How to Apply Training Principles to a Bodyweight Only Program

Alright, things are crazy right now and many of us are struggling to maintain our exercise programs due to lack of resources.

For many of you who were members of a fitness facility before the quarantine, this time can be especially hard because you were so accustomed to using certain pieces of equipment to help get you to your goals in the past. Having this stuff yanked from us so suddenly can cause some anxiety as to how we will continue to train in a way that we can still make some actual progress.

Now there is no doubt a plethora of “wods” are being thrown out from various sources that you could pick and choose from in order to move, breath heavy, and get sweaty. And If that is all you are looking to do during this time, then that’s cool and we respect that you’re still finding ways to exercise and have the self-discipline to get it done.

But, if you’re like us and want to see your workouts lead toward some sort of measurable gain, then we must apply a set of universal principles to a planned program.

Principles are universal truths that stand the test of time. And in the case of exercise, they are biological laws.

They transcend the many fads and trends that plague the fitness industry. In exercise, we must have the ability look at programs through a lens of these biological laws and be able to navigate the sea of random workouts in front of you.

So, even in the case of a bodyweight program, we should still be applying some principles to ensure we adapt to the workouts in a way that leads to measurable performance gains.

The main principles we’ll discuss today are:

  • Specificity
  • Overload
  • Fatigue Management
  • Accommodation/Variation


All training in some form or fashion has one goal: adaptation. Adaptation is simply the adjustment of an organism to its environment. This is why your muscles grow and get stronger when you start a new resistance program. Hopefully everyone who trains understands and has given some thought as to what adaptation (goals) they are seeking from their exercise program. Once the proper adaptations have been identified, then we can apply the principle of specificity to our program. Training specificity is actually pretty scientifically straightforward. All it means is that the adaptations we are going to get from training will be specific to the stress we apply. As simple as it may seem, this concept often gets passed over because many people want to improve multiple qualities all at once and although this may work in some cases, it’s much more beneficial to focus your training of one to two qualities at a time.

As an example, if our goal is to improve our aerobic capabilities to run a faster 5k, then only doing short, high intensity sprints, or swimming would be contradictory to that goal. We would need to apply a program with training sessions that specifically stresses our aerobic power through running.



Now, in the context of our bodyweight training program, we’ll be limited in the adaptations that we’ll be able to strive for. But this actually can play to our favor because that means we can apply the concept of specificity even more. With only our bodyweight to work with, we most certainly can work on aspects of our conditioning, muscular endurance, some explosiveness, agility, and speed.

So, let’s say we narrow down our goal to improve muscular endurance. You’ll want to design your sessions to specifically stress the systems and muscle contractions that lead to an improvement of muscular endurance. An example of this would be doing tempo work through your bodyweight movements. Let’s say we are doing 4 sets of 15 air squats, instead of knocking those 15 reps out as fast as you can, we can go 3 seconds on the way down then 3 seconds on the way up which would extend our time under tension for that set to 90 seconds.

Just like everything in training, context is king. There are multiple methods to apply specificity to your training. The big takeaway here is to not be random with the stress you’re applying to your body. Be like a sniper, specifically targeting the qualities that you hope to adapt to and once you have improved there, you can move to the next target.


So, if a specific adaptation is the goal of our training the next principle we have to apply is overload. All this means is that the stress that we apply through our sets, reps, tempos, etc. must be great enough to actually disrupt our normal bodily functions and promote a response. Once again, we have to look at this from a perspective of the program as a whole. Many will take this principle and run with it, doing way too much in a single workout but failing to plan how they might progress beyond that. On the other side, many will not train hard enough for an extended period of time resulting in no change and a waste of time and energy. The entire purpose of most body systems’ adaptive abilities is to better resist disruption. So, once the changes have been made, the next stimulus must be greater than the previous one so that it may produce a similar disruptive effect and thus a similarly large adaptive response.

For our bodyweight program, we want to follow the concept of progressive overload. What this means is that on average, the stress that we’re applying is greater than that of recent training. Going back to our muscular endurance example, let’s say week 1 we do our squats at 4 sets of 15 reps with tempos, well in week 2, we could do 3 sets of 20 reps and try to hold the same tempos. This would give us the same total reps (60) but we would be spending more time under tension in each working set. Another way you could progress this is to simply increase each set to 18 reps giving yourself a moderate bump in each set and an overall increase in total reps (72).

