One of the common differences between lifting weights and performing bodyweight exercise is how the average person chooses to progress. Most people who lift weights do so with the goal of lifting more weight. For example, if you can bench 225 pounds (2 plates), there’s a good chance that you someday hope to bench 315 pounds (3 plates). Conversely, many bodyweight exercisers care more about performing more reps. For instance, if you can currently perform 10 pull-ups, I wouldn’t be surprised if you are working towards 15 or 20 reps. Yet, while higher rep goals can be fun to achieve, there are other ways to progress.
Don’t Fear Rep Loss
I recently came across a question on my forum from a man who had bulked up and gained strength. The added size made it more difficult for him to perform certain bodyweight exercises however.
In his words:
“I like being bigger but the extra weight has done a number on my pull-ups.”
I’ve seen similar concerns voiced many times over the years. Many athletes wish to gain size, yet fear losing reps in their favorite bodyweight exercises. The question that arises is whether it’s better to gain size and strength, or instead to stay lean and maximize bodyweight capabilities.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a single answer to the question. Ultimately, the ideal answer depends on the goals that are pertinent to the individual. I’m not here to tell everyone what body type they should strive to achieve. What I can say however is that gaining size isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As I’ve discussed before, working against more resistance (i.e. a heavier body) can be viewed as a plus. Training against more resistance typically results in more strength. Just because you might perform less reps does not mean that you haven’t gained strength. Relative strength and absolute strength are not the same.
Fortunately, if you aren’t interested in gaining size, there are other ways to progress outside of simply performing more reps. With a little creativity, almost any bodyweight exercise can be made more difficult. For this particular entry, we can use the example of pull-ups from above. One of my favorite ways to increase the difficulty of a bodyweight pull-up is by adding a grip challenge. In the pictures below, I’ve actually added two.
First, I’m performing pull-ups from a 2 inch thick manila rope. Thick rope pull-ups naturally make the exercise more difficult. To increase the challenge more, I’m also wearing a thick pair of fleece gloves.
Separating the hands from the rope with gloves dramatically increases the difficulty of this exercise. The thicker and smoother the gloves, the more difficult it becomes. You’ll need to squeeze the rope with all of your strength to avoid sliding down as you perform each rep.
Since I first demoed this variation in my Untapped Strength book, I’ve had countless readers comment how they completely underestimated its difficulty. This variation certainly classifies as one that looks easier than it is. What’s even better though is that it will cost next to nothing to try. All you’ll need is an old pair of winter gloves. And if you don’t have gloves, a similar challenge can be achieved with portable thick grip attachments. You can make your own for just a few dollars (ex. see here).
In summary, there’s nothing wrong with striving to perform more reps of a bodyweight exercise. I simply urge you against limiting yourself to higher rep goals. There’s much more to strength development than performing countless reps. Challenging yourself against greater resistance is one of the most effective and efficient ways to progress.
“The greater the difficulty, the greater the glory.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero
Great advice, thanks a lot, Ross.
Very well said, Ross!!
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I like the idea of using the gloves, you could even have different grades of gloves depending on how difficult you want this workout to be.
Great point you’ve made on the relative strength a person has.When I started my first bulk ever after a major fat loss period, I was gradually gaining weight and at the same time my dips and pull ups started to ‘suffer’.I though that I was getting weaker when in reality, I was pulling and pushing more weight from month to month.Only I didn’t look at it that way.
I though that losing 2-3 reps meant that I wasn’t making progress but in reality I ended up being able to do even more pull ups and dips by the end of my bulk at 12-15 pounds more weight on my body.
Great article, I wish you wrote it years ago. 🙂
I, personally, don’t like to strive for more reps on bodyweight exercises (even though I did it in the past). To me, simply adding reps gets BORING really fast.
I prefer trying DIFFERENT VERSIONS of bodyweight exercises (like, progressing towards one arm pull up or one arm push up; adding ropes; adding some explosiveness into the exercises, etc).
I think, that for some people just increasing the number of reps get boring,TOO. So, the variations, like the one WRITTEN IN THIS ARTICLE, helps to keep bodyweight exercises INTERESTING and helps with IMPROVING STRENGTH.
Strong advice there Ross
Did pull-ups on a rope for the first time last month and could barely move my arms the next day. It’s a tough one but worth it in my opinion.
Cheers for the post
Wearing gloves on a rope pull is part ingenious and a huge part evil. Awesome idea Ross and congrats pn making the articles of the week on the PTDC
Excellent stuff Ross! This is really great advice. I like doing mostly weights, but I like doing body weight exercises as well, only because it makes me feel as if I’m teaching real life motions to use my strength in the real world. This is definitely something I’ll add to my body weight workout day! Thanks for all the great post and keep them coming!
Nice article. IMHO, there is actually no need for reps to suffer – one can combine, for example, weighted pull-ups on one workout session with pull-ups without added weights on next pull-ups session.
This way, both strength and reps are increased …
Very informal! I know doing the pull-up with gloves on thick rope is challenging?