Bodyweight training is a great place to start your fitness journey. And for good reason. You can do it anywhere, there are plenty of ways to get started for free, and you generally don’t need any equipment.
That doesn’t mean you automatically know how to get started, though. Case in point: A quick Google search for “bodyweight exercise” will get about 86 million hits.
But don’t worry—we won’t overwhelm you. This guide cuts through any confusion you might have about bodyweight exercise, giving you everything you need to get started.
What is Bodyweight Training?
Let’s start with the basics: Bodyweight training is any exercise that uses the weight of your own body as resistance.
That’s different from exercises where you’re using any type of external weight for resistance — whether that’s a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight machine in the gym.
One exception to the “no weights” rule is anything that adds load to your own bodyweight, such as a weighted vest or belt. When you wear one of these while exercising, the primary object you’re manipulating is still your own body, just with a few pounds added to make the exercises more challenging.
Does bodyweight training mean no equipment at all?
That’s a bit of a misnomer. Bodyweight training can include equipment for certain exercises, just not external weights. You can certainly get a full-body workout with no equipment at all, but there are exercises that do require equipment.
Here are some examples of the types of equipment needed for certain bodyweight exercises:
- Pull-up bar: This is a staple for working on pull-ups, chin-ups, or hanging exercises. There are other ways to work on these exercises, but a pull-up bar is usually the most convenient option.
- Suspension trainers: The most popular suspension trainer is the TRX, but there are many on the market. These can be useful for working on pulling, pushing, or stability exercises.
- Weighted vest: Unlike an external weight, a weighted vest or belt really becomes part of your bodyweight. Doing a pull-up with a 20-pound weighted vest is no different than doing a pull-up after putting on 20 pounds over the holidays.
- Parallel bars: If you’re lucky, you might have some high parallel bars at your local park. Those are great for working on dips, leg raises, and countless other exercises. Another form of parallel bars are “parallettes”—these are low-to-the-ground versions and pretty easy to find for at-home use. Parallettes are useful for pushing exercises and many core exercises.
- Stability ball: This is often called a plyometric ball, or more simply, an exercise ball. Whatever you call it, it’s a powerful tool for improving core strength, mobility, and yes, stability.
- Gymnastic rings: These are a much more advanced tool and can be a bit of a bear to set up, but gymnastic rings can be useful for working on many core, pulling, and pushing exercises.
You don’t need any of these tools to get started with bodyweight exercise, and many people train for years without any equipment at all. It really depends on what you want to get out of your training and which exercises or tools will help you reach your goals.
Who is Bodyweight Training For?
The short but unsatisfying answer? Bodyweight training is for anyone.
A more complete answer? Anyone can do bodyweight training, but it’s not necessarily the best primary form of exercise for everyone.
An obvious example is a competitive Olympic lifter or powerlifter—sure, that person can do bodyweight workouts, too, but weightlifting will have to be his or her primary form of exercise in order to reach their goals.
Most of us are not competitive weightlifters, though. So, for the rest of us, bodyweight training is a good approach that works well for many different goals, including:
- Getting stronger
- Building endurance
- Putting on some muscle (hypertrophy)
- Improving mobility/flexibility
We’ll talk about each of those goals in detail later in this guide. What’s important for now is that you can use bodyweight training to work on many of the most common exercise goals.
Can beginners do bodyweight training?
Absolutely. Bodyweight training is a great option for people just starting out since it’s so accessible and convenient.
Plus, many fans of bodyweight training also claim it causes fewer injuries than weight training. We don’t have specific evidence showing that, but at least with certain exercises, bodyweight exercise techniques can be easier to learn than their weighted counterparts. The squat, for instance, is much easier to learn without any added weight. So, from that standpoint, it’s possible that injuries may be less common with bodyweight training.
Still, it’s important to learn the proper technique for any exercises you’re going to do, weighted or otherwise.
Even an exercise as “simple” as a push-up can cause injuries with poor technique. And unfortunately, a lot of tutorials you’ll find on YouTube teach bad technique. Keep reading to learn more about proper technique for basic bodyweight exercises.
