How to Make Any Bodyweight Exercise More (or Less) Challenging

bodyweight progressions

This is an article from Karen Broda, Bikini Pro Athlete, aerial arts enthusiast, avid world traveler, and member of the Travel Strong team.

You’ve been getting into bodyweight-style training and have probably mastered a few basic moves. But where can you go from here to up your fitness game?

If you find yourself getting jealous of those bodyweight-enthusiasts online doing multiple 1-legged squats – but just the idea of moving from a simple 2-legged squat to 1-leg seems outrageous – then this is the guide for you.

We’ll show you to make any bodyweight exercise harder so that you can keep making progress. But to keep it simple we’ll start with the 4 main movement patterns:

  • The squat (squat)
  • The hip hinge (hip-thrust)
  • The push (push-up)
  • The pull (pull-up)

We’ve provided a quick rundown of the progressions and/or regressions for each exercise, so you’ll know the exact steps to reach even the most advanced bodyweight movements. So if you’re ready to improve your moves then let’s dive in!

(Pssst: We threw in a bonus section at the end, breaking-down handstand push-up progressions!!)

Exercise Key:

Regressions are shown as negative numbers to the baseline of 0, such as:

  • -3 = easiest regression
  • -2
  • -1 = hardest regression

Progressions are shown as positive numbers to the baseline of 0, such as:

  • +1 = easiest progression
  • +2
  • +3 = hardest progression

Squat

bodyweight progressions

Ah, the bodyweight squat! Probably the cornerstone of any workout program or exercise class and, when done properly, this is an excellent exercise for your legs and core.

Most people think that the 1-legged squat (or pistol squat) is the next logical progression from the 2-legged squat, but let’s give the 1-legged squat a try right now.

Was it easy?

Of course not! It’s a really challenging movement, since it not only tests your strength, but also your balance and mobility of the ankle and hip.

If the 2-legged bodyweight squat feels too easy and the 1-legged pistol squat feels too hard, then what can we do that feels just right?

Here are the progressions you’ll want to try:

0: Squat
+1: Lunge
+2: Lateral Lunge
+3: Bulgarian Split Squat
+4: 1-Leg Squat to Chair
+5: 1-Leg Pistol Squat

0: Squat (Baseline)

Why: A perfect bodyweight exercise for the lower section of the body that almost anyone can do anywhere.

By adjusting the depth (or range of motion) of the squat you can alter the difficulty, especially if you don’t have the mobility to lower-down fully. It is incredibly functional as we squat daily (think about how often you lower-down and stand-up from a chair).

Variations: Prisoner Squats, Jump Squats

+1: Lunge

Why: Although more challenging than the squat, beginners can easily learn the lunge. It puts a greater focus on individual legs and challenges your balance and core stability since your legs are further away from each other.

Variations: Reverse Lunge (step-backwards), Forward or Walking Lunge (step-forwards)

+2: Lateral Lunge

Why: We move from the sagittal plane (front-back) lunge to working in a frontal plane (side-side) with the lateral lunge. Stepping side-side will further challenge your stability which is needed in the 1-legged squat.

Variations: Curtsy Lunge

+3: Bulgarian Split Squat

Why: With an elevated back foot, the Bulgarian Split Squat will not only challenge your balance and core but also place a greater emphasis on the quad and glute of the front working leg. A perfect progression from the squat!

Variations: Add a jump as you rise from the split squat.

+4: 1-Legged Squat to Chair & Pistol Squat Holds

Why: By squatting down to a chair you can control the depth of the movement (opt for a higher chair to begin with) and not worry about falling if you lose control halfway through the move. Since the top portion of the pistol squat is the easiest, this is a great way to get a feel of the movement.

In addition to squatting to a chair you’ll also want to practice the bottom portion of the squat as well. You can do this by holding a 1-leg low squat position like this:

make bodyweight exercises harder

Variations: Change the height of the chair.

