Five ways to make bodyweight exercises more demanding

Bodyweight training is good for everybody’s body – especially ruggers on lockdown. You can train using just your bodyweight anywhere and anytime, and that’s good news if your gym is currently shut or you are otherwise staying home to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19. 

However, as good as bodyweight training is, it’s not without drawbacks. With no weights to adjust, you won’t be able to fine-tune your workouts in the same way you can at the gym. You may even find it difficult to get enough overload to appropriately challenge your muscles.

The good news is that there are ways you can modify most bodyweight exercises to make them more demanding, thus ensuring that your home workouts provide you with the training effect you want.

1. Do more reps and sets

Most workouts specify how many reps and sets you should do for each exercise. For example, you might be asked to do four sets of ten lunges or three sets of 20 push-ups. While these recommendations can work for general exercisers, they might not be suitable for ruggers.

The average rugger is fitter and stronger, and that means cookie-cutter set and rep recommendations may be wide of the mark. Because of this, workouts with prescriptive set and rep schemes should be viewed as guidelines rather than instructions that are set in stone. If you can do more reps than are prescribed, then that’s precisely what you should do.

Make any bodyweight workout harder by ignoring the suggested rep count and just working to failure instead. That will allow you to hit the intensity level required to trigger positive fitness adaptations.

As for sets, if a workout prescribes three or four but, after doing them, you still don’t feel fatigued, do a couple more sets to provide your body with the extra training volume it needs.

Of course, there may come a time where merely repping out for set after set becomes boring or takes too much time. If that is the case, use the following bodyweight exercise intensity boosting strategies.



2. Take shorter rests between sets

Anaerobic exercises, such as bodyweight strength training, involves working without sufficient oxygen. This causes lactic to build up in your muscles, which will eventually force you to stop exercising. After a rest, lactic levels dissipate, and you can resume.

The longer you rest, the more lactic acid will be cleared from your muscles, and the easier your next set will feel. Shortening your rest periods means that you’ll start your next set with more lactic acid in your muscles so that you fatigue sooner and won’t be able to do as many reps.

So, if a workout suggests resting 90 seconds between sets, rest just 60-75 seconds instead. If you recover quickly or really want to crank up the training intensity, reduce your rest periods to 30-60 seconds.

3. Slow the tempo

Tempo is the speed at which you move during strength training. For example, if, while doing push-ups, you take one second to lower yourself down and another second to push yourself back up, you are using a 1:1 tempo, and each rep you complete will take two seconds. If you did ten reps, that would give you a time under tension (TUT) of 20 seconds.

Most exercisers automatically use a fast tempo for bodyweight exercises. That’s fine for things like fat-burning circuits, but not so useful if you want to develop muscle strength or size.

Adopting a slower tempo, such as 2:2 or 3:3, means the same set of ten reps will now take 40 or 60 seconds – keeping your muscles under tension for much longer. This will make your chosen exercise considerably more demanding. In addition, using a slower tempo also helps reduce momentum, which is another way to make an exercise harder.

Try this super slow tempo bodyweight challenge to experience how demanding an exercise can be when done slowly.

  1. 60-second pull-up – starting from a dead hang, take 30 seconds to pull your chin up and over the bar, and another 30 seconds to fully extend your arms and come back down. Do not lock off or stop moving – that’s cheating. Instead, keep moving, albeit very slowly.
  2. 60-second dip – starting with your arms bent, take 30 seconds to push yourself up to full arm extension. Take another 30 seconds to lower yourself down again. Can’t do dips? Try a push-up instead.

20-1-20 PROGRAM


4. Reduce your points of contact and base of support

Points of contact refers to how many feet or hands you have on the floor for any given exercise. The base of support refers to the position of those hands and feet, relative to your center of gravity. For example, for push-ups, you have four points of contact, which are roughly shoulder-width apart. Using a narrower base of support, or fewer points of contact will make your workout much harder than the regular version.

For example, you could do narrow-grip push-ups, lift one leg off the floor during planks, or even graduate to doing one-arm push-ups or squats.

Be warned, these modifications will significantly increase the difficulty of your workout. For example, being able to do 30 push-ups does not automatically mean you’ll be able to 15 one-arm push-ups. You might not be able to do even one!

That said, with a little experimentation, you should be able to adjust your contact points and base of support to make whatever exercise you are doing appropriately challenging.

5. Increase your bodyweight

The difficulty of many bodyweight exercises is proportional to your actual body weight. If you are a lightweight, you may find that some bodyweight workouts simply aren’t hard enough for you.

The good news is that you can turn yourself into a heavyweight and make any bodyweight exercise harder – and without getting fat too. There are several ways you can do this.

Backpack of books – this is a cheap, easy way to increase your weight. Just get an old backpack, load it with a few hefty books, and then wear it for your chosen bodyweight workout. No books (you philistine!)? Use bags of flour or sugar, bricks, heavy shoes, or anything other weighty objects you can cram in your pack.

Weighted vest – for a more high-tech, training-specific solution, get a weighted vest. Weighted vests fit snugly so they won’t move around while you exercise. Most are also adjustable by small increments so you can fine-tune the difficulty of whatever exercise you are doing. Weighted vests can be expensive, but they are usually long-lasting, and you can also use them for cardio workouts.

Resistance bands – you can make a lot of bodyweight exercises more challenging by combining them with resistance bands. For example, you can make push-ups harder by looping a band over your upper back, holding the ends in your hands, and then repping out as usual.

Not only do you have to lift your body weight, but you also have to overcome the resistance offered by the band too. With a little imagination, you should be able to use bands to increase the difficulty of almost any bodyweight exercise, both lower body, and upper body.


Easy workouts won’t do much for your fitness. To get stronger, build muscle, or increase your endurance for rugby, you need to overload your muscles. That means looking for ways to make your workouts progressively harder – even if they are built around bodyweight exercises. Use these training methods to increase the difficulty of any bodyweight exercises you are currently doing.


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