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.

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!

How to structure a handbalancing session

Handstand

Handbalancing has gained huge popularity recently. It’s the ultimate symbol of strength and control. Long gone are the days when it was only performed by gymnasts or circus artists. It is a staple part of crossfit boxes, breakdancers, calisthenics athletes, pole dancers, yogis, and the list could go on…

Handbalancing is an umbrella term used for different types of balances that only require your hands. For example frogstands, elbow levers, handstands, etc.

Whether you want to learn a new skill, get stronger, improve your balance, have a party trick or just have fun, you will need to start with the basics. Everyone’s starting point will be different, however it’s very important that you don’t skip progressions as it will bite you later on.

The 3 main components of a handbalancing are balance, strength and mobility. When starting out focus on each of these elements and your progress will be a lot quicker.

Mobility. Start each session with a thorough warm up. Shoulder and wrist care is of utmost importance as you’ll be putting a lot of weight on them in positions that they are not used to. You can use a foam roller or peanut to mobilise your lats and thoracic spine and a corkscrew for your forearms. Move them in all different directions and once they start getting warmer, start putting more weight on them. Follow this with active flexibility exercises focusing on your wrists, lats and shoulder end range. The biggest restricting factor is normally your latissimus dorsi. This is the muscle that comes from your back and attaches to the front of your shoulder. If it’s tight it won’t let you put your arm straight overhead making you compensate elsewhere and this is how a banana back was born.

Frogstand

Balance. After this whilst your body and mind are still fresh I would work on some balance drills. This section completely depends on your level but things like a headstand to get used to basic balancing, frogstand for using your fingers, a kick up against a wall trying not to touch it for learning how far to kick or shifting shapes if you can already hold a freestanding handstand. This will have to be adjusted to your individual level. If you can’t even hold a headstand there is no point kicking into a freestanding handstand. The idea here is to make you master a progression before you move on. A good indicator would be if you can talk whilst holding a move. If you can that would mean that you don’t need 100% focus as your body (and brain) knows what it’s doing.

Strength. Handbalancing requires a great amount of upper body strength. It can be classed as a pushing session (if you’re doing splits). You need strong triceps, delts, rotator cuffs, upper traps and serratus anterior. You need strength in order to support your bodyweight by your arms and endurance to hold it for a period of time. Depending on your level you can start by doing banded rotator cuff exercises, wrist strengthening drill, holds, dynamic movements (wall walks, cartwheels, etc) or other exercises (L sit, compression drills, push ups, etc).

The great thing about handbalancing that it doesn’t require a great deal of space. To get better at it, you need to practice it regularly. However always listen to your body and have rest days when you need it. Especially when starting out you need extra time to strengthen your tendons which will take longer than strengthening your muscles. Overuse injuries are common however can be avoided.

Happy balancing!