Which are the best bodyweight exercises for athletes? Now that many don’t have access to gyms, we have to rethink our training programs.
Editor’s note: There have been a lot of requests for photos/videos to give training visuals. I will rectify this soon as the pandemic has left me with limited access to gym equipment.
Bodyweight Exercises for Athletes
Waves of lockdowns have meant gym closures for many across the world.
Some of those stuck in lockdown could be aspiring athletes looking to strengthen and condition their bodies for their sport or discipline of choice.
But without access to proper gyms, they face their hard-earned muscle gains and athletic abilities withering away.
And while barbell training is the best way to maximize strength, there are still some notable bodyweight exercises that can enhance athletic potential.
Let’s get started.
What else can be said about the pullup; it’s the king of upper body bodyweight exercises and a close second place as the king of all upper body movements behind the bench press because everyone can bench, but not everyone can pullup.
From improving shoulder health, to taking grip strength to stratospheric heights, to sculpting a healthy V-taper, to strengthening the entire core, to adding mass all over the upper body, the pullup is probably the most underrated exercise in the gym — and that’s considering how beloved it is as an exercise.
The pullup’s power is not something that can be exaggerated.
And neither is its versatility.
Most athletes should be able to complete 10 reps.
If you can’t, this could be a lockdown goal.
Try working in cluster sets to get there.
Taken from: https://herculeanstrength.com/the-no-equipment-bodyweight-workout/
Say you can only do 3-4 pushups/pullups and want to quickly progress to a set of at least 10 reps, there are two things you can do to advance fairly quickly:
1) Lose fat
2) Cluster sets
A cluster set is a low-rep, high volume style of training with short rest periods between reps.
Let’s assume you can only do 4 pushups, failing on the 5th.
Try a schema of 10 sets of 3 reps, with 15-30 seconds rest between sets. You can even do something along the lines of 20 sets of 2 reps. You can get really creative!
That way you work in a decent amount of volume while training close to failure.
The short rest period between sets while working close to failure will rapidly increase resistance.
Don’t forget to progressive overload each session by adding more reps or total resistance.
One of my favorite 15 minute workouts for my upper back is a pyramid cluster set for pullups adhering to the following rep structure: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1.
By following a cluster set rep pattern, you can make very quick gains on lagging lifts.
As the pullup is the king of bodyweight upper body exercises, the dip is its queen.
When synergistically put together, you get the muscle-up — an exercise even some of the strongest lifters in the world struggle with.
Like the pullup, if done correctly, the dip can add muscle mass to the entire upper body.
Ensure to retract your shoulder blades to recruit your upper back into the movement and keep your elbows tucked in to preserve your shoulders and pec health.
A decent amount of dips (with good form) to perform is between 15-20 for most athletes.
Adding cluster sets for your dips to increase total reps performed is a solid way to progressively overload the movement.
Otherwise, you could add weight in the form of a bodysuit, rucksack, or dangling a loaded belt around your waist.
Wide-grip inverted row
This is a tough exercise to perform.
I have opted for the wider grip for a couple of reasons: 1) to make the movement tougher 2) to recruit more of the rear deltoid 3) improve shoulder health.
Imbalances can easily creep in for a lot of athlete.
The vast majority of lifters unknowingly overdevelop their front deltoids vis-a-vis their rear deltoids.
This happens due to the importance placed on pressing movements by many lifters.
The wide-grip inverted row may help correct such imbalances while improving grip strength and adding mass to the upper back.
Again, like the pullup, this is quite a tough movement and will be humbling to many.
A decent number of total reps is around 10-12.
Pushup variation, working towards a handstand pushup
This final upper body choice is a little low energy, but couldn’t be excluded from a list detailing bodyweight exercises.
Everybody has heard of the pushup; but it has been neglected by many because it doesn’t offer ample resistance.
Now that many gyms are shut, the pushup’s importance has been reignited.
The pushup is a great overall exercise — it targets the shoulders, pecs, triceps, forearms, core, upper back, and even the legs in keeping the body stable.
Do not — and I repeat do not — forget to tuck in your elbows and retract your shoulder blades when completing the movement. This is for the sake of your shoulders and the total number of reps you’ll be able to perform.
A lot of athletes will be able to do way over 30 reps, which is why I’ve suggested that the pushup should be performed with the end goal of a handstand pushup.
This is to keep the lifter motivated as the handstand pushup is very difficult to do. I’m 6’2″ and a former powerlifter and I’ve never been able to do a handstand pushup.
