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How to build strength with just bodyweight exercises

You can gain strength and build muscle with just the push up, pull-up and squat. Here's how you do it

Master bodyweight exercises for gains.
Master bodyweight exercises for gains. (Istockphoto)

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The three basic bodyweight exercises are based on the three movements of any exercise: push-ups for pushing, pull-ups for pulling, and squats for the lower chain. These three are also based on functional movements: things which you do every day. With new methods of fitness training gaining popularity recently, one might want to workout without the use of any weights. It is possible as well, if you are savvy enough to add new challenges to these three exercises in your routine. 

To make up for the lack of weights in your programme, the difficulty of these three exercises must constantly be increased in a bid to progress. It might be harder to track than weights, but the levels of functionality and muscle activation will be very gratifying. 

Also Read: Why you need to do handstand push-ups

Given that muscle-building is part of a weight gaining or losing programme, push-ups are the first big challenge to conquer. Once you have mastered the basic push-up, the next level is to change form. Even the most simple changes can make a push-up more difficult. 

Change toe-arrangement: The first suggestion would be to try doing them while your feet are not resting on the surfaces of your toes pointing towards you, but rather with them pointing away from you with the feet supported on the top of the toes. This takes the strength of the toes away from the legs and immediately activates the core to keep your body up. You could eventually move to doing hand-stand push-ups supported on a wall

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Elevate hands: This one is easily doable. If you have dumbbells (or chairs/or two planks), placing your hands in a more elevated position than the rest of the body will make sure that your elbows travel back farther than they do in a regular push-up. This ensures an increased range of motion.

The most hated of the bunch, pull-ups, are in fact the most easily variable to align to your progression. The simple addition of wearing a belt with weights can do the trick, but there is more to a pull-up than just that. 

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Change grips and remove momentum over time: Try pull-ups in every grip, be it neutral, underhand, or overhand. Every grip has a slightly different angle and its benefits and there will be one you prefer more than the other. Work on the one you prefer the least. 

Never forget that pull-up form should be strict to get a gain from your hard work. One good rep is much better than ten bad ones. Make sure the back muscles are activated and the momentum is not generated from the hips. Activate the core. 

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Change angle of body during pull-ups: Try a pull-up with your knees to the chest; try it while doing a leg raise; and if you have a tricep bar in your gym, then place a box in front of it, rest your heels on it, and do rows. Later on, move to doing calisthenic rows on the bar. Pull-up variations are limitless and incredibly difficult to master. The progression should be slow, careful, and always challenging in a way that it leaves enough room to be doable. Do not try the impossible and get disheartened. 

Now to the big leg muscles which can take progression quickly. The most easy progression for a squat, it can be argued, is the weighted squat. But even without them, the exercise offers enough to make it challenging. 

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Single-leg squats: Single-leg squats are an excellent way to isolate one leg because when working in tandem, the leg muscles can easily compensate for one weaker side. Start with supported step-ups, which is the absolute basic. Then move on to step-ups in which you don’t push off the bottom leg, but just touch it to the surface. Once the single-leg can take more load, hold anything beside you and try pistol squats on one leg before eventually giving up the support over a period of a few weeks. 

The Bulgarian squat is another good step in the progression of the pistol-squat, and most people can do that to build enough strength. The Squat University video above has a complete guide on the progression, involving some accessory mobility exercises you can do to master the pistol-squat.

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Add explosive moves: Jump squats, knees-to-chest, and box jumps are all great ways to activate your twitch muscles and build explosive muscle power that will make you faster and more agile. While you can do the same with push-ups, there are more jumping exercises that will help your legs develop along with the addition of regular squats. The video above has some more squat variations you can add to your routine.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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