Whether you’re battling back from injury, lack the home gym of your dreams, or are just sick and tired of slinging dumbbells, sometimes you need an alternative to weight training. While it can be hard to top the stimulus offered by the barbell, there are some creative ways to make gains without loading up on plates.
Manual resistance training is viable for building muscular strength and endurance without relying on external loading from a machine, free weight, or cable pulley. Having your training partner physically apply resistance to your limbs while you perform a movement can individualize and tailor the stress placed on your muscles.
Best Manual Resistance Exercises
Below, we break down 15 of the best bang-for-your-buck manual resistance exercises and talk a little bit about how to optimize them so you can stay on the path towards your goals.
- 4-Way Neck
- Shoulder External Rotation
- Lying Abduction
- Manual Lateral Raise
- Lying Chest Flye
- Standing Single-Arm Chest Press
- Standing Core Anti-Rotation
- Triceps Extension
- Preacher Curl
- Seated Row
Neck training is critical with contact sports (hockey, wrestling, boxing, football, etc.), as it can better help you resist impact. A strong neck also contributes to a more overall aesthetic physique and, when appropriately trained, can contribute to better posture. This exercise has a partner apply gentle pressure to the head of the trainee, who is either lying down on a bench (or on all fours).
Benefits of the 4-Way Neck
- It strengthens the neck muscles, reducing the risk of impact-related injuries and leading to a less excessive spinal extension during heavy lifts.
- You’ll train your neck through multiple planes of motions compared to the singular up-and-down motion of shrugs (a popular neck training exercise).
How to Do the 4-Way Neck
Lay down on a flat bench with your head hanging off of it. Have your partner place his palm on your forehead and apply light pressure to start. Resist their pressure. Communicate with your partner to ensure that they’re using the right amount of force — they shouldn’t blast your neck, but the exercise should feel challenging.
Then, have your partner repeat this process as you lay on your left side, stomach, and right side.
Shoulder External Rotation
This is an effective exercise for the rotator cuff and can increase strength, isometric abilities, and/or be used as an activation warm-up for the rotation at the shoulder. Shoulder external rotation is great for sports that involve throwing, grappling, and dynamic contact.
Benefits of Shoulder External Rotation
- Works well to warm up the muscles of the rotator cuff.
- It protects shoulder from injury in dynamic sports and everyday life.
- Engages muscles through a short range of motion focusing tension to the rotator cuff.
How to Do Shoulder External Rotation
Start in a half-kneeling position with your right knee down on the ground and the left knee up with the foot planted firmly on the ground. Then, with the forearm and wrist perpendicular to the ground, press back against your partner’s arm to initiate tension on the rotator cuff. The partner should be standing beside the athlete, placing pressure on the wrists/forearms with one arm and guiding/stabilizing the elbow with the opposite hand.
The leg abduction exercise can be helpful for lifters who experience hip weakness in the glutes. Specifically, this exercise can lead to a more efficient and stronger squat, deadlift, and Olympic lifts. This movement is done with an athlete lying on their sides while the trainer loads the working leg manually.
Benefits of Lying Abduction
- It warms up the muscles around the hips.
- Builds strength in the glutes, allowing you to work towards a heavier max in leg-dominant compound movements.
- Stronger hip muscles can lead to more stable and mobile hips, ensuring you perform lower body exercises more effectively and, therefore, safely.
How to Do Lying Abduction
Lay on your side, with a yoga mat on the floor underneath you. Stack your feet and place your hands on the floor for more stability. Slightly elevate your top leg and have your partner — who should stand behind you and near your legs — place both hands on your top leg. Have your partner apply a moderate amount of resistance as you raise your leg in a smooth motion with control. Complete all of your reps on one side and then switch to the other leg.
Manual Lateral Raise
This is an easy exercise to mimic without free weights. There are many lateral raise variations, and they all have you raise your arms laterally up and down. Instead of holding a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells, your training partner will stand in front of you, holding your wrists, and pressing down to create manual resistance. The downside to this variation is that you can’t as easily track your progress over time (since you don’t know how many pounds of force are being applied). The upside to this exercise is that your partner can make the movement easier or harder at the drop of a hat, allowing you to push your muscles to absolute failure.
Benefits of Shoulder Lateral Raise
- Taxes the medial, or middle, deltoid more effectively than most other shoulder-focused exercises.
- The manual nature of the exercise makes it easy for your partner to apply more or less pressure instantly.
- This is an excellent variation for performing isometric holds, where your partner applies so much force that you can’t physically move his arms, but you’re contracting a lot of muscle tissue.
