How to increase overload in bodyweight training

ripped back

It’s important that the difficulty of the exercises we do is increased in a slow and steady manner. Given the fact that we use our body weight as resistance, we have to be a bit more creative to ensure that we’re progressing at the correct pace. Before you dive in, have a read at the article about what progressive overload is and why we need it.

You can find a few ideas below how we can make things harder or potentially regress them if needed to. Some require external assistance, some just a bit of a tweak to how we are completing the exercise.

Lever length

We can manipulate the lever length. For example when working on the human flag we can start in a tucked position making the lever length shorter. To then increase the difficulty we can straighten one leg, then a straddle and finally both legs straight. The further the limbs are from the fulcrum (pivot point, which is the joint), the more effort we have to put in (muscles have to work harder).

Resistance bands

resistance bands
Resistance bands

Another great way is to incorporate resistance bands. Again, we can use them to progress or regress exercises. We can for example use bands to give us a bit of help when doing pull ups or muscle ups, take some of the effort away in holding a human flag/iron X. However bands can be used to make for example push ups harder by looping them behind your back, giving you extra resistance to work against.

Exercise progressions/regressions

Exercise progressions are a great way to work towards more challenging moves. It can be that we break down the move into specific components and we work on them separately before linking them together. For example when learning a handstand, we can work on specific strength drills such as bunny hops or wall work and balance components like headstands, frogstand/crow, elbow lever, etc. You can learn to handstand just by kicking up and hoping that you’ll hold it, that’s how I learnt it, but trust me if I say that it’s a lot safer and more time efficient if you work your way up to it by achieving easier but relevant steps. That way you will have that constant sense of achievement helping you keep your motivation up which will result in a lot more fun.

Extra weight

Dipping belt

In a traditional weight lifting setting we’re used to loading extra plates on our barbells to increase intensity. This can be achieved in certain scenarios in the bodyweight landscape too. We can use extra weight in the form of weight vests, dipping belts, ankle weights, kettlebells, plates, dumbbells, medicine balls, etc. The only limit is our imagination. Depending on your goals the type of weight you use can give you a quick strength or even technique boost. For example when trying to increase strength on the pole, putting an ankle weight on can help you get stronger, or when working on explosive movements such as a muscle up, using extra weights can help you develop that specific high pull that is needed to get over the bar.

Tempo

A very simple but very effective method is to focus on the tempo. Rather than taking 1 second to go up and 1 to go down, make it 2 seconds each. Or just focus on really controlling the movement. By eliminating momentum we can work more on the sticking point, the weakest part of a move. Slower movement also result in more time under tension making our muscles work harder.

Eccentrics

Yet, if we only focus on eccentrics, we can achieve some serious strength gain. Eccentrics are the portion of the movement that is done with the help of gravity. So for example when doing a pull up, it would be the way down. Aim for about 4-5 seconds. Because eccentrics tend to involve greater muscle damage, it’s important that we allow enough time to recover afterwards.

Isometrics

4020 tempo example

In contrast to eccentrics, the use of isometrics involves holding the move at either the beginning, end or the weakest point. It extends the total length of each rep and increases the time under tension as well. Isometrics are a great way to work on strength at a specific angle. According to studies, we gain strength 10 degrees of either side of it. So if you’re working on a human flag for example, by holding it at let’s say 45 degree angle isometrically, you would be strengthening it up to 55 degree. Yet, if you want the maximum benefit, combine all the above. For example a 4020 tempo in a pull up would mean 4 seconds on the way down, no pause, back up for 2 seconds and no pause at the top.

Sets and reps

A very simple way is to manipulate the sets and reps. By aiming to do more sets or reps than before we can ensure that we are progressing. One thing to bear in mind though is that if you’re aiming for something specific, it is worth trying to stick to the most beneficial set/rep range. For example if you’re working on maximal strength, adding an extra rep per set each week, after let’s say 2 months isn’t going to yield that specific adaptation so it would make sense to progress a different way to still hit that magic 1-6 rep range. You can also play with different systems such as pyramids, cluster and drop sets or AMRAPs. Just make it relevant to your goals.

Rest

Another simple tweak we can use is reducing the time we recover between sets. It can make your workout more challenging. Equally, increasing rest time can make it easier. Again, it is important that we look at the bigger picture and see how altering rest periods would impact on the overall programme.

