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-

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