Weighted Bodyweight Training (Originally posted February 24th, 2018)
Originally posted on February 24th, 2018.
Update February 27th, 2018:
- For beginner/intermediate/advanced benchmarks, I highly recommend the overcoming gravity progression charts found at that link (google sheet). If that link becomes out-dated for some reason, check out /r/overcominggravity and you should be able to find the link on there in the side-bar or by asking.
- Here is a reddit/bodyweightfitness thread I posted for this write-up and there was some good discussion in the comments. I’ll follow up on some points mentioned here.
- This post is written assuming a full-body routine with 3x per week frequency. You could also do it with some other kind of split, but that’s outside the scope of this post. A 3x per week full-body routine is what I’m recommending around. You’d need to add skill work, horizontal plane movements, leg movements, accessory work, and mobility to this routine to make it complete. **IF you can only do 2x/week, I recommend starting with the beginner progression until you can reach an intermediate stage, and then doing light/heavy with potentially a bit more volume to make up for the lack of a third session during the week.
- Rest should be what you need, I think a good start is 90s between sets of dips and chins (or other strength pairs). Take more if necessary.
- Back-off sets are something you should figure out to be appropriate over time. If you want an objective measurement,
((added weight + bodyweight) * .9) - bodyweightcan work, but it may not be perfect (or even work with very light amounts of weight added). I recommend back-off sets because I think working up to a top (top does not equate to failure) set in the range you’re working in that day and then backing-off is a good way to regulate how hard you’re pushing yourself. You could just do sets across, but similar to the point on the split itself, these are my recommendations.
This post is not about building up bodyweight reps of pull-ups and dips. There are a lot of resources on that topic that are different and people find their way through that easily enough over time (some longer than others). I’m trying to put into words my own method for auto-regulation and progression of weighted pull-ups and dips.
There are a lot of various protocols out there for starting to add weight. Some of them are good, some of them aren’t. Most work, but a lot are inefficient. In three years of bodyweight training, about 2 of which are with this method (after building up just bodyweight reps), I went from no dips or chin-ups (starting from 4 years ago), to a +160lb chin-up and +180lb dip at 200lbs bodyweight (currently maintaining at +135lbs for 4 on dips and for 2 on chin-ups).
Miscellaneous Notes #
I don’t say which exercise to do in the templates, you should be doing dips and chins paired together. That means: do a set of chins or dips, rest about 90s, and do the other exercise.
Notation used for sets and reps is as follows: SETSxREPS
When rep ranges are given, you usually want to start with something you know you can do on the lower end of the range and work up in reps over your time training. So if the rep range is 10-20, start with a set of 10ish and over your time training progress that working set up to the high teens and eventually 20 repetitions.
From here, I will refer to weighted pull-ups or weighted chin-ups as chins. If you want to do supinated/under-grip, neutral/hammer-grip (I prefer this one because it feels best on the shoulders and elbows), or pronated/over-grip, then that’s up to you. The difference is relatively minimal. I don’t like pronated/pull-ups because that grip can make it be difficult to define a stopping-point (chin above? chest-to-bar?) whereas supinated/neutral you pull until your arm is fully flexed and that’s it.
I usually only perform pull-ups (pronated) for bodyweight reps. That’s my opinion.
Lastly, training weighted chins and dips is rough. Take care of yourself, eat quality food, sleep well, stay hydrated, and if your joints feel funky, back-off the intensity a bit. You want to be in this for the long-run, not a short sprint.
First, you should be uninjured and physically able to train. Second, I’m not a certified trainer or anything like that,
I’m not going to put any hard prerequisites down, just some that I would suggest (to prevent injury, and obviously to build necessary strength). All of these prerequisites should be able to be completed without any pain (for example, sternum pain when performing dips). I’m not a physiotherapist, get your own injuries sorted out before training something that could worsen them.
- Building up basic push/pull strength with 15-20 push-ups and horizontal rows.
- Having the shoulder mobility to do a parallel dip without pain.
- Conditioning yourself for weighted chins and dips with 10-15 chins/dips.
Once these are completed (lower end is what I would say is a minimum, higher end will just mean you’re even more prepared). I wish it was needless to say, but these all require good form:.
- For dips, use a full range of motion (at the top: arms fully extended/locked-out, shoulders depressed, at the bottom: upper arm parallel to the ground (for depth, go deeper only if you have the mobility), forearm should remain relatively vertical).
- For chins, use a full range of motion (at the bottom: shoulders relaxed, at the top: arm fully flexed (if neutral/supinated) or chin clearly over (if pronated)).
