Unlike most guys who get asked about training, I'm not some hotshot personal trainer who knows his way around a gym. In fact, if you showed me around a modern gym, I probably wouldn't know what half the crap in there even does. Most of the hardcore training I've done has been in a jail cell.
I spent nearly twenty years of my adult life in prison—first State, then eventually Federal. That should tell you two things about me, straight away. Firstly, that I'm not a kid any more; and, secondly, that I've done some very, very stupid things in my life. I'm certainly not proud of them, and if I hadn't gotten involved with the drug scene at a young age, they never would've happened. But they did. At least I picked up a lot of pretty cool knowledge on bodyweight training while I was behind bars, and, hopefully, I can share some of it with you.
Like a lot of guys who love to train, I get into some pretty heavy discussions about workout methods. There was one discussion in particular I'll never forget. About seven or eight years back, I got into a conversation with a very large powerlifter from Boston. He was telling me how lame all the new machines in modern gyms were. “Modern lifters should go old school,” he kept saying. “Less is more. Get rid of the Swiss balls, Nautilus machines, electronic lifting equipment and all that other garbage. Then you'll be able to focus on what matters.” For the most part, I agreed with the dude.
He didn't like current training methods either, and he wasn't afraid to say so. “People focus on every new fad that rolls around.” He spat. “Old-time strongmen didn't do this. They didn't bomb and blitz with high reps, giant sets, or super-advanced periodized routines. They just lifted heavy iron. Real strength is about the basics. Less is more!”
Less is more was a theme of his training philosophy. It's a pretty good theme, usually. So I challenged this guy.
I asked him, “Do you really believe less is more when it comes to strength work?”
“F*** yeah! Absolutely!”, he nodded with total conviction.
“So, if less really is more when it comes to training, why don't you get rid of the barbells and dumbbells?”, I asked.
He looked kind of perplexed, and eventually wandered off.
I wasn't joking with the big guy. He had a point, though; if you really want to turn up your training, for the most part you need to get back to basics. Sometimes going back to basics means forgetting even the sacred barbells and dumbbells you love so much, and going real old school—with bodyweight strength training techniques. The kind of training athletes used centuries before barbells, training machines, or steroids were even thought of.
I'm not talking about high rep crunches or jumping jacks, either. I mean the kind of stuff convicts still do to get into peak shape. Brutal, punishing calisthenics that will quickly ramp up strength, increase muscle mass, improve co-ordination, thicken the tendons and ligaments, and focus the mind while generating willpower. In other words, the kind of training that would send most modern bodybuilders running to the hills.
Bodyweight Alternatives to Weights and Machines
All you big time iron pumpers out there, don't panic. The point of this article isn't to try and turn you all off the weights. (Besides, if I tried to do that here, my pal Rob Drucker would probably kick my ass. He loves picking up the heavy stuff, for some reason.)
Even if you are in love with the big iron, there are a thousand reasons why you might want to substitute a weight/machine exercise for a bodyweight technique. Well...maybe not a thousand reasons. I've been told a million times that I exaggerate too much. Anyway, here are a few potential reasons to consider:
- Maybe a weighted movement in your routine is hurting your shoulder/back/elbow/wrist/knee? In the age-old battle between iron and flesh, iron always wins. To help heal those war wounds, try using a bodyweight alternative to the exercise that hurts.
- Do you feel like picking up some skill while you train? The majority of weighted movements—especially those used in bodybuilding—are fairly low skill. In most cases, moving your entire body requires more balance and co-ordination than just lifting a weight. (Compare seated machine presses to handstand push-ups.)
- Stuck on some crummy-ass diet? As your bodyweight shoots down, those heavy squats and bench presses will start to feel bone-crushing, and your motivation may wane. But, calisthenics—push-ups, pull-ups and the like—will seem easier than ever as you get lighter. Why not throw them in to keep a smile on your face?
- Maybe you're just plain bored with hoisting up metal, and you want to insert something different into your routine. Bodyweight moves fit the bill, bro. Variety is the spice of life.