Is bodyweight training only for beginners?
Nope! Bodyweight training is incredibly versatile for different levels. It’s accessible for beginners, but there are countless variations and progressions for just about any exercise you can think of.
As bodyweight training has gained popularity over the past couple of decades, there are more and more impressive bodyweight “artists” cropping up all over the Internet.
If you’re new to exercise, seeing those videos might be intimidating, but try to remember that everyone was once a beginner. Even that woman on YouTube doing a one-arm, one-leg push-up without breaking a sweat probably started out doing beginner-level push-ups.
Just start where you are and build up your skills intelligently, safely, and without too much ego getting in the way.
Will bodyweight training help me lose weight?
In general, exercise is not the most effective way to lose weight.
Weight loss is a complex topic that we won’t get into too deeply here, but as a rule, the way to lose weight is to burn more energy (calories) than you consume.
With the exception of extreme (read: probably unhealthy) amounts of aerobic exercise, most people cannot burn enough calories through exercise alone to create significant weight loss.
Although exercise alone is generally not effective for weight loss, research suggests it can help with maintaining weight loss. A good balance of exercise and healthy adjustments to your eating habits may help you lose weight if that’s a goal of yours.
Bodyweight Training vs. Weight Training
So, why should someone choose bodyweight training instead of weight training?
Well, the first thing to understand is that they aren’t mutually exclusive. If you decide to start doing bodyweight training, that doesn’t mean you have to swear off all weights. Plenty of people use weights in combination with their bodyweight training.
And there are a lot of good reasons to combine them.
For instance, if building muscle is your primary goal, you may want to supplement your bodyweight exercise with some targeted weight training. You can certainly build muscle using bodyweight exercise alone, but many people see more dramatic results by adding in some weighted exercises.
In this particular guide, of course, we’re focusing on bodyweight exercise, but you can explore our Strength Training Guide and Kettlebell Guide for advice on incorporating weight training into your routine.
Now, let’s get into some of the biggest benefits of bodyweight training.
Benefits of Bodyweight Training
Bodyweight training has gained a lot of popularity over the past few decades. You’ve probably seen dozens of loud magazine covers at the grocery store with impossible claims about the benefits of bodyweight exercise—“Get a shredded six-pack in no time!”
While those claims are pretty misleading, here are five main reasons we love bodyweight training:
Being able to exercise anywhere, with no equipment (or minimal equipment), is a big draw of bodyweight exercise. One of the barriers to starting an exercise program of any kind is everything surrounding the actual exercise, like driving to the gym in traffic or trying to figure out how to use different weight machines.
With bodyweight training, most people can just find a spot at home to do their exercise routines. You don’t have to work around opening hours at the gym or try to avoid the dreaded after-work rush.
This one is more of a potential benefit. It really depends on how you decide to approach your training.
There are plenty of expensive bodyweight training programs on the market you can purchase. But if you’re not looking to spend much money, especially as you’re getting started, you can absolutely find a good bodyweight workout routine for free, or close to it.
The key is finding quality resources from people who emphasize technique and safe, scalable variations for your level. Try not to get lured in by the first flashy video that pops up on YouTube. There’s no guarantee it’ll teach you what you need to know in a safe way.
You can use bodyweight training for many different goals, including:
- Strength training
- Hypertrophy (building muscle)
- General fitness
There are also countless ways to adjust exercises and training protocols for different levels. You may be working on an assisted bodyweight squat while someone else is working on a one-legged squat (also known as a pistol squat). Neither version is “better” than the other, they’re just variations of the same exercise modified to different levels.
Weight training can be quite versatile, too, but there’s really no limit to ways you can modify bodyweight exercises or a bodyweight routine to fit your needs.
You can get injured doing anything—the classic ‘I bent down to pick up a sock and threw out my back’ scenario comes to mind.
Still, bodyweight exercise is likely safer overall than weighted training, assuming you’re using proper technique. Those comparisons haven’t really been studied formally, but it makes sense that adding an extra implement into your training means another potential source of injury. Dropping a kettlebell on your toe, for instance, isn’t a risk with bodyweight exercise.
