4 Ways to Increase the Intensity of Bodyweight Exercises

Bodyweight training offers a fantastic methodology of training that can be used to improve strength, endurance and really any performance-based results you seek! It helps to fine tune your kinesthetic awareness (i.e., how you move your body through space), allows you to explore and challenge your coordination, and learn to move through different planes of motion. 

Bodyweight training can not only be used to support your current weight lifting program, to provide a new and exciting challenge, but also can also function to keep you consistently training when all of the psycho-social factors of life get in the way of your gym routine (travel, lack of access to a gym, work, stress etc.)

Benefits of Bodyweight Training

Through my working with clients and patients in fitness and orthopedic sports physical therapy, I see it as my main goal to equip all of my patients and clients with a skill set of multiple training methodologies that can be executed both inside and outside of the weight room.

Whether someone is an injured patient, a fitness enthusiast or a performance athlete, mastering one’s body weight is a great goal to pursue.

After all, no matter where you are in the world, right underneath your nose lies the most accessible and common training equipment and gym: your own body and the ground beneath your feet.

Bodyweight training tends to remove or lessen a few main barriers to training:

  • It’s free.
  • It can be done anytime and anywhere, which saves you time, and money (no travel to and from the gym, organizing childcare, etc.)
  • Regardless of age, fitness level, and past experience with training, all can improve strength with the appropriately applied progressions.
  • It focuses on primary movers as well as stabilizing muscle groups and accessory movements.
  • It allows for greater degrees of freedom as you move through more planes of motion than with traditional linear (single plane) resistance

My mission is for everyone in the world to be proficient at not only creating a heart pounding, muscle burning workout using just their own body, but also to able to progress that workout in order to maximize time and results.

I believe that if more people viewed movement in this way, they would be more engaged, excited, and connected to themselves, to each other, and to the environment around them.

Progressive Overload: The “Good” Stress

In order to build lean muscle mass and grow stronger, our muscles must be placed under sufficient mechanical stress, thus forcing them to adapt. This stress or comes in the form of adding load via weights, bands, balls — and yes, bodyweight training.

Since our bodies are excellent at adapting, a one-time challenge will eventually feel like just a walk in the park. In order to continue to make gains in growing lean muscle, improving strength, endurance, or performance of any nature, we must progressively increase the demands and to the musculoskeletal system. This concept is called progressive overload, and it is a fundamental principle of exercise physiology that is crucial key to success of any training plan.

Typically the in weight room, we can achieve this by just slapping on more weight to the bar. Simple, right? Yes! But how do we do this in bodyweight training where we don’t have the luxury of adding external resistance? By digging a little deeper into our training toolbox!

In this article I will show you specific techniques to manipulate training variables like volume, duration, density, frequency, rest, and exercise choice in order to give you endless options for increasing load, intensity and ultimately results with your bodyweight workouts.  

Prerequisites for Progression

No matter what your fitness level, you must first be able to demonstrate the desired exercise with good form and solid posture, through the full range of motion, at a controlled tempo, before you can add a progression from this list we are about to discuss.

Clear? Great! If any of those variables are not present, or you are experiencing pain at any point in the movement (in the joint or outside of the working musculature), you should certainly not progress and you might even consider a regression.

My movement mantra: You will get more out of doing an exercise correctly at one level, than you would adding a progression and performing it incorrectly with sloppy form.

Reps on Reps on Reps?

Increasing repetitions of any exercise is the fastest and most simple way to increase intensity. It is the place to begin when it comes to progress an exercise.

But while adding reps is the most common way to amp up intensity, it has its limitations. Endlessly cranking out hundreds of reps of the same movement pattern can lead to a loss of focus and boredom, thus increasing the likelihood of form breakdown.

Eventually, adding reps also reaches a ceiling: the stronger you get at these movements, the easier they will become. You can’t just go on forever; your workout would last hours!

The goal of working on push-ups, for example, isn’t to crank out more and more push-ups over time. The goal is to continue to challenge that movement patterns to greater degrees of resistance, leverage, and skill level.

1. Changing Work and Rest Intervals

In order to amplify intensity, we can tweak the amount of time spent working or resting, while the exercise itself remains unchanged throughout (no movement pattern regressions or progressions necessary).

One of the most common ways to organize interval training sessions is to base them on time, where the work and rest intervals remain fixed throughout the training session. For example, a commonly used format is 30 seconds of work (or “on”) and 20 seconds of rest (or “off”). Another example would be a Tabata format, with 20 seconds on, followed by 10 seconds off.

Ways to Vary the Work and Rest Intervals

  • Fixed Work: The work intervals, or time “on,” remains the same from one round to the next.
  • Varied Work: The work intervals change from one round to the next. This can be in two different formats:
    • Descending — the work time decreases as the rounds go on.
    • Ascending — the work time increases as the rounds go on.
  • Fixed Rest: The rest intervals, or time “off,” remains the same throughout for each round (or set) of the particular exercise.
  • Varied Rest: The rest intervals will change from one round the next. This can be done in a two different formats:
    • Descending — the rest time decreases as the rounds go on
    • Ascending — the rest time increases as the rounds go on

Here are some examples of what this may look like.

Fixed Work/Fixed Rest
This is an example of a commonly used work to rest format.

  • Round 1 — 30 seconds on, 20 seconds off
  • Round 2 — 30 seconds on, 20 seconds off
  • Round 3 — 30 seconds on, 20 seconds off

Fixed Work/Varied Rest (Descending)
This takes the intensity through the roof by progressively reducing the amount of recovery time between rounds and keeping the work intervals the same throughout. This method forces you to get more work done in a shorter amount of time (due to the decrease in recovery time.)

  • Round 1 — 20 seconds on, 30 seconds off
  • Round 2 — 20 seconds on, 20 seconds off
  • Round 3 — 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off

Varied Work (Ascending)/Fixed Rest
By increasing the work interval after each round, you increase the volume and therefore total time that the muscle is under tension and load in each round.

  • Round 1 — 25 seconds on, 15 seconds off
  • Round 2 — 35 seconds on, 15 seconds off
  • Round 3 — 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off

Varied Work (Ascending)/Varied Rest (Descending)
Here the intensity comes from increasing the work interval and decreasing the rest interval. This option would be the most advanced of all, since you must increase the volume of work with less recovery time.

  • Round 1 — 25 seconds on, 35 seconds off
  • Round 2 — 35 seconds on, 25 seconds off
  • Round 3 — 45 seconds on, 15 seconds off