed you’re way here. You pick an arm to work with, put the other behind your back or whatever is comfortable, go down slowly, and push back up.
That is a fool proof way to train your body to make one handed pushups as easy over time as regular pushups are. The difference is you see far more results by using one arm at a time rather than two.
This is one way to take an ordinary BWT exercise like the pushup, and turn it into something you must conquer, a skill.
3) BWT for the Planche
This is quite possible one of the most intense full-body workouts in existence. There are many progressions after you manster a planche, but many more steps to get to one. It’s really a mattr of taste and personal evolution.
No matter how you choose to get to them, developing both extraordinary strength and balance is part of the journey.
Be sure to stretch your wrists, fingers, and hands before getting into these.
Special Pseudo Pushups
These are a special kind of pushup that begins to train the specific muscles you’ll be using in planches. You’re going to get in pushup position, but put your palms on the ground just above the hip line. You’re on your toes, feet close together not apart, and leaning forward a bit to target the specific muscles.
Start paying close attention to and focusing on your breathing as well, because it’s an ESSENTIAL part of this exercise. After onc glance at a planche, you’ll get an idea for how hard it is to get used to breathing. You’re entire body is under mind boggling stress, and possibly every muscle fiber is being taxed.
Picture being in a low pushup position, with your legs extended out behind you, but only your pals are touching the ground.
Knee on Elbow Holds to Tucked Planche
Place hands on the floor shoulder width apart in front of you as you squat down behind them. Now widen the knees to the outside until your knees and elbows are touching, and then lean forward. The goal at first is to be able to simply hold your body off the ground like that without moving. Most people shoot for 6 sets of 5 second holds to build up strength and internal balance.
You’ll find that stretching and strengthening the fingers is a big help here and make things bit steadier. The fingers can help keep you from leaning in any direction. The next progression is to have your knees connected to the back of the arms rather than outside the blows.
After you’ve mastered these two steps, take your knees off of your arms altogether, tuck them up underneath and simply hold your body off the ground like that. This is another isometric training phase towards doing a fully extended planche.
From the tucked planche, start by extending one leg and holding, and after you’ve mastered that, extend the other. Step by step, progression by progression, your mastery over your own body becomes like a stairway to elite conditioning.
Wall Planche Pushups
It really helps to be able to do without your shoes on. Socks make it easier to slide. It’s really hard to scoot shoes up and down the wall as you do the planche pushups.
Prepare for these by holding yourself in pushup position with your feet on the wall in an isometric pose. It’s harder than it sounds.
When I say pushup position, I’m referring to the pseudo pushups from earlier, not traditional pushups. When working into planches, always to do the low leaning forward pushups with your palms on the ground just in front of your hips.
As you get used to the pose, begin incorporating pushups. You just have to struggle through them to make them easier. Now imagine doing these same pushups, but without the wall, and with your legs spread out a bit. After that you put your legs together, and those are full-fledge planche pushups.
4) The Single-Leg Squat at a Glance
These are astounding. Imagine squatting all the way down to the ground on one leg with the other extended out in front of you. Then picture being able to push all the way back up again. Sounds too Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee right? Wrong, anyone can train to master these in their living room starting with a chair, loveseat, or couch.
You’re sitting in your chair with correct posture, and you begin by alternating standing up on one leg. That’s it. However, as you’ll see in the next step, it gets much harder from here on out.
Isn’t it strange standing up on one leg rather than two? It should show you how well trained your internal balance and stabilization mechanisms are.
Here is where you find something that is a bit lower than your average chair. The lower you go, the harder it is to get back up. So, just find your current threshold. How far can you go down on one leg before it’s too low for your strength to get you back up?
For most people this will look something like a one legged half squat. One getting up from a seated position is easy, and you no longer lose balance at all, move onto these.
Ok, the next progression is simply going from standing, all the way down. If you manage to keep your balance and not fall over, engage tons of muscle strands by trying to stand back up.
Once you can slowly and smoothly go all the way down and then stay there without falling over, it’s time for the last step.
You’re balance has been sufficiently trained, and you can go down slowly and controlled. The final step is just struggling back up by repeated isometric contractions. The kind where you ask your muscles to lift an object that because of body positioning and leverage is too heavy. Over time, you’ll get there.
The L-sit, one-handed pushup, the planche, and the single-leg squat are four fascinating journeys into the world of BWT. Hopefully this guide has inspired you to jump onto social networking sites and search engines to start researching for yourself.
Contrary to what people at first suspect, body weight training is quite popular – and they are just as surprised to find out that BWT has been around and held strongly to for thousands of years. Spartans didn’t need machines, so why should we?