Bodyweight Exercises and Injury Prevention

Despite our recent spate of posts extolling the many and varied benefits of heavy resistance training, I’ve actually been moving away from the weight room for a couple reasons. Foremost is my desire to stay active and as injury-free as possible. While I still wholeheartedly endorse and believe in lifting hard and lifting heavy, at my age I’m starting to realize that the potential for injury – at least for me, personally – is too great to risk spending three days lifting heavy things on a weekly basis. At this point in my life, my motivation is simply different. I’m not really interested in pushing myself to the limit, let alone past the limit (realistically, those days are behind me); I’m instead focusing on maintaining my current performance. It’s almost a Buddhist thing where I’m content with my strength and my body (and have been for a long time now), rather than dissatisfied and constantly striving for more. I also Grok (or “own”) the notion that my diet dictates 80% of my body composition, so I really don’t have to work so hard to maintain muscle mass, strength, power, body fat etc. I’ve touched on this in the past, but a recent email from reader Griffin made me realize a substantial post was in order.

A sample of my basic routine of the last few months goes something like this (you may notice I’m following a version of the basic Primal Workout Plan:


Mondays, I typically Lift Heavy Things, with the “Heavy Things” usually being my own body weight. I still manage to get a complete workout, though; I’m not just doing pushups and air squats. I may not load up the barbells much anymore (unless I want to make sure I still got it – which I do!), but I’ll sometimes contrive to add resistance and make my workouts actual weighted workouts. Okay, so here’s a recent Monday, when I focused on making explosive movements.

Plyometric explosive pushups, five sets of fifteen – Adding a little weight to your back (with a backpack or sandbag) if you want, do a standard pushup and throw yourself up off the floor on the way up as high as you can.

Pull-ups, five sets of fifteen – Mixing your grip up as you go along, perform a basic pull-up; or, perform a not-so-basic pull-up, like a weighted pull-up (in which case I’ll drop down to five reps depending on the weight) or an explosive pull-up, where I throw myself up as high as possible (usually chest height). You can even turn the pull-up into a row by keeping your body as close to parallel to the floor as you can manage.

Jump squats, five sets – Sometimes I add weight, sometimes not; depends on how I feel (which I only know when I get to the gym). Obviously, I do fewer reps if I’ve loaded with a vest or am holding dumbbells.

Kettlebell swings, five sets of fifteen seconds –I want to be sure I explode and use my hips to generate the power and swing the bell directly overhead.

So you’ve got the essential groups engaged: the press, the pull, the squat, and the hips. Nothing too heavy, but the jumping and the explosiveness make for a lot of intensity, and I can add weight if I want to (if Monday’s sprint was especially rough, I’ll usually keep it strictly body weight). I’ll don’t eat before or right after Tuesday’s explosive workouts.


Sprinting. Lately, I’ve been doing my sprints on a stationary bike rather than running. I kinda tweaked my hip a couple weeks back (see, there’s that injury thing), so I use a bike “workaround” until the hip resolves. I’m doing a brief warm-up and then going full tilt at top rpms and top resistance for 40 seconds, with a two minute rest between each sprint until I’ve done five or six. Then a brief cool down. Not that it matters (because we don’t count calories) but the total work done in the 25 minutes I’m on the bike is more than if I’d done it steadily as chronic cardio.


Rest or play. Sometimes rest means going on a hike or for a stand-up paddle, but I always make sure I enjoy these days. Play means play.


HIIT. High intensity interval training. I love and dread these days, because I know I’m going to be done in around fifteen or twenty minutes, but I also know I’m going to stagger away with my butt thoroughly kicked. Anyway, HIIT can take many different forms. You could run Tabata sprints, do burpees till you fall over, or do an assortment of high speed pushups. Anything that gets your body moving and your muscles working at full speed/capacity will get the job done. In the past, I’ve really loved the classic “as many sets of five pull-ups, ten pushups, and fifteen air squats in fifteen minutes” routine, and that’s still great HIIT, but the past few weeks I’ve been messing around with various Tabata intervals. Today, for example, I plan on doing three sets of Tabata exercises (20 seconds full speed, 10 seconds rest, four minutes in total): squats, pushups, pull-ups. A total of twelve minutes long, and I’m already sucking wind in anticipation.

