What Being An Army Ranger Taught Me About Getting Strong Using Only Bodyweight Exercises
SPOILER ALERT: I didn’t write this article.
The closest I’ve ever been to calling myself a “ranger” was when I used to watch Walker, Texas Ranger growing up and pretend to roundhouse kick unsuspecting (and imaginary) bad guys in the face.
Oh, and there was that one time I dressed up as the Green Power Ranger for Halloween.1
I am not, nor have I ever been, an Army Ranger.
I did stay up past midnight the other night, though. That’s kinda badass.
A big “thank you” to ACTUAL Army Ranger, Tom Coffey, for pinch-writing for me today as I make my way to Los Angeles this weekend to present.
Fate whispered to the warrior ‘you cannot withstand this storm.’ The warrior whispered back, ‘I am the storm.’
For thousands of years, before comfortable fitness centers dotted every corner, the world’s greatest warriors relied on a steady dose of bodyweight exercises—from building high levels of superhuman strength, to increasing cardiovascular conditioning, and even developing mental toughness bodyweight exercises accomplished it all.
In the rest of this article I want to briefly share with you what my experience as an Army Ranger taught me about getting strong, using only my body.
Life as an Army Ranger
The life of an Army Ranger is quite busy.
Between endless training and extended “business trips” to lands far away there is often more to do than hours in the day. Yet the job requires a certain level of what we’ll call “real world strength.”
Let me give you an example of what I mean: I weighed about 250 pounds in full military gear (+80 pounds above my bodyweight). Do you think you could also throw on 80 pounds of your own gear, pick me up, throw me over your shoulder, and sprint full out for 100 or 200 yards?
That’s what I’m referring to when I say real world strength.
But, no matter what elite military unit you’re talking about there is always a high premium placed on being functionally strong. Admittedly, as much as possible my Ranger buddies and I tried to workout in an actual gym. However, life liked to throw us curve balls and often times we were in situations with no iron around at all.
But not having access to a gym simply wasn’t an excuse to not workout and get weak. So, how did my Ranger buddies and I keep getting stronger when we didn’t always have access to a gym?
The answer: using the best only gym we had available—our body.
Are Bodyweight Exercises Better for Building Strength Than Barbell Exercises?
Ok, before we dive headfirst into this rabbit hole I know someone is going to ask if bodyweight exercises are better for building strength than barbell exercises.
The word “strength” can mean a lot of different things. And, depending on who you ask you’ll likely get a lot of different answers.
Listen, if you want to get strong AF there’s no arguing that picking heavy shit up and hoisting it over your head is the way to go. Unless you’re humongous, green, and your name is Hulk, you very likely won’t be joining the 1,500 pound club by using bodyweight exercises.
While you probably definitely won’t build world class powerlifting strength with bodyweight exercise, they do offer tremendous value in building real world strength.
Bodyweight exercises strengthen the body and allow you to express that strength in ways which the barbell can’t.
They can humble even the most experienced of lifters.
I’ve seen, with my own two ocular receptors, guys who can easily squat four wheels crumble like dust when attempting a simple pistol squat (one legged squat).
How is that even possible?
Ok dude I get it, but how do you build strength using only your bodyweight?
I’m glad you asked.
And, I’m making the assumption here that you’re stranded on a desert island with no gym equipment in sight. This is only to hammer home the point that you literally need zero equipment to make this stuff work.
Obviously, if you start adding gym equipment back in the mix your strength building options skyrocket.
But, that’s easy.
If you learn how to manipulate your body for strength building purposes you become bulletproof. You can literally get strong from anywhere in the world.
Pretty cool, right?
Anyway, below are four ways you can turn lowly bodyweight exercises into serious strength builders.
Did someone order a serving of humble pie?
NOTE: I chose to demonstrate each of these ideas using the pushup. However, you can apply these principles to any number of bodyweight exercises.
