Sets and Reps
One of the most common questions about training, bodyweight or otherwise, is how many sets and reps should I do? The answer actually isn’t all that important.
There is no magic number. Yes, in a certain range you may be working more on strength, and in a higher range muscle growth, and still higher it just becomes endurance. I’m not saying that is not true, although it isn’t black and white. What I’m saying is that as long as you’re following progressive principles you’ll make progress.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you can do 3 sets of 20 regular pushups. In your next session you try to beat that. That means you either do more than 20 reps per set, or add another set or two. You can also time yourself and do the same 3 sets of 20 in a lesser amount of time. The first two methods increase your volume which means progression. The last example is an increase in density which means progression. As long as you’re doing more you’re progressing.
But if you try a one arm pushup you may only be able to do one rep. That’s fine. If you’ve never done that before you’ve just hit a PR as it’s an increase in intensity. Maybe in your next workout you can do a couple reps. Again we’ve increased the volume. As long as you’re progressing in some manner you are getting stronger.
I will set arbitrary numbers that you may want to hit before going to the next move in the progression, but like I said, these are arbitrary. You may be able to progress before you hit that number and that’s fine. I don’t care if you like to do singles or sets of 20. As long as you progress in some form, and eventually work towards the harder moves you will become ridiculously strong. Most people over-complicate this issue.
Keep good track of what you’re doing and build from there. Now let’s move onto the exercises themselves.
Pushing exercises are done with the upper body and the arms moving away from the torso. In the case of bodyweight exercises you are pushing your body up away from the ground. With weights you would be pushing the object away from your torso. It is a primary movement of the human body.
Pushing exercises are commonly divided into two different planes, of horizontal and vertical movement. But the truth is there is many other angles as well, like a diagonal between the two. With cables you can also push out directly from your body to the sides. And with dips you can work in the vertical plane but the opposite of handstand pushups. Regardless of what plane you’re pushing in you’re still using the same muscles for the most part, those being the triceps, shoulder or deltoid muscles and the chest. Different pushing exercises will hit these muscles differently and may emphasize one or more muscles over others.
There is also a difference between straight arm support positions, and even moving in a straight arm position, and all these bent arm exercises. The straight arm positions are typically more advanced and are done in hand balancing and advanced gymnastic feats.
The upper body is comprised of two main motions, pushing and pulling. Now that we’ve covered in depth the pushing exercises, it’s time to go the other route. These exercises work the antagonistic muscles of those, most notably the biceps and the latissimus dorsi. The lats, as they’re commonly referred to, are some of the biggest and strongest muscles of the body.
Once again we’ll be starting out with horizontal pulling motions and working towards vertical pulling motions where you handle more and more of your weight.
It’s important to note that, especially with people that cannot yet do pullups, they tend to neglect this main motion of the body focusing on pushing, ab, and squat exercises instead. While the pushing exercises can help indirectly with building the strength you need to start with these movements, you’re better off if you include them from the beginning.
I personally love to work the pushing and pulling exercises back and forth going from one push to one pull set for set.
The pullup is just like the chinnup except that the grip changes. Become of how the muscle wraps around the forearm this makes the pullup harder. Some people say it’s about 20-30% harder. Of course if you’re use to one position over the other you may not find that, but once you get use to both you’ll find that’s the case.
Hang from the bar with an overhand grip, that is the palms of the hands facing away from you. Start the pull by packing in the shoulders. Bend the arms and pull your chin over the bar. Lower under control.
Work up to 4 sets of 15 reps.
Bridging movements are not commonly seen, even among many people who do bodyweight workouts. Yet, they should be. The bridge, in it’s few forms is one of the best exercises for back flexibility along with strength.
There are two main forms of bridges the wrestler’s version and the gymnast or hand bridge. Both are great and should be trained. Starting out, people will usually have more success with the wrestler’s bridge as it requires less flexibility, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work towards the gymnast bridge as well.
Also all these movements are to be held for time. Once you get into the top position you hold it.
Abdominal work is a favorite of some and the nemesis of others. Here we’re not going to do a single crunch. Although I’ve included the situp, there are much better exercises. Specifically we’ll be working with various leg raise positions and then the power wheel.
Although I’m calling this the ab section, that is a bit of a misnomer. Yes the many muscles of the abdominals may be the prime movers or stabilizers of these movements, but much more is involved. The main function of the abs is actually to stabilize the body not to move it, and thus many of these exercises reflect that.
Another common word is “core” which better gets to the idea, yet has been thrown around in so many misused ways. Suffice to say, that these exercises work many muscles surrounding the torso and not just the abs. It is much better to work them in this way then an isolation movement like the crunch, that really doesn’t do anything.
Floor Leg Raise
As usual we’ll be starting with easy exercises and gradually making them harder. The first two exercises are the only ones where you’ll actually be laying on the ground.
