How to Make Bodyweight Workouts Harder

How to Make Bodyweight Workouts Harder

Need bodyweight exercise for travel, but need to make them more intense so that you can get more bang for your buck? Knowing how to dial in more challenge for bodyweight moves lets you keep workouts shorter and more efficient – and thus, more realistic that you will actually do them when you’re staying at your parents’ house or in a hotel room.

Just ask yourself: are you more likely to do a more interesting, shorter workout, or a longer, more repetitive workout?

It’s a safe bet that you’ll find it easier to squeeze in the more reasonable-length workouts that have more challenge.

Plus, for many people’s joints, it’s helpful to have tools in the toolbox to increase intensity without adding tons of jumping. Keep in mind that “challenging” does not equal “HIIT” – you can get your heart rate up and your muscles burning without venturing into all-out effort that leaves you burned out.

In today’s blog post (the last one before Christmas!), I’m going to share with you 5 tips for increasing the intensity of bodyweight exercises, as well as a tip for structuring your workouts to make them easier to accomplish.

Tip #1: Play with Time

We know we can change the speed of an exercise to make it faster and more powerful – i.e., by adding jumps – but did you know that you can also make an exercise more challenging by slowing it down?

Purposefully slowing down moments (i.e., doing squats in slow motion) increases the time under tension for each rep, and also gives you more control over your form and often more range of motion. It’s a smart way to add intensity without speeding things up into non-stop plyometric HIIT (which is what most workouts do, which can be silly for sustainability).

Furthermore, instead of just slowing things down, you can freeze. Hold the bottom of a squat position or the bottom of a split squat position, or the bottom of a push-up.

This can be incredibly challenging – especially when you strategically use an isometric hold as a chaser after fast bodyweight work. For example, do 30 fast squats and then hold a squat for 30 seconds – it’s tough!

Tip #2: Do Single-Limb Work

Instead of doing one million squats, which use both legs, switch things up and focus more on single-leg or single-arm work. Split squats, lunges, side lunges, single leg squats, archer push-ups, bear crawls, side planks, and many other exercises put the majority of your bodyweight on one limb at a time, maximizing the challenge on balance, strength, and recovery time.

Tip #3: Increase Range of Motion

When you don’t have weights, a smart way to make exercises more challenging is to increase the range of motion. For example, do step-ups to a higher-surface, or work on very low single-leg squats (or pistol squats). You can also work on doing much deeper push-ups.

Tip #4: Use Less Rest

When you’re repeating sets, you can automatically make a set of exercises more challenging by reducing or eliminating rest. Use this tip mindfully, though – if you’re really doing HIIT (i.e., you’re going all-out on certain sets), you need the rest! Don’t skip it. This tip only applies if the workout is only moderately challenging and you need to add intensity.

Tip #5: Pair Up Similar Exercises

Instead of doing full-body workouts, consider really focusing workouts on one muscle group, like the quads, and really fatigue them. This means that you’ll pair up similar exercises into a circuit, so that the muscle group doesn’t get a lot of rest/recovery. For example, do squats and then split squats immediately afterward. This increases the time under tension without doing the same exercise over and over and over.

Big Picture Tip: Do Simple Circuits

One of the biggest challenges of starting/completing workouts is a lack of clarity of what you’re going to do, what it’s going to accomplish, and how you’ll know when you’re done. This may sound basic, but honestly I see so many clients struggle with this.

My tip is to write down four exercises that you’re going to do in a circuit, and keep the numbers super simple – as much as possible, do the same amount of time or reps for everything. For example, do 10 squats, 10 lunges per leg, 10 mountain climbers per side, and then 10 side plank pulses on each side. Then rest 60-90 seconds and repeat the whole circuit four times. The workout should be so simple that you can write it down in one tiny block paragraph – no more than five lines total – and then memorize it.

By keeping workouts simple and self-contained, you’ll know with each round that you’re one round closer to being done – it’s extremely clear and goal-oriented. This helps with the psychological side of exercise – confusion, complication, and length all detract form our motivation to actually work out.

Need ideas for these circuits? Follow me on Instagram this week – I’m going to be offering examples of at-home (or outdoor) workouts that you can do to continue to work on your fitness even if you’re out of the structure of your regular routine or gym.

Final words

Keep your eye on the prize. What is your goal for working out? To improve your strength? To improve your fitness? To lose weight? Tailor the way you plan your workouts to fit the actual goal.

For example, if your goal is weight loss, I would certainly recommend making time for workouts, but I would also suggest focusing on simply staying active – make sure you are going for walks, bike rides, hikes, etc. Maybe if you’re traveling you can’t be as attentive to nutrition as you normally would be, but any structure/effort helps with weight loss.

If your goal is improving your strength (in terms of actual exercise performance), pick a few calisthenics exercises you’d like to keep working on, like push-ups or pull-ups or handstands, and mainly focus on those. That way, if you can only exercise a few times while you’re without a gym, you’re maintaining or building your skills with specific calisthenics exercises.

If your goal is hypertrophy, then strength training volume is going to benefit you most. Focus on doing plenty of reps of challenging, fatiguing exercises that maximize where you most want to see muscle growth. Really focusing workouts on one muscle group will help to achieve this.

Need help focusing on your true goals? Schedule a consult call, for free.