When lockdown first hit many of us found ourselves making major readjustments to life as we knew it – and while the situation wasn’t exactly ideal, there are some positives that came from it.
As someone who spent most of their days pre-COVID surrounded by fitness, I was suddenly forced to overcome a new obstacle as both a fitness professional and enthusiast when gyms were forced to close.
Coaching moved online, and personal training and group exercise clients were expecting the same level of training that they were used to in person – without the fancy equipment usually at their disposal. And so quite literally overnight, I, along with most other coaches, had to start thinking about how to offer clients bodyweight workouts that not only avoided seeming repetitive at the risk of losing their interest, but that also promised the same results they’d see in a gym environment.
The way to see results with any kind of workout – whether you’ve got access to an Olympic lifting platform or you’re stuck at home with no kit at all – is to achieve progressive overload. It’s basically a fancy way to describe gradually increasing the demand you put on your body to ensure it’s having to work harder over time. Without progressive overload, the best we can hope for is maintenance.
While adding weight certainly is one way to achieve progressive overload, you only have to get a little creative if this isn’t an option for you. There are a few other adjustments to your workout that you can make in lieu of focusing on load – just make sure you’re consistent with the ones you choose and you should see the results rolling in.
1. Sets and reps
The most straightforward change you can make to your training session is to increase either the number of reps or sets you perform of each exercise, or both. If you are comfortably reaching the end of a set without feeling close to fatigue (the point where you are struggling to complete a rep with good form) then this could be an indication that you are ready to up the reps, or sets, depending on your goal.
It's important to note that while it might feel counterintuitive, more is not necessarily always the best option, especially if you’re looking specifically for strength gains. In this case, you might want to look to a new variation of the exercise you’re doing that will provide more of a challenge, or simply change the exercise altogether providing the new one works similar muscle groups. Which brings us to...
If you’re able to knock out endless reps of any exercise, it might be time to try a new variation. For example, if the way you’re currently performing press-ups aren’t really providing much of achallenge, try a variation your body is less used to, such as narrow press-ups or clap press-ups.
There tend to be many variations to the exercises as you know them if you just think outside the box – split squats with your rear leg elevated rather than regular split squats or lunges, mountain climbers with a rotation rather than regular mountain climbers, the list goes on.
Variations force both your body and mind to work a little bit harder.
Before you start incorporating every variation under the sun and potentially run the risk of overcomplicating your workout, make sure the form for your current version is on point. In my experience, many clients feel like they are ready for progressions, but a quick form check will show that with just a few tiny adjustments, they are suddenly feeling the challenge in different – and the correct! – places.
It might seem basic but working at a high intensity definitely has a place when it comes to bodyweight workouts. An easy way to measure intensity without having to invest in fancy heart rate monitors or wearable trackers is to mentally keep track of how you’re feeling throughout a session, and rank the level of effort you feel like you’re putting in at any given time.
If you want to up that intensity, then aim to up that effort level – for example from working at a six out of 10 to an eight out of 10. Working in timed sets rather than for a number of reps or sets can also help you track this. For example, how many reps of your given exercise can you perform (with good form, of course!) within 45 seconds?
Or how many sets of a group of exercises can you perform within three minutes? AMRAPs (as many rounds as possible) are an effective way of implementing this method. An example would be – how many times can you repeat 10 press-ups, 10 lunges and 20 mountain climbers in three minutes? You aim to complete as many rounds as possible – and next time, you can try to beat your score by increasing the intensity (or effort level) that you work at.
A common problem I see when people are eager to up the intensity of their session is rushing through their reps to the point that they are no longer performed fully or properly. Good form always takes priority – otherwise you’re kind of defeating the purpose.
Adjustments to tempo are particularly helpful for those with strength goals who don’t have access to weights. It’s surprisingly tough, and incredibly underrated.
Making a very basic change to how long (in seconds) you should spend on both the concentric and eccentric phase of an exercise can really increase the demands on your body, forcing it to work a lot harder and potentially spend more time under tension.
The easiest way to do this would be to slow down the eccentric phase and/or add an isometric phase. For example, taking four seconds to lower into the bottom of a squat, holding for three seconds at the bottom keeping everything under tension, then driving up as normal before repeating. Surprisingly challenging! These four areas are the foundations to upgrading your bodyweight workouts. Experiment with them, have fun, and remember: good form always takes priority!