How to Build Actual Size and Performance With Advanced Bodyweight Training

By on March 26, 2020

Initially, I was resisting the urge to make any content dictated by Coronavirus. It’s a stressful time, and in many ways I think it helps to simply take our minds off everything that’s going on with some escapism. Plus, there’s an awful lot out there on bodyweight training right now.

But a LOT of people started requesting advice on how to train from home. And of course, I do want to help out if I can.

This is something I know a bit about too, and actually feel quite strongly about. The issue I see for a lot of people training with bodyweight, is that they don’t know how to increase intensity. Bodyweight training is fine if you just want to tone up, but if you’re currently missing access to a full gym with a squat rack, rows of dumbbells, and battleropes… how can your own body compare?

Bodyweight training

To so many people, bodyweight training means three sets of ten pushups. But it can be a LOT more than that. In fact, we can use this opportunity to tap into some extremely effective training methods that you may never have used before. And it will lead to immediate growth and performance.

My History With Bodyweight Training

When I first started working out – inspired by Jackie Chan, Arnie, and Stallone movies, and encouraged by my new step Granddad who fancied himself a Mr. Miyagi to my Daniel San – I had no idea what I was doing.

I literally did hundreds of pushups, sit ups, and pull ups every single night. But I also experimented with tempo – performing very slow movements and the like. It was a completely scattershot approach to training.

Home bodyweight training

But you know what? It worked. I managed to build an almost bodybuilder-like physique AND develop enough strength to lift over 100kg the first time I ever tried the bench press! I could even do some basic hand balancing without training. In some ways, I was in better shape then than I am now!

I put this partly down to my supplementary martial arts training, and the fact that I was consistent. Both those things helped, but it turned out that I was also accidentally/intuitively using some pretty advanced strategies.

I literally did hundreds of pushups, sit ups, and pull ups every single night.

In this video then, I’m going to share these strategies, so you can use them to create a genuine challenge and trigger an adaptive response with your bodyweight training. I’ll also be sharing a free PDF that includes a complete bodyweight routine, which will be available to download from the website.

And as a side note, seeing as a lot of you are stuck at home and bored looking for something to read, my eBook and full SuperFunctional Training program will also be on heavy discount for the next few weeks. Get it here.

High Volume Bodyweight Training

So the challenge we have, is training in such a way as to mimic the intensity you would normally accomplish with a much heavier weight. Most of us can perform push ups for days, so how do we make push-ups challenging enough to stimulate growth?

The first tool that I want to share, is using high volume bodyweight training. That means training using extremely high numbers of movements: perhaps you’re doing three sets of 100 push ups, or maybe you’re doing five sets of 20 pull ups.

Pseudo Planche Push Up

Of course, because you’re only using a very light weight (your upper body in many cases), this won’t cause a lot of muscle damage, require the recruitment of the larger twitch muscle fibers, or even create high levels of mechanical tension. In other words, you won’t trigger quite the signals you need for large growth or strength gains.

But the key is that you’re not only going to be using a high total volume: you’re also going to be aiming for a high level of continuous time under tension. That means that you will be aiming to perform extremely high rep ranges without ever completely letting your muscles get a break. In our case, we’re going to be going to failure.

You’re aiming for a high level of continuous time under tension.

This is the method that has long been used by bodybuilders, but it is somewhat contested and debated among researches.

Turns out it has a lot of merit. Here’s what extremely high-rep bodyweight training does for you:

Work Capacity

Firstly: aiming for those extremely high rep ranges will help you to improve your work capacity. That’s something you might have been neglecting in the gym, and it means that in future, your strength training won’t be limited by your endurance.

Metabolic Stress

Secondly, continuous time under tension creates a natural form of occlusion. That means that blood travels straight to the muscle and then stays there, encouraging the build up of more metabolites that signal more growth via metabolic stress.

Bodyweight training muscle

Part of the reason we experience muscle failure, is that the build-up of metabolites interferes with the release of calcium necessary for contraction. Thus, if you go to failure, you are maximizing that metabolic build-up.

