Bodyweight exercises and progressions

Tomas HorakinstructionLeave a Comment

Bodyweight exercises and progression

Pull-ups, push-ups, dips, ring dips, hand stand push-ups, all these exercises sound very familiar to anyone who has ever done CrossFit, or any physical activity for that matter. Not only these movements sound familiar, they are also one of the biggest weaknesses and a kryptonite for CrossFitters, who already know how to move decent weights over their heads, or they can squat 100%+ their bodyweight and deadlift twice of it. In CrossFit, one cannot be successful or proficient without mastering the basics, because when they show up in a WOD, they will always remind us, how important they are.

This article is going to take a deeper look at the basic bodyweight movements, which could be divided into two major groups: pulling and pushing movements, and this article is also going to provide few tips how to get better at those exercises.

Pushing movements:

Pushing exercises are any exercises that push weight away from our body, or our body from the ground, rings, or bars. These exercises usually work the pectoral muscles (chest muscles, triceps, and shoulders).

Pulling exercises:

Pulling exercises are movements in which you are pulling the weight towards your body or your body towards a bar or rings. These exercises work the “pull” muscles – the rhomboids (upper back muscles) and the latissimus dorsi (lat muscles). Pull exercises also work the biceps and the back of your shoulders.


Progression and scaling:

Combination of pushing and pulling exercises create an ideal development of upper body strength. But how to develop the strength without being able to do any of the exercises in the first place? Here is when SCALING comes into play. Every movement has its scaled version, which should be used to build the necessary strength.


Pull-ups are a nemesis for many CrossFitters. However, getting better at strict pull-ups will help to get better at kipping pull-ups, butterfly pull-ups, bar or ring muscle-ups, and even at Olympic weightlifting. There are many ways how to scale pull-ups and how to train them:

Ring rows: Ring rows help to develop basic pulling strength without the need to use any additional help.

Jumping pull-ups: Great option to develop the necessary finishing pulling strength to get the chin over bar.

Negative repetitions: Negative repetitions can start with you jumping up the pull-up bar and then trying to descent as slow as possible to create as much stress on the muscles as possible. Negative repetitions serve as a useful addition to any strength building routine.

Rubber bands: Rubber bands help to perform the full movement and get used to the correct technique. Also, they are a great indicator of the progression one is making; moving from thick band = we are getting stronger.

Rope climb: Climbing a rope is an effective exercise to build pulling strength with the help of legs to ascend the rope.

Assisted Pull-up Machine: Pull-up machine (just like the one we have at our gym) can be very useful to build strength in particular muscle groups with isolated movements.

(Handstand) push-ups:

Push-ups or handstand push-ups are a classic example of pushing movement. While normal push-ups can be relatively easy, their variation, like handstand push-up or other pushing movements like ring dips, can be quite challenging. If normal push-ups are fairly easy for you, a good way to get better at any other pushing exercise is going to be doing normal push-ups more often, since they will provide you with a solid pushing strength for other movements. Let’s have a look at scaling options for various pushing exercises.


To progress at pushing movements, push-ups need to become an easy task. A good way to start is to do them on a box. Start at height that is challenging but allows you to do larger sets. As you progress, lower the height of the box, then get on the ground, use ab-mats underneath your chest to scale until a full push-up is manageable.

Handstand Push-ups:

HSPU’s bring a new challenge – being upside down, which puts more pressure on shoulders and arms. A good way to start working on HSPU’s is to start from the ground, getting into “triangle” position, then move your legs on a small height box, then larger box until a full handstand version by the wall is manageable with abmats underneath your head to decrease the depth until a full HSPU is manageable.

Ring Dips:

Ring dips are difficult because they require not only pushing strength but also the strength to hold the rings close together in order to perform the movement.

Support holds: You have to engage every muscle in your upper body just to keep the rings from moving away. Try to hold in as near-perfect hold position as possible. If you substitute a 5-second hold for each dip, you can create a challenging workout that will help you adapt to the rings.