+5: 1-leg Squat with Suspension Trainer

Why: Using a suspension trainer allows you to work the full-range of motion needed for a pistol squat, while still having the extra help if you need it. The trainer also allows you to lean back into the squat which can help if you lack mobility.

Variations: Hold the suspension trainer with only 1 hand.

+6: 1-leg Squat (Pistol Squat)

Why: Because it looks awesome! Aside from that, it’s a huge strength-building exercise that also trains your legs individually (perfect if 1 leg is weaker) and requires a ton of balance and mobility. If you want an efficient and crushing bodyweight leg exercise, this is it! Now go impress your friends!!

Variations: Place a stability ball between your back and a wall as you squat.

Hinge

hip hinge

The most common hip-hinge exercise is probably the deadlift, but for a bodyweight hinge movement, I bet you’re more familiar with the hip thrust or bridge.

The hip thrust is excellent for building strength and muscle for your posterior chain (think hamstrings and glutes) and is incredibly functional as you use it in your everyday life (anytime you bend at the waist).

We have 1 regression and 4 progressions to keep you continually challenged with the hip-hinge!

*NOTE: A glute bridge isn’t a true hip hinge but the hip thrust is!

-1: Bodyweight Good Mornings
0: Bridge (Floor Hip Thrust)
+1: Legs (Elevated Hip Thrust)
+2: Shoulders (Elevated Hip Thrust)
+3: 1-Leg (Hip Thrust)
+4: 1-Leg (Deadlift)

-1: Bodyweight Good Mornings

bodyweight good morning

Credit: https://www.popsugar.com/fitness/photo-gallery/34376556/image/34376609/Lower-Body-Good-Morning

Why: An often forgotten exercise, the Bodyweight Good Morning is a great way to prepare for the bodyweight 1-legged deadlift (which is +4 progression) as it mimics the movement pattern. It’s also a perfect exercise for beginners to build glute and hamstring strength.

*Note: Once you add weight to this movement it will change what muscles are predominately worked.

0: Bridge or Floor Hip Thrust (Baseline)

Why: Your glutes are what help you stand upright and maintain great posture. If you sit all day, the glutes can quickly become weak and therefore the glute bridge is an excellent way to rebuild that strength.

Like the Bodyweight Good Morning, it can easily be learned by beginners to build glute, hamstring and quad strength as well as improve posture!

Variations: Extend feet (or foot) using gliders at top position, extend 1 foot off the ground for reps at the top position.

+1: Feet Elevated Glute Bridge

Why: By elevating your feet you can create a greater range of motion for your muscles to work in, increasing the challenge!

Variations: Hold at the top position, extend 1 leg at the top position.

+2: Shoulders Elevated Glute Bridge

Why: Similar to the feet elevated bridge, this also increases your range of motion but is slightly more challenging than raising your feet. Try to use a low box (12″ is good) as a chair can be too high and make the movement feel awkward and difficult to do with good form.

Variations: Mix up the positioning and angles of your feet to feel different muscles working (hams vs quads vs glutes)

+3: 1-Leg Hip Thrust (Floor)

Why: Doing any exercise on just 1-side adds a whole other layer, as we discovered with the squat progressions. There’s balance, motor-control and core-strength that are all needed – plus you can easily see if you have a weaker side that needs additional focus.

Variations: Elevate feet or shoulders.

+4: 1-Legged Deadlift

Why: 1-legged deadlifts require a ton of balance, stability, and concentration to perform them – so if you’re a fast-paced person you may not love them! Because of this, the 1-legged deadlift is a great compliment to faster-paced movements and a progression from the hinge movements on the floor.

Variations: Hold onto something for balance if you struggle with completing 1-2 reps without falling over.

Push

push-ups

Many people can do full push-ups, (toes and hands on ground) but how many of them are done with great technique?

Not many.

A perfect push-up is challenging so don’t feel bad if you still struggle with them! And if you have conquered the push-up, how do you progress from there?