Furthermore, there are dozens of challenging pushup variations out there to be discovered — there will be at least one or two variations that will humble you real quick.
Single leg pistol box squat
A lot of coaches aren’t keen on the traditional pistol squat as it can put the knees in a compromised position as well as placing unnecessary stress on the connective tissue in the feet.
Having said that, adding a box, chair, or even a bed to shorten the range of motion and providing assistance to the lifter, doing this challenging bodyweight exercise should become slightly easier.
This is another bodyweight exercise that will humble many, real quick.
Balance is an importance aspect of successfully completing the pistol squat; having a fallback in place to remove the bulk of the strain at the bottom of the pistol squat will allow the athlete to do the movement with more confidence.
Rep ranges of 6-12 reps should be enough for this particular exercise.
Single leg hip thrust
By arching your upper back onto a firm base/platform like a bench, sofa, bed, etc, keep one foot firmly planted on the ground and another in the air while you complete the movement.
The hip thrust itself, loaded with a barbell, is a staple to the programs of many athletes as it mimics many athletic movements and carries over to other hinge-pattern movements such as the deadlift and Olympic lifts.
However, the single leg hip thrust is far more challenging as it requires a lot of balance.
I, for example, could hip thrust over 500lb for reps when I played rugby, but struggle with doing a single leg hip thrust with no weight.
This is another bodyweight movement that is surprisingly humbling.
Shoot for sets of 10-12 before adding weight.
Your entire posterior chain will get a decent workout from this exercise.
Nordic Glute Ham raise
This is another brutal exercise, but it’s often programmed into many athlete’s training regimens as it quickly strengthens the hammies like no other. It is often incorporated in the programs of athletes who have suffered from hamstring problems to prevent future injury.
A lot of athletes overtrain their quads by prioritizing the squat.
And what happens?
Well, they pull/tear their hammies because their quads are mechanically stronger than their hammies.
And this exercise can help to rapidly address those strength imbalances.
Get a training partner, friend, lover, whoever, to hold down your heels while you slowly descend as far as you can toward the floor, then press up and curl your hammies as hard as you can.
If you can make it 45 degrees to the floor without falling over completely, you’re doing remarkably well. Just make sure that you have your arms extended to break your fall.
The only people I have seen successfully complete this movement all the way to the floor without breaking their fall are petite 100lb soaking wet weightlifters.
It is incredibly challenging.
Aim for 6-10 reps per set and try to get lower than last time before falling. Try to make the negative portion (the descent) last around 3-5 seconds before falling.
Explosive hamstring curl
OK, for this one, you will need some equipment and a smooth surface.
Lie down on your back and with a flannel or ball of some description, perform a one-legged hamstring curl, bringing your active leg up to your abdomen as you lie down.
There should be a little resistance created through dragging the ball or flannel towards your body.
Eventually, when you get the hang of the movement, you should be able to perform it at great speeds.
The purpose of this exercise is to improve sprint speed, strides, and contraction frequency.
When I played rugby, I would take this exercise for 20-30 reps per leg.
Box Jump/Broad Jump/Alternating jumping lunges
Jumping — one of the most natural human movements; altogether underlooked by lifters nowadays.
There are a ton of jumping variations out there that any athlete can practice while in lockdown to keep their explosiveness.
If you don’t have a box, not to worry, you can practice vertical jumping.
Again, with jumping, you’re performing a natural movement.
Broad jumps, in particular, can help improve your deadlift and other hinge pattern movements such as Olympic Lifts.
Broad jumps also carry over to sprinting and can increase stride length.
Aside from their functionality in athletic scenarios, broad jumps can be programmed as a warm up before big lifts as it activates fast twitch muscle fibers and the central nervous system.
An irreplaceable staple for those seeking to improve their sprint speed and jumping distances.
Back when I played sports more often, I would find that stronger obliques meant greater agility through jinking and weaving more efficiently. An all-round stronger core puts you in stronger body positions to absorb blows.
The side plank is one of the most underrated exercises for athletes as it offers all of the above, plus can help prevent shoulder injuries by strengthening the shoulder girdle.
It is an absolute must for contact sports.
Hanging leg raise/ L-sit
The hanging leg raise is a challenging exercise for a lot of lifters who lack overall core development.
One of the reasons I have chosen the hanging leg raise or its isometric cousin the “L-sit” is due to its hip flexor activation and potential carryover it can boast for those looking to sprint faster.
Programming these exercises might be challenging for novices and some intermediate athletes, but be sure to check out the following piece for some guidance as to how to construct your bodyweight workout:
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