- Looking to pack on some fresh, high-quality muscle? Check out a male gymnast's arms. Those guys train exclusively with bodyweight. ‘Nuff said.
- Hell, maybe you're just going to be away from the gym on chest day, or whatever. Most bodyweight moves can be done with zero (or minimal) equipment.
Get the idea? There are plenty of good reasons you might want to pass on a weighted technique to work a body part, and focus on old school calisthenics instead. It's beyond the scope of this article to give you a complete bodyweight workout for each and every body part, so let's take a shotgun approach instead. I'm gonna give you a bunch of standard gym exercises with weights or machines, and for each one I'm going to describe a suitable bodyweight substitute. Your job—just for a month, or even a couple of weeks—is to pick one of these bodyweight subs and integrate it into your training. It won't kill ya.
Below, I've listed a dozen weighted exercises, and I have given a bodyweight substitute for each one. Why a dozen? Why not? I always liked that war movie The Dirty Dozen, and these bodyweight moves should be considered your new recruits in the War on Weakness. So let's fight!
1. Bench Press Subbed with Walking Push-up
A lot of bodybuilders these days like to adjust the bench press unit to different angles over several sets “to hit all the muscle fibers of the pectorals and front deltoids.” Some guys like to start with flat bench presses, then, throw in a slight incline; then, even more of an incline. This common habit is probably something the training world picked up from Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Whatever happened to him?)
In reality, if you want to work your whole chest area, including the front of your shoulders, you don't need an adjustable bench, or even a lot of sets. Try walking push-ups instead.
Get into the classic push-up position, body and hips aligned, legs together, and arms straight. Now, do a single push-up—all the way down until your chest is a fist-width from the floor. Then come back up. So far, so good. Now comes the different bit. Rest all of your weight on your right arm for a second, as you place your left hand about six inches forwards. When your left hand is flat on the floor again, perform another push-up. You'll notice that the new angle feels a bit different. You're working your body in a new way. Now, rest all your weight on the left hand, and move the right hand about six inches in front of the left, keeping your arms shoulder width apart as you go. Now do another push-up, and repeat until fried and crispy.
You'll have to move/drag your feet behind you, but that's just part of the total-body workout fun. If space is limited, you can even learn to “walk” your push-ups forwards and backwards.
Due to the alternating arm position, you are forced to press from unusual angles, and the chest and delts are stimulated in a slightly different way than is experienced with the regular push-up. As a pretty little added bonus, the walking push-up also stresses the core, the waist, the front of the hips, and the legs, something bench pressing just can't do. Go slow, deep and strict for two painful sets.
Always do this exercise for uneven numbers (remember that sole regular push-up at the beginning?). Other than that, the reps are up to you. Just make sure you quit before you collapse on the floor.
2. Bent-Over Row Subbed with Horizontal Pull
No matter how much you love pull-downs, to develop your upper back muscles to their full potential, you gotta devote some serious energy to horizontal pulling—pulling your arms back, rather than down. For most gym-goers, this means heading over for some heavy barbell rowing.
I'm not a big fan of the barbell row. Sure, it builds muscle; but, bending over and trying to maintain your position while holding a heavy bar is an accident waiting to happen. Luckily, there is an awesome bodyweight alternative—horizontal pull-ups. Lie under a bar or base that's about the height of your solar plexus. Grab hold of it with a shoulder width grip, and keep your body straight as you pull your chest up to the base. Sound simple? Not!
I've written all about this great exercise in Convict Conditioning, so I won't focus too much on how to progress here. The bottom line is, the more upright your body is (the higher your hands) the easier the exercise becomes. However, doing horizontal pulls from a low base, such as a table, is a real bastard. But once you've mastered it, say hello to a vice-like grip!
As many of my students have discovered, this exercise—done for two or three moderate-high-rep sets—is sheer murder. It literally forces the upper back into new levels of strength and growth, not to mention what it does to the arms. Some guys have put an inch or more on their guns just by working the horizontal row hard. Plus, because your body is straight and there's very little weight running down your spine, this exercise will increase your athletic ability without screwing up your lower back. You can even pack on muscle with this move if your back is wrecked from too many barbell rows.
