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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Conclusions from first competition

With our medals and certificates – runner up and winner of best tricks and best entertainer

I had my first ever pole competition on Saturday (05/07/2019). As always, I had to be extra and I competed in 2 categories: doubles and instructors.

I’ve been wanting to compete for a while now but due to different reasons it hasn’t happened. I chose a song and started choosing moves for it a year and a half ago but unfortunately due to messing up my shoulder and wrists I didn’t do it. Then I completed my pole instructor qualification last July meaning I have to compete in instructor’s category now so I was gonna just leave it. Around November time I started thinking about it again. Justina, the owner of Swingdon where I teach wanted to do a Christmas showcase and I did a doubles performance with her. We put the show together in 4 sessions and I quite enjoyed it so decided I will compete at Miss pole dance UK semi pro – or at least apply for it and as I can’t dance I won’t get in but then I can say that I’ve tried. Well, I actually got in…

My solo routine

I started training for my solo in December doing comp work once a week but then we decided with Justina that we’ll do doubles together too. There was no audition for doubles so we just applied and got in. We started training for it December/January time. I found it really hard to train for my solo so I focused on the doubles and just general training with the occasional solo comp prep. I had to do a 2 minute routine by the end of March which I struggled with but eventually on the last day managed to record 2 minutes of part tricks/part freestyle to submit. As it was really sloppy, I even got a message in the middle (phone vibrated) I had no doubt that I didn’t make it. I also wanted to apply for Heir to the chrome because that’s a reputable comp and isn’t crazy far. I had to do a full routine for that but again had no stamina or even choreography to do it properly. I had an OK run through on the last day, then turned out my phone didn’t record it properly… Luckily someone came to the studio meanwhile and she recorded it with her phone on the floor. I ended up submitting that. To my biggest surprise I got in to MPD UK! As expected I didn’t make it to HTTC but they gave me some valuable feedback. From here I tried to have one run through at my routine once a week and tried to finish the choreography. I couldn’t spend time specifically working on as my attention span just reverted back to training normal tricks… I really struggled with stamina… I changed a lot, took bits out, added things on but never managed to finish it with enough time…

Shark on stage

4 days before the competition I had a final run through in front of the MVPA team and listened to all their feedback and we tried to add some little bits in that doesn’t cost energy, fits with the theme and doable. Even then at the last try I was still 15 seconds short… As it’s a solo I can always style it out with something so I didn’t worry too much about it. Well, I did but as it was too late to make it any better I just thought I do what I can and see what happens. Not exactly the best preparation or mentality but I didn’t expect to win with it, I just wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and I definitely did it. I never danced in my life. Never been on stage. Never put a choreography together. Never linked moves for so long together. My stamina is rubbish. I can’t see without my glasses. My routine is different – VERY different… But as the pole community is generally so supportive I thought why not, I’d only regret not doing it later, what’s the worst that could happen.

Group photo after results

I messed up a move on stage that I can do with my eyes closed – I messed up a shoulder mount split catch… Some of the transitions weren’t smooth at all and ended up facing the wrong way at the end with the scorpio handstand. I was again a bit short so just freestyled out the ending and it worked out fine. There were random people coming up to me congratulating!! Someone said ‘it was insane!’ I didn’t even know how to react to it as I wasn’t expecting it.

The biggest takeaways for me are to make sure each move flows into the next and is intended. Look at the audience more, get them involved. But all this requires a lot more effort than what I put in. A lot more run throughs with doing it in front of others. Great learning curve and I’m glad I did it. Being on stage is a completely different feeling to anything and until you do it, you’ll have no idea what to expect. Luckily the audience was brilliant, they were cheering and clapping and even tho my routine was so different, I felt accepted. My biggest obstacle was putting it in my head that as it’s different, people won’t know how to take it and they won’t enjoy it. But I’m actually pretty proud of what I did.

Marion amber on stage

Would I do it again? Maybe. I don’t have any dance background, got 0 body awareness and I’m just generally awkward. But I did something different, hopefully was a bit of a breath of fresh air between all those serious contemporary performances and I loved people’s reactions so you never know. There is a song in mind that I’d love to try to do something with so we’ll see:)

And of course I did my doubles performance with Justina. We started working on it December/January time and it took priority. We trained once a week. The hardest was coming up with a theme and basing the moves and the feel of the routine around it. We came up with American pie as the main theme and then added Romeo and Juliet and Scream later on. We watched American pie and Scary movie at the studio on a projector which was a good experience on its own. We chose scenes from the films that we wanted to recreate. We really wanted to do the scene from American pie 2 where Stifler gets pissed on but really struggled with it. We also applied for another competition that we didn’t get in and their feedback was useful in the sense of taking that scene out lol.

Doubles category on stage

Each week we changed something, improved the moves and pieced it better together. Once we made the decision to take out the pissing scene the rest of the routine slotted together really nicely. We spent a lot of time working on our acting to make it funny. We didn’t just want to perform a routine, we wanted to create a light hearted piece that’s entertaining, fun to watch and will make people laugh.