The newer you are to training, the more safety should be a concern with your exercise approach.
- If you get injured soon after committing to an exercise routine and have to take time off as a result, you’re much less likely to recommit once you’re healed up. It simply hasn’t become a habit for you yet.
- On the other hand, if you’ve been exercising regularly for a while and it has become an important part of your life, taking a little time off to deal with an injury won’t derail your efforts.
If bodyweight exercise lowers your chances of getting injured while training, it’s worth considering.
When you put all these benefits together, what you get is a much lower barrier to entry for beginners.
- You can do it anywhere, anytime
- It’s easy to find free or cheap resources to get started
- You can modify your routine to fit your goals, and you can adjust exercises to your current level
- You don’t have to worry as much about getting injured
It can be tough to find good information on how to start anything as a beginner, and exercise is no exception. Bodyweight training is a uniquely accessible path for beginners, where getting started only takes understanding how your body moves.
Six Essential Movement Patterns
You’re sold on the benefits of bodyweight training, and you feel ready to commit to a new routine. But how should you get started?
There are thousands and thousands of bodyweight training resources out there, and each one seems to say something different. You’ve probably run into videos or blog posts talking about how many push-ups you should be able to do, but what if you can’t even do one? Which exercises should you be doing, and why is one better than another?
One way of simplifying things is to think of exercises in terms of categories or movement patterns. This is an idea borrowed from Dan John, who’s a world-renowned strength coach.
We’ve modified the specific categories a bit from his original list of foundational movement patterns, but the idea is the same. The goal is to try to build an exercise routine around these movement patterns rather than picking random exercises off of a video you found online.
Focusing on these movement patterns will give you the most well-rounded training routine. We’ll go through each of the movement patterns, with some examples of each, then the next section will give you the tools you need to build a routine for your specific goals.
This movement pattern is the one people gravitate toward the most when starting with bodyweight exercise. For instance, most people have done (or tried to do) push-ups at some point.
Technique is really important and easy to get wrong, though. And standard push-ups are not the only pushing exercise to focus on.
There are countless variations, but pushing exercises can be broken into three main angles:
- Perpendicular pushing: The standard push-up is a good example of this angle, where you’re pressing your hands in front of you with arms at a perpendicular angle. This also includes other push-up variations, such as wall push-ups, raised push-ups, and knee push-ups.
- Overhead pushing: This angle is mostly for inverted pushing exercises. One of the most advanced examples is the handstand push-up, but there are many more accessible variations, including the pike push-up. That’s where you get into a downward dog position, with your butt in the air, and lower your head toward your hands before pressing back up.
- Pushing with your hands alongside your torso: This includes any variations of dips, where you lower your body below your hand height, then press back up to the starting position.
Each angle has its own benefits, but whichever you start with will give you good pressing strength.
A great starting point for beginners is often a simple wall push-up — the easiest version of the push-up that uses just a fraction of your bodyweight. Stand around three feet or so from the wall (the closer you are, the easier it’ll be) and place your palms on the wall slightly below shoulder level. Then, keep your body in a straight line as you slowly bend your elbows and let your chest move toward the wall. Pause momentarily before slowly pressing yourself back to the starting position.
There are some common technique points you’ll want to pay attention to with most pushing exercises. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, you’ll want to:
- Keep your elbows tucked into your sides rather than letting them flare out.
- Try to keep a neutral spine. This means not arching or rounding your back too much.
- Drop your shoulders away from your ears while pulling your shoulder blades toward each other (without arching your back).
- Remember to breathe. Avoiding holding your breath is a good rule of thumb for all bodyweight exercises.
While push-ups are usually one of the first bodyweight exercises people work on, beginners often see pull-ups as some sort of unattainable holy grail. Pulling strength is important, though, so it’s worth working on, and there are plenty of ways to do that without immediately jumping into a full pull-up.