How to Do Shoulder Lateral Raise
Stand facing your training partner with your arms at your side; they should be a little less than arm-length away from you. Have your partner place his hands on your wrists and gently apply some pressure. Raise your arms straight up, as if you were doing a standard lateral raise, and then lower them back down. That’s it. Repeat for reps.
Lying Chest Flye
The manually loaded lying chest flye allows the lifter to build muscular strength and endurance, improve mind-muscle connection, and work further into fatigue the chest with less overall risk of injury (as you’re not loading up your muscles and joints). Adding this exercise into your program can help strengthen your bench press and improve your shoulder health while limiting the risk of injury at the shoulder joints.
Benefits of the Lying Chest Flye
- The chest flye produces high amounts of tension within the chest with less risk to the shoulder joints.
- Improves the lifter’s ability to improve technique before loading the exercise with free weights.
- Works well as a stand-alone exercise and in combination with other chest exercises to increase time under tension and muscular fatigue.
How to Do the Lying Chest Flye
Lay back on a flat or incline bench with your partner standing behind you. Extend both arms over your chest and have your partner place their hands on your wrists. Slightly bend your elbows. Lower your arms as if you were performing a dumbbell chest flye. Then, have your partner apply pressure as you “flye” your arms back to the starting position. For an added challenge, you can have your partner apply upward pressure during the exercise’s down (or eccentric) phase.
Standing Single-Arm Chest Press
The standing single-arm chest press taxes the chest and shoulder muscles as you’re pushing against your partner. The core is also heavily engaged as your hips and torso rotate during each press, bringing the obliques into play. This is a functional movement for combat athletes, as the mechanics are similar to throwing a punch.
Benefits of the Standing Single-Arm Chest Press
- Adds a rotational element to your chest training, which recruits your core.
- You can immediately change the path of your arm for more joint comfort. Say your elbow is raised too high during one rep, which may hurt your shoulder joint; communicate with your partner to slightly lower your arms, and you should be all set.
How to Do the Standing Single-Arm Chest Press
Face your partner and lock opposite-side hands. Stagger your feet, so you’re both balanced and steady (remember that you’ll be pressing into each other.) You may want to find a training partner who is around your size. Press into the person; they should push back, but not so much that you can’t fully extend your arm. Complete all of your reps, let your partner go, and then switch sides. Communicate with your partner throughout each set, so they’re providing enough tension that your pec is activated for the entire range of motion.
The manual resistance push-up is similar to the weighted push-up (where you wear a weight vest or place a plate on your back). There are a couple of upsides to this movement: 1) having hands on your back makes you aware of your form and posture, and 2) your partner can press down to make the concentric (up) portion of the movement more difficult. The ability to apply pressure at any point of the push-up means you can target your triceps by having your partner press on your back harder towards the apex of the movement, where those muscles are more engaged.
Benefits of the Push-Up
- The push-up is an easy addition to chest training while also challenging the triceps and shoulders.
- Works well as a stand-alone exercise and in combination with other chest exercises to increase time under tension and muscular fatigue.
How to Do the Push-Up
Get into a normal push-up position, with your legs extended and your hands underneath your shoulders. Have your partner place both their hands on your back. Placing their hands near your shoulder blades will reinforce scapular retraction (when your shoulder blades are squeezed together) for optimal push-up form. Lower yourself toward the floor and then have your partner apply pressure as you press yourself back up. Ask your partner to try and apply even tension throughout the range of motion.
Standing Core Anti-Rotation
Anti-rotation, meaning the ability to resist rotation, is an essential function of core strength. Your core facilitates rotation, which is helpful for throwing punches, playing ball, and sprinting. But you also need to bring that rotation to a halt — so think of anti-rotation as the brakes. When it comes to lifting, anti-rotational exercises such as this isometric hold can teach you to brace more effectively and better control your core contractions.
Benefits of the Standing Core Anti-Rotation
- It can be done with or without a partner. If you don’t have someone to press against your hands, then stand in front of a pole or the beam of a squat rack and drive your hands into that to activate your core.
- This movement trains your core isometrically, meaning statically, so it teaches you how to resist rotation and brace efficiently.
How to Do the Standing Core Anti-Rotation
Assume an athletic position with your feet around shoulder-width apart, and extend your arms together in front of you. Have your partner stand perpendicular to you and press their hands against your hands. You and your partner should form an L-shape in this position. Rotate your hands toward your partner and have him resist you. Actively drive your hands into your partner for about 20 seconds. You can ramp up the intensity and perform a hard set for 10 seconds, or drive into your partner for 30 seconds or so at a moderate intensity.
