Dev Journal #6 - Classifying Bodyweight Exercises

It’s only bodyweight, they said. It will be easy, they said.

- From “The most overlooked, underestimated and misleading statement Leo has ever heard."

Classifying (Upper) Bodyweight Exercises

I want to take a little break from coding and brainstorm on exercise classifications. I am going to leave out the leg exercises to minimize complexity for now (shhhh just let it happen). I am actually not sure if I’ll ever implement the leg exercises tbh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ If you are curious to know why I always skip leg day (ok, that’s a slight exaggeration), watch this video by Dan Jeong, Why I Always Skip Leg Day.

Muscle Groups

Exercises can be divided by the primary muscle groups involved in the movement. I like to categorize the muscles into two big groups: anterior chains and posterior chains. Anterior chain refers to the muscle groups responsible for forward movements. These are the muscles located on the front side of the body like: anterior delts, pecs, abs, hip flexors, and quads. Posterior chain refers to the muscle groups responsible for holding the body upright. These are the muscles located on the back side of the body such as: posterior delts, traps, lats, spinal erectors, glutes, and hamstrings. Commonly, people refer to them as push or pull exercise muscle groups. For upper body movements, push exercises normally engage the triceps and pull exercises engage the biceps.

We can further drill down to the direction of which of these push or pull is being worked. Vertical pull mostly involves bent-arm exercises like pull ups. Horizontal pull exercises include both bent-arm and straight-arm exercises like rows and levers. Vertical push exercises can be either directed upwards like the handstand exercises or downwards like dips. Horizontal push exercises include push up variations and planche.

Keep in mind that these labelings are for the primary muscle groups activated during the movements. No matter which exercise, you will be still engaging your core, glutes, quads (yes, quads), scapular retractors and all kinds of other muscles to hold the body tight and stabilized.

Progression Exercises

If you can’t perform a particular exercise at first, there will always be an alternative progression exercise that you can practice to build up strength. I like to refer to two different types of progressions.

The first method is by adjusting the weights. For example, if you are not strong enough for bodyweight pull ups, you can use resistance bands of various thickness to counter your bodyweight. Conversely, you can wear weighted vests or ankle weights once bodyweight becomes no longer challenging.

The second method is by shifting the body leverage to adjust the difficulty of the exercise. This mostly applies to straight-arm exercises like the levers or planche. Using the same bodyweight, we can still increase the difficulty of the exercise by moving the center of mass away from the source of force. In lever and planche exercises, the torque in our shoulder is increased by extending our legs out and away. This makes the exercise increasingly more difficult. The leverage progression presented in order of increasing difficulty looks like this: tuckadvanced tucksingle legstraddlefull lever or planche.

Variation Exercises

Variation exercises can be used to further help with progression or to keep things more interesting.

  1. Unilateral exercises

    • single arm movements
      • e.g. one arm chin ups, archer push ups
  2. Grip

    • supinated (palm facing you) or pronated (palm facing away) grip on pull up bars or rings
    • wide or narrow
  3. Straight-arm vs Bent-arm

    • straight-arm
      • isometric: muscle held at fixed length
        • e.g. lever, planche, v-sit
    • bent-arm
      • concentric: muscle shortening
        • e.g. pulling motion of pull ups, pushing motion of push ups
      • eccentric: muscle lengthening; a.k.a negatives
        • e.g. slow descending of pull ups, slow descending of push up
  4. Bar vs Rings

    • rings require more engagement from the stabilizer muscles
      • e.g. bar dips vs ring dips, bar handstand vs ring handstand
  5. Plyometric

    • explosive exercise
      • e.g. superman push ups, clapping pull ups, kipping muscle ups
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