This bodyweight training is magic stuff folks. Use it.
3. Press-Behind-Neck Subbed with Hand-Balancing
Everyone who has read my stuff pretty much knows my views on the PBN. The shoulder girdle just doesn't want to generate strength with the elbows forced outwards. This position places too much grinding tension on those poor ol' rotator cuffs. Add a lot of heavy iron into this balance, and you will get screwed up shoulders, eventually.
What's a great bodyweight alternative to build shoulder muscle and power? Try hand-balancing. I know it sounds archaic, but it works. Walking around and standing on your hands not only works the hell out of your shoulders, it does so fairly safely, because the rotator cuffs aren't put into unnatural, awkward positions.
Many of the old-time lifters used hand-balancing as part of their routine, because it builds pressing power, co-ordination, and hand and finger strength. There are plenty of instructions on the web telling you how to get started, but if you take to hand-balancing, you will probably want to move on to more advanced handstand work, like close handstand push-ups, uneven handstand push-ups, and so on. These techniques are described in Convict Conditioning.
4. Machine Calf Raises Subbed with Squatting Calf Raises
When you hit the gym, calf training is probably the last thing on your list. Calf training ain't sexy, and it's not much fun either. It's often painful, and not in a good, “here comes the growth” way, either.
Because the calves carry your entire weight around all day, they are dense, powerful little muscles. This means that when you work your calves hard in the gym, you can build up to tremendous weights on standing calf raise machines. Many top guys exceed a thousand pounds on this exercise. Unfortunately, in order to reach the calves, all this force has to be directed through the shoulders, spine, hips, and knees. It not only hurts, it can also cause injury. No wonder calves are unpopular to train.
If all this weighted calf work is getting you down, I have a secret little bodyweight alternative for you to try. Instead of standing up to work your calves, squat down. Grab hold of something in front of you to steady yourself, get into a moderately close stance, and squat all the way down, keeping your heels on the floor. From there, raise yourself onto your tiptoes. Don't rock forwards, and don't pull yourself up using your hands. Try to use pure foot strength.
You'll notice that this is harder than a regular calf raise. Why? The reason has to do with physiology. The larger muscles of the calf (the gastrocnemius) cross the ankle, as well as the knee. The smaller calf muscle (called the soleus) only crosses the ankle. This means that when you bend your knees acutely, the larger calf muscles switch off, but the smaller muscles—those key to ankle strength and stability—are forced to do all the work. Neat, huh?
I know what you're thinking. “How can I progress on this exercise, Paul?” Easy. Here's a couple ideas. When you can do three strict sets of thirty squatting calf raises, you can make things harder by doing the exercise on a step, so that your heels can stretch right down. Still easy? Try doing the exercise on a flat floor, but only on one leg. (For some people not used to leg raises or one-leg squats, keeping your other leg up off the floor will be a great workout in itself!) You get the idea. There's always a way to make a bodyweight exercise tougher.
Regular, weighted calf raises bulk up the big, showy muscles of the calf—the muscles bodybuilders need. That's all well and good, but squatting calf raises reach straight to the functional muscles and tendons of the ankles and feet. All moving force travels through the feet and ankles. Unless these end-links are strong, a man cannot be strong, period. Once you can do three sets of thirty strict (no rocking or pulling!) one-leg squatting calf raises, your ankles and feet will be about as strong as Superman's.
What are you waiting for? Try ‘em right now!
5. Wrist Curls Subbed with Hanging Grip Work
Most bodybuilders and gym trainers don't know jack about productive hand and forearm training. The guys who at least make some effort to train their forearms are usually reduced to a few sets of wrist curls and reverse wrist curls—puny exercises which wear down your wrists and provide little in the way of true lower arm strength and mass.