This is why bodybuilders use the strategy to create such non-contractile hypertrophy, and it works. I have seen countless people I’ve helped train gain massive growth in their chest by doing high-rep push-ups.

Blood Supply

At the same time, this kind of training can actually create new capillaries. That means you’ll be creating more tiny blood vessels directing blood to the muscle. This can have huge benefits, as it means the muscle will be better served by hormones and nutrients in future: allowing for improved recovery, and growth.

Tom was eventually able to perform multiple sets of 100 reps on the squats with 225lbs!

An article by Christian Thibaudeua on T-Nation recently discussed the merits of pushing 100 rep leg presses for this very purpose. He explained how this helped many figure athletes with stubborn legs to see sudden and impressive growth. In the same article, he also explained how golden-era bodybuilders like Tom Platz used the precise same method. Not only did this build insane size, but also crazy strength endurance. Tom was eventually able to perform multiple sets of 100 reps on the squats with 225lbs!

The same thing works with air squats.

Muscle Fiber Recruitment

Finally, there’s another reason that super-high rep bodyweight training to failure is beneficial: it might build strength by increasing motor unit recruitment.

When we attempt to contract a muscle against resistance or otherwise, we do so by sending a nerve impulse from our brain, across the neuromuscular junction, and into the muscle. The strength of the signal (partly determined by the firing rate) will then determine how many of the motor units are called into action. (Motor units are bundles of muscle fiber within the muscle; the more that work together, the stronger the contraction.)

High rep bodyweight training

The bigger and stronger the motor units, the stronger signal is required to push them past their excitation threshold and call them into action. So if you only use light effort, then you will only use a small percentage of the slower-twitch muscle fibers to perform the movement. But as the challenge ramps up, you try harder, and the bigger, more explosive motor units get involved. Training at 80% of your 1 Rep Max and above therefore builds more strength by actually challenging the most powerful components of the muscle, and by increasing your ability to access your muscle’s full strength: strengthening your neural drive.

Your nervous system has no choice but to recruit the larger, explosive motor units to continue the set.

The amount of weight moved during a press up is unlikely to challenge you enough to require your large twitch muscle fibers.

But guess what? Once you reach the end of a super-long set of push-ups, you will find that the smaller motor units comprised primarily of slow-twitch fiber begin to fatigue and “drop out.” Now you can give up, OR you can keep pushing through. When you do that, your nervous system has no choice but to recruit the larger, explosive motor units to continue the set. After all: that’s all that’s left!

This can now create many of the conditions necessary for strength gains, along with developing a stronger mind muscle connection.

Isometric Failure and Mechanical Drop Sets

The key is to go to the point of isometric failure. That means that you can no longer complete a full set, or even hold yourself at the toughest point in the movement. Ideally, this should also eventually isolate as few muscles as possible, meaning that it is the fiber recruitment in that area that is specifically preventing you from calling completing the movement (in other words, one or two muscles are completely spent, rather than the collective strength of many muscles letting you down).

Press ups

At this point, you are now trying to lift a weight you can no longer lift. The humble push up has become an overcoming isometric movement – a tool that was used by the likes of Bruce Lee and old-time strongmen to build crazy strength.

How do you get to that point? With a mechanical drop set. Go to failure on your push-ups, but then rather than stopping, continue performing more pushups on your knees. Now your core is being challenged far less but your pecs, shoulders and triceps are still being challenged!

You can then end with an isometric hold, or even burns: reps with the bare minimum rep range that you’re still capable of!

Varied Movements

So could you build muscle, strength, and size using a program simply consisting of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and air squats to failure? Well, yes! But that would not be optimal.

There are some limitations to training purely this way.

Quadrupedal movement bodyweight training

The first is that performing hundreds of air squats every day for weeks on end could eventually get tough on the knees. It shouldn’t in theory (your knees should be up to the challenge) but there are many factors that make this likely. That’s why it’s a good idea to vary the precise movements between workouts, in order to keep challenging the body in new ways and provide the connective tissue with some chance to recover.