Well we’ve got the regressions and progressions for any push-up stage you may be at!

-1: Incline Push-Up
0: (Flat) Push-Up
+1: Uneven Hands Push-Up
+2: Spiderman Push-Up
+3: Decline Push-Up
+4: Tricep (Close-Grip) Push-Up

-1: Incline Push-Up

Why: The big question you may be asking yourself is, “Why not kneeling push-ups”? Well a kneeling push-up is in fact very different from a regular push-up because you break the line of your body by setting your knees down, meaning you’re never training the full movement or working your core as much.

Not necessarily a bad thing in a progression exercise, but with the ‘incline push-up’ available, it is a superior alternative.

Variations: Vary the incline (higher is easier).

0: Flat Push-Up (Baseline)

Why: This is where your hands and toes are both on a level surface, such as the ground. I think you know why the flat push-up is great – it not only targets on your chest but also your entire body, including your core (holding a plank is hard work!)

The secret to a great push-up is to squeeze your glutes slightly, pull your bellybutton in towards your spine and think of pushing your hands against the ground. This will set your body up into a great, strong position!

Variations: Raise 1-foot (this will challenge your core and stability).

+1: Uneven hands (1-Hand Elevated) Push-Up

Why: Regular old push-ups are great, but sometimes you need to add some variety to challenge yourself and elevating 1-hand does that! Not only will you be targeting the chest of the elevated side more, but it’ll also help build explosive power in your push-up (if you switch the raised hand on each rep).

Keep in mind you can also do this exercise as an incline push-up if you haven’t mastered the floor push-up yet!

Variations: Use gliders or towels to slide your hands out to either side as you do a push-up rather than elevate.

+2: Spiderman Push-ups (Knee by Elbow)

Why: Need a greater challenge for your core during your push-ups? Try a spiderman push-up! As you lower your body, bring 1 knee towards your elbow. This progression requires immense stabilization as well as strength for the actual push-up.

You’ll really want to check your form on this one as it’s easy to let your body sag into a poor position.

Variations: Use an incline (easier) or a decline (harder).

+3: Decline Push-Up

Why: The decline push-up targets the upper chest and shoulders more than a flat push-up, making it one reason why it’s more challenging (your shoulders aren’t as strong as your chest). Having your feet raised will also challenge your core more, meaning that just holding this position is difficult!

Variations: Deficit push-ups (raise both hands) creates a greater range of motion for the push-up.

+4: Tricep (Close-grip) Push-Up

Why: Similar to the decline push-up, the tricep push-up puts more focus on your triceps than your chest, making the movement a lot more difficult. These are great to practice as an incline first to ensure perfect form.

Variations: Play with the hand position and the incline/decline.

Pull

pull-ups

Nothing looks more impressive and says strengthen like doing consecutive pull-ups – but they can be tough to do! Since a strict pull-up can be a challenge for many, we’ll focus on the regressions of the pull-up.

Even if you can already do a pull-up these regressions can help perfect your technique (which we can always work on) and help you continue to build massive strength.

-5: Jumping Pull-Up
-4: Active Hangs
-3: Inverted Rows
-2: Negative Pull-Ups
-1: Pull-Ups with Supported Feet
0: Pull-Up

-5: Jumping Pull-Up

Why: We love jumping pull-ups because they give a great sense of accomplishment (you’re actually doing a pull-up!). A much more fun progression than just hanging from a bar! Jumping pull-ups can also be used at any skill level since you’ll jump less and less as your strength increases.

Variations: Jump a little or jump a lot!

-4: Active Hangs

Why: In order to do the most efficient and safe pull-up you need to master the active hang. This teaches you how to properly hold your body; engaged shoulder blades, lats, abs, and glutes (i.e. your entire core).

If you can already do a pull-up but struggle with progressing, if you don’t feel your back working or you have elbow or forearm pain then you may need to work on the active hang. The active hang isn’t a repetition movement but rather an isometric exercise; you’re going to hold the active hang for as long as you can and then repeat.

