A better way to use bodyweight exercises in your program.

I have written before about how much I enjoyed the book Convict Conditioning and how it influenced my training. Bodyweight exercises were always one of those things I preached that people start with but was unknowingly selling short in my programs. After several months of giving hardcore calisthenics a new priority in my mountain bike training programs I can now say that there is a lot more to the subject of bodyweight vs. loaded exercises than I first realized.

When you look at bodyweight and loaded exercises as essentially different variations of the same thing you can very easily end up with a program that is tilted very heavily in one direction.

In fact, I think that the current views on categorizing exercises are a bit misleading.

Most people are lead to believe that bodyweight and loaded exercises for a movement pattern exist on a continuum where the bodyweight exercises naturally progress to the loaded exercises. For example, with upper body horizontal pressing push ups would progress into dumbbell and barbell bench press. However, there is a fundamental flaw to this way of thinking and I think that it is the wrong way to look at things.

When you look at bodyweight and loaded exercises as essentially different variations of the same thing you can very easily end up with a program that is tilted very heavily in one direction. For most people that direction is towards loaded exercises since they are usually viewed as “harder” than bodyweight exercises. It is not uncommon to find a training program from some very smart trainers that contain little to no real bodyweight exercises, which stems from the continuum paradigm since they see their programs as “balanced” from a simple movement pattern perspective.

I think that we should look at it differently – since your body looks at controlling and moving itself differently than it does applying force against an external object it only stands to reason that the two things don’t exist on a continuum where one leads to the other, they exist as two sides of the same coin with each side needing to be addressed and represented. There must be balance between the two sides which means that bodyweight and loaded exercises must always be thought of and accounted for separately in a program.

This does add a layer of complexity to programming since you are effectively doubling the number of things you need to account for but I think that it is well worth the extra thought needed. To do this for my programs I use a combination of the Big 6 from Convict Conditioning and a more typical movement based breakdown of exercises to give me a list of things I need to cover:

Bodyweight Exercises

  • Squat
  • Bridge
  • Chin Up
  • Leg Raise
  • Push Up
  • Handstand Press

Remember that these are general categories and there are many exercise and variations that fall into those categories. For example, push ups can include a wide variety of push up variations, including single arm push ups.

Loaded Exercises

  • Hip Dominant
  • Quad Dominant
  • Single Leg / Split Stance Lower Body
  • Horizontal Press & Pull
  • Vertical Press & Pull

These categories cover all loaded exercises that emphasize the indicated movement pattern. For example, horizontal pressing exercises can range from a single arm floor press to a bench press.

I do see some correlation between exercise categories on the different sides and improving with one will most likely help support and improve the other:

  • Push Ups & Horizontal Press
  • Handstand Press & Vertical Press
  • Squat & Quad Dominant
  • Bridge & Hip Dominant
  • Chin Up & Vertical Pull

There are also some grey areas with this system as well where categories start to cross over and the lines get blurry. For example, chin ups and their variations are the best vertical pulling exercises possible and using only your bodyweight for chin ups can count as loaded vertical pulling as well. A single leg squat can cover Quad Dominant, Squatting and Single Leg Lower Body categories. It isn’t perfect but that isn’t really the goal.

The goal with this different way of categorizing and programming exercises is to safeguard against workouts that lean too heavily in one direction and don’t give respect to the other side of things. For example, push ups are fundamentally different than a loaded horizontal pressing exercise and must be thought of and accounted for separately. It is important to remember that although there are correlations between exercises on different sides of the coin they are not different variations of the same thing.

For me there are two ways to accomplish this – either make sure you have a good mix in all your workouts or you can focus on loaded exercises in the gym and have a bodyweight routine you do at home. Both approaches work and both have their pros and cons but the important thing is that you make sure you have both types of strength training in your program. Don’t make the mistake that I did and discount what each type has to offer you on the trail.

-James Wilson-

No Gym, No Problem. — Bodyweight Program

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  1. Zach says:

    After checking out convict conditioning, I was very tempted to pick up a copy. I am wondering how much of wade’s program you have done and how beneficial his program would be if mountain bike performance is one’s main goal. I am currently doing your KB program and have been trying to work more bodyweight exercises into my routine. Thanks for the great posts.

    Reply • April 9 at 9:48 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I did the program from Convict Conditioning for few weeks and felt that it benefited me to spend that much time on bodyweight exercises. I did not start with the easiest progression on all the exercises and I have not achieved Master Level on most of them but, as I mentioned in the article, I do use the Big 6 from that book as the basis for the bodyweight training component in my programs.

