4 Ways to Increase the Intensity of Bodyweight Exercises

By Dr. Laura Miranda DPT, MSPT

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

2. Using a Skill Level Regression Drop Set

A creative way to increase the mechanical tension and metabolic load is to use the skill level regression drop set. It’s quite possibly my favorite intensity tweak because it is a progression that looks like a regression!

As the set goes on, the exercise gets “easier” in terms of leverage, but is experienced as more difficult because of the previous work completed. I developed the skill level regression drop set term and technique for PURSUIT, my bodyweight training program, as a unique way to aggressively challenge the athlete’s strength and endurance over a short amount of time.

A drop set in weight lifting is a technique where you perform an exercise for as many reps as you can before your form fails. Then, instead of stopping the set right there, you drop the weight down a few pounds and keep repping it out until you can no longer maintain good form. This drop in weight is repeated until you can no longer handle the burn or you can no longer perform the exercise without compensation.

In bodyweight training, this is achieved by using regressions of movement skills or difficulty levels, instead of weight. The benefit of using this form of progression/regression within the same set is that instead of having to stop the exercise altogether when you reach failure, you can continue to move using an easier variation.

In the following video, I demonstrate this with a push-up, taking in from the most advanced position to the least advanced one due to leverage and gravity’s effect on the body:

  • Single leg, inverted push-up with feet on bench
  • Double leg, inverted push-up with feet on bench
  • Traditional push-up, both feet on ground
  • Incline push-up, hands on seat of the bench
  • Incline push-up, hands on back of the bench

Here’s an example of how the skill level drop set could be used with a step-up, by changing a few variables:

  • Explosive step up on a high box (use of a ballistic or plyometric movement)
  • Fast step-up on a high box (removal of plyo, incorporation of speed)
  • Slow step-up to single leg balance on high box (slower pace and incorporation of balance)
  • Step-up on a lower box (lower box height)
  • Slow step-ups the low box (slower pace)

The skill level drop set requires you to have an understanding of a few variations of the exercise you choose to apply it to. The examples I give above are just a handful of possibilities for the step-up and the push-up — based on strength, knowledge and skill level, there could be thousands! How many can you come up with? This is where you can utilize creativity and innovation in your programming.

3. Incorporating Tempo Changes

The typical tempo of a repetition of any exercise is three to four seconds down, one second pause, then three to four seconds up. Tempo changes are an often overlooked and underexplored variable when it comes to tweaking the intensity of bodyweight exercises. When it is used, most people commonly get stuck on changing the speed uniformly throughout all phases of the movement pattern — fast or slow.

In order to break out of this “one track” application, we must keep in mind the four basic phases of every exercise:

  1. Eccentric Phase (E): the time it takes to the time it takes to perform the negative or “lowering” portion of the movement.
  2. Eccentric Concentric Transition Period (EC): the time it takes to transition between the eccentric and concentric phase.
  3. Concentric Phase (C): the time it takes to perform the positive or “lifting” phase.
  4. Transition Period Between Repetitions (T): the time between each full repetition.

In order to increase intensity and to maximize the benefits of an exercise, the goal here is to increase the time that the muscle or muscle groups are under load. This can be done by tweaking the amount of time spent in a particular phase.

In the following video, I go over tempo changes with the squat:

  • E: 5 seconds to lower down (elongated eccentric phase)
  • EC: 3 second pause at the bottom (isometric hold)
  • C: 1 second to return to standing (explosive drive)
  • T: 0 seconds between reps (no rest)

In real life, this would look like a super slow drop down into the squat position, a long pause at the bottom, a short and explosive drive back up to the top, followed by an immediate repeat of the entire sequence.

4. Exercise Selection and Sequencing

The ability to perform an exercise is directly affected by which other exercises are prescribed, and namely the exercise preceding it. The following are different formats that tweak exercise choice and sequencing. The amount of rest taken in between each exercise will of course play a role as well (i.e., shorter rest means increased intensity.)

Compound Set, Double-Exhaust Set, or Triple-Exhaust Set

These three terms, commonly used in the weight lifting, are defined as the pairing together of two or more exercises for the same muscle group one after the other, with little rest in between.

With bodyweight exercises, this greatly increases intensity by pairing together two or more exercises of the same primary movers or even those that require the same movement pattern.

For example, while a push-up in itself is challenging, a set push-ups followed immediately by a set of precision bear crawls, and ending with a static high plank, is an entirely different story! The chest, shoulders and core (and really the entire anterior chain) become increasingly taxed as you perform sets of these exercises, one after another.

Plane of Motion

Moving the same exercise through different planes of motion will cause the muscles involved to be activated, recruited and utilized in a slightly different manner. Since many people often come from a training regimen that emphasizes one plane of motion — the sagittal plane, i.e., front to back — regressing the movements in other planes of motion may be appropriate.

Here are a few examples of how this could be implemented:

Lunge Sequence

  • Forward lunge, 6 reps (sagittal plane)
  • Lateral lunge, 6 reps (frontal plane)
  • Crossover lunge 6 reps (transverse plane)

Bear Crawl Sequence

  • Forward bear crawl (sagittal plane)
  • Lateral bear crawl (frontal plane)
  • Pivoting bear crawl (transverse plane)

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About the author:  Dr. Laura Miranda DPT, MSPT

By trade, Dr. Laura Miranda DPT, MSPT is a NYC based doctor of physical therapy, certified personal trainer, and creator of PURSUIT, the outdoor fitness movement. By mission, she empowers people on their path toward becoming the best possible version of themselves. Learn about Dr. Laura on her website DrLauraMiranda.com and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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