If you think there are other form guidelines to adhere to, feel free to comment them below or follow them yourself.
Again, these are programming suggestions I have found to work well. I’ll break it up into three stages (beginner/intermediate/advanced) for progression because athletes at different stages progress at different rates.
One large factor in regards to where you start with progression is your bodyweight and gender as well as how well you can recover (influenced by diet/caloric surplus or deficit, genetics, etc). I started as a tall, skinny, lean male with a lot of room to put on muscle mass, I was also eating and sleeping really well, and along with the fact that I have decent athletic genetics (looking at what family members have done in the past), I was in a good position to progress somewhat quickly.
If you’re on the opposite side of the spectrum and struggle to progress upper body strength, then you may not be able to start in the beginner stage because progressing that fast is just not something you’re able to do. Don’t sweat it! Everyone is different, take what you can do and own it :).
If you’re new to weighting your chins/dips, you have taken a break from training them for a while, or you have a decent base and can recover adequately, then you may respond well to linear progression. Having a larger base of bodyweight reps will help a lot. Training 2-3x a week at this stage is good, 3x a week is the best (from personal experience with myself and others).
Here’s a general template which I will explain below (assuming working out on Monday/Wednesday/Friday). You can do a horizontal push and pull (push-ups/bench and rows) each day along with legs on whichever days you want (this template is geared primarily towards weighted chins and dips):
- M: 3x5
- W: 3x5
- F: 3x5
That’s it. Keep it simple.
Progression and Key Ideas:
- Add 2.5lbs from last session to each exercise.
- If you can’t progress for a session (complete 3x5), then try repeating the same weight during the next session and add an extra set. If a trend continues (for a week or so) where you can’t progress, then maybe take a deload week and consider switching to an intermediate template if the progression doesn’t feel sustainable going forward.
As you’ll notice, each work-out is the same except for increasing weights. That’s linear progression. There are a few ways to modify this and push yourself further if desired. One way to change up this routine to make it exciting is to make your last set you do an AMRAP (as many reps as possible, I would write that as 3x5+ where the last set is minimum 5, maximum as much as possible) so you can see just how many reps you can get with that weight. If you get 10 reps on the AMRAP set, you could even add 5lbs the next workout instead of 2.5lbs. I would highly recommend stopping on that set with 1 rep left in the tank. Beginners can push themselves more and still recover, but not going to complete failure is desirable.
This type of progression can last anywhere from not at all to a couple of months. You’re adding 7.5lbs a week, this obviously can’t continue forever. A good stopping point is when you can’t progress for a week, as mentioned above in the template itself. Consider taking a deload (mentioned below) and trying another 3-4 week cycle of this beginner progression or switching to an intermediate routine.
I think I progressed from 20 bodyweight chin reps to +70lbs for 3x5 in about 3-4 months. As I said above, I started from a good position, so YMMV.
When you get to an intermediate stage (usually after a few months to a year of steady training, including starting from just bodyweight without weight) and you can’t recover to linearly progress with a beginner routine, then, what do you know, it’s time for an intermediate routine. This routine is made for intermediates by adding a form of periodization where the trainee alternates between a light day and heavy day. If you’re unfamiliar with it, give it a google. Learning more is always helpful.
As said above, I prefer to do periodize for the intermediate stage by alternating between light and heavy days. For chins and dips, light would correspond to 8+ reps accumulating around 30-45 reps across your sets (the lower end of that range, 8, should only be used if it’s not to failure, higher reps are to build volume and accumulate work/fatigue, not to kill your body with intensity). Heavy days would correspond to 3-8 repetitions accumulating 15-25 reps across your sets (again, trying not to fail, especially at the lower ends of the rep range, failure exhausts the body and nervous system). A training template might look like this:
- M: Light - Work up to a top-set of 8-12, then either drop the weight (or drop the reps if not weighted, this is a light day) and try and hit 2-3 back-off sets to hit the rep goal with lower weight/reps.
- W: Heavy - Work up to a top-set of 3-5, then hit 3-4 back-off sets with lower weight to hit the rep goal.
- F: Light - Work up to a top-set of 8-15, then either drop the weight (or drop the reps if not weighted, this is a light day) and try and hit 2-3 back-off sets to hit the rep goal with lower weight/reps.
- M: Heavy - Work up to a top-set of 3-5, then hit 3-4 back-off sets with lower weight to hit the rep goal.
- W: Light - Work up to a top-set of 8-15, then either drop the weight (or drop the reps if not weighted, this is a light day) and try and hit 2-3 back-off sets to hit the rep goal with lower weight/reps.
