Many starting workout programs start with bodyweight movements and it is a great place to start to prepare the body for a more rigorous exercise regimen. Body weight exercises teach us how to absorb force using our own mass and be able to handle the forces placed on the body. The beginner needs to be able to strengthen the tendons and muscles appropriately to be able to absorb more force later on to prevent any injuries. Bodyweight training also ensures that the person performing the movements is learning how to properly perform the movement and the form needed. Anytime we add a weight or resistance to an exercise the weight tries to change the position of the body so we first need to learn how to perform it without an external load then we can progress it to a loaded exercise.
In my years as a trainer I have created a checklist that I need clients to check before we can move on. Before we can load certain exercises they must be able to complete reps, and isometric to show me that they can perform the movement properly. The checklist I have made for bodyweight exercises is ability to hold isometrically at the top and bottom maintaining proper form, then the ability to perform 10 reps in that position, the exercises I require are, squat, deadlift, pushup, single leg deadlift and split squat. This is usually accomplished in the first couple of meetings with people as they progress quickly and learn motor control, sometimes there might be a longer phase as we use the exercises.
Adjusting the body to a workout program is a stressful event for the body, and we want it to be to see the adaptations and changes we want. That being said, most of the time using a bodyweight program is focusing on work capacity which is increasing your work week over week. This means that the body is able to handle more volume of an exercise and can tolerate more fatigue, this is the muscle adapting to the demands placed on it. Starting off you might be only able to do 20 reps of pushups total and as you repeat the workouts by week 2 you are able to perform 30 reps, the goal is to build your strength up so you can perform multiple sets of reps. For capacity work on bodyweight I sometimes program total reps of 50 and see the fewest sets the person can do them in. Other methods used in body weight are isometrics, holding in a certain position, here we use the same concepts starting off with a short duration of 3-5 seconds and then building up towards 30+ seconds. Isometrics are great for teaching the body to control itself in certain ranges of motion and be able to sustain it, forcing the muscles to adapt to overcome the force next time you perform. As we go further into bodyweight training and work capacity we take the reps away and add timed sets, how many pushups can you perform in a 30 sec work frame. We are creating preparation for the program that follows and leading into sub max strength. This preparation phase builds the aerobic energy systems as well as strength to provide a base level of fitness so you can keep building on that.
After the bodyweight program we started loading the movements with external loads and performed variations of the lifts. After 4 weeks of a body weight general preparation program we need to progress and add resistance to keep changing the stimulus so the body will adapt. If the stimulus does not increase there is no need for the body to change because it is accustomed to moving a certain amount and it leads to a training plateau and if not accounted for will eventually lead to detraining. Adding weight is the best way to keep increasing the stimulus. This is an increase in strength as the muscles learn and grow the body is able to handle more weight in the movement. In order to increase strength resistance is added, the reps performed also drop starting off with higher rep ranges 12-20 with bodyweight or lighter weights as the weight increases the reps drop. Rep ranges can drop to 5-10 reps to gain strength. The lower rep range allows the lifter to handle more weight and achieve a different training effect.