Measuring and Managing Your Progress with Bodyweight Exercises

It’s no secret that we feel that skill development and body control exercises are how you should spend the majority of your training time.

We’ve developed helpful teaching methods for our blend of exercises that have been inspired by martial arts, gymnastics, yoga, and acrobatic skills. Our students and clients have given us great feedback about their gains and improvements and also data for how to adjust and modify the training for their needs.

One of the issues that we’ve heard from people over the years is the seeming difficulty of measuring progress with bodyweight training.

The benefits of bodyweight training are numerous: from increased body awareness and coordination, to strength and flexibility gains in ways quite a bit different from weight and machine training. Moving yourself around in unusual angles and with harder leverages creates strength and flexibility in the best way possible.

You learn to have powerful and graceful control of your body in a lot of different situations.

But measuring progress with bodyweight training isn’t as straightforward as it is with weight training.

With weights and machines, if you’ve added a few pounds or a plate, you know you’ve progressed, but after some time of practicing bodyweight skills there can be a long period of time before you get another repetition. That’s just the way it is, otherwise it wouldn’t be too long until you could do 100 pullups in a row!

Thankfully, there are other ways to measure your improvements and it’s much more than someone yelling at you to do the same thing over and over again until something happens!

3 Ways to Measure Bodyweight Training Progress

There is only one guarantee when it comes to training, and that is:

You WILL improve with consistent effort over time.

That equation never fails, but the key is to ensure your consistent effort is directed toward a particular goal, and your improvement is able to be measured over time.

Improvement doesn’t always have to be measured by increased repetitions or weight load.

When it comes to bodyweight training, after a certain point those metrics aren’t going to apply as well. So, rather than giving up on tracking your bodyweight training progress, you’ll need to look at different measures to evaluate your improvement and make sure you are still on the right track.

There are three main areas of progress you might measure, depending on your goals:

Exercise progressPhysique progressPerformance progress

Again, the most important thing before you can even begin talking about tracking progress is that you are fully aware of what you are working toward at any particular time.

Remember the GMB Cycle Method and choose a measure of progress below accordingly.

1. Measuring Exercise Progress

There are several ways to measure exercise progress, and you can use any one, or a combination of a couple, to test out your success on a particular program or with a particular movement.

Total Training Volume

This refers to how many repetitions (or how much time) you’ve performed in total for the training session.

It can be difficult to add repetitions within each set, though.

For example, you’ve been stuck at a set of 12 max pull-ups and the 13th repetition seems impossible to achieve. A great way to break out of that plateau is to increase the number of sets of pull-ups in order to achieve more total repetitions. Say you’ve been doing 4 sets of 8 pullups, for a total of 32 repetitions. If you change your workout to 8 sets of 5, now you are at 40 repetitions total.

That’s an improved workload, and when performed using an intelligent progression – don’t double your volume every week! – you’ll definitely notice an improved physical work capacity. You will have conditioned yourself to do more with your body with less effort, and that’s always a good thing.

Same Volume in Less Time

This type of measurement of the “density” of your workout has been around for a long time. From bodybuilders to endurance athletes, this type of progression shows you have improved intra-workout recovery capacity.

Simply put, you can do the same amount of work in less time.

Rather than adding repetitions or sets, progressively work to less overall rest periods. If you normally do 5 sets of 30 pushups with a minute of rest in between sets, you’ve improved if you can do those same 5 sets of 30 with 45 seconds of rest.

Alternatively, you can perform the workout by grouping exercises together, rather than doing all your sets of one exercise then moving on to the next one.

For example, instead of doing 5 sets of pull-ups with a minute of rest in between, then going on to 5 sets of dips with a minute of rest in between, you would do a set of pull-ups, rest 30 seconds, then do a set of dips, rest 30 seconds, then pull-ups and so on, until you’ve completed 5 sets of both.

Again, be sure to reduce your rest periods slowly, as this type of progression can be surprisingly stressful.