The good news for folks who want big arms: extensions and curls are easy to replicate without weights. If you’re looking to work on your triceps, then you can perform a skull crusher, as long as you have a partner. You can have your partner push down as you drive up or pull up as your drive down for more tension on the target muscle.
Benefits of Triceps Extensions
- Challenge the triceps through a more extended range of motion.
- Adds variable loading to the exercise, individualizing the resistance needed for the desired goal.
- Easy to set up and perform, making it a great choice for newer lifters. (You can also do this on the floor if a bench isn’t available, as shown in the video above.)
How to Do Triceps Extensions
Lay down on a bench, and hold your arms in the standard skull crusher position with closed fists. Have your partner stand behind you and grasp both of your fists in their hands. Lower your arms until they’re near your ears and then press up; your partner should provide resistance throughout the concentric portion of the exercise.
Anyone can apply manual resistance to any curl variation, but we like the preacher curl specifically. By fixing your elbows to a preacher bench, you’re not able to cheat the movement in any way by using momentum. The pad’s angle also allows for an extended range of motion so that you can stretch the biceps muscle effectively.
Benefits of the Preacher Curl
- Challenge the biceps by locking your elbows — and therefore your shoulder joint — into place for a greater emphasis on the biceps.
- You can apply as much or as little force as you want (via your partner) to train the biceps muscle in a variety of rep ranges.
How to Do the Preacher Curl
Sit down at a preacher curl bench and place your elbows on the pad. Adjust the seat so that the back of your arm sits on the entire pad. Your partner should kneel in front of the pad, grab your wrists, and pull down on your arms as you curl them to your shoulders.
Don’t have access to a rowing machine? Fear not. Your back gains don’t have to suffer. You can pull on either a towel or rope as your training buddy pulls on the other end. Functionally, this is the same as a cable row (or any row, really), and it works just as well. Sure, you can’t track the weight you’re using, but this is an effective solution when weights aren’t an option.
Benefits of the Seated Row
- The seated position takes the onus off your lower back to support your torso, relieving pressure on the lower back.
- This move isolates your back muscles so you can activate them to the fullest extent without the need for equipment.
- It can be used for many rep ranges, building muscle and strength in the back and biceps.
How to Do the Seated Row
Lay belly down on a bench set to about a 70-80-degree incline. Hold a towel or rope in one hand and have your partner grab the other end. Wrap your non-working arm around the bench for support and row as if you are playing tug of war with your partner.
Lower Body Manual Resistance Exercises
The lower body manual exercises below can be integrated into most training programs either as “finishers” or during accessory training sessions.
Lying Hamstring Curl
The lying leg curl allows you to isolate the hamstrings — which can be great for additional gains in muscle, strength, and endurance. Keeping your torso and upper body engaged throughout the range of motion helps stabilize your upper body, making it easier to create more force in the lower body and keep the focus on the hamstrings.
Benefits of the Lying Hamstring Curl
- Great for lifters of all ages and skill levels to accumulate volume on their hamstrings.
- This move isolates your hamstring muscles without the need for equipment.
- It can be used for a multitude of rep ranges or exercise pairings to extend fatigue in the hamstrings.
How to Do the Lying Hamstring Curl
Lay on a bench or on the floor (ideally using a mat) and place your arms in front of you. Bend your legs so they’re at 90 degrees. Have your partner grab your heels as they stand behind you. Have them apply downward force as your curl your heels to your butt.
Few moves add versatility to your training quite like the reverse hyperextension — a movement that has you extend your legs up behind you as you lay face down on a bench. This manually resisted variation is simple, effective, and easily progressed. It’s great for building muscle and endurance in the posterior chain and adds resilience to the low back, potentially preventing injury and keeping you in the gym.
Benefits of the Reverse Hyperextension
- This move integrates your hamstring and glutes without the need for equipment.
- It can be used across a wide range of age groups, skill levels, and training goals.
How to Do the Reverse Hyperextension
Lay face down on a training bench and wrap your arms under it so you’re locked in. Position yourself so that your legs are completely off of the bench. Have your partner stand behind you and place their hands on your calf muscles. Extend your legs and raise them so they’re in line with your body. Hold this position for ab beat and then lower them slowly. Your partner should provide resistance during the up portion of the movement.
Seated Leg Extension
The leg extension is a phenomenal exercise to focus on your quads when performed with control and proper form. It’s easy to learn and execute, doesn’t load your spine in any way, and requires less resistance to be effective — making it a go-to leg exercise using manual resistance.
Benefits of the Seated Leg Extension
- You can directly target your quadriceps while avoiding adding more volume to other tissues.
