How to increase overload in bodyweight exercises

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.

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