Lay on your back with the legs outstretched. The hand should be at the sides or slightly out but with the elbows straight. Point the toes. Keeping the knees locked and legs together, raise them up until they are perpendicular to the ground. Lower them in control until they are just hovering above the floor. Do not touch the floor between reps unless you need to.
If this is too difficult allow some bend in the knees to make the exercise easier, or work a single leg at a time.
Work up to 3 sets of 20 reps.
The situp is a commonly seen exercise. It also happens to be one of my least favorite. But it’s a decent enough exercise to be used in the beginning. The fact is the hip flexors do most of the work, not the abdominals.
Hook your feet under a stable object like a friend holding your feet, two kettlebells or a chair. Lie on your back with your knees bent 90 degrees. Keep your arms crossed and on your chest. Pull your upper body until it is upright then lower back down under control.
To make this exercise easier keep your arms behind your head as seen below. To make it harder keep them outstretched and overhead.
Work up to 4 sets of 20 reps.
Hanging Knee Raise
The hanging knee raise is the first in our series of hanging exercises. I love these movements because you must stabilize your torso and raise your legs up. It’s like two exercises in one.
Hang from an overhead bar. I prefer an overhand grip but you can use a underhand grip if you choose. For all hanging exercises it is best if you cannot touch the ground with your body completely outstretched. Bend your knees 90 degrees and raise them up until the thighs are parallel with the ground. Lower under control.
To make this exercise harder raise the knees up to your chest as high as you can go with them.
Work up to 4 sets of 20 reps.
Power Wheel Walking
I mentioned before that the abs primary job is to stabilize your body. This exercise is one of my absolute favorites for working that function. Your abs don’t move and all the work is being done just to keep it that way.
Strap the power wheel on your feet. Get onto your hands and knees. (Note: I find it easiest to get the power wheel on my feet while sitting down, then flipping over to the starting position.) Get into a pushup position so only your hands and the power wheel are touching the ground. Start walking. Make sure your body is kept in a line and you do not sag or raise up at the hips. You can go forwards and back and even turn to the sides.
Work up to two minutes of walking around or covering 100 yards of distance.
The legs involve some of the biggest muscles of the human body. They are also the strongest. With bodyweight exercises after you get through the beginner stage you’ll typically be doing lots of repetitions. However, after a period of time this does just become an endurance game.
We can and will move to the one legged versions, but even those can become easy. So to continually challenge the legs we must add explosiveness into the mix so that’s what we’ll finish with in the jumps covered here.
There is also lots of carry over between the leg series and the conditioning series. Hill sprints are good for both. High rep squats are good for both. So I’ve just broken them up into areas where I best see fit.
Also the legs tend to be less fun to train then the upper body, at least in my opinion, but ignoring them would be a huge mistake. If nothing else, I would say train your legs first and let the other things fall into place.
The regular squat basically involves all the muscles of the legs. It’s a simple exercise and a general movement pattern that everyone should have.
Stand with you legs slightly outside shoulder width. The feet can point slightly to the outside. Sit back with your butt maintaining a straight back. Avoid bending forward too much. At the bottom of the squat it’s okay for the lower back to round. As there is no external weight, your chances of hurting yourself because of this are slim. The knees should track the toes, meaning that they are lined up, pointing in the same direction. The shins do not have to stay perfectly vertical.
Squat as low as you can go. Optimally you’ll want to get butt to heels but few people can do this right away. Just progress with this movement over time. If you squat as far as you comfortably can and do reps to that point, over time continuing to work on this you’ll eventually get lower and lower as your flexibility increases. My personal favorite is to do box squats so you have exact benchmarks of where you’re at.
To make the regular squat harder try bringing the feet closer together, until they are touching.
Work up to 4 sets of 50 reps.
Taking Your Bodyweight Training Further
To go much further you can add reps or even find more progressive forms. But to become NINJA level you need to move into certain branches of bodyweight skills that are beyond just great strength exercises.
In gymnastics there are many different apparatus and forms of training. They’re all great. Work on the pommel horse, the parallel bars, and the rings. This can hold true for women or men. And there is no reason you wouldn’t also do the classic women’s exercises on the balance beam or uneven bars.
Here’s a few skills to work on:
Swing up to Handstand on P-bars
With gymnastics, here I’m referring to the use of the various apparatus for gymnastic feats. There is also the floor which brings us to our next skill group.
Start doing acrobatic skills. While these will all be easier on the gymnastic floor with it’s extra bounce many of the basics can be done and trained outside.
Here’s a few skills to work on:
And combinations of any and all of the above
Another area that is only touched upon in gymnastics is hand balancing. But this by itself is one of the most difficult arts.
Now it’s time to start balancing out in the open. You can work on presses, walking on your hands, the one hand handstand, planches and more.
Parkour, and especially the related art of free running, is in many ways similar to tumbling, but has many of it’s own moves. You’ll learn to effortlessly traverse large areas. It take phenomenal athleticism.
Rock climbing is one of the best ways to improve your hand and pulling strength. Elite level climbers can usually easily do one arm chin-ups, even on single fingers, with ease.