Forget these chickenshit shenanigans. If you really want to build strong hands and forearms, you have to work your hands the way they evolved to work. Human hands evolved primarily to grip—to support our own bodyweight as we moved through the trees. Look at our fellow apes, and you'll see what I mean. By the Grace of God, we ain't swinging through the jungle like Tarzan any more, but the principle is the same. To train your hands, jump up and grab that overhead bar!
There are plenty of ways to progress in hanging grip work, and I've outlined the ultimate program in Convict Conditioning 2 (2011). If you want to work your grip like they do in prisons, focus on time-based workouts. Try to extend the time you can hang each and every time you work out. When two arms are a piece of cake, move to one-arm.
Just make sure you do your hanging work at the tail-end of your routine. If you hang before pull-ups or hanging midsection work, your grip will suffer on these exercises. I don't want you falling on your ass, kid.
6. Curls Subbed with Rope Climbing
I know, I know. Why the hell would anybody want to swap curls for a bodyweight exercise? We all love curls, right?
Think about the anatomy of the beloved biceps. The biceps muscle crosses two joints—the shoulder and the elbow. This means that to stimulate (read: grow) your biceps to their maximum development, you need to work them while moving your upper arms significantly. Curls can't do this. But, rope climbing will.
Back in ancient times, rope climbing was considered one of the ultimate methods for building huge strength. Many systems for building total body strength were devised, using just a hanging rope. Sadly, most of these have been lost. But, rope climbing was still considered a major league arm exercise right up until the last century. Back in the 1900's, the guy with the biggest arms in the world was a Scot named William Bankier. Old Bill didn't build his huge guns with steroids and curls. He just climbed a rope. He swore by this exercise, and his arms were huge, even in a pre-steroid era.
Rope climbing is a real art, and once you get into it, you'll find there are plenty of ways you can improve without adding weights. Once you can climb up and down a thick twenty foot rope ten times using your legs to assist, work on going up using your arms and legs, and coming down using just your arms. When you can do that, start work on going up and down using only your arms—which is a damn sight harder than it sounds.
Bankier's favourite variation involved climbing a rope which was set at a 45 degree angle. This not only gave him naturally huge biceps, but the climb—two minutes going up, two going down—gave him a grip so strong that he could tear apart steel chains! Good luck getting that kind of power from wrist curls.
7. Lying Triceps Extensions Subbed with Unilateral Triceps Dips
In gyms during the 1980s, lying triceps extensions were often known as “elbow wreckers”, and for good reason. They stimulate the muscles without properly strengthening the axis joint, the elbow.
Take my advice—forget Lying Triceps Extensions. Instead, try an exercise which will build total triceps mass and power—while at the same time strengthening the all-important tendons of the wrist, forearm and elbow. The exercise is the unilateral triceps dip. Grab something with your working hand. A racked bar, a fence, or the edge of a sturdy table will do. Angle your body forwards, so that some bodyweight is going through your arm. Now—smoothly and under control—just bend your arm, and push back. How hard this is depends on the angle of your body. It can go from “easy” to “even Mighty Mouse couldn't do this!”
Unilateral triceps dips are tricky. They require balance, control and training intelligence. But, once you've mastered this great old standby, you can moderate the difficulty by altering your stance, and get an elite level triceps workout anywhere, anytime. Warm up, then build to two or three sets of eight to ten reps per side. Always focus on generating tension and maximising controlled effort, rather than just “going to failure”.
8. Leg Curls Subbed with Straight Bridges
Okay, let's talk hamstrings 101. The bulky part of the hamstring crosses the knee joint and the hip joint. That means you can train your hammies two ways; you can do leg curls (bending at the knee), or you can do deadlifts (bending at the hip). If you want to substitute something for leg curls in your routine, deadlifts—especially stiff-leg deads—are a possible choice.
But, hold your horses there, Hoss. What about using a bodyweight exercise? Deadlifts are all well and good, but—like barbell rows—they involve bending over with weight. This places pressure on your spine while your discs are open. If you want to work your hamstrings through hip flexion without putting your spine at risk, there's only one way to do it; you're going to have to learn to love the bridging family of bodyweight movements.