Last week I experimented with a new one: 150 reverse rows (VIDEO), 150 pushups and 150 unweighted squats for time. I did as many reverse rows as possible until I couldn’t do another, then rolled over and banged off as many pushups as possible, then stood up and did speed squats and then repeated the process until I had hit all my numbers. I guess the toughest part was keeping track of where I was on each exercise, but it was a bear.


Rest, play, or move slowly. I’m usually ready for a break from pushing, so these are more often than not pure rest days.


This is my long, slow, easy aerobic day. I usually go for a 90-minute hike in the hills. I do it wearing minimalist shoes, typically my FiveFingers or my FeelMax Pankas. If not that, I might paddle or go for a mountain bike ride.


I look forward to Sunday with the most anticipation. My gang (can I say that living in LA? Oh well) gets together for a 90-minute pick-up game of Ultimate. It’s the most fun I have all week and certainly calls into play all that strength, speed, agility and endurance I have been building all week. As I have said often, one of my personal goals is to make my Primal movement as play-oriented as possible.

Is it For You?

I’m fine with bodyweight training because I’m fine with my current physical makeup. If I wanted to pack on muscle or make strength gains, I would probably get under a heavy bar. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend bodyweight routines for everyone, but if you’re getting up there in the years and you’ve had injury issues, try them out. I’m still able to put up some decent weight when I try – not my all time 1 rep maximums, of course, but good enough. I can still do a ton of pull-ups in a row, I can still run sprints fast, and I have the confidence to face any situation – sport, physical obstacle – that might befall me. Need a tree climbed, a stranded cat rescued? Not a problem.

And really? Bodyweight training is more sustainable for more people. I know we get a lot of elite athlete and young adult readers (with their amazing ability to recover from heavy workouts – ah, I remember those days!), along with some CrossFit devotees, but they’ve already found their way. The above routine and my other suggestions for effective bodyweight exercises are realistic for anyone. Anyone could do at least a rough approximation of my workouts without risking injury, and most of my exercises can be performed in a hotel room or a park with a jungle gym. Also, I understand that women are often reluctant to hit the heavy weights. Though I fully endorse similar strength training plans for men and women, if you’re easing into a strength training program or just aren’t ready to jump into the squat rack just yet a bodyweight routine is a satisfactory alternative.

Bodyweight exercises are also sustainable because they reduce injuries. You can’t sustain steady exercise with missing cartilage or a chronically sprained ankle, can you? Of course, I’m not suggesting that weighted resistance training causes injuries; I’m merely suggesting that improperly performed weighted resistance training causes injuries. Bad form leads to injuries, as do people way in over their heads with too much weight. Bodyweight exercises, on the other hand, tend to be very forgiving of form (note, though, that good form promotes proper muscle activation, so it remains incredibly crucial regardless of the weight used) and involve relatively low weight, which takes care of both issues. That’s why I made the switch, at least: injuries were nagging me more and more frequently, and I realized that regularly lifting heavy weights at my age with my injury history (not to mention all those wear-and-tear years of running mile after mile) was just asking for trouble. I just couldn’t risk the punishment of injury. Downtime is my mortal enemy, and every minute of every day is precious to me. Honestly, I do sometimes miss the thrill of pushing, pulling, pressing, and squatting heavy weights, but not enough to compromise my quality of life.

The Primal Blueprint is about longevity, health, and vitality, but it’s also about lifelong functional fitness and power-to-weight ratios. Once you Grok that notion and internalize it, you realize that quality of life is everything – after all, what use is functional fitness if you’re injured half the time?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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