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Body-Weight Training

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How to get a challenging workout using the levers of your own body.

By no means a beginners-only activity, or something you do only until you are promoted to the weight room, body-weight training can be made as physically challenging as you can handle.

“Anyone who can do a one-legged squat, one-armed pushup, and one-armed pull-up through a full range of motion is an incredibly strong individual,” says Al Kavadlo, CSCS, author of Pushing the Limits! and lead instructor of the Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC). “To even be able to do one of those three is rare, even among fitness enthusiasts.”

Kavadlo and his brother, Danny, are among the rare. Both are popular subjects of devotion — and YouTube videos — known for their impressive feats of strength using the levers of their own bodies, and any sturdy implements that happen to be on hand. Benches, railings, staircases, scaffolding, street signs, and tree branches are all fair game. The brothers are staples in New York City’s famed Tompkins Square Park, where crowds flock from all over to watch them work out on available equipment (or none at all).

The Kavadlo brothers focus primarily on advanced calisthenics and single-limb movements without special tools. And they have helped guide legions of people of all abilities, from sedentary to strong — and even shredded.

“Body-weight training is the most universal type of exercise imaginable,” says Al Kavadlo, who designed this workout with Danny. “It’s simple, efficient, and accessible — everybody has a body!”

Body-weight training is the most universal type of exercise imaginable. It’s simple, efficient, and accessible — everybody has a body!”

Senior PCC instructor Adrienne Harvey adds that the benefits go beyond the physical: “It’s a great excuse to get creative with your environment,” she says. “I’m constantly on the lookout for ‘found’ workout equipment like railings and tree limbs at just the right height. I’ve found that this kind of thinking also boosts creative problem-solving in other areas of my life.”

Change the angle of your joints, elevate your hands or feet, or alter your points of contact with the ground, and you automatically make an exercise easier or more difficult.

With this increased creative juju comes the recognition that you always have everything you need for a challenging workout, anywhere you happen to be — be it a hotel room, an office, or a crowded gym.

“We live in a culture that constantly tells us we need a new product to do just about anything. Whether it’s technology, gear, or even medicine, there is always something else we’re told to buy,” says Danny Kavadlo.

“With body-weight training, that is not the case. All you need is you. There is nothing more empowering than having a body that’s truly self-made.”

The Body-Weight Workout

This full-body circuit workout can be performed in 45 minutes or less. Beginners should do the movements in sequence, resting 60 to 90 seconds between each exercise. As your conditioning improves, try performing all the exercises in a row as a circuit, with little to no rest between exercises. Then, perform the entire circuit twice more.

1. Deep Body-Weight Squat

Deep-Body-Weight-Squat

Why They’re Cool: These squats work your entire lower body and provide an excellent active stretch for tight hips and hamstrings.

Instructions:

  • Stand tall with your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart.
  • Push your hips backward, allowing your knees to bend.
  • Lower your hips as far as you can while still maintaining the natural arch of your spine. Ideally, your calves will be pressed into your hamstrings in the bottom position.
  • Reverse the movement and return to standing. Do three sets of 20 reps.

Helpful Hints:

  • Keep your knees tracking in line with your feet, heels firmly rooted to the floor.
  • Raise your arms straight out in front of you as you descend to keep your torso tall and chin up.

Make It Harder: Try a version of this move known as the pistol squat, with one leg extended in front of you.

Make It Easier: Hold on to a pole, door frame, or other sturdy object for assistance with balance in the bottom position.

2. Straight Bridge

Straight-Bridge

Why They’re Cool: This move is harder than it looks! It will cook your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes while providing a stretch in your chest and shoulders.

Instructions:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs extended straight in front of you, your palms on the ground behind your hips, fingers facing away from your rear.
  • Press your hands into the floor and lift yourself up by contracting your hamstrings, glutes, and other posterior musculature.
  • Drop your head back, press your chest up to the sky, and try to look behind you.
  • Lower yourself back to the start position. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Helpful Hints: 

  • Your goal is to wind up looking like an upside-down plank.
  • If you don’t have the wrist flexibility for this hand position, try it with your fingers facing your rear.

Make It Harder: If the straight bridge is not challenging for you, try doing it on one leg.

Make It Easier: If the straight bridge is too intense, try it with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor.

3. Australian Pull-Up

Australian-pullup

Why They’re Cool: Australian pull-ups work your arms and upper back as well as your core.

Instructions:

  • Get “down under” a bar that’s about waist height, your legs extended so your body forms a straight line from head to heels.
  • Brace your entire body as you pull your chest up to make contact with the bar.
  • Lower yourself back to the bottom with control. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Helpful Hints: 

  • Picture this as an upside-down pushup, so don’t bend at the hips as you pull yourself up.

Make It Harder: Elevate your feet.

Make It Easier: Bend your knees and use your legs to push into the floor to give your arms a boost.

4. Drinking Bird

Drinking-Bird

Why They’re Cool: In addition to increasing strength, the drinking bird also improves balance and provides a stretch for the hamstrings.

Instructions:

  • Stand on one leg, knee slightly bent, with your other foot hovering just above the ground.
  • Begin by hinging at your hips, extending your back leg upward until you form a straight line from heel to head.
  • Simultaneously reach both arms forward until your elbows are even with your ears.
  • Return to the start position, being careful not to twist your body as you stand. Repeat for 10 reps on one side, then switch. Do a total of three sets of 20 reps (10 reps per leg).

Helpful Hints: 

  • Keep your torso, hips, and extended leg parallel to the ground throughout the movement.
  • Perform these reps slowly for  maximal muscle engagement.

Make It Harder: Keep your hands behind your head with your fingers interlaced throughout the entire range of motion for added challenge to balance and strength.

Make It Easier: Maintain a more significant bend in one or both knees to improve leverage.

5. Close Pushup

Close-Pushup

Why They’re Cool: When you do pushups with a narrow hand position and your elbows close to your sides, you decrease your leverage and puts further emphasis on your triceps, making this version significantly more challenging than the standard variety.

Instructions:

  • Set up in the top of a plank position, your hands just a bit narrower than shoulder-width apart, fingertips even with the tops of your shoulders.
  • Keeping your body straight from head to heel, slowly lower your chest toward the floor.
  • Without breaking that body position, press yourself back to the start position. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Helpful Hints: 

  • As with any pushup variation, brace your abdominals and glutes throughout the movement.

Make It Harder: Bring your hands even closer together, or position them closer to your hips.

Make It Easier: Move your hands farther apart, or elevate them on a sturdy surface.

6. Hanging Knee Raise

Hanging-Knee-Raise

Why They’re Cool: Hanging knee raises improve both core strength and grip strength.

Instructions:

  • Hang from a high bar with your palms facing away from you, body in a straight line from hands to heels.
  • Smoothly raise both knees upward until they are at chest level.
  • Reverse the movement, being mindful not to swing or pick up momentum on the way down. Do three sets of 10 reps.

Helpful Hints: 

  • Focus on tilting your hips upward slightly as you raise your knees to engage more of the muscles in your anterior core.
  • Squeeze the bar tightly and brace your abdominals to maintain control.

Make It Harder: Perform the exercise with legs extended straight out.

Make It Easier: Bring your knees to hip height instead of chest height.

Jen Sinkler, PCC, RKC-II, is a fitness writer and personal trainer based in Minneapolis. Her website is www.jensinkler.com.

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