Most pulling exercises fit into one of two angles:
- Vertical pulling: This includes the standard pull-up (with palms facing away from you) and the chin-up (with palms facing toward you), along with more and less advanced variations. Notably, one of the best vertical “pulling” exercises for beginners is hanging—either passively hanging by holding on to the bar and supporting your entire bodyweight, or actively hanging by doing the same but focusing on pulling your shoulders down into their sockets.
- Horizontal pulling: The best example of a horizontal pulling exercise is a row, where you are beneath a bar or other sturdy object with your toes facing upward. Then you pull your chest up toward the bar (or other sturdy object).
Rows tend to be a more accessible way of working on pulling strength if you’re a newbie, but it doesn’t mean they won’t be challenging. You’ll find that the more parallel your torso is to the floor and the slower you pull and lower yourself, the harder this exercise will be. Play around with different angles and speeds to find what works best for your current level.
Here are some key technique points to pay attention to with most pulling exercises:
- Keep your shoulders down and don’t let them round forward too much.
- Make sure your neck is in a neutral position rather than jutting forward. It’s common to subconsciously stick your chin out when doing pulling exercises, but this can lead to a pinch in your neck or shoulders.
- Don’t let your elbows flare out. Keeping them tucked in will help you engage your pulling muscles more effectively.
- Keep your wrists in a straight line with your forearm. Letting them bend backward or forward is a great recipe for wrist injuries.
The hinge is probably one of the most important, yet most overlooked, movement patterns, especially for beginners.
We spend so much of our time sitting in a rounded position—in front of our computers, on the couch, and in the car—that the hips and muscles all along the backside of our bodies (called the posterior chain of muscles) weaken.
Hinge exercises counteract that by emphasizing strength in the hips and posterior chain.
Two of the best examples of hinge exercises are:
- Deadlifts: There are many variations of deadlifts, but one of the best bodyweight variations is the single-leg deadlift. This is where you raise one leg behind you and hinge forward from the hip with the planted leg.
- Jumps: Jumps are generally more on the advanced side, but the long jump in particular (where you jump forward from one point to another) puts the hip hinge into practice since you need to hinge forward to create momentum.
These key technique points will help you get the most out of any hinge exercise:
- Make sure you’re hinging (like a door hinge) from the crease on the front of your hip, not from the back.
- Keep your back and chest straight and neutral.
- Let your arm(s) counterbalance your body as you hinge forward.
- There are some cases where you’ll want to lock out your knees completely as you hinge, but usually, you’ll want to keep a slight bend in the knees.
It doesn’t get much more basic than the squat, and it’s a fundamental part of building your fitness foundation. Unfortunately, for many people in Western countries, even a basic bodyweight squat feels out of reach due to limited strength or flexibility.
Here are some variations you can try:
- Air squat: This is viewed as the standard bodyweight squat. Standing with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, bend your knees as you push your hips back to squat down as if you were going to sit on a chair. Pause and return to standing position.
- Supported squat: As you work on your form, it can be helpful to hold on to something as you squat down. In the beginning, you might be supporting yourself quite a bit, but you’ll lean on that support less and less over time.
- Bench squat: You can also try lowering yourself down onto a raised surface, sitting down on a bench or chair at the lowest contact point, then standing up from there. This may not feel like a squat at first, but as you get comfortable with it, you can use progressively lower surfaces for the bottom position until you’re not using an assist at all.
Play with different progressions until you feel comfortable working on the standard bodyweight squat without help.
Key technique points to pay attention to:
- Foot positioning doesn’t matter as much as many people think. You can try having your feet facing straight forward or turned outward a bit to see what’s more comfortable for you. Many people find that having their stance more open is easier on their knees, but that’s not true for everyone.
- It’s best practice to ensure your bent knee doesn’t extend out in front of your toes. Try to keep your knees tracking over the middle of your foot so they don’t collapse inward.
- Keep your chest up as much as possible so you’re not leaning forward too much or lifting your heels. You’ll want to keep your weight primarily in your heels throughout the movement.
And, of course, there are countless advanced variations of the squat that you can work on once you get stronger with the standard squat. Examples of advanced variations include the pistol squat and shrimp squat. You can start emphasizing one leg at a time with various types of lunges and kickstand squats.
