How to progress from an easier body weight exercise to a harder one.

girl doing push-ups

When we first pick an exercise we want to do, we might not be strong enough to do it. Let’s take pull-ups for example. When I first started trying to do them, I couldn’t. Therefore, I had to start with an easier version and work my way up.

But, one of the issues I encountered was, when did I progress to a harder version of the exercise. I tried a bunch of different ways until I stumbled on what I think is the best way. First I’ll go over the two common ways for progression.

High reps (either 1 set or multiple sets)

The first way to progress is to set a high rep goal. Once you reach that goal, you begin the harder version. A high rep goal is somewhere between 30- 50 reps.

I don’t do this type of progression. Why? Because doing reps that high don’t usually carry over to the harder version of the exercise. Because you can do 50 pushups on the wall, doesn’t mean you will be able to do even 15 pushups on your knees.

But, the inverse is usually true. If you can do 50 pushups on your knees, then you can do 50 reps on the easier version. Makes sense right. The easier version should in fact, be easier.

Adding a rep every workout

You’ll see this one a lot out there. If you can only do 5 pushups, you’re told to add another pushup on your next workout making it 6 reps. Then on your next workout add another rep, making it 7. Keep doing this until you reach the progression target, and then move onto the next harder version.

Well, I have news for you on this one. If you can only do 5 reps. It’s not that easy to add 1 rep each workout. Those of you that have tried, might agree. You might stall before you reach the target progression because you are pushing your body to the max. This taxes the central nervous system hard.

For all you guys out there that like numbers, let’s look at the percentages. Let’s say, during a pushup you’re pushing 70% of your bodyweight. That means if you weigh 180#, then you are pushing around 130#. Therefore you can push 130# for 5 reps. Then on the next workout you want to add 1 rep. That’s an increase in work of about 20%.

That’s similar to adding 26# to your bodyweight and then doing that for 5 reps. How many people can add 26# to an exercise after 1 session? Not many.

On the other hand, if you can do 30 pushups and add a rep, the numbers look like this. An increase of 1 rep would be an work increase of 3.33%. At 130#, that is equivalent to adding 4.33 pounds to your body and still doing 30 reps. That’s a lot more doable, wouldn’t you agree?

Now, these formulas aren’t exact, but I’m using it to make a point. An increase of 1 rep is a big increase when your reps are low and not so much when your reps are high.

How I progress to a harder exercise

What I have found to work the best, when trying to progress to a harder exercise, is to do multiple sets of the exercise and increase the reps, over time. While still working towards a progression goal. This is similar to a double progression system.

Because of the large jump in weight between bodyweight progressions, I keep the reps in the medium range (7-10) before prgressing. Let’s take the previous example again. You can only do 5 pushups max.

Then, you would do 1 warm up set, 1 medium set, 3 work sets of 3 reps / not 5. The work sets would be push-ups, the medium set would be push-ups on your knees and the warm up set would be push-ups on the wall. On the warm up and medium sets rest only as long as you need to. For some 10 seconds is enough. On the work sets rest at 30 seconds-1 minute

Because you’re doing 3 reps instead of 5 you can do more total work by doing 3 work sets. Now I would say at this stage you are working max strength, so try to limit your max strength work to either twice a week or once every three days.

Once you can do the full 3 sets of 3 without struggling, add a 4th set of 3 reps. And once you can do the 4 sets of 3 reps without struggling add a 5th set of 3 reps. By this point you should now be able to start off doing sets of 4 or 5 reps.

Start all over again with 3 sets of 5 reps. Once 3 sets of 5 reps feels easy, add a 4th set and then a 5th. When you can do 5 sets of 5 reps add 2 more reps and start over with 3 sets again.

So you will end up with 3 sets of 7 reps. once 3 sets of 7 reps is easy, add a 4th then a 5th set. Once 5 sets of 7 feels easy, move to the harder version of the exercise, starting at 3 sets of 3 reps again.

If you feel it wasn’t time to progress yet, then feel free to start all over again at 3 sets of 10 reps.

It can take some time to get stronger on the bodyweight stuff, but don’t give up. Rome wasn’t built in a day. Try not to feel like you should be able to lift you’re entire bodyweight if you’ve never done it before. Give you body time to adapt and grow stronger.


credit: push ups


You might also like:

Leave a Comment