How To Train To Failure With Just Your Bodyweight

Fail, rest, repeat — the training formula you should add to your routine.

You haven’t been able to get any at-home equipment. You know approaching failure is a powerfully effective way to stimulate muscle growth. You’ve gotten better at bodyweight workouts throughout quarantine, and the sheer amount of reps it takes you to have an effective workout is getting more than a little cumbersome.

How can you train to failure with just your bodyweight, while not forcing yourself to do a thousand reps a day?

Why (And When) You Want To Hit Failure

If you’re doing bodyweight work because you’re used to lifting heavy weights, but no longer have access to them, you might have a tough time eliciting a strong response from your muscles with just your bodyweight. Sure, it might stimulate some strength and growth at first (perhaps at the start of quarantine) if you’re not used to the mechanics of bodyweight movementsm but just like with any training, the same old stimuli will break down eventually, and there will be a need to up the ante to continue seeing improvements.

Enter training to failure. It can help maximize the body’s ability to recruit as many of muscle fibers as possible. Normally, you’ll have more than a little iron to help that process along, so you don’t need to (nor should your) train to failure very often. However, with bodyweight, making sure sets consistently place enough stress on the body to maintain strength will often involve hitting failure (or stopping just a hair shy of it).

With weights, training this way is extremely taxing on the nervous system and requires a load of effective recovery in between sessions. It’s still no walk in the park with bodyweight, but the strain on the body is likely to be physically a bit less. That said, there should still be a special emphasis on recovery when training to failure, so make sure you’re doing it when you can — prioritize sleep, mobility work, and nutrition.

How To Get A Hard Enough Workout With Just Your Bodyweight

It’s not just about hitting a certain number of reps. In fact, if you prescribe how many reps  do per set, you might be underselling yourself and your muscles. Sure, 4 sets of 8 might be more than plenty for back squats, but with bodyweight squats, that scheme probably won’t do much for you.

How do you up the intensity without just doing endless, mindless bodyweight squats?

Fail, Rest, Repeat

This doesn’t mean overtaxing your body every single day, and it’s not a call to tough it out when your body needs to rest. It’s a formula.

The formula goes like this: say the max number of diamond push-ups you can currently do in a set is 15. Do those 15, then while maintaining good form, try to knock out another rep. If you can’t, you’ve reached failure.

Take a 30 second rest and go again. See how many you get — the number doesn’t have to be pretty, but your form does. 30 seconds isn’t a lot of time, so if you can only hit between 2 and 4 reps in that second set, it’s okay. Jot down that number.

Rest 30 seconds, and do it again. Keep your rest periods as consistently short as you can, until you’ve hit reps equal to double your initial sets. For example, if you hit 17 reps in the first set, repeat the process until you hit 34 reps (starting the count at the second set).

1 1/2 Reps

You might be used to doing weighted 1 1/2 rep squats. The principle with bodyweight training is the same. For example, when doing Bulgarian split squats using a stable chair as a makeshift bench, sink down into the lowest split squat your limb length and flexibility allow for, come halfway back up (rise, but don’t bounce), then go back down again.

After you go all the way down, half way up, and back down again, can you return to fully standing — that 1 1/2 rep counts as a single rep. This rep scheme is particularly fun with Bulgarian split squats, lunges, and push-ups of all kinds.

Slow It Down

Integrate some tempo training if you want to bring your bodyweight program to a new level. Focus on the eccentric portion of each lift and really dial your mental focus in on contracting the muscles on the concentric end of the move.

Remember, tempo training — including pause reps and negatives — isn’t just about how many seconds your reps take. It’s about slowing it down mentally, too. For bodyweight training to be most effective, you’ve got to focus in on each movement as it happens, on each sensation in your body on every rep. That amount of mental concentration will do wonders for your ability to get maximum effectiveness out of tempo training your push-ups.

Speed It Up

Speed reps sort of explain themselves — perform reps of an exercise as quickly as possible with good form. Don’t want to just toss your body around and use constant, bouncing momentum to get from rep to rep. Be deliberate and intentional with each movement. Move quickly and powerfully, but not clumsily or inefficiently. 

Think about trying to get as explosive as plyometric work, without actually jumping off the ground. While speeding from rep to rep, concentrate on really taking these moves into a full range of motion. If doing split squats for speed, for example, don’t sacrifice range of motion so that you can get in those two extra reps. The bigger your safe range of motion, the better your strength gains.

Image via Shutterstock/Paul Aiken

Get Explosive

Ah, yes — plyometrics. Think jump squats, tuck jumps, split squat jumps, and clapping push-ups. They recruit so many more muscle fibers than exercises would without the explosive nature, so reaching muscle exhaustion is more efficient. Make sure to include enough effective recovery between plyo sessions — even with just bodyweight. These can put a beating on joints, so make sure to give yourself the recuperation you need.

Learn A New Method

If you’re never heard of animal flow, go try it. If you have yet to unleash the power of shadow boxing, find an online class. Haven’t done yoga in three years? Break out the mat and yoga block. Any training style you’re unaccustomed to can make you stronger in ways you may not expect, both mentally and physically.

Get out of your comfort zone for this one. You might find that failure in activated beast (seriously, go learn animal flow) a lot faster than you do with a regular plank. You might discover that holding yourself in down dog for who knows how many breaths is a lot harder than yogis make it look. Try something new and retrain your body to remember what it feels like to grow from a new form of fitness.

Fail Without Doing A Thousand Reps

You don’t have to do rep after endless rep to get in solid bodyweight training. Play with speed, get creative with reps styles and tempo, and always keep form perfect. Follow the fail, rest repeat formula to really get the most out of equipment-free lifting.

Feature image via Shutterstock/Paul Aiken.