Locomotion isn’t really just one movement pattern, but it’s an important part of any bodyweight exercise regimen. It’s a less-traditional method of exercising, though it’s becoming more mainstream, and it involves a wide range of movements on the ground.
This is the only category that doesn’t quite match Dan John’s original list. The fifth movement pattern in his list is the loaded carry, which is basically walking with a weight. Since we’re focusing on bodyweight movements, locomotion is a good replacement for that.
Most locomotion exercises include getting on the ground on your hands and knees (or feet) and moving in different ways. For example:
- Bear crawl: On all fours facing the ground, lift your butt up in the air and crawl forward, backward, and side-to-side by moving your right hand and left foot in tandem, and vice versa.
- Crab walk: Sit on the floor with your feet pointing forward and your hands on the ground next to your butt, fingers pointing out to the sides. Lift your butt off the ground and move forward, backward, and side-to-side by moving your right hand and left foot in tandem, and vice versa.
There are many different locomotion exercises and variations depending on your fitness level. Here are some technique points you’ll want to pay attention to, no matter what you’re working on:
- Make sure you breathe! Try not to hold your breath as you work through these movements, especially if they’re new to you.
- Keep your elbows from flaring out too much. You’ll move with much more control by focusing on keeping those elbows pulled into your sides.
You might be surprised to hear this, but walking is the most important and impactful exercise you can do.
Too many people start a new exercise routine and completely neglect this side of things.
Walking is important for everyone, but it can be especially valuable for beginners who may need to ease into a training regimen. It not only improves overall markers of fitness, but it’s also a powerful therapy for cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases.
Even walking for 20 or 30 minutes every day can be beneficial, so make sure it’s a part of your routine.
Using Bodyweight Training for Different Goals
We’ve gone through the essential categories of bodyweight movement patterns, but how do you put those into an actual training program?
It really depends on why you’re exercising in the first place.
For a lot of beginners, their primary goal is to just get some exercise—and there’s nothing wrong with that! But defining and setting goals can help you track your progress toward more specific results, so it’s a good idea to try to figure out what you hope to get from this work.
Do you want to get stronger? Put on more muscle? Improve your endurance or flexibility?
(If you’re not sure, improving your overall strength is always a worthwhile goal to work toward.)
For each of these goals, we’ve included a sample routine that includes one exercise from each category:
The specific variations of each exercise are just examples that generally assume a beginner-level starting point. The variations you use will depend on your current level.
No matter which goal or variation you’re working on, try not to work until failure with any set, i.e. doing as many reps as you can possibly do on any given exercise. Try to keep 1–2 reps in the tank so that you stay fresh and don’t risk injuring yourself.
If Your Goal is Strength
As the world becomes more sedentary, that old saying, “use it or lose it,” finds new meaning in the context of strength training. Especially as we get older, building strength becomes increasingly important. Even if you’re one of those rare phenoms born naturally strong, there’s probably still value in honing that natural strength. And bodyweight training is a great way to achieve that no matter your age or heredity.
For strength training, a good rule of thumb is to use a harder variation (whatever that is for you) for lower reps (4–6 reps per exercise). Aim for 2–4 sets.
The key is to choose a variation that’s difficult enough for you that 4–6 reps is sufficiently challenging (while allowing you to leave a couple of reps in the tank).
For example, on the Push exercise, the program above assumes 6–8 standard push-ups is your point of failure, but maybe you’re not there yet. Maybe you can’t even do one full push-up yet. No problem. Just pick a different variation where 6–8 reps is your point of failure and complete only 4–6 reps (so that you’re avoiding failure). That might mean doing knee push-ups, wall push-ups, or any other variation that fits your current level.
If Your Goal is Hypertrophy
There’s a common misconception that weight training is the only way to build muscle—that’s all we see in the movies, right?
It is absolutely possible to put on muscle using bodyweight training alone, with two caveats:
- If you’re looking for extreme muscle growth, you may need to supplement with weight training. For most people, putting on a moderate amount of muscle through bodyweight training makes a big enough difference that weights aren’t necessary, but if you’re looking for dramatic muscle gain, weights may be the key.