Take it slow to begin with – as you should with any new training program – and listen to your body. Take a break from specific movements if you notice any discomfort that is not simply delayed onset muscle soreness.

Functional Bodyweight Training

At the same time, introducing a greater variety of movements will help to improve aspects of strength that are often overlooked. Calisthenics has many complex and challenging movements that challenge the body in three dimensions, and that work smaller supporting muscle groups that go overlooked. This is an ideal time to work in the frontal and transverse planes for instance, with Cossack squats and lizard crawls. Likewise, you can train for skills like the planche or handstand and work your straight arm strength and your core.

Isometric hold bodyweight training

The problem is that relying on this type of training won’t allow you to benefit from the muscle fatigue and fiber recruitment I discussed earlier. This trains your intermuscular coordination and recruitment, rather than intramuscular.

But what we can do here is to either combine these strategies with a mechanical drop set (which will also significantly lower the amount of time taken to reach failure) OR use them at the start of the workout, structuring it like a reverse pyramid.

For example, you might start a push workout by performing one-armed push-ups and pseudo planche push ups, then move on to your super-high-rep push-ups.

Alternatively, to use a mechanical drop set, you might perform as many dips as you can, only to then drop to the ground and continue with regular push ups – taking no break in between and treating this as one set.

Explosive Strength

There is one thing still missing from this program: explosive starting strength.

Using plyometrics in our program will also give us the ability to engage the fast twitch muscle fiber right at the start of our training – potentially improving starting strength where going to failure might not.

bodyweight training plyometrics

Clapping push-ups, jump squats, and explosive pull ups will all help add an explosive component to this training and should go at the very start of the workouts.

Another option is to use something I’ve developed myself and have recently been experimenting with: bodyweight isometrics. Here, you put yourself in a position where you can’t perform any reps –lying on the ground with your arms wide apart for instance – and then you attempt to push yourself up anyway.

This is like trying to bench your 110% rep max.

It looks and feels like you’re trying to fly the Earth, so I call it the Earth Crusher. Thanks to commenter Roland Rush for suggesting that name!

As far as the neurological effect is concerned, this is like trying to bench your 110% rep max. Perform this ballistically and then hold the contraction for 6 seconds. I won’t be incorporating this into the program as it’s experimental, but stay tuned for more on this.

Cardio and Cool Down

Finally, I’d also incorporate some forms of cardio or HIIT at the end of the workouts. Shadow boxing, skipping, or running are all things we can still use, and which improve a fun way to improve fitness alongside strength.

Grant uploaded a video on how to train martial arts on your own a while back, so check that one out too!

Cardio bodyweight training

To finish up, we’re going to use a yielding isometric. That means moving extremely slowly through the movement – taking a minute to complete a push up for example. This another highly effective way to improve your mind-muscle connection. This will also help you to develop strength at the weakest points in the movement, as you won’t be able to rely on momentum to carry you through.

It’s a perfect cool down method, as well as an opportunity to practice some moving meditation, if that’s your jam.

This one will be included in the program. Check out my video on yielding isometrics for more on how that works.

So, I hope you guys find that useful, let me know if you have any comments or questions. Likewise, feel free to share your favorite home workouts in the comments for others to check out.

Staying indoors sucks, but if it means sparing one at-risk person from the virus, then it’s worth it. And as you can see, there’s no reason we can’t keep making amazing gains nevertheless! I’m taking it as a perfect opportunity to work on some other neglected aspects of my self-development.

I hope you’re all staying safe and healthy! And most of all, keep punching!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Jaeden says:

    Hi, I was wondering if changing the rest times in the program from 1-2 minutes to 2-3 minutes would hinder any strength gains? I saw from multiple different videos and websites that 2-3 minutes of rest time between sets is ideal for strength.

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