5 Ways to Make Bodyweight Exercises Tougher
For many barbell-and-dumbbell devotees, bodyweight exercises are bush league. But adding difficulty and performing hard bodyweight exercises like squats, push-ups, lunges, jumps, and other moves can be a challenging workout for anyone.
“Being able to control your body weight is key for building fitness,” says Craig Rasmussen, C.S.C.S., training department manager at Results Fitness in California. “It’s the foundation for every type of athletic and strength endeavor.”
Armed with the following tips, you can make tougher bodyweight exercises that become powerful tools for achieving nearly any fitness goal.
1. Change Your Angle
“Let’s say you can easily do 15 to 20 reps of a basic push-up,” says Scott Mathison, a trainer for Openfit’s Just Bring Your Body program. “By simply elevating your feet, the push-up becomes that much harder, and your rep range is going to go down.”
2. Change Your Tempo
You already know that moving faster can make any exercise more challenging — performing 30 squats in 30 seconds is harder than performing 30 squats in 60 seconds, for example. But the same also holds true in reverse: The slower you perform each rep, the more intense the exercise becomes because you will keep your muscles under tension longer.
If you really want to challenge yourself, add a pause at the most difficult point of the move (usually when the target muscle is fully stretched). “I might have a client hold the bottom of a squat or a push-up for a two-count,” says Rasmussen. “It’s simple, but it’s very challenging.”
3. Increase Your Range of Motion
According to Mathison, another key to creating more difficult bodyweight exercises is adjusting your range of motion. “When you’re doing a push-up, if you’re coming all the way down to the floor and stretching out your chest, then pushing all the way through, you’re going to get a better workout than with shorter range push-ups,” he says. “Changing your range of motion will get you more gains with each exercise.”
It’s solid advice. Muscles are weakest at the end of their ranges of motion (i.e., when they’re fully stretched), so the more you work them in that end range, the more strength you’ll build.
4. Destabilize Yourself
“The smaller [or more unstable] your base of support, the tougher it will be to balance, and the harder the exercise will become,” says Rasmussen. The result: more strength in less time.
Simply moving your feet closer together during a squat will do the trick. Another (tougher) option is to reduce your ground contact by lifting one or more limbs. But choose which limb you lift wisely — keeping one leg raised as you perform the push-up is hard, but keeping one hand raised (i.e., performing a single-arm push-up) is a true test of strength. So is the pistol squat, which is performed on one leg with the other one held off the ground in front of you.
“You can work up to a single-arm push-up just like you would for a classic push-up,” says Rasmussen. “Gradually work your way down from an elevated surface.” For the pistol squat, place one or both hands on a pole or other steady object until you can perform the move without any support.
5. Combine Two (or More) Movements
A pull-up is hard, but a pull-up with a knee raise is harder.
“The more muscles you work, the more joints you engage, and the more planes of motion you move through, the more difficult the exercise becomes,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S. and Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content.
Added bonus: Combining bodyweight movements instantly increases your exercise arsenal, amplifying the variety you can bring to each workout. “And variety is one of the most important elements in any training program,” says Thieme. “Your goal is to never stop adapting, and the best way to do that is to regularly switch up your training stimulus.”
Hard Bodyweight Exercises
Ready to try some harder bodyweight exercises? These moves use modifications above to increase their difficulty. You’ll also find other takes on these moves (such as the “Wide-Medium-Close Push-up”) in Just Bring Your Body.
- Begin in a downdog position, with your arms in line with your shoulders and hips, framing your head with your arms and hips high.
- Rotate your hands in slightly to protect your shoulders.
- Bend your elbows and bring the crown of your head toward the floor, not letting your head hit the floor.
- Push through the palms to extend back up.
Side plank tricep extension
- Begin in a forearm side plank on the right, with right forearm perpendicular to your body, right elbow under your shoulder, right palm facing the ground, and body in a nice straight line with your feet stacked.
- Raise your left arm to the sky, keep your arm in light with the shoulder.
- Take your left hand and place it over the right hand and press through the right palm to extend up to a high plank.
- Reach the left arm to the sky, then place the left hand over the right hand and slowly release your left elbow back to the ground to the starting position.
- Continue to repeat for a number of reps before you repeat the same movement on the other side.
- Begin standing with your feet directly below your hips and parallel, toes pointed forward.
- Bend the knees, sit the hips back and keep your chest up until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Push through your heels to stand.
Superman lat pull-down
- Start by laying on your stomach with your legs extended, arms fully extended overhead, and neck neutral.
- Squeeze the glutes as you raise your arms, legs, and head off the ground.
- Bend both elbows and pull down toward the hips, squeezing the shoulder blades together behind you.
- Extend arms back overhead and release both arms and legs about an inch off the ground and repeat.
Squat lunge matrix
- Start by standing with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width and parallel.
- Perform a squat by bending the knees, sitting the hips back, and keeping the chest up.
- Push through the heels to stand.
- Then perform a lunge by pivoting both feet to the right and bending both knees to 90 degrees, keeping the chest up.
- Return back to center and perform another squat and repeat the lunge of the other side.
- Continue to alternate sides.
Ready For More?
Now that you know how to make bodyweight exercises harder, take the next step to transform your body and lose weight with Just Bring Your Body. “The Fit Four” will guide you through 30-minute workouts five days a week and show you that you don’t need a gym to burn calories and build muscle.
“With bodyweight training, there really are no limits,” says Mathison. “You’re really going to see that with JBYB. You’re going to be moving ways you didn’t think were possible and getting results you didn’t know were possible.”
Just Bring Your Body is available to all Openfit members. here.