The Best Bodyweight Exercises to Supplement Your Training
Listen, we get it—barbell training is fun. It’s more fun than like, anything else. But what kind of other training could you be doing to support your barbell work? Could adding more bodyweight movements get you that much closer to a new back squat PR?
Heather and Katie own Barpath Fitness LLC, an LGBTQ+ friendly online/remote coaching business dedicated to helping people get strong as hell and living pain free. Katie is a bodyweight master with years of practice in calisthenics, gymnastics, olympic lifting, and powerlifting. Heather is a 15-year fitness veteran and competitive powerlifter who has provided continuing education workshops for hundreds of trainers.
In this blog, Heather and Katie outline their top bodyweight exercises for making serious gains in your lifting program: the horse stance squat, single leg good mornings, decline push ups, and arching scapula pull ups.
Simple Calisthenics Movements for More Well-Rounded Strength
If you’re skipping bodyweight exercises in your programming, you’re missing out. Competitive athletes and recreational lifters can all benefit from bodyweight training. Being able to manipulate your limbs in space takes a ton of core strength, balance, and motor control. And we could all use more of those pieces to the fitness puzzle.
Not all bodyweight movements are optimal for every goal, but specific bodyweight skills can have massive carryover to your overall strength. Even if you’re not trying to become an elite gymnast, it doesn’t hurt to add some of their tricks to your arsenal.
Bodyweight skills aren’t just for beginners! In fact, some of them are still challenging for advanced athletes. (L-sits, anyone?) These movements have a ton of value and, if trained properly, can boost your main compound lifts.
The most important thing to remember when training with your own bodyweight is the intent behind the movement. Training with intent is key to getting the most out of these movements.
Use These Bodyweight Exercises for Maximum Strength Gains
Horse stance squat
The horse stance squat is a hidden gem for hip joint health.
Have tight hips? This should be a go-to movement for you. The horse stance squat strengthens the hips while stretching the hip flexors, adductors, and general groin area.
Start with your feet together. Walk them out to the sides 5-8 steps so you have a wide stance with toes pointing forward. As you squat down, make sure your torso stays as upright as possible. This is important to really work your groin mobility. If you can’t get your hips down to parallel at first, don’t sweat it! You’ll be able to increase your depth as your strength improves.
Having strong hips leads to stronger and more stable squats, deadlifts, and accessory lower body movements. Stronger hips also means less back pain and a better quality of life.
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Single leg good morning
Think your hamstrings are tight? They might be, but they’re also probably weak, which causes the “tightness” you feel.
The single leg good morning involves stretching and strengthening the hamstrings under load one at a time.
Start by pouring your weight into one leg, while using the other foot as a kickstand. Keep your spine neutral as you lower down into each rep. We like to cue our athletes to arch their low back right before starting the rep, so they feel a big hamstring stretch.
As you grow stronger with this movement, you can hold a weight on your upper back, but we recommend starting with just your bodyweight for at least 3-4 phases of your training program. It’s more intense than it seems! Especially when your intent is to maintain that pelvic position and only hinge as deeply as you can without losing stability.
If you want a stronger deadlift, you should definitely work on these.
This movement is highly underrated! It’s a great exercise to make your push ups harder if you are low on equipment. The decline push up has high carryover to your main lifts like bench press and overhead pressing movements.
Setup with your feet elevated on a bench, box, or your couch. Lower down to the floor, keeping your arms in an “A” shape with your body, then press back up. As you lower to the bottom of the rep, you’re taking your shoulders through a greater range of motion, putting more stress on the pecs and working shoulder extension. So, this is a great strength AND mobility movement.
If you’re not quite at the level of performing full decline push ups, build up your regular pushup capacity so you can work your way up. Start adding in eccentric decline pushups (see the video) as you build to full decline pushups.
Arching scapula pullups
Who doesn’t love a strong looking back? This exercise will get your upper back jacked while securing your positioning for a ton of different movements.
Strong scapula go a long way. Want a better bench press? Make your upper back strong. Want a more stable front squat? Make your upper back strong. Want better posture? Make your upper back strong.
Grab the pullup bar (thumbs wrapped around the bar) and make sure your arms are locked out and your feet are hanging off the floor (bend your knees a little if needed). Pinch your shoulder blades back and down as you arch your upper back/thoracic spine, keeping your arms straight the entire time.
Make sure you master regular scapula pull ups before moving on to the arching variation. Follow the same steps above, just take out the arch part.
Can bodyweight exercises really make you stronger?
Yes! While progressive overload is key to gaining strength, it can be done in so many ways.
Progressing bodyweight exercises usually means adding tempo, increasing reps and sets, using pauses, or increasing the range of motion. Think of how insanely strong those calisthenics buffs are—they can often pause and hold crazy movements like the planche and make it look easy.
Your bodyweight training will progress over time as your balance, stability, and mobility improve. These improvements lead to strength gains with the barbell and better control overall. Don’t skip out on using bodyweight exercises as excellent tools for supplementing your weight training program.
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