In our last post (PART 2), we looked at the importance of shoulder and wrist mobility for bodyweight athletes.  We also talked about the importance of skills, drills and mastering technique before adding volume and intensity to the training plan.  Honestly, these principles should apply to all athletes, not just bodyweight training.

In this post, we are going to talk more about the value of using external loads to improve bodyweight training and cover some of the red flags we should be watching out for to prevent an injury before it occurs.

6. Why should bodyweight athletes use external loads? 

How often do we see bodyweight athletes utilising other training tools to help improve their upper body strength?  Dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells and cable machines are all excellent pieces of equipment that can and should be added to a bodyweight programme for structural balance and injury prevention.  In the last post (point 3) we mentioned the need for the shoulders to be strong, stable, and mobile, this is exactly where external loads can offer huge advantages.

Readers should remember that one of the greatest injury prevention methods is formal strength and conditioning programs crafted to build tissue capacity. Developing this strength and control is an important step that needs to happen before trying to tackle advanced bodyweight movements.

At the most basic level, an overuse injury occurs when the load placed on the tissue is greater than the capacity of the tissue.  Bodyweight training requires athletes to master their bodyweight, but if the connective tissues are not yet conditioned for bodyweight loads, where do we start?  Dumbbells and barbells can be used to strengthen the connective tissue and build the strength required to perform the bodyweight movements.  We can use sub-maximal loads too slowly build the strength required to master our bodyweight.

We could also mention the term “fatigue injury” where the volume and frequency of the training plan can lead to injury.  A well-structured training programme will often put the most complex and heavy movement at the beginning of the session, to be performed when the athlete is fresh. The following movements are then simpler, lighter and place less demand on the CNS and the muscular system.  Using external loads allows athletes and coaches to select the loads that match the abilities and goals of each individual athlete.

With the correct programme design, coaches can progressively build the load bearing properties of the joints, muscles and ligaments.  In turn, this allows the joints to develop the ability to handle high volume bodyweight loads. Movement such as barbell press, single arm dumbbell press, and Turkish get-ups have a direct carry over to bodyweight pressing movements as they are all open-chain exercises.

At the other end of the spectrum, external loads can be used to improve the strength and power of a bodyweight athlete.  Adding additional weight to body weight movements like pull-ups and dips allows the athlete to increase their levels of strength and muscle endurance.  The stronger you are, the easier it becomes to control your own body weight.

7. Know the red flags

Most importantly, more than any other point in this entire blog series is to catch the problem before it occurs.  Far too often athletes try to train through pain and have the misconception that training more will fix the problem.   They miss the early warning signs of overuse injury and continue to train past the point of return.  Pain is never a good thing, and ignoring the whispers is only going to lead to screams in the future.  Trying to be tough is not the smartest thing when it comes to training through pain.  Trying to tough it out and continuing to push through pain could end in something much more severe (e.g. bone damage).  Whatever happened to rest and recovery? Whatever happened to common sense?

Here are some red flag indicators that we should look out for: 

  • Ongoing pain or stiffness in the joint

  • Muscle soreness or pains that are not D.O.M, typically lasting longer than 48hrs

  • Any kind of clicking, popping, cracking, or joints getting “stuck” when trying to bend or straighten

  • Ongoing or progressing stiffness in the joint, or inability to take the joint through a full range of motion (compared to the opposite joint)

  • Pain or buckling with weight-bearing activities during daily life, or during training

External loads are some of the best tools to combat overuse injuries and build resilience.  Finding the right balance of bodyweight training and external loaded training can be a tricky process and athletes/coaches need to pay attention to how the body adapts from session to session.  Being aware of the red flags and scaling the training volume, intensity, and frequency appropriately can prevent overuse injury and lead to significant improvements over time.

Just like any sport, bodyweight training requires a balance of mobility, technique and strength elements. As a strength and conditioning coach, my main goal is never to injure my athletes, to build resilience and to prevent injury. The athlete who can stay uninjured is often the athlete that will float to the top of their sport because they never need to take time off training due to injury.  Hopefully, the ideas we have shared here question your current training mindset and find a better balance between strength, mobility and technique.