Jumping dips: As with the jumping pull-up, you will be using your legs to overcome the strength deficit. At the easiest level, your feet will still just barely touch the ground in the support position. From here, you squat down until the arms are in the bottom dip position and then jump back up into a support. As the rings get higher, you will need to both jump and push with your arms to get back up to the support.

Negative repetitions: Negative repetitions are good strength exercise for those who can already support themselves on the rings, can control their way down, but just lack enough strength to get back up from the deep position. Basically, you will try to go down into the dip position as slow as possible to create as much resistance as possible.

Ring Muscle-up:

Ring muscle-up is something every Crossfitter wants to have. Even though there is a fair amount of technique and kip involved, strength is also necessary to get your first muscle up. Let’s have a look at some progression tips to get your first muscle up, if you are already proficient in all the movements above.

Transition practice: Transition from the pull to the ring dip is a crucial part of the muscle up, the faster and better your transition is; the easier is to get your muscle up. Jumping transition either from kneeling position, sitting, or standing position is a good way to learn the mechanics and to nail down the speed necessary to get into the dip position. However, to build pulling strength and work on transition at the same time, it is good to choose sitting ring pull up-into dip transition drill with elevated feel to best simulate the muscle-up.

Rowing Muscle-up: The rowing muscle-up is a cool exercise, because it is a very close approximation of a real muscle-up. Start with your feet on an elevated surface such as a box. The move begins just like a ring row, but now, you will also set a false grip, just like with a muscle-up. From the starting position, in a plank below the rings, pull the rings to your chest. Then initiate the transition by curling your whole upper body forward and over the rings. Once over the rings, you simply press (ring dip) up to a support. During the entire exercise, your legs will be pushing down on the box, giving you an extra boost. As you get more advanced, your feet should start out higher relative to your hips.

Getting stronger:

We have gone through progression steps, the question now is, how often should we practice to get better? The general rule is to train bodyweight movements 3 times per week. In classes, we do fair amount of bodyweight exercises in WOD’s or in Skill/Strength portion of the programming. However, if you really want to get better at something, you need to focus on it. Here are some tips:

SCALE DOWN: I cannot stress this enough. It is much more beneficial to scale pull-ups in a workout to ring rows than doing them with multiple bands. Try to focus on the weakness as much as you can. If you see pull-ups in a workout, do not be upset that you have to scale down and that your time or score will not be impressive. Scale down, use the workout as a pull-up progression session, scale down to ring rows, and work on the pulling strength. You need to ask yourself what it is you want more: couple seconds faster time or stronger pull to get closer to your first pull-up? Same goes for HSPU’s, regular push-ups, ring dips. WORK on the basics, scale down, you will see the benefits of it.

Proper form, NO-REP yourself: Only correct form works the muscles the way they should be worked. Make sure you are moving in full range of motion, that your chest touches the ground/abmat/box every time, that you go to a full extension with your arms in pull-ups and ring rows, and that your chin really is above the bar. Be your own judge, be honest with yourself and DON’T SACRIFICE THE FORM FOR TIME OR REPS, it is NOT worth it.

Do extra work: Even though we try to keep the programming as well-rounded as possible, there will always be weaknesses which everyone has to work on individually a little bit more. Spend some extra time at home, before or after every class or during the Open Gym to squeeze couple push-ups in, to do some jumping pull-ups on rigs or some ring rows on rings that are not being used by the ongoing class. The more work you put it, the faster you will see the improvements.

Be patient: Rome was not built in a day and neither will your first push-up/pull-up/muscle-up come after couple of days of training. Be patient, have fun and enjoy the process. At the end of the day, CrossFit should be fun and not an added stress.

I hope that this article will help you to get at least a little bit better at movements that we all used to struggle or are struggling with. If you have any questions regarding this article or anything else, hit me up, I will do my best to help. Working on weaknesses is never fun, most of time it is frustrating and it makes you angry. Try to have fun, trust the process and be patient, if you put in the work, the worst thing that can happen is that you will wake up a little bit fitter.


Improving your pull-ups:

Pull-up progression template:

Gymnastic Training Guide:

5 drills to achieve to help you achieve your first pull-up

Push and Pull:

Scaling Down CrossFit Workouts with Rings:

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