Spotter

resistance band assisted pull ups
Resistance band assisted pull up

As most pole dancers start in a class, we are used to the instructor spotting us. In calisthenics it’s a bit different. Having a spotter can make things easier in several different way. If you haven’t got access to a spotter, a resistance band can sometimes help you. Using a spotter can help us mentally as well as physically get over a certain move. It can allow you to get to the top of the move to then just work on eccentrics. Or give you that extra boost you need when you’re just not THAT strong enough yet. Some of the tricks we work on can be scary so knowing that you won’t die is always a bonus. And a spotter can give you feedback on your form and technique too.

Grip

Another pole tip is to work on different grips. And work on both sides. Now THAT will make it challenging! If you like twisted grip as you find it easy, start working on other grips. It’s essential not just from a strength gain point of view but from injury prevention too. True grip and cup grip both require a bit more shoulder and grip strength but they are so much better for you. And if you really want to challenge yourself, try doing tricks on your ‘wrong’ side. That will help even out imbalances and will challenge you massively.

Width of pole/bar

And finally another way to challenge ourselves is to use different width equipment. The thicker the pole/bar is, the stronger grip strength is needed. Also try different kind of surfaces. It can be different metal poles, such as chrome, brass or stainless or rigid or gymnastics bars as well as rings or parallettes.

What is progressive overload and why do we need it

Progressive overload

One of the main principals of strength training is progressive overload. It means that in order to gain any new adaptation we need to increase the difficulty and/or resistance of a certain exercise. It has to be done in a slow and steady manner in order to give our bodies enough time to get used to the new stimulus. Our body is smart and efficient. It will get stronger, faster, works for longer and whatever else we ask it to do if we keep putting it under stress. If we keep doing the same thing, it will get really good at doing that. But not any more than that. To avoid plateau we need to get out of our comfort zone and challenge ourselves.

How progressive overload happens over time

The overload has to be progressive as to allow enough time for recovery. If it’s done too fast and the time for recovery isn’t sufficient, the opposite effect happens and our performance drops. Overtraining can also increase our risk of injury. Optimum performance improvement happens we do more than before, allow time for recovery and repeat it regularly. However the starting point and the rate of progression are different for everyone.

Adaptations don’t just happen to the musculoskeletal system (muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones) but also to our nervous system. Different variables affect these at different rates. Learning a new move can be extremely taxing on the nervous system therefore more recovery is needed to avoid overtraining. From an injury prevention point of view it’s worth bearing in mind that due to having less blood vessels (making nutrient delivery therefore recovery slower), tendons and ligaments take longer to hypertrophy (grow) compared to muscles. So when planning a training programme we need to think about other factors affecting progressive overload.

Using weights you can just put an extra plate on the barbell or go for a heavier dumbbell, however when we use bodyweight as resistance, increasing difficulty can be a challenge. There are several different ways it can be done. Key being that we can monitor progress and it’s not a massive jump like trying to do a handstand push up when you just learnt to hold a 5 second handstand.

Here you can find some ideas on how to increase overload

Active flexibility

Passive stretching assisted by an external force whilst active stretching only relies on muscle strength

Active flexibility is an important element of both pole and calisthenics. It’s not enough to just passively stretch, we need to work on our active flexibility. What’s the difference, I can hear you ask. Passive flexibility is what most people work on when they are stretching. It is when you use external forces to put you into a stretched position. It can be your weight, gravity, dumbbells, etc. Active flexibility is when you only use your muscles to hold you in a certain position. For example when we think about a hamstring stretch when someone lifts your leg in the air or you’re sitting in a front split on the floor vs. holding it in the air without any assistance.

Ideally we should train both. If you have a big difference between your active and passive flexibility, the chances of getting injured increases as even tho you might be able to push yourself into positions, you’re not strong enough to hold them without assistance. For example you can lift your leg next to your head with the help of your hands, band or a partner but when you let go, your leg drops significantly. This is the point where most injuries happen as your body is familiar with the position but without external help it doesn’t know (as it’s not strong enough) how to support you in it.