We even asked someone to be our human prop at the end to go the extra mile and create a story line. There were so many hurdles along the way that I’m really happy with the end product. Working with someone else and trying to have the same vision is hard. You need to agree on all ideas and make sure that it works for both of you. I wasn’t 100% happy with a part at the end of the routine that we took out the day before the comp and never ran it again! Rookie mistake… We didn’t realise just how much time it took up… Also when we ran it at the studio, we didn’t use the actual costumes all the time so when getting changed it was a lot different on the day than when we practiced it before.

Pole freeze on stage

Apart from the obvious – don’t change your routine the day before without running it and practice with actual circumstances (costumes, distances, diameters and makes of the pole) I also learnt it the hard way not to put one handed moves at the end… I tried to do a phoenix which I can do without any real effort but my hands were so slippy by the end that it just slid right down… Also not to put moves in that I can’t do every single time. I can handstand and walk in there but only about 9 out of 10 attempts…

All in apart from the mistakes I made and messing up the timings I am really proud of what we did. We came up with 2 moves that I’ve never seen before and did some really hard stuff. We made people laugh and had strangers come up to us congratulating. We won best tricks and best entertainer and came overall 2nd in doubles category. Secretly I’m glad we didn’t win so we won’t have to do another routine for finals in October (the day before we’re due to fly to Mallorca pole camp…). We will be working on another routine and got another competition in mind we’d like to do. Now we just need to agree on what theme to do next:)

Our doubles routine

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.


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 set your pole goals

Iron X

The new year is fast approaching and you’re thinking about taking your training serious next year. You reflect on the past year and conclude that as much as you’ve made improvements you could have done better.

Setting your goals the right way will speed up your process. Just writing down your goals will get you closer as your brain will unconsciously help you make an effort. But how do you set goals the right way?

I give you an example of an aerial invert to guide you through. You’ve probably already heard that your goals need to be

SMART goals

S pecific – describe exactly what you want to achieve, for example with an aerial invert describe whether you want your legs straight, into a static V or just foot on pole, are you starting it from a specific move or going into a specific move after, etc

M easurable – refers to any variables that you can compare – in the pole world as we work on a lot of skill this can be difficult at times to specify. With an aerial invert try thinking of things like extending lever ie leg positions, reps or part of a combo, etc

A chievable – think about whether it’s achievable – for example you have a shoulder injury and have to avoid hanging off your arms – until the injury is dealt with probably it’s not achievable

R ealistic – ask whether given the timeframe is it doable – if you can’t even climb but set yourself the goal of aerial inverting in 2 weeks is not realistic

T imebound – set a timeframe – you need to give yourself a deadline of getting your first invert

E njoyable – do you enjoy what you’re doing – if you like what you’re doing it’s a lot more likely that you’ll succeed as you won’t look at it as a chore. If you hate doing sit ups to strengthen your core then do something else that will have the same effect but you like doing

R eviewed – keep checking your progress – set aside time at a regular interval to see how you’re progressing, are the invert lifts you’re doing getting easier, can you do more, does your programming work, if not you need to think why not and make necessary adjustments


R elevant – try planning your goals focusing only on one thing at a time, for example if you want to work on your aerial invert, it wouldn’t make sense including back bend sessions as it’s not relevant for that goal, make that a separate one if you want to work on that too

Have a goal, make a plan and do it

Now that you refreshed yourself on the basics of goal setting you can go into more details about how to fit it into your training.

Pick your goals – don’t work on too many goals at a time. Focus on no more than 3. You can still list a few more and if you don’t feel like working on the main ones at least you have back ups.

Break your goals down into manageable chunks – For example sticking to the aerial invert example it can be broken down into stabilising to hang, compression and rotation. Think about what is hindering your progress. Can you hang comfortably engaging the correct muscles? If not, work on your rotator cuffs and back muscles, improve your grip strength, practice hanging on a bar, etc. Are you struggling with compression? Work on your core, practice compression exercises, strengthen your hip flexors, stretch your hamstrings, etc. If it’s the rotation that let’s you down, practice it off the pole, on different apparatus, etc.

A goal without a plan is just a wish…

Put a programme together – Once you worked out what component is that you need to work on you can put a programme together. Try to focus on the two main elements which are strength & mobility and skill. For example if your goal is an aerial invert you could start your session with some active flexibility and mobility exercises with a lacrosse ball focusing on the problem areas, then move over to some light rotator cuff exercises to get them fired up, then work on some skill drills, followed by conditioning the weak areas (core, back, rotator cuffs, etc) and finishing it off with stretching. Make sure that each session gets progressively harder and that you’re allowing enough rest to recover between sessions.

If you follow these steps I guarantee you will get closer to achieving that illustrious deadlift or rainbow marchenko…

Happy goalsetting!