- The amount of muscle you can put on is largely dependent on your genetics. That doesn’t mean you can’t put on muscle if you’ve always been on the skinnier side, but it might mean you have to work harder than someone who’s naturally muscular.
For hypertrophy, the key is choosing a relatively easier variation that you can do for 8–12 reps. If your absolute maximum is 12 reps, then stick with 10 reps for your sets. Do 2–4 sets.
The variations in this sample program are easier versions of the exercises in the strength program because the rep range is higher. Remember that you always want to be working at a difficulty level where you feel like you could still do a couple of reps if you needed to. So, at a higher rep range, you’ll need to drop the variation down to a level that’s easy enough for you to do 10–14 reps but only actually do 8–12 reps.
If Your Goal is Endurance
Endurance training? Isn’t that just running on the treadmill or activities like that?
Yes and no.
There’s a difference between cardiovascular endurance—what we traditionally call “cardio” exercise— and muscular endurance.
While cardiovascular endurance trains your cardiovascular system to deliver oxygen to your muscles at a very low level of intensity, muscular endurance trains your body to use your muscles at a relatively high level of intensity for many reps. This sample program focuses on muscular endurance.
Even if running on the treadmill feels intense, you’re likely doing thousands of reps in one session versus 12–20 reps of exercises for muscular endurance. You’re able to do that many reps because running works the cardiovascular system with minimal effort put on the muscles. Both types of endurance are important for different things—you need cardiovascular endurance for running after the bus, while you need muscular endurance for carrying dozens of heavy boxes when you help your friend move.
For muscular endurance, you’ll choose exercise variations where you can do 12–20 reps while keeping a couple of reps in the tank.
For this program, the variations are an even lower level of difficulty than the hypertrophy program since the rep range is so high. Make sure to choose a variation that feels somewhat challenging but easy enough so that you can do those 12–20 reps with perfect form. Figure out how many reps to do by seeing what your maximum is and dropping it by a couple of reps. If your max is 17, stick with 15 reps.
If Your Goal is Flexibility
This goal is a bit different from the others in that you don’t need to follow the essential movement patterns at all, though you certainly can. It also doesn’t have to be a separate goal but can be baked into your program for your primary goal. It’s worth mentioning separately, though, because it’s so important.
There are two primary ways of working on your flexibility:
- Static: For whatever position you’re working on, you’ll reach or extend until you reach a tolerable tightness in your muscle and hold that position for a given amount of time. You can aim for 30 seconds to one minute.
- Contract & Relax: For this version, you’ll go into the stretched position, then flex and release the muscle. Aim for 10–15 pulses of the muscle.
With a goal of getting more flexible, there aren’t really essential positions or stretches to work on (unlike the essential movement patterns we’ve been focusing on until now). It’s so dependent on your particular needs.
For instance, super tight ankles might make it difficult for one person to go for a jog, while for you, tight hips might be getting in your way. Creating the same mobility program for both wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Instead, you can choose which stretches to work on based on the areas that need the most focus.
You can do stretches before or after your primary training program, but it’s best to use the contract/relax method if you’re stretching beforehand since your muscles and ligaments should be “warmed up” before going into a static stretch.
There are many stretches we could include, but these are just some examples of the most common flexibility trouble areas:
- Calves/ankles: Stand facing a wall and place both hands on the wall with your arms extended. Lean against the wall and bend one leg forward with the other leg extended straight back. Push the back heel to the floor and bring the hips slightly forward.
- Hamstrings: Sit on the ground with one leg extended straight out, and the other bent at the knee with the foot facing inward. Bend forward at the waist, making sure to keep the back straight.
- Hips: Hip flexors are a group of muscles that help you move your lower body. Stretching here helps loosen tight hips. Step forward with one leg and bring your opposite knee to the ground with toes flat on the floor. Place your hands on your sides and gently push your hips forward to lean into the stretch.
- Back: There are three primary sections of the back that can get tight.