- Beneficial for training the quadriceps without the need to load the spine (as you do during back squats).
- You can use the seated leg extension across a wide range of age groups, skill levels, and training goals.
How to Do the Seated Leg Extension
Sit on a plyo box or bench. You should be high enough off of the ground that your feet don’t hit the floor when you’re seated. Have your partner kneel down and place their hands on your ankles. Grab the box or bench with both hands and extend your lower legs to drive them into your partner. Hold the apex of the leg extension for a moment and then lower your legs back down slowly.
Manually resisted glute kickbacks effectively grow your glutes and deviate from the traditional list of standard movements. Glute kickback machines can be hard to come by in your local gym. You can create a similar training environment between you and your training partner to that of a machine.
Benefits of the Glute Kickback
- It is performed only by the lifter and training partner, making it beginner-friendly.
- It trains muscles of the glute with more variability than conventional free weight exercises.
How to Do the Glute Kickback
Start by having the lifter with their hands positioned on a box in front of them, with one foot elevated off the floor. The trainer will be in a kneeling position and should apply counter-force to the heel of the elevated foot as the lifter kicks back into hip extension, placing tension on the glutes.
A little About Of Manual Resistance Training
Manual resistance training works by the training partner or personal trainer adding external load to the exercise. The effectiveness of this type of training depends on a few things:
- You have a training partner or trainer available to assist and effectively communicate with you.
- The lifter understands the proper technique and complete range of motion for the given exercise.
- The training partner or trainer must understand how to apply the resistance needed to enhance each exercise properly.
Benefits Of Manual Resistance Training
The main benefits of manual resistance training are increasing muscular strength and endurance and improving balance and coordination. It’s also convenient, customizable, and partner/group-friendly. (1) Among the physiological benefits, there are many psychological and economic benefits that bolster the case for adding manual resistance to your training toolset.
An Effective Alternative to Conventional Resistance Training
Training takes tools (and therefore money), but manual resistance training requires no equipment. You can mimic so many of the tried-and-true movements patterns you train with a barbell and dumbbells, as long as you have someone to train with. Also, force is force. your body can’t recognize tension from a kettlebell versus your buddy’s hand, so as long as you’re pushing each et close to failure and aiming to progress every week, you’ll make gains effectively sans the equipment.
Great for Large Groups
Strength and conditioning professionals often utilize manual resistance training within their planning to help navigate many lifters at once. No matter the age or skill level, manual resistance training can be used without equipment with unlimited participants or athletes.
You also can train anywhere, so it’s more convenient than traveling to a gym or dedicated workout spot.
Individualized Resistance Every Rep
Conventional resistance training uses loads created by external tools such as free weights, cables, and machines. These tools apply resistance using everything from gravity, cables, and specially designed resistance cams found on weight machines.
There are only a few ways to effectively adjust resistance coming from these tools. Manual resistance training allows for an individualized approach to adding the resistance needed to get the job done. This is especially great for elderly lifters, those returning from injury, and younger strength athletes.
Manual Resistance Training Tips
Manual resistance can be used in many different contexts across several different training goals. It’s important to highlight that this type of training takes a certain level of skill and attention to detail to ensure its maximum effectiveness. Below, we’ll highlight some key tips to ensure you’re maximizing your training with manual resistance.
Appropriately Apply the Resistance
Applying external resistance in a training scenario is something that takes practice. It’s not often you’ll be perfect on your first attempt. This is akin to the first time you gave a spot to someone in your gym. This method takes practice to nail down and should be taken seriously as mismanagement of applied force can lead to injury.
When starting out, added resistance should be applied subtly and evenly across the range of motion to maximize the effectiveness of the exercise.
Communication is Key
You not only need a gym partner or personal trainer for this method, but they also need to be able to effectively communicate. A lack of communication between the lifter and spotter can throw off the rhythm and intensity of the exercise, leading to a lack of effectiveness from the exercise and a higher risk of injury.
More Manual Resistance Tips
Manual resistance training is probably a different form of exercise than what you’re used to, but it’s worth giving a shot. Once you’ve tried it, check you some more training content from BarBend.
- Chulvi-Medrano, I., Rial, T., Cortell-Tormo, J. M., Alakhdar, Y., La Scala Teixeira, C. V., Masiá-Tortosa, L., & Dorgo, S. (2017). Manual Resistance versus Conventional Resistance Training: Impact on Strength and Muscular Endurance in Recreationally Trained Men. Journal of sports science & medicine, 16(3), 343–349.
Featured Image: Perspective Training on YouTube