Even people with zero-interest in fitness understand the basic elements of weight training. To make an exercise harder you perform more repetitions, add more weight or do both.
Things get a little bit more confusing with bodyweight exercises.
You could wear a weighted vest. This basically mimics what goes on in the weight’s room. As you get stronger simply add more weight to the vest making the exercise progressively harder.
I like this approach but there are also some smarter ways to perform bodyweight exercises which don’t require any specialist equipment, can be implemented straight-away and will have a profound impact on both the effectiveness and safety of your workouts.
1) EMBRACE THE FATIGUE
Ok, so let’s start with the most obvious. Just put a bit more effort into each exercise. As a species we are hardwired to conserve energy and avoid physical discomfort whenever possible. Useful programming for our evolutionary past but not so helpful during a workout designed to make us fitter and stronger.
Fatigue will always trigger a desire to terminate any given exercise before it has really got going. Step into any gym and you will see this happening all around you.
However if you can override these signals and push deeper and deeper into each exercise (despite the accumulating discomfort) you can fatigue a much greater percentage of muscle fibers and trigger a more potent adaptive response.
As a caveat this type of high intensity training does require the use of joint-friendly exercises which allow you to work really hard, really safely. Click here for some of the best.
2) SLOW DOWN
During a fast or explosive repetition there is a big surge in force production at the beginning of the exercise followed by a complete drop-off as momentum does the rest.
This is how the vast majority of people perform their bodyweight exercises.
On the other hand during a slow, controlled repetition your muscles produce just enough force to move the resistance creating more stable and constant tension throughout the exercise.
The net result of slowing down is your muscles do more meaningful work and your connective tissues are protected from large fluctuations in force. It does take discipline. It is hard work. You will probably have to start with easier exercises. But it’s definitely worth it.
3) PAUSE IN THE HARDER POSITIONS
Due to geeky-sounding things like strength curves and moment arms there are positions within each bodyweight exercise which are considerably harder than others. Time how long you can hold the top of a push up versus how long you can hold the bottom of the push up to see what I mean.
When trying to increase the difficulty of bodyweight exercises we can use these harder positions to our advantage.... by pausing.
Like with all these habits this takes some discipline. Your body will want to do the opposite. But if you can pause in these harder biomechanical positions you can get more value from each set. Examples include pausing at the bottom of a push up, pausing at the top of a pull up and pausing when your thighs are approximately parallel to the floor during a squat.
4) PASS THROUGH THE EASY POSITIONS
For the same reasons there are also positions during each exercise which are considerably easier. For example: the top of a push up, the bottom of a pull up or the top of a squat. In these positions your joints lock-out, your skeleton takes on the load and your muscles relax effectively creating a mini-rest within each rep.
So to make your bodyweight exercises harder pass through these positions without pausing. Or avoid them altogether by smoothly turning around just prior to your joints locking out. Your ego will take a hit because your rep tally will plummet. Nonetheless it is a great way to ramp up the intensity and increase the difficulty of each exercise.
(As a side-note this type of control is obviously not possible when you are rapidly bouncing through repetitions - another great reason for slowing down)
Try Them For Yourself
Don’t believe these tricks will work? Try this series of experiments:
1) Perform 10 push ups as fast as you can. Register how it feels.
2) Perform 5 slow push ups (5 seconds down, 5 seconds pause, 5 seconds up, no rest at the top)
3) Perform slow motion push ups, (5 seconds down, 5 seconds pause, 5 seconds up, no rest at the top) until, despite your best efforts, you stop moving. At this point continue pushing as hard as you can for another 5-10 seconds (whilst maintaining a good body position)
How does each one compare?
So to make your bodyweight exercises harder embrace the fatigue, slow down, pause in the harder positions and pass through the easy positions.
It is simple to say but much harder to do.