1) Remove a Limb (Or Two)
Removing a limb (or two) creates a very unstable environment. Instability causes your muscles to tense harder, and tension is good for building strength. That’s just good science.
Also Useful For:
– Pistol squats
– Single leg hip bridges
– BW romanian deadlifts
– Free standing handstand pushups…if you dare.
NOTE FROM TG: For those watching Tom perform a 1-arm, 1-leg pushup and thinking to themselves “that’s a whole lotta nope,” I’d encourage you to check out THIS article by Nick Tumminello on how to progress towards it.
2) Remove a Limb, Slow Down the Rep, and Add Pauses
Speaking of tension, another great way to increase it is by slowing down your repetitions. This is also known as time under tension (TUT). Pausing at certain points in the rep ensures that you kill all momentum.
Again, this makes the exercise much harder because you have to be stay tense and in control through the entire rep.
There is an inherent difference between taking 30 seconds to perform 1 pushup vs. cranking out 30 pushups. Try a 30 second (or 60 second) pushup and you’ll see what I mean.
Also Useful For:
– Frog holds
– Human flag hold
– Single arm/leg planks
To be explosive you must be powerful. And power is more or less strength expressed over a very short time. Paradoxically, you must first be strong before you can be powerful. Explosive bodyweight exercises are great for training you to express the strength you’ve built.
Also Useful For:
– Jump squats
– Jump lunges
– Muscle ups
4) The Kitchen Sink Approach
Have you ever opened the drawers under your sink only to find soap bottles, cleaners, yellow gloves, old sponges, bleach bottles, leaky pipes…etc.
I mean, it’s chaos.
The kitchen sink approach is our version of controlled chaos by combining many different strength building elements together. In the video below the spiderman pushup involves using slow reps, removing a limb, dynamic movement, abdominal bracing, and re-distributing weight.
Pro Tip: Make sure that if you’re doing Spiderman pushups in a field with fire ant hills that you don’t unknowingly place your hand directly on top of one. I did this once, and can safely say I’d rather get stabbed by a Nazgul (like twice) than ever do that again.
Desert Island Strength Building Workouts
Ok, now you know how to use bodyweight exercises for strength building. So, my challenge to you is try it.
Below are examples of two ways you can spin basic bodyweight exercises into tough little workouts. And the best part, you can literally do these anywhere, anytime—no equipment needed.
Sample Routine 1- “Destroyer of Legs and Core”
Three rounds of:
5 pistol squats, per leg → Pause for 1 second at the bottom of every rep
8 single leg hip bridges, per leg → After the 8th rep hold the top of the bridge for 8 seconds (ouchy)
Five rounds of:
15 air squats
20 walking lunges steps
8 jump squats
8 jump lunges
Three rounds of:
20 second plank w/ left arm lifted
20 second plank w/ right arm lifted
30 second hollow hold
Sample routine 2- “Pushups Seem Harder Today”
Three rounds of:
3 explosive pushups→ focus on being fast off the ground
Three rounds of:
2 single arm/single leg pushups, per side
Four rounds of:
1 thirty second pushup w/ a leg lifted → take 10 seconds to lower, pause above the ground for 10 seconds, take 10 seconds to raise
*On sets 1 & 3 keep your left leg off the ground
*On sets 2 & 4 keep your right leg off the ground
Building strength is certainly a noble and worthy pursuit of one’s time. Yes, you’ll make the fastest gains when you have access to all the bells and whistles of a fully equipped gym.
However, when life throws you the inevitable curveball and you don’t have access to the iron, it’s an invaluable skill to be able to bust out a strength workout anywhere, anytime.
I appreciate your time, and I hope you enjoyed the read.
About the Author
Tom Coffey is a former Army Ranger, certified nutrition coach, and currently pursuing a master’s degree in Exercise Science.
Due to his last name, he is on a lifelong quest to brew the absolute “perfect” cup of coffee. You can follow Tom’s quest for coffee brewing perfection, or just read more of his other work, over at his blog: https://