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Your Body Is a Barbell: No Dumbbells, No Barbells, No Problem

By Alwyn Cosgrove

Muscles are just plain dumb. Despite their ability at some level to perform amazing Cirque De Soleil type feats, muscles only ‘know’ two things – stretch and tension. They can’t differentiate between stretches (whether the stretch is coming from yoga or from Taekwon-do kicking) or types of tension.

Let’s talk tension. As far as a fitness enthusiast is concerned, muscle tension comes when you place resistance on the muscles. And it doesn’t matter what form that resistance takes. You see, as far as the muscles are concerned, resistance is resistance is resistance. The muscles have no idea what form the resistance takes, whether it is a dumbbell, a resistance band, a barbell or your bodyweight. True, free weights are superior to machines when it comes to building strength, but it’s because free weights require you to stabilize the load in three planes, not because the weight on the muscles is any different.

In fact when you think about it, the only reason to ever use external load (i.e. weights) is because your bodyweight is not enough resistance. Yet most guys are making exercises harder by adding external load, when they aren’t capable of handling their bodyweight in the same exercise. I’m constantly amazed by how many people I meet who can bench press whatever pounds of weight, but are unable to perform 10 correct push ups (typically due to a lack of core strength and synergistic muscle stability. As far as I’m concerned – unless you can do an easy twenty push ups, you have no business getting under a bar for bench pressing. In my training facility everyone begins with bodyweight exercises. You have to earn the right to lift weights in my facility.

Now I’m sure some of you are jumping up and down right about now, convinced that your bodyweight is not enough for you to get a ‘good workout’. You think you’re much too strong. And you’re probably right. If you’re an Olympic Gymnast that is. Remember – most gymnasts use primarily their bodyweight in their conditioning programs and have no problem developing great physiques and great strength levels. I’d go as far as to say that most gymnasts have better physiques than most weight trainers. And these guys train exclusively for performance – not for mass or aesthetics. Nick Grantham CSCS, former conditioning coach to the Great Britain Olympic Gymnastics team noted that the majority of male gymnasts, after years of bodyweight training could typically bench press double their bodyweight the first time they ever tried it. If that’s not evidence of the efficacy of bodyweight training then I don’t know what is.

The key to effective bodyweight exercises are the same as with any exercise – time and tension. We need to select exercises that load the muscles effectively through the entire range of motion, and select a speed of movement that eliminates all momentum.


Lower Body

  • A1: Bulgarian Split Squat: 2 sets x AMRAP each leg @ 333 30s rest
  • A2: Hip thigh extension: 2 sets x AMRAP each leg @ 333 30s rest
  • B1: Partial co-contraction lunge: 2 sets x AMRAP each leg @ 333 30s rest
  • B2: Step Up: 2 sets x 15-20 each leg @ 201 30s rest
  • C1: SL Partial squat: 2 sets x 15-20 each leg @ 333 30s rest
  • C2: Single Leg RDL: 2 sets x 15-20 each leg @ 333 30s rest
  • D1: Single Leg Squat: 2 sets x AMRAP each leg @ 303 30s rest
  • D2: Single Leg Deadlift: 2 sets x AMRAP each leg @ 303 30s rest

Upper Body

  • A1: T-Push Ups Left arm: 2 sets of 15 reps @ 211 30s rest
  • A2: Inverted Row: 2 sets of AMRAP @ 211 30s rest
  • A3: T- Push Ups Right arm: 2 sets of 15 reps @ 211 90s rest
  • B1: Mixed Grip Chins: 2 sets of 5-6 reps EACH SIDE @ 222 30s rest
  • B2: Dips: 2 sets of AMRAP @ 211 30s rest
  • B3: Prone Jackknife: 2 sets of 10-20 reps @ 232 30s rest
  • C1: Pike Push ups: 2 Sets of AMRAP @ 222 30s rest
  • C2: Reverse Crunch: 2 sets of 15-20 @ 111 30s rest

Advanced Options

So is bodyweight training too easy for you? Yeah right. If that’s truly the case then here are a few variations that you can use for any of the exercises to dial up the masochism factor.

Oscillatory isometrics: This is an exotic name for what is essentially performing 4-5 short range mini-reps at the end range of the exercise. For example, perform the concentric portion (the lifting portion) of a chin up at a normal speed, then lower yourself down an inch or so and ‘bounce’ (controlled) up and down in that end range for 4-5 reps, before lowering yourself back to the start.

Dynamic Isometrics: Not a misnomer – just a combination of two complete opposite methods. This involves maintaining an isometric contraction in the toughest position of the lift for 4-5 seconds, and then performing the concentric and eccentric portions as fast as possible and returning to the isometric position. For example you’d be doing a tempo of X5X. Hold the bottom of a push up position for 5 seconds, then straighten and bend your arms as fast as possible.

Iso-explosives: Just taking the above a step further. A combination of isometric holds in the toughest position, with an explosive exercises. For example: hold the bottom of a Bulgarian split squat or a push up for 4-5 seconds – then as you press back up – explode with maximal force so your body actually leaves the floor.

One and a quarter reps: Perform the entire rep, and an additional quarter rep in the toughest part of the range (typically the bottom). This overloads your weakest angles by performing twice as many reps in that range.

Ladder reps: Break the exercise up into thirds – the bottom third, the bottom two-thirds and the full rep. For example perform five dips in the bottom third of the range (the toughest portion), then five reps in the bottom two-thirds of the range and finally perform five full range repetitions. This means you’ll have performed fifteen reps in the toughest range of the exercise, but only five in the easiest range.

Once you are capable of performing 15-20 reps of each of these exercises at the given tempo with ease – you are now ‘allowed’ to grab a 5lb dumbbell and start over!

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