- F: Heavy - Work up to a top-set of 3-5, then hit 3-4 back-off sets with lower weight to hit the rep goal.
Progression and Key Ideas:
- Once you get out of beginner stage, it’s much harder to push yourself to the limit every session. You NEED to keep some gas left in the tank, for lack of a better phrase, during your working sets. You should try to have at least 1 if not 2 reps left in the tank on top sets and have 2-4 reps left in the tank on back-off sets.
- If you can’t progress reps or weight from one light or one heavy session to the next session of the same, then try and match the same reps as last session and add one back-off set with the same reps (maybe two if you can’t match reps) and also considering deloading if you feel really gassed.
- If you can’t progress for a week, then take a deload week. This is usually between every 4 and every 6 weeks depending on one’s recovery capacity. Only consider switching to an advanced template if the progression doesn’t feel sustainable for two to three cycles in a row. The intermediate stage lasts longer than beginner.
The advanced stage, depending on how fast you progress, is usually reached after a few years of steady training, maybe sooner or later depending on the person. At this point you’re lifting some heavy weights and you’ll usually need to do a lot more work to get just a little bit further. At this point, you should have an idea about how you respond to training stimulus, so maybe the template I’m going to list will work for you, maybe it won’t.
The key idea here is daily undulating periodization, which I wrote about a bit here. It takes the light/heavy periodization one step further and adds a medium day so you do work each week in every rep range: endurance, strength, and power. Some people like 8-12/5-8/3-5 for light/medium/heavy respectively. I’ve seen better results personally working in the 10-20/6-10/3-6 range. That higher repetition day really reenforces the movement pattern you’re working on (that’s anecdotal/personal training experience) and gives a break from hammering away at heavy and intense exercise. Here’s the template:
- M: Light - Work up to a top weighted set for between 10 and 20 reps. Hit some back-off sets to accumulate around 50 reps of total volume.
- W: Medium - Work up to a top weighted set for between 5 and 10 reps. Hit some back-off sets to accumulate around 35-40 reps of total volume.
- F: Heavy - Work up to a top weighted set for between 3 and 5 reps. Hit some back-off sets to accumulate around 25-30 reps of total volume.
Progression and Key Ideas:
- This stage is a lot more loose in regards to how you program and how it needs to be individualized. The key idea is to to just keep the weights and reps trend going up over time. Build volume each week by adding weight to your top sets when you can, or if your top set struggles to go up, adding to your back-off sets with more weight and more repetitions.
- You will most likely need some well-chosen accessory exercises (curls, face-pulls, etc) to keep your body balanced and injury-free at this stage.
- You should have an idea about how often you need to deload by this stage. When your progress starts stagnating it’s definitely time for a deload and to keep an eye on your recovery methods.
- At this stage, if you start stagnating across multiple mesocycles (multiple week blocks), consider switching up your programming style or even your goals for a while. Build up your horizontal pushing and pulling strength some more with planche and front lever. Work some accessories more to shore up your weak points. It’s all about finding the missing piece to the puzzle at this point.
Deloading - a side note. #
I’ve tried multiple styles of deloads at different points in my training, here’s some of them just for some ideas:
- When I’m mentally and physically exhausted, sometimes I just need a day or two away from my normal training cycle to focus on other things in life, maybe get a massage, work some mobility, take some more walks, and reflect on my training. When this happens I’ll just make sure to move around more outside of the gym and take a few days off from going completely. I’ll start back midway through the week very lightly just focusing on quality basics. The last day of the week I’ll do some quality working sets at whatever weight I feel like working up to. I resume training normally the following week.
- If I’m feeling okay with my training, but I need to give my body a break, I’ll just cut out my top sets for a week and potentially make my back-off/working sets lighter. This is just enough to keep yourself going through the motions, but giving your body a break from intensity.
- If I’m feeling very physically drained, I’ll go into the gym each day and just hit basic working sets at a very light intensity (3x10 controlled tempo on all of the basics) and drill a lot of mobility and assistance work with resistance bands to finish up. This works well, but it can be much different from usual training especially if you’re advanced/intermediate, potentially getting you out of a groove. Sometimes though, this can be just what you need.
This post is opinionated; these are training styles that I have worked through and seen others work through with good results. If you see ideas here that you want to take into your own training, feel free to. If you try this and see good results with it feel free to let me know. The same goes with results that are less than stellar. I’d love to hear feedback.
If you have any suggestions for me (for writing, post style, or post content), I’d be incredibly happy to hear it. Feel free to email me at matt -> mattgray dot net or leave a comment below. Thanks for reading :).