Sure, I know a lot of guys think bridging is for wrestlers or yoga people. But, bridges are an amazing exercise which will train your hamstrings while building a healthy spine and improving total body strength and flexibility. Bodybuilders and strength athletes who don't work bridges are missing a seriously cool weapon in their training armory.
The straight bridge is a really good example of a bridge variant that works the hamstrings. To perform straight bridges, sit on the floor with your torso upright and your legs out in front of you. Your hands should be on either side of your body and a few inches behind the level of your hips. From here, smoothly and slowly raise your hips off the ground until your bodyweight is going through your palms and heels. Maintain a perfectly straight body for a one-count, then smoothly lower yourself back to the start.
Work up to three work sets of twenty-five reps. As always, build up intensity nice and slow—you want to spend your training time putting strength in the bank, not withdrawing funds. If things get too easy, try doing it on one leg for the same number of reps. If that gets easy—and if your whole body is strong—try using one arm/one leg, and feel the pain!
As a side note, the straight bridge not only builds strong, healthy hamstrings, it also thrashes the hell out of your triceps. Try it for high reps and you'll see what I mean. Work this beauty for a couple of months and you'll have a horseshoe appear on the back of your arms. That's a free gift, just cuz I like ya.
9. Barbell Squats Subbed with Tuck Jumps
I know you old-time strength guys love those heavy barbell squats. I understand that to many powerlifters and old school bodybuilders the barbell back squat is like the Holy Grail, so I'm only going to offer a quick suggestion here.
No matter how serious you are about squatting, everyone takes a layoff from time to time. Maybe it's to recuperate for a new cycle; maybe it's to generate fresh motivation; or, maybe it's to offset nagging aches and pains. There might be any number of reasons. But, when that time comes, here's something I want you to try; next time you layoff heavy squats, substitute those squats with tuck jumps.
I know; some of you will think I'm crazy. Until you try it.
To do a tuck jump, start with a moderate, symmetrical stance, and explode up, tucking your knees as high into your chest as you can. When you land, don't pause, but use the momentum to dip immediately back down and spring up for rep two. Repeat.
This tip was actually given to me by a powerlifter. He considered a two-week period of tuck jumps—performed three times a week for the two weeks—to be his secret weapon when he hit a squatting plateau. If you try this, you'll understand his reasoning.
Heavy barbell squatting is inevitably a fairly slow activity. Of course it is—there's a friggin' heavy weight on your back. But moving slowly all the time can de-train the nervous system. Why should it maintain an “explosive” gear if you never really move fast? Well, with tuck jumps you'll be moving just about as fast as your legs can move. You'll throw off the slow, stiff movement patterns many heavy squatters seem to cultivate. Plus, tuck jumps also work the hips and abs, training the legs to function as part of the anterior chain—an important thing to remember if squatting is giving you a bad back. Tuck jumps are also a wonderful calf workout.
I know that a lot of squatters worry about losing muscle and strength when they temporarily stop squatting, but if you work your jumps hard this won't happen. Remember, when you jump explosively, you aren't just moving your bodyweight. Due to a neat phenomenon known as compensatory acceleration, your leg muscles also have to fight inertia during fast motions. This makes jumping a great strength workout. The force is magnified on landing, and this stimulation ensures that your joints and soft tissues stay as strong as possible for when you return to barbell work.
Build to three sets of twenty tuck jumps three times per week and you’ll also get a cardio blast on top. Something to think about once in a while, huh?
10. Barbell Lunges Subbed with Knee Squats
Another old standby for barbell thigh training is the classic barbell lunge. The whole justification behind lunges is that this move allows you to work each leg separately. In fact, this idea is kind of misleading. Because you are working on both feet during lunges, both legs can “help out” to some degree. So, if you're looking for a true unilateral exercises, lunges aren't the guy.