- For lower back tightness, the shoulder bridge can work well. Lying on the ground with your knees bent up and feet planted flat beneath them, lift your hips up. You should feel a nice stretch in your lower back. You can use this position for mid-back tightness as well by emphasizing the stretch a bit higher up on your back.
- If you struggle more with upper-back tightness, the cobra stretch is a good one to try. Lie on your belly and place your palms next to your shoulders (bending your elbows). Press your hands down as you lift up your chest, leaving your hips on the ground. Think about bringing your chest up toward the top of the wall in front of you.
- Shoulders: Grab one arm above your elbow with your opposite hand, and pull it across your body toward your chest until you feel a stretch in your shoulder. Make sure to keep your elbow below shoulder height.
- Neck: Stretches for the neck are pretty intuitive and you probably do some intuitively whenever you’re feeling stiff. Try to stretch at each direction point, even those more awkward positions. Just tilt your head in each direction until you feel a stretch and hold.
- Wrists: Stretch your arm out in front of you. Point the fingers down until you feel a stretch, and use the other hand to gently pull the raised hand toward the body. Repeat, but with fingers pointed toward the ceiling, palm facing out.
Whatever stretches you choose to do, make sure you’re not stretching so intensely that it causes you pain. You might have heard that stretches should hurt so you know “they’re working.” This is not true. Pain is a signal to your nervous system to stop. Trust us — you will make much greater progress by avoiding pain.
FAQs About Building a Training Program
If you’ve never built your own training program before, you might have some questions. There are many reasons to work with a ready-made program (we’ll talk about that shortly), but learning how to build your own program gives you the flexibility to customize workouts and re-create programs over time. .
How Long Should Workouts Take?
20–45 minutes is a good amount of time for a session.
It’s not necessary to do long workouts of an hour or more. Most of us are busy, and trying to squeeze in that much time for a workout might just stress you out more than it helps. Plus, if you have a hard time fitting a workout into your schedule, you’re less likely to do it in the first place.
How Often Should You Work Out?
2–3 times a week is sufficient for most people. Some people enjoy doing shorter sessions more frequently (e.g. 20 minutes x 4–5 times per week), while others prefer doing fewer, longer sessions (e.g. 45 minutes x 2 times per week). It’s really a matter of preference.
Just remember to make walking a part of your daily routine whenever possible, separate from your formal workout.
How Many Reps and Sets Should You Do?
As outlined in the previous section, it depends on your primary goal.
- For strength, you’ll want to aim for 2–4 sets of 4–6 reps.
- For hypertrophy, work in a range of 2–4 sets of 8–12 reps.
- For endurance, 2–4 sets of 12–20 reps is a good range.
No matter what your goal is, and no matter what exercise you’re working on, make sure to do only as many repetitions as you can do with perfect form. Try to stop when you feel like you could still do two more reps before point of failure.
Do You Need to Work on All Exercises in Every Session?
No, you can split up your sessions however you like depending on how much time and energy you have on a given day. If you’re someone who prefers shorter workout sessions, you probably don’t want to try to cram everything into one routine. Instead, split your work over two or more sessions.
What About a Warm-up and Cool-down?
Warm-ups and cool-downs are encouraged to prepare your body for activity and allow for gradual recovery once your workout is complete.
- Warm-up: Move your joints for a few minutes before starting your session, paying special attention to the joints that will be involved in your exercises for that day. For instance, if push-ups are on the menu, you’re going to want to get your shoulders, wrists, and elbows moving.
- Cool-down: Focus on stretching the areas that are most problematic for you. If you noticed any areas of tightness while doing your session, this is a great time to stretch those out.
There’s no need to spend an hour on mobility or recovery drills. You just want to make sure to give your body enough gentle movements to offset some of that hard work you’re putting it through.
How to Adjust Bodyweight Exercises
One thing that’s sometimes confusing for beginners is how to adjust bodyweight exercises to make them more or less challenging.
With weight training, it’s simple—you just add or subtract weight and the exercise is instantly harder or easier. With bodyweight training, it’s a bit more complicated, but there are almost infinite ways to adjust bodyweight exercises. You just need to know how.