Hypermobility

If you have hypermobility you are at an even bigger risk of getting injured if you don’t strengthen your end range mobility. Hypermobility is when your ligaments are generally looser around your joints. (If your knees or elbows bend backwards or you can touch your thumb to your forearm you are likely hypermobile.) To strengthen end range of motion there are different options available to you. For example you can passively lift the body part into end range and by loosening the support you try to keep it in the same position.

Active flexibility doesn’t just look good but makes certain moves a lot easier. Thinking about things like a handstand press, if you can keep your legs closer to your body it will be a lot easier to lift them in the air. As an overhead athlete probably the most important part of your mobility is overhead mobility. Tight shoulders increase the risk of injuries forcing the body to find the lacking range of motion elsewhere leaving other structures not designed for it to take up the slack.

Wall angels

Every training session should start with a thorough warm up followed by targeted soft tissue release. For example if I’m having a handbalancing session, I will target my lats, posterior delts and thoracic spine. At times I might feel tight elsewhere affecting my overhead mobility and roll my pec minor, upper traps or levator scapulae. If I’m working on presses, I give my hamstrings some extra TLC. After rolling/peanutting I’d strengthen the newly gained extra range of motion. Sticking with overhead mobility it would be some arm lifts in a childs position, pullovers, wall angels, overhead band lifts, etc. This step is probably the most important. This will strengthen the muscles at end range keeping you safe and confirming to your body that it can let you use this newly found extra range of motion. This won’t happen overnight, flexibility is the result of consistency. However if you keep to it, you’ll notice a huge difference. Due to time restrictions make sure that you’re prioritising. If you only do muscle ups and front levers, there’s no point focusing on your splits.

Active flexibility is an important part of training. It will make you stronger, bendier, and safer. You can unlock new moves and enhance the ones you can already do. It’ll make you a well rounded athlete. So don’t forget to dedicate a few minutes to it as often as you can – it’ll worth it.

Happy flexing!

Body types

The main 3 body types

Have you ever wondered why some people don’t seem to put on any weight no matter what they eat or why others get twice as strong with half the effort? Unfortunately it’s likely due to our genes.

There are 3 main body types (somatotypes): mesomorph, ectomorph and endomorph. Each of these have specific characteristics. Most people exhibit characteristics from two of these categories. To maximize your training effect you can try experimenting with the guidelines for your body type. However as each body is different, there’s no right or wrong, not everything will work for everyone.

The main characteristics of an ectomorph is that they are tall and skinny with narrow hips and shoulders, have barely any fat and struggle to build muscle. They have a fast metabolism therefore need to eat a lot. They find losing weight easy but struggle to put on muscle. They are generally more flexible and great at long distance activities.

Mesomorphs have an athletic, muscular appearance with wide shoulders and narrow waist, they are strong and gain and lose both muscle and fat quite easily. They respond well to both resistance and aerobic training however can become overtrained quickly. They are well suited for bodybuilding but generally struggle with flexibility. Putting on weight comes easy whether it’s fat or muscle.

Endomorphs are soft and round in appearance, are strong and quick to gain both muscle and fat however struggle to lose fat due to having slower metabolism. They should train cardio as well as resistance training to aid fat loss/maintenance. They excel at strongman competitions.

Most people exhibit characteristics from two body types

The most envied types are mesomorphs as they get the best of both worlds. They can put on muscle but lose weight easily, whilst ectomorphs struggle putting muscle on and endomorphs struggle losing weight. Body types are not an excuse but more like an explanation. Whatever your type is you can still achieve your goals. We can’t change our genes so try working with them. Find your strengths and weaknesses and prioritize them accordingly. Rather than comparing yourself to others, just enjoy the process. For example if you know that you’re most likely an ectomorph and want to put on some muscle, make sure you’re eating plenty, even before going to bed, cut down on your cardio and go for high volumes of training.

Your body type isn’t an excuse – it’s an explanation.

Functional fitness

Kneeling, reaching, squatting – everyday movements

Functional fitness… The term gets thrown around a lot. It’s that fancy buzzword that everybody’s talking about. There are over 1 million hashtags on Instagram, every workout video has to include some functional fitness exercises and every gym has a functional fitness area.

So what does functional fitness really mean?

Let’s start with the word functional. It means having a special activity, purpose or task and designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive. This description actually have a slight negative ring to it by focusing on the usefulness over the looks. It indicates that if you do it, you’ll benefit from it but you wont like it.