If you are currently using lunges at the end of your leg day to finish off your exhausted thighs, try replacing them with a true unilateral leg exercise—knee squats. Stand up straight on one leg and bend the other knee, so you can grab your foot. When you've gotten hold of your foot, pull your lower leg towards you until your heel touches your butt. This effectively puts that leg out of commission. Now bend your working leg until your other knee gently touches the ground. (I know it sounds easy. It's not.) Smoothly push back up, and try not to lean too far forward during the exercise.
Use this as a finisher, or to re-balance any strength differential in the quadriceps. Various rep set and rep ranges can be applied, depending on where you place knee squats in your program. An athlete who can manage fifty perfect reps on both legs is doing something very right. Say hello to knee health, brother.
11: Weighted Side Bends Subbed with the Human Flag
Everyone knows how to work their abs. But, when it comes to the obliques and the muscles running up the side of the midsection, people aren't so sure. Maybe this part of the body gets thrown a few side crunches or dumbbell side bends as an afterthought. Maybe it gets nothing.
If you want to keep the muscles of your flanks tight and powerful, you don't need weights or crunches. You need human flag work, baby! Grab a vertical pole and hold it to your chest, as you stick both feet out horizontally. Trust me...this is harder than it sounds. When you get good at this “easy” version with the pole hugged to your chest, you can try to perform the human flag at arm's length. You can do this with a vertical pole or two horizontal bars, like you'd find on a climbing frame.
This variation will not only give you a waist like tempered steel, it will also work the hell out your grip, your arms, your shoulders, your rib-cage, and your lats. In fact, if you want to be as good at the flag as Al Kavadlo (pictured below), you better be real strong in every muscle of your body. The flag finds weak links and fixes them—quick!
12: Cardio Rowing Machine Subbed with Rollovers
I put this one on the list “just because”. Somebody told me once that no bodyweight exercise could ever rival the cardio rowing machine, because the rowing machine develops pulling strength, works the entire body as a unit, and develops stamina and lung power.
Shit—if you need to row out somewhere to dump a body I can see the appeal, but otherwise we can do better than this artificial crap! For a full body cardio workout (plus pulling power, grip strength, and a hardcore waist workout) try rollovers.
Jump up and hang from a high bar with a shoulder-width grip. Lift your feet as you pull down, and lever your legs right up and round over the bar. Let your body follow your feet, and control your descent until you are hanging back where you started. That's one rep. The explanation might sound complex, but basically you are just rolling yourself up and round the bar, right back to where you started. It's tricky at first, but you soon get into a rhythm.
Once you can do fifty rollovers in a row, your total body cardio power will be through the roof. And you'll never need to plop down into an imaginary boat again.
Bingo—I kept a promise (for once). There's twelve tasty bodyweight subs for your training toolbox. Don't thank me; just send money.
I'm not suggesting you use all these bodyweight techniques. If you're a seasoned visitor to Muscles of Iron, you already know that the best routines are all about quality—not quantity. Rather than slinging every technique you can think of into a program, pick just a handful of the most productive, powerful movements, and keep getting stronger and stronger at them over time. This applies to bodyweight work just as much as regular weight training. If you want to know how to do this right (and learn how prisoners train for muscle and strength with minimal equipment), pick up a copy of Convict Conditioning.
I know weights are kind of sexy. I know the cable pull machine is shiny. I know the bench press unit and power rack look cool. But, if you are willing to put in the effort, you can build strength and muscle without any external weights at all. In the words of Major John Reissman from The Dirty Dozen:
“I never went in for embroidery; just results.”
The guy had the right idea.
Thanks to fitness and nutrition expert Vic Magary for donating some weight-training pics to the cause! Vic's pics are tagged with the Gym Junkies logo.
Thanks to Everkinetic for the cool line diagrams!
A special thanks goes to the incredible Al Kavadlo, who also donated some shots. (He's the tattooed dude!) Al's site is chock full of fantastic bodyweight information; I seriously recommend you check out his articles at www.alkavadlo.com.
Last, but definitely not least, a huge thanks to big Rob Drucker for spreading the word about all forms of old school training, and for allowing me the honour of having my say on Muscles of Iron. All you oldtime lifters, keep it real, and keep it old school!