There are three main ways to make an exercise easier or harder:
- Changing the angle
- Changing the range of motion
- Using a support
You can also adjust the leverage of exercises, but leverage becomes a bit too much of a physics lesson, so we’ll leave that aside for now and focus on the others.
Change the Angle
Adjusting the angle changes the load of a given exercise, effectively making it harder or easier. With bodyweight exercise, your body is the load, so changing the angle means you’ll be pushing, pulling, or carrying more or less of your bodyweight.
Let’s use a push-up as an example.
Depending on how long you’ve been exercising, a standard push-up may either be totally out of reach (in which case, you need to find an easier variation) or not challenging enough (so, a harder variation is in order). Changing the angle is just one way of making a push-up more or less challenging, but let’s look at how this works:
- To make a push-up easier: Do an incline push-up. At the easiest end of the spectrum, you’ll stand about three feet from a wall, place your hands on the wall at about shoulder height, and do a wall push-up. Or, you can put your hands up on a chair with your legs extended behind you (like in a standard push-up) and do a raised push-up. When your hands are raised off the ground, they’ll bear less of your weight as you lower yourself, making it easier to press yourself back to the starting position. The closer your hands get to the ground (meaning, the closer you get to a standard push-up), the more of your weight will be going into your hands, making the push-up more challenging.
- To make a push-up harder: You’ll do the opposite and do a decline push-up, with your hands on the ground and your feet raised up. At the hardest end of the spectrum, this becomes a handstand push-up, with your hands on the ground and your feet completely off the ground above you. With a decline push-up, you’re angling your body so that your hands bear more of your body’s weight as you lower yourself toward the ground, making it more challenging to press yourself back up to the starting position.
Playing around with different angles is a great way to adjust the difficulty level of many bodyweight exercises. Every degree of adjustment can make the exercise slightly different, so take the time to find the angle that is the right level of difficulty for your current level and goal.
Change the Range of Motion
Range of motion is another adjustment with infinite possibilities. If doing a full-range squat is too challenging for you, just don’t squat as deeply—simple as that.
Going back to our push-up example, how can you use range of motion to make the standard push-up easier or harder? Take a look:
- To make a push-up easier: Decrease your range of motion. Put a block under your chest to limit how far you can lower yourself, which allows you to work on that top part of the movement.
- To make a push-up harder: Increase your range of motion. Do a push-up with your hands and feet both raised off the ground. Start like a decline push-up, then place your hands on parallettes, blocks, or other solid items on either side of your shoulders. When you lower into the push-up, you’ll be dropping your head and chest down between your hands.
This adjustment is one you can apply to almost any bodyweight exercise, focusing on making your range of motion deeper or shallower depending on how difficult you need the exercise to be.
Use a Support
This last category we’ll focus on is probably the most overlooked way of adjusting exercises. When you start exercising, it’s hard not to get caught up in the ego that runs through this industry, and you may feel like relying on supports for your exercise is “cheating.” It’s not. It’s an effective way of helping you safely build up your strength and mobility.
For this category, we’ll use the squat as an example.
- To make a squat easier: One way is by holding on to something as you squat down. This is usually most helpful if your biggest struggle is with balance. Another is to stand in front of a chair, low bench, or block and squat down onto it, then stand back up. You can lower that support as you get stronger, until eventually, you’re doing a full-range squat.
- To make a squat harder: The most straightforward way to make a squat harder using a support is to wear a weighted vest while you squat. There are also more advanced variations of squats, but a simple weighted vest can increase the difficulty dramatically.
Not all exercises lend themselves to using a support to adjust the difficulty level, but don’t be afraid to use one for those that do.
Learning to adjust exercises to your own level can take some time and might feel a bit awkward at first. It’s well worth it, though, because you’ll be able to practice any bodyweight exercise in the safest and most effective way for you. That means you’ll make better progress with fewer injuries.
There’s no doubt: Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced exerciser, bodyweight training is adaptable and helps you work on the fundamental movement patterns you need for daily function.
Ready to start a bodyweight routine of your own? Check out our training plans to find a bodyweight program that’s right for you.