The second part, fitness means the condition of being physically fit and healthy.

So if you were to put the two together it would mean that you’re usefully fit and healthy. Useful is different for everybody but there are certain tasks and situations where everyone benefits. These are for example climbing stairs, carrying shopping, picking things up, etc.

In the fitness industry functional fitness is referred to as something that mimics everyday life. In our every day life we rarely isolate muscles and joints. Most tasks require multiple muscle groups and joints to work together in harmony. Even if you think of things like getting up the sofa or walking upstairs you can see that you’ll be working from your calves through your hips to your core. So the aim of functional fitness is to make your body work more efficiently in order to complete everyday tasks. It achieves it by building strength, stability, balance, stamina and mobility across the whole body and makes it work as one unit.

It’s not a new term but got picked up by the media due to the popularity of crossfit, ninja warrior training and calisthenics. As functional fitness in general doesn’t require a great range of equipment, more and more smaller and garage gyms are popping up focusing on functional fitness.

There are several exercises that can be done without any or minimal equipment using your own bodyweight. For example

A selection of simple equipment
  • Pull ups – a whole upper body exercise, using several of the back, shoulder, forearm and core muscles at the same time. As well as improving general strength and coordination within your upper body and core, it also improves your grip strength.
  • Squats – can be performed with or without weights using several variations and progressions. To get up from a sofa, chair, desk, etc you’re sitting down and standing up which is pretty much a squat. By working on your patterns, strength, balance and technique in the gym you will make your life a lot easier every time you sit down or stand up.

And there are exercises that you will need equipment for. For example

  • Deadlifts – have you ever had to lift a box? Well, I thought so. Deadlifts are the perfect exercise to teach you how to safely do it. If you’ve ever completed a manual handling training at work, you’ll know that they are basically teaching you how to deadlift. Correct technique can save you injury both in and out of the gym.

However when we label an exercise functional we need to be able to explain how it will transfer into everyday life for the client. For example a client is very overweight, has never been to a gym and is very self conscious could be better off using the leg press machine first before we introduce them to a squat. In this scenario using a machine would actually benefit the client. As they get more and more competent we can start introducing compound exercises and free weights. We always need to bare in mind that whilst something might be beneficial for one person, it might not be for another one therefore what we deem functional can change from person to person. This is also true for people with limitations (for example muscle imbalances or limited range of motion) or recovering from injuries. For example I do wrist curls to improve strength in my forearms and wrists to build up strength after an injury. It’s an isolation exercise with a good old dumbbell therefore people wouldn’t think of this being functional but it helps me in my daily life by increasing grip strength to pick up my shopping or open a jar (as well as with my training).

Compound exercises

Functional fitness also focuses on how your joints are moving along different planes to enhance each movement. A big emphasis is placed on proper muscle length to ensure smooth movement patterns, improved balance, posture and mobility which in turn helps reduce injury.

The good news is that apart from making your day to day life easier, functional fitness exercises can be tailored to suit your individual goal whether that be losing weight, getting fitter or stronger. Due to the different demands placed on the body it will make you more well-rounded in terms of the different components of fitness (such as cardio, strength, speed, etc).

A general misconception is that functional fitness is basically crossfit or using fancy equipment in innovative ways. Whilst crossfit incorporates a lot of exercises that can have a positive effect on your daily life, unless it’s individualised it doesn’t necessary mean you’ll improve your quality of life. The same applies to using the most recent cool equipment. Just because you were sold a TRX as a functional fitness equipment, a plank won’t be any less functional on the floor than on the TRX. And this is where you need to think about whether it will help or potentially hinder your day to day life. If you haven’t got the strength, form, technique, mobility, etc by progressing too fast you are increasing your risk of injury, not mentioning that you won’t get the relevant benefits from the exercise.

TRX suspension trainer

All in all functional fitness means exercises that enhance your day to day life. Whilst in general people think of pull ups, push ups, TRX, bosu ball, etc exercises, this is true for some gym goers, however for a complete beginner or someone struggling with limitations it might be something a lot more simpler for example isolation exercises. You always need to think how an exercise will have a carry over effect and don’t progress too fast, learn the basics first.