by Al Kavadlo T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- To continually gain strength using nothing but your own body weight, you have to put yourself at a mechanical disadvantage.
- If you aren’t able to do an L-sit, start with your knees bent, then as you get stronger straighten out your legs. You can also ease into the pistol squat by holding onto a bench or using a weight as leverage.
- Handstand push-ups, back levers, and back bridges can increase mobility and help with basic barbell exercises.
- Muscle-ups, human flags, one-arm pull-ups, and planches will increase strength and can to improved performance on your favorite lifts.
Don’t Underestimate Bodyweight Training
There’s no limit to how strong you can get using nothing but your own body weight for resistance. It’s all about understanding how to manipulate body leverage to put yourself at a mechanical disadvantage.
The exercises below don’t necessarily need to replace any of your favorite barbell or dumbbell exercises. In fact, using them to supplement your weight training may even translate to an increase on your main lifts.
Test your mettle against these moves and see how many you can perform. You might be surprised how few of the feats below are currently within your capabilities. With practice and determination, however, moves that may seem impossible on your first attempt can eventually be unlocked and conquered.
One of the most fundamental skills in gymnastics, the L-sit is an isometric exercise that involves holding your body upright on your palms with your legs held straight out in front, so the shape of your body resembles a capital letter “L.”
This move works your entire body, particularly emphasizing the abs. You’ll also need powerful triceps and better than average flexibility in your hips and hamstrings to hold this position.
Though the L-sit is typically performed on the floor with the hands placed palms-down just outside your hips, feel free to perform them on an elevated object if you’re having trouble performing them on the ground. Doing so will give you more leeway to lift into the hold.
If you aren’t able to achieve a full L-sit yet, you can practice working up to this move with a bent-knee variant and gradually progress to straightening your legs over time.
2. Back Bridge
Even with bodyweight training’s new popularity, back bridges are still often left out of most strength training programs. This timeless exercise can be surprisingly challenging, so it’s easy to allow it to fall to the wayside in favor of more fun or exciting moves.
From strengthening your glutes, spinal erectors, and other posterior musculature, to providing a stretch for your hip flexors, abs, shoulders and chest, the benefits of bridging are well worth the effort.
A lot of strong guys have a hard time with the mobility aspect of the bridge. In fact, that’s part of why I recommend them to lifters. Even if calisthenics aren’t your scene, practicing toward a full back bridge can be a great way to improve mobility in your shoulders, pelvis, and spine. It might even help your deadlift, too.
Over the last several years, the muscle-up has become one of the most popular bodyweight exercises out there, and for good reason.
Muscle-ups give you a lot of bang for your buck, combining the classic pull-up and dip along with the addition of the deceptively difficult transition phase. Besides being a fantastic upper-body exercise, the muscle-up also requires tremendous abdominal recruitment.
Though being able to do double-digits in pull-ups and dips is typically a prerequisite for muscle-ups, it can still take a considerable amount of practice to learn the technique and timing.
Even if you’re already strong, you won’t be able to bust out a muscle-up without spending some time learning the subtleties of the movement pattern.
4. Pistol Squat
The pistol squat combines strength, balance, and flexibility in a way that few other exercises can. Though often referred to as a “one legged squat,” the pistol demands harmony throughout the entire body.
In fact, people are often caught off guard the first time they try this move because it requires a lot of strength and flexibility in the non-squatting leg. The ability to squat a lot of weight on two legs can be helpful when attempting this move, but even those who can barbell squat twice their bodyweight often struggle with the stability needed to do a clean pistol.
Just like the other moves on this list, you can work towards doing pistol squats by changing the leverage or giving yourself an assist from an external object like a bench or a doorframe. Once you’ve gotten comfortable with the basic variation, you can advance the move by placing your hands behind your back for an additional challenge.
5. Handstand Push-up
Someone who can overhead press close to his entire bodyweight is very strong. The handstand push-up requires the same strength, plus the ability to keep your cool while holding yourself upside-down on your hands.
Like all bodyweight exercises, handstand push-ups require no equipment and can easily be regressed by changing the leverage.
If you aren’t able to do a full handstand push-up, start with a pike push-up by putting your feet on a box or step and bending your body in half at the waist. This places less of your weight in your arms, while still allowing you to press your torso from an inverted position.
Practicing handstand push-ups against the wall has its benefits, but the freestanding handstand push-up is a unique animal. Learning a freestanding handstand on its own is a formidable task, but add to that the stability and strength to lower all the way down and press yourself back up and you’ve got yourself a serious challenge.
6. Back Lever
The back lever is another move with its origins in gymnastics. The move finds the body suspended face-down in mid-air with the only contact points being two hands holding a bar or rings.
Though the least difficult of the various body levers, the back lever is still a powerful move for the entire posterior chain – hams, glutes, lower back, upper-back – as well as the grip and biceps, particularly when performed with the gymnastics-style supinated grip.
Like all the lever variants, the back lever is best learned first with the legs in a tucked position. From here one can progress to a single leg tuck and then a straddle leg position before finally performing the move with both legs together.
You can also try starting at a high angle and gradually work on lowering your body toward being parallel to the ground. Aim to avoid excessive arching of your spine when practicing the back lever. Though arching isn’t inherently dangerous, a deep arch can make the move significantly less difficult.
7. Human Flag
Performed by holding the outstretched body sideways against a vertical pole (or two parallel bars that are stacked vertically), the human flag is one of the most eye-catching of all bodyweight feats of strength.
What the back lever does for the posterior chain, the human flag does for the lateral chain. In other words, this move will work the sides of your body to an extreme degree!
8. Front Lever
The ultimate display of straight-arm pulling prowess, the front lever involves holding your entire body face-up and outstretched beneath a pull-up bar like you’re floating on air. The lats, arms, delts, chest and abs all play their part in making the front lever happen.
Though the front lever and back lever appear to be fairly similar, most people find that holding a front lever takes considerably more strength. Begin practicing with your legs tucked and slowly progress toward extending them over time.
9. One-Arm Pull-Up
Considered by many to be the holy grail of pull-up prowess, there are few better examples of pound-for-pound strength than the one-arm pull-up.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the kind where your other hand is holding your wrist (though that variant, which I prefer to call a one-handed pull-up, can be an early step toward a true OAP). In the exercise I’m talking about, the other arm never touches the pulling arm.
As we get into elite level skills like this one, it becomes increasingly important to be aware of your connective tissue. It’s not uncommon for people to develop tendinitis when beginning their quest for the one arm pull-up, so ease in slowly and don’t be shortsighted.
Though a solid foundation in two-arm pull-ups is obviously a prerequisite for performing this move, the one-arm pull-up is a fickle mistress that requires lots of patience and skill-specific training.
Start by just getting comfortable hanging from one arm, then start working on a one-arm flexed hang. Eventually you can start doing controlled negatives on one arm. If you’re patient and diligent, one day you might achieve a full one-arm pull-up.
The ultimate in gravity-defying isometric holds, the full planche is most commonly seen in competitive gymnastics and high-level breakdancing, although it’s popping up more and more in “street workout” competitions and other extreme calisthenics settings.
Though often performed on parallel bars or other elevated surfaces, the planche is most challenging when held on the floor. The progression to the full planche usually begins with both legs tucked close to the chest before advancing to a straddle-legged position and ultimately the full planche with both legs straight and fully extended.
This move can be brutal on your connective tissue as well as your muscles. Respect the difficulty level of this one! Just holding a tuck planche can be extremely humbling, so start there and build up to 30 seconds before going for the full monty.