Don’t feel the need to keep the resting time uniform either, you may start at 30 seconds rest and then rest longer later in the workout if the fatigue is deteriorating your form.

Quality of Movement

This is my favorite way of evaluating exercise progress, especially when we are working on skill development and body control.

You can still track repetitions and resistance (or a leverage progression in a bodyweight skill) but you should place more value on how well you move during those repetitions.

How is your form and technique?How much effort does it take you to do those repetitions of the movement?How slowly can you do the movement? (Slowing movements down can often expose weaknesses in form)

Improved form with less effort in the same amount of repetitions is a definite improvement! In fact, it’s arguably the best type of improvement!

“Make it pretty!” as our fearless leader Ryan likes to say. Graceful and controlled movement wins over a just-barely-made-it repetition every time.

2. Measuring Physique Progress

We don’t emphasize physique changes in the GMB training programs. Though they definitely do occur, our primary concerns are in moving and feeling better and physique improvement is just a nice side effect.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t use these changes as a way to measure your progress.

However, be wary of using your weight on a scale to evaluate improvement.

You can have substantial physical improvements and remain at the same weight for months at a time. The scale is a poor calculation of fitness levels.

Body area circumference measurements, especially at the waist, are good and reliable indicators of change. If your weight stays the same but you’ve lost an inch off your waist, that’s a sure sign that you’ve gained muscle and lost fat.

If you have access to accurate body fat measuring tools, such as Dexa scans, BodPods, or hydrostatic weighing, then going in every two to three months is a great way to track your body fat loss goals. Even a qualified person who can reliably perform fat caliper testing is a good option.

The mirror selfie before-and-after shot is a running joke in social media, but also not a bad way to see improvements. Just make sure to keep the photo conditions the same each time. Location, lighting, clothes, time of day, and your posture can make a big difference in how you look.

3. Measuring Performance Progress

Performance progress refers to the impact your training has on the rest of your life. Therefore, the measurable goals will depend greatly on your individual needs in your daily life.

If you’re an athlete of some sort, performance progress might be measured by increased speed in your sport. For instance, if you’re a football player, you might want to decrease your time to run a 40-yard dash by .12 seconds, and your training reflects that with exercises that support your performance in the 40-yard dash. And all of these add up to further your goal of improved athletic performance.

For the rest of us, improvement in performance is just as important, but will likely have a much different form than an NFL running back.

Improvement in the activities we do every day is really the most important progress measurement of all, but it can also seem like the most difficult to measure. After all, it’s completely subjective, right? Not necessarily.

Your primary performance goal may be something as simple as not getting winded when you climb a flight of stairs. The training you do, therefore, is to support that goal, and the measurement you track might just be the number of steps you’re able to climb without getting winded. If that number increases, you know your training is supporting your goal.

In some ways, this is an easier metric to track when your main training modality is bodyweight exercise. Bodyweight moves, by definition, train your body to move in particular ways. You aren’t just building muscle and getting stronger, but learning to move your body better.

And because most of us don’t move barbells around for a job, this automatically improves how we move throughout our normal day.

Sometimes All You Need is a Change in Perspective

There’s a wide range of goals for exercise training; lose fat, gain muscle, get better at a sport, or just have fun doing stuff, but the common denominator is that we all want to improve ourselves in some way.

Sometimes positive changes will be obvious, especially in the beginning stages of our training, but soon enough those quick gains will taper off and it’s helpful to know about other ways to measure our improvements.

When this happens, take a step back and look at what you are doing in a different way.

Maybe you have to change your program a bit, or maybe you are doing fine and just have to change the way you judge progress.

Be honest in your motivations for training, consistently work toward those goals, and measure progress as best you can. These are the keys to getting what you want.

Just remember to keep your eye on the prize (the prize being whatever your goal is), and track your progress along the way using any of the methods suggested above. Do that and your success is pretty much guaranteed.


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