Use your bodyweight to add serious strength

Brooks Kubik is a strength coach and author of several influential training guides including Dinosaur Training: Lost Secrets of Strength and Development and The Lost Art of Dumbbell Training. He is a five-time US national bench press champion and has set more than a dozen American, National and World bench press records. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

Most people approach bodyweight training as very easy exercises for high reps. You do 100 squats or 1,000s of reps of something else. And that’s your workout. My approach is different. It’s about low reps of the most difficult exercise you can do.

You can progress in two ways. You take your exercise and you start by doing, say, 3×5. You progress by adding sets. Say it’s 3×5 pull-ups and the progression is add another set of 5. So you do 4×5 then 5×5. I like to work up to 10×5. If you’re doing a really tough exercises you can start with 3×3 and work up to 10×5.

Once you have mastered 10×5 in any bodyweight exercise, you progress by moving on to a more difficult exercise. You might move from push-ups to push ups on one leg to push ups with your feet elevated. You’re making it more difficult and adding the element of progression and you can work all the way up to doing handstand push-ups.

Body of work
One routine like this that built more size on my upper body then any other routine I did involved doing 10×5 hand stand push ups with push-up handles so you go low on each rep. I would superset the push-ups with pull-ups. I had ropes so my pull-ups were hanging from ropes, which is a difficult way to do pull-ups but I got there progressively by doing regular pull-ups and gradually progressing to more difficult versions of pull-ups. The whole thing would take 20-25 minutes and it was amazingly effective.

When I could do 10×5 of that superset I said, ‘now I want to make every set better’. And you make it better with better concentration, better focus, better mind-muscle link, a tighter contraction. You pull-up and hold before you lower, you pause somewhere during the push-up and then complete the rep. The point is that there’s lots of different ways to make bodyweight work more difficult and more effective without adding reps.

Effective execution
The best way to combine weight and bodyweight exercises is to use the weighted work for your lower body – squats, front squats, deadlifts or Olympic lifts. They deliver a better training effect. You can use pistol squats as your lower body exercise but I like to lift weight and then for the upper body, that’s when you do the push-ups and pull-ups and I see no reason not to superset them because you’re just going to be resting between sets so why not make that rest period a useful period of time?

What most people do, when they combine bodyweight work with strength training, is do barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell work on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then on their off days they do my bodyweight work. There is a fatal flaw in that programme. The flaw is that you’re not having any off days. Even through you’re doing bodyweight work, which you think is light work, it’s not, if you do it right. It is heavy resistance training and your body won’t be able to do that six days a week.

If you want to do kettlebell snatches, dumbbell snatches, barbell snatches, deadlifts, because you just have to do those exercises, do not do all of those exercises at the same time. You can do some of them at the same time but if you do all of them at the same time then that’s going to be a problem because you’re doing two many exercises that are too similar. It’s better to practise one or two at the same time, get good at those then transition into something else.

The key to lifting longevity is in mixing your exercises up over time. You can do it in a systematic way or a random way but you’re doing different things over time as opposed to doing too much at any particular time.

If you do snatches one day then the next day you should probably do extra mobility work on your shoulders because the snatches put a lot of stress on the shoulders and you want to get rid of that stress. If I do a squat workout then the next day I should do mobility work for the hips and lower back and it would be a good day to go for a walk.