The big key for overload is to start somewhere within or close to the edge of your capabilities and then slowly progress into training that’s beyond that previous capability. So often people are chasing a feeling for the day instead of actual results from their program. A workout can look cool on paper and leave you feeling fatigued and like you accomplished something for that day, but you have to ask yourself where can I progress this to? No one gets meaningful adaptation after one workout, so the concept of “workout of the day” directly violates this biological law of progressive overload.

Stress to progress is the saying for overload, just be smart with it. Plan it in sequential steps and you’ll be on a path to long term training, not just exercise for the day.

Fatigue Management

Now that we understand how overload is needed in order to make a change in the body, the next concept we must apply is going to be how we manage and strategically place that overload. Understanding the concept of overload is great, but it can cause some go getters to seek it out in every session, every day.

The problem with this is that if we are constantly trying to drive ourselves into a state of overload without an appropriate rest period, then our performance will actually decline. Think about this, if I told you to go run a mile as fast as you possibly could and then 60 seconds after you finished, I said okay we are going to do it again and I want you to run it at the same pace. If we just kept doing this, we would see a nice drop off in your performance. Each run would progressively “feel” harder, but you actually wouldn’t be driving an overload stimulus to increase your mile time because you’d eventually be walking it!

Every time you apply a training stimulus hard enough to overload your systems then you’re going to have a drop off in performance from fatigue. When we stop training, we begin a recovery period. This is when the body goes into the process of responding to the training that took place in order to return it back to the normal state. With enough overload the body will actually adapt to a level that is above the previous performance level. This is the goal, people! The problem is, if we place any sort of overload inside of this stress/recovery/adaptation cycle then we will disrupt the processes taking place resulting in another drop in performance.

Now, depending on where you are in your fitness lifecycle, a bodyweight only program may not drive as much fatigue as a heavy and voluminous resistance program. But nonetheless, if you’re overloading through reps, tempos, or density of training, then we’re going to need to manage these sessions. Your goal should be to plan your next session at the top of the adaptation cycle.

This is easier said than done and there are many factors that could affect one’s recovery status. The general idea is to be smart with your overload. We have to get in tune with how long it will take our body to adapt to the stress that we’re giving it. As a very broad-spectrum goal, shoot to separate your similar overloading sessions by at least 24 to 48 hours. Like previously stated, the duration of time between will depend on the level of disruption that workout caused. Higher intensity training sessions should shoot for 48-hour separation like a Monday, Thursday split. More moderate sessions can have a higher frequency such as a Monday, Wednesday, Friday split.





The last principle to look into is going to be that of accommodation. All this means is that if the body is given a constant stimulus, it’ll start to lose a response to that stimulus. What this means for our principles is that we’ll be unable to drive overload. This is not an excuse for “muscle shocking” or “muscle confusion” or any other catchy programming description.

In order to keep accommodation at bay, we need to employ some variation in our training. The concept of progressive overload discussed earlier is a form of variation. By simply manipulating the amount of work you’re doing in each overloading session you’re applying a new stimulus. In our bodyweight only program we don’t need to get fancy. We can apply new stressors in many forms such as total volume, reps per set, tempos, and velocity to name a few. What many jump to is changing the exercise or routine completely. While this is a form of variation, it’s often unnecessary early on. This level of variation can get in the way of certain adaptations to settle and actually take hold in the body. By changing things up too quickly, we’ll be interfering with our long-term progress.

Another thing we need to keep an eye on for variation is that it doesn’t violate our first principle of specificity. Changing things too broadly can interfere with our original intentions for the program in the first place. All variants should be in line with the specific goals of the program. If our goal is to raise our speed and explosiveness, then all variations need to follow in line with the velocity/intensity of the desired outcome.

The big thing here is don’t get too cute. Some of the simplest programs are the most effective. If you’re properly applying a progressive overload approach, then you won’t need much more variation. When you can no longer overload a movement then it’s time to look into other methods that fall in line with the specifics of your program.

There is nothing wrong with exercising for the sake of moving blood, breathing heavy, and getting a good sweat going. Hopefully now though, you understand the difference in general exercising and putting together a training program with a directed goal. These biological laws are your gateway to not only higher performance but also fitness longevity. Randomness is fun every once in a while, but it’ll run its course and when it does, you’ll need this foundation of principles to bring you back to the right path.

Ready to train in a proper program?

If you have any questions regarding your current exercise program or if you’d like to talk to a coach about developing an individualized plan, please feel free to reach out to us. We can help guide you in developing a program that works for you.