Variations: 1-arm active hang.

-3: Inverted Rows

Why: Although this is a horizontal pulling exercise (vs. vertical pulling like the pull-up is), it uses almost all the same muscles as the pull-up and is easier to perform. Plus even if you can do a pull-up already, the horizontal pulling makes it a great exercise to round-out your pull-up training.

Although this is a bodyweight exercise it does require equipment such as a suspension trainer, rings or even a broomstick laid across 2 chairs!

Variations: Angle your body upwards (easier) or raise your feet (harder). Bend your knees (easier).

-2: Negative Pull-Ups

Why: Negatives, where you lower yourself slowly from the top position, are probably one of the most popular forms of pull-up progressions.

Negatives build a ton of strength since microscopic tears in your muscle occur during the eccentric or lengthening phase of the rep. We want to stress our muscles since they become bigger and stronger when they repair themselves.

Slow Negatives stress your muscles more than a regular tempo, so don’t overdo it on these.

Variations: Change the speed of lowering. Pause/hold at different points as you lower.

-1: Pull-ups with Supported Feet

Why: By keeping your feet supported on a chair (or the ground) you remove some of the weight you need to pull, making the pull-up easier. This also gives you the option to put a little or a lot of your bodyweight onto the chair.

As you progress, slowly take the weight out of your rested feet so you gradually pull more and more of your own bodyweight.

Variations: Start or end the rep with your feet rested, to work on certain parts of the pull-up.

(*See minute 4:19)

0: Full Pull-Up

The full pull-up is the exercise to awe your friends with and build muscle and strength in your entire upper body. Check out the video for perfect pull-up technique.

Variations: Pull-up slides (slide body over to one arm/hand and then the other), or Tuck pull-ups

BONUS: Shoulders (Push-Up) And Handstand Push-up

handstand push-up

We covered the popular push-up as our push exercise but the handstand push-up has risen in popularity as the gold-standard bodyweight exercise for shoulders. A handstand is tricky to conquer in itself, so a handstand push-up would really impress your friends!

We want to help you get there, so as a BONUS we’ll walk you through regressions of the handstand push-up.

-4: Shoulder Push-Up
-3: Pike-Stand with Shoulder Taps
-2: Pike Push-Up
-1: Negative Handstand Push-Ups (With Feet Walk-Up)
0: Handstand Push-Up

-4: Shoulder Push-Up (On Ground)

bodyweight progressions

Why: This has always been one of our favourite bodyweight shoulder exercises as it’s adaptable for any skill level and you can truly do it anywhere. This exercise allows you to go through the movement pattern without having too much weight in your arms since your feet stay on the ground.

Variations: Raise 1 leg or walk your feet closer to your hands (harder), bend your knees slightly (easier)

-3: Pike-Stand with Shoulder Taps (Raised Feet)

Why: By raising your feet you’re supporting more of your weight by your arms which prepares you for a full handstand. Just maintaining a strong position in a pike-stand is a great exercise, but to really challenge yourself, try tapping your shoulder with 1 hand.

Focus on keeping your core and body tight and stable here.

Variations: Pike-stand holds (without shoulder taps), lower or raise your feet to change the difficulty.

-2: Pike Push-Up with Elevated Feet

Advanced pike push-up

Why: We take the pike-stand to the next level by going through the full range of motion as you’ll do in a handstand push-up. This is the perfect exercise to focus on technique before progressing to the full-handstand position.

Even if you already can do a handstand push-up you can always spend time with the pike push-up to clean up your technique.

Variations: Bend your legs (easier), raise or lower your feet to change the difficulty.

-1: Negative Handstand Push-Ups (With Feet Walk-Up)

Why: Here’s a quick description of a HSPU negative: set up with your stomach facing a wall and walk your feet up the wall to your handstand position. Keep your body at a bit of an angle. Lower yourself, but in a controlled manner, until your head touches the mat and then use your feet to walk back up the wall and back to your start position.