      In a few weeks I am actually going to be releasing my own bodyweight training program – a much expanded version of my No Gym, No Problem Workout Program – which will include a few other categories of bodyweight exercises I like to include. It will also be geared towards the movement goals of riding your mountain bike so you know it will help you ride faster and with more confidence on the trail.

      Glad you liked the post and my KB Program, keep an eye out for my new bodyweight program as a great way to get more focused bodyweight training into your overall program.

      Reply • April 10 at 5:39 am
      • Anne says:

        I picked up a copy of Convict Conditioning, and that’s been a huge help with my general strength. Thanks for suggesting the book.

        Please let me know when your new “No Gym No Problem” book comes out. I definitely want to get a copy when it comes out.

        Thanks for constantly evolving your workouts! They’re helping me become a stronger rider.

        Reply • April 15 at 10:08 pm
  2. Tam says:

    Thanks for the post, body weight is really something I need to focus on as I am travelling for a year so getting to a gym is going to be tricky not to mention getting a bike to hire and transport to the trails. As part of your programs I have been doing some bodyweight exercises and including stuff like pistol squats etc however as I am going to be on the road, hotels, b&b’s, hostels etc. I definately need a 100% progam that covers all bases via bodyweight and perhaps a rucksack as weight. I would be pretty gutted that after a year off I find that a lack of a program to progress with effects my dedication and ultimately my fitness on the trail.

    Reply • April 10 at 8:50 am
  3. Suzanne says:


    Great post…how do you approach an effective “doubling” of the exercises you are recommending? Last night I gave the 4 bodyweight exercises you mentioned in a recent video a shot and was not surprised at the results, but a little dismayed. Single legged squats as you demonstrate (leg lifted out front)…I managed to dip about 8″ and rise with no wobblign. Starting from a seated position with thigh below parallel to the ground I was unable to stand! Handstand…didn’t even try it, but headstand no problem…tried to drive my hands into the ground to develop that strength. Bridge/Wheel…have been able to do it in the past but was unable to even get my head on the ground with body arched up. The only one I could do without trouble were the leg raises. With such PROFOUND weakness in the other 3 areas…any hints for progressing with baby steps? In the headstand, even though I was driving my palms, I still felt as if 50% or more of the weight was on my head. I know it takes time to develop this kind of strength but I really feel that “at my age” (43) maintaining body weight exercise fitness is probably the best thing I can do to aid in all activities (not just cycling).

    Reply • April 10 at 9:47 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I will not always program a bodyweight and loaded version of the same movement pattern but will instead cycle between them through different workout phases. Early on in a program I will do more push ups and later in a program I may emphasize floor presses more – the idea is to give you a big picture tool to keep an eye on trends in your workouts.

      The bridge is one of those exercises that sucks for a while and then just clicks one day. I have clients who swore they would never be able to do one doing them after a few months of practice. If you can get your head to break the ground a bit your on the right track.

      As far as the headstands/ handstands, you’ll have some weight on your neck and I think that is probably fine. The idea is to get some of the weight off with your hands. As far as progressing goes, I do more pushups in place of handstands until the client can do at least 10 legit push ups. Practice the headstands but train the push ups.

      Hope this helps…

      Reply • April 11 at 9:47 am
  4. Jim says:

    In the book convict conditioning, Wade stresses that by far, the bridge is the most important exercise and if you had to only do one exercise, bridging would be it. I’m wondering what the opinion of a third party, like yourself, James, would be on this subject? How far did you get into bridging and what beinifits did you notice. Obviously, it does give you a great hip flexor stretch (as well as stretching the whole front of the body), but what did you notice, in terms of back strenght gained?

    Reply • April 10 at 8:35 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I LOVE the bridge. I have built up to the Walk Back – Walk Up Bridge and have all of my clients work on bridging as well. It is such a great way to open up he front side of the body, develop some good mobility in the spine and fire up all the postural muscles on the back of the body.

      Reply • April 11 at 5:49 am
  5. Bike Ninja says:

    Convict conditioning is incredible.
    Best book I have come across.
    Making great gains with it over the past six months.
    Highly reommmended and very clear programme of progression even if a little high on the machismo!

    Reply • April 11 at 3:29 am
  6. Suzanne says:

    James, thanks a bunch. Just since I posted that I’ve progressed to 5 1/2 pistol squats each side, 30 second hand stand and a legit bridge for just a brief second. Once I started doing the exercises the memory of them came back quickly! Thanks for the boost of motivation for these.

    Reply • April 13 at 11:52 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, just practicing them gets you a lot better at them. Your body knows how to do them, it just has to remember.

      Reply • April 13 at 11:54 am
  7. ED BIRCH says:


    Reply • April 17 at 3:30 am

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