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Foundation of Body Weight Exercises – Top Dozen Exercises to Master

Pull-up Push Workout

Whether you are preparing for military basic training, advanced training, or just want to get into shape without using much equipment, you can achieve those goals by practicing and mastering body-weight exercises. There are many variations of the following list of calisthenics exercises that can assist your fitness on either side of the spectrum (beginner or advanced).

The following is a list of some of the most basic exercises that you should practice if you want to perform well at any military training program. Arranging these into a daily routine can vary as well. Some like to do all of the following in one workout, others will split the upper body and lower body and do them on separate days (split routine). You can do a number of repetitions that fit your fitness level, or set a timer and do each exercise for 1-2 minutes in a challenging circuit.

Note: There are a few pictures of these exercises to save space for this article.  Video links are available if you need assistance with technique or understanding what they are.

Push and Pull Section

#1 Regular Push-ups – The pushup is a military, police, fire fighter, sports, and general fitness classic. Mastering this exercise not only builds your chest, shoulders, and arms, but also strengthens your upper back, lower back, hip and thigh muscles. Variations to make pushups harder can be as simple as adding a weight vest or elevating the feet. To make them easier, do the knee pushup version.  The pushup is about 50-60% of your bodyweight in terms of how much you are lifting when you perform them.

Pushup

#2 Parallel Bar dips The dip is considered the heavy weight exercise in pushing calisthenics. You have to lift all of your bodyweight up and leg it down on parallel bars. Some athletes will make dips more difficult by adding weight (belt or vest), and some make them easier with the bench dip where you leave your feet on the floor and vertically push off the seat behind you.

#3 Burpees The burpee is considered a more advanced, full-body version of the pushup. It works the legs, core, upper body, and after many repetitions, it challenges the heart and lungs too. These are hard enough on their own, but many have found a way to make them tougher by adding pullups, or box jumps, or a forward jump. There is no easy burpee until you are conditioned to do them, and even then they are not easy.

#4 Bear Crawls – This is another more advanced full body version of a push exercise. You could call it more of a dynamic plank pose vs the isometric hold of the plank or up pushup position. Adding motion to this position works the arms, shoulders, core, hips, legs and lungs after walking like a bear for a 50-100yd distance.

Pull Section

#5 Pullups (regular grip)The pullup is a heavy-weight exercise in the calisthenics world. There are many grips you can use to create a variety of challenges when doing multiple sets, as well as easier versions if you are striving to get your first pullup. This exercise works the upper back muscles, rear deltoids, biceps, and forearms (grip). Most people cannot do pullups. To build up to accomplishing pullups, try assisted pullups, pulldowns, and negatives to get your muscles used to pulling your bodyweight.

#6 Upper-Back Exercise – Reverse Push-ups – The Reverse Pushup is a pulling exercise designed to help balance out all the pushing that a life in military training requires. This will strengthen your upper back muscles that oppose the chest muscles and stretch the chest and front shoulders.

Reverse pushup down

Reverse pushup up

Core Section

This section is the most important out of all the body parts as you cannot have strong arms or legs without a strong core (back, abdominals, hips, and shoulder girdle).

#7 Sit-ups – The sit-up has come under fire by many in the medical and science community as an ineffective way to measure core strength. But until it changes, you still need to practice sit-ups. The Army does sit-ups with hands behind the head and all the other branches do curl-ups with hands across the chest. Regardless, if you do sit-ups, you also need to balance them out and strengthen the upper and lower back with the following exercises. I prefer the 2 minute plank test, but if we test sit-ups, you have to practice sit-ups and the following to help balance your core.

#8 Lower-Back Exercise Swimmers: The Swimmer is a full backside exercise requiring you to fully flex and move slightly as if you are swimming (flutter-kicking legs as in freestyle stroke). This is an isometric flex of the lower and upper back and a slight movement of the hip and leg muscles in a flexed position.

Swimmer

#9 Plank Pose and Side Plank: The plank, and many variations, is a classic core exercise. The plank is arguably the safest and best axial spine (core) exercise you can do as it works the abdominal muscles, back muscles, shoulder girdle, and hips. You have to be able to engage all of these groups together in order to perform the plank and its variations successfully. Build up to 1-2 or more minutes.

#10 Flutter-kicks – The flutter-kick exercise is another challenging favorite of the military. Adding wet pants and boots make them more difficult. This is considered an advanced core exercise, so build up to adding them to your workout once you are able to perform 1-2 minutes of a plank pose. To be safe, place your hands under your hips (this eases lower back strain). This works the hips, lower abs, and thighs.

Flutter kicks

Lower Body Section

#11 Squats Whether working with weighted squats or higher repetition muscle stamina squats, the squat is a must do exercise that ranks up there with the pushup. Learning proper form will help you increase your hip, knee, and ankle mobility, core strength, and serve as the foundation of movement you need in life. In fact, if I could only do one exercise, I think this one would be it.  Yes – it is that important not to skip leg day!

#12 Dirty DogsThe Dirty Dog is a nickname for a side leg lift that works the glute muscles, specifically the glute medius, which by strengthening can help balance the hip, ITB, and thigh connections. Focusing on good form, try working up to three sets of 30, lifting the knee and ​leg out to the side 90 degrees. (From Special Ops Running Book, the injury prevention section.)

Dirty dog

Obviously, there are hundreds of body weight exercises you can do to improve your fitness at no cost other than time. I feel these particular exercises have been extremely beneficial to my training and longevity whether going through challenging high repetition cycles or moderate maintenance cycles.  These dozen exercises have been my staple for two decades now.

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Contributor

Stew Smith works as a presenter and editorial board member with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS). He has also written hundreds of articles on Military.com's Fitness Center that focus on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career.

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