Doing wall negatives allows you to get your body used to being (almost) in a full handstand position. Make sure you practice the lowering portion, as it can be a bit intimidating for the first time.

Variations: Banded handstand push-ups (2 monster bands anchored overhead to help support some of your weight).

(*See min 3:50)

0: Handstand Push-Up (Against Wall) (Baseline)

Why: At this point I think you know how impressive a full handstand push-up is, plus it’s the perfect bodyweight shoulder exercise you can do anywhere. With the regressions we have given you above, you too can add it into your bodyweight program no matter what your skill level is.

Variations: Free-standing (no wall), use parallettes, deficit handstand push-ups.

MORE Ways to Challenge and Progress Bodyweight Exercises!

bodyweight progressions

You now have the complete list of progressions and regressions for the 4 main movement patterns with only using your bodyweight. Pretty great, right?

What’s even greater is that you don’t need a repertoire of a 100+ exercises to keep building strength and muscle.

By taking the exercises we looked at here, and applying some general principles on exercise variation, you’ll be well on your way to creating challenging bodyweight routines for the long-run!

6 Principles for Bodyweight Exercise Variation

1. Plyometrics:

Perhaps you remember plyometrics (or plyo) from your high-school sports team or gym class (i.e. jumping).

Plyo adds an element of power to the exercise as you need to generate enough force to add a jumps. Take for example the clap push-up, jump squat, or even Bulgarian split-squat jumps. Don’t limit yourself to just moving up-down in your plyo, but also side-side, front-back, and rotational jumps.

2. Isometrics:

Isometrics are when you hold the muscle in its stretched position, such as pausing and holding in the middle of the exercise rep.

Try this: Squat down and then hold the squat at the bottom for 5 seconds. Challenging right? Isometrics challenge your muscles in a different way and can be applied to almost all exercises.

3. Change the Angle (Elevation):

We already touched on this variation in some of the specific exercises above – think hip thrust with shoulders or feet elevated. By elevating a certain body part you change the difficulty. This could be elevating your hands, shoulders, feet, hips and so on…you get the idea!

This variation also includes changing the angle of the movement, such as holding onto a suspension trainer as you squat. This allows you to lean back further versus staying more upright, and so, making the squat easier.

4. Range of Motion (ROM):

If you take the exercise through a larger ROM the muscle will be extended into its end ranges, which are often weaker. Therefore a greater ROM makes the exercise more challenging.

For example, squatting down until your quads are parallel to the ground is easier than squatting until your butt touches the ground (*Note: a larger ROM also requires more mobility which often comes with time and experience).

5. Tempo:

Try lowering slowly down into a push-up and then slowly press back-up into a plank. Pretty hard, right? By changing the tempo or speed of the exercise you can change the difficulty.

But moving fast isn’t always easier. Since you still need to move through the exercise under control. Increasing the speed requires controlled power, which can be a challenge. A moderate tempo is easiest whereas increasing and decreasing the speed makes the exercise harder.

6. Change the Base of Support (Unilateral):

Changing the base of support means making the body part that is supporting you smaller or larger.

Let’s use the squat as an example. If you step 1 foot backwards (so you’re in a lunge) it increases the difficulty as you have a smaller base of support. If you took that 1 leg completely off the ground (for a 1-legged squat) that would be even harder.

Changing the base of support typically leads us to unilateral (1-sided) exercises. These are a great way to balance out your body if one side is weaker than the other.

How to Progress Any Bodyweight Exercise

Hopefully this guide has shown you how you can keep making progress towards your goals using nothing but your own bodyweight.

All you need to do is try out each movement pattern to find out where your current skill level is. Then, start attempting the next progression of that movement and as you improve gradually move up the progressions.

It’s exactly the same principle as using heavier weights in the gym.

For more help, and workouts featuring each of these progressions, check out:

https://www.bodyweight365.com

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