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Bodyweight exercises

A lot of these come from gymnasts who pound for pound are still the strongest athletes on the planet. The twist with these is that rather than the dreary set of pushups and chinups everyone has come to expect from bodyweight exercises, most of these are total body exercises, meaning that you will need to use pretty much every muscle you have to stabilize yourself. Doing these will make you very strong indeed. I've accumulated a ton of bodyweight exercises over the years and have just put down the ones I've found useful, rather than trying to be encyclopedic.

Interestingly enough, since these are always done in pairs of motions, strength imbalances are normally not seen. What's more, since you will be moving your bodyweight in a functional manner, those myriad exercises that people need to counteract these imbalances aren't normally needed.

The demands on your central nervous system are high and getting everything to stabilize you at once is extremely taxing, not to mention that moving all of your muscles in three dimensions along with much the larger ranges of motion is difficult. The timeframe for these is months, not days. Don't expect to rush them!

Generally, you should consider these to be the top end of your workout, that is to say, only really concentrate on these when you prepared yourself with at least a few weeks of freeweight or dumbbell exercises. Since many of these will have a body inversion (you are upside down) or have you at funny angles to the ground, slipping means a possible headfirst fall into a weight machine, wall or floor.

If you are in doubt about being able to do these, get onto a weight machine with approximately 20% above your bodyweight. If you cannot do a few repetitions that way, you should not try these, but should use the machine until you reach that level. (The extra 20% is to take into account the extra stresses that stabilizing yourself requires.)

If you lack strength, try doing posting (just static holds) for up to 30 seconds, possibly initially with a helping hand from a friend. The basic postures for posting are handstand, lever and planche. You can also get in position for a pullup and just hang too (this feels really good and does work your grip strength).

Once you can do some posting, you can try moving by doing negative reps. That is to say, get into position and rather than work against gravity, you slow gravity's surly pull then get back up however you need to safely and repeat. For instance for a negative pullup, climb up so you start in the topmost position, then slowly lower yourself. Negatives are really important since they mean you can control the end of the technique safely. If you cannot do negatives, go back to the machine. The only exception here is handstands – there is no such thing as a negative handstand pushup.

Large people will have to work up to these and be patient. For very large people, unless they are unusually strong, you might have to forgo these, since there is a real risk of injury. Human connective tissue and muscle all has an upper limit and even if you really lean but heavy (like a huge body builder) your ratio of bodyweight to strength might not permit some of these. It is unusual for really large people to be agile like a lightweight. As one instructor once put it to me "you can run a St. Bernard until his heart stops, but he'll never be a greyhound." This is not bad (I used to be quite a bit larger), and big folks need to just practice moving in a variety of ways smoothly.

Variations include wide and narrow grip versions where applicable. Normally a lot of these exercises should be thought of as forming complimentary sets, so that, for instance, a set of pushups is followed by a set of hanging rows. This is not just pretty symmetry but vital for building balanced muscles. A common problem with people who focus on the bench press (which is not that great a chest exercise compared to the pushup) is a lot of shoulder instability. This is because they never practice the complementary pulling exercise, rowing. Many is the powerlifter with chronic shoulder/neck pain who ends up having to do rows as physical therapy.

You can strive for doing some of these one-handed where indicated. An easy way to work up to these that use pulling motions is to loop a towel over the bar and gradually (as in over the course of several months) grab lower and lower, effectively reducing the contribution of that arm, For pushups, you and work up to one-armed pushups by using a bench and increasing the angle (raise the front of the body). Then turn around and elevate your feet for two-handed pushups. After about 45 degrees, raising your feet tends to start recruiting other structures and is becoming a type of handstand pushup.

If you have had a previous injury, clear it with your doctor before doing any of these. Anything that causes pain in a joint must be investigated, understood and evaluated. Be sure it is safe! Rest assured that if one exercise causes you grief, there are other variations that you can still train. For example, I had a partial dislocation of my left shoulder many years ago and, cannot do horizontal dips without bad shoulder pain. Therefore, I avoid them because my shoulder does not transmit the loads correctly and there is no amount of strengthening that will fix it. This is a structural defect. There are plenty of other things you can do. In my case (and I'm giving this so you know what options you have) I have no trouble with pushups, plain dips or planches, so I do a lot of those and use a machine -- as I said, isolation exercises can be useful.

Handstand pushups
   Back-levers or planches.

   Pullups and chinups

   Hanging rows
   Reverse leg lifts

   Standing abdominal crunches
   Body lifts.
   Hanging leg lifts or pikes
   Reverse leg lifts
   Situps of various types

   Calf raises
   One-legged deadlifts
   Drops or double pistols
   Pistols (one-legged squats)

   Mountain climbers.
   Obstacle hops
   Squat thrusts or burpees
   Sprints of various sorts.