Updated: Jul 19
My fitness journey started years ago with me running up and down the street and lifting weights in
my mom's garage while reading Arnold's Encyclopedia to Bodybuilding. I was sixteen years old. For the next eighteen years I got very comfortable lifting weights and doing cardio but whenever I was presented with a body-weight challenge such as a muscle up or handstand push up, I realized I had little to no control of how my body moves itself. It wasn't until a few years ago during the 2020 pandemic that I began to get very interested in body-weight training and had all day to learn about calisthenics in the comfort of my living room.
Within weeks of challenging myself to do levers, handstand push ups, and single arm pull ups I noticed my body change in ways I always wanted it to change. Not only was I moving better but my muscles looked and felt bigger, longer, and more defined. The greatest difference I noticed between how I was training before to how I was training then was how much I failed during the calisthenics workouts. I couldn't cheat my way through the exercises, nor could I lighten the load and do reps mindlessly. Every rep and every set required my full attention and effort.
The goals weren't to lift a certain amount of weight or to get "abs". The goals revolved around acquiring body-weight skills and they often take months or years to develop. For example, I've been regularly training for a single arm pull-up for over two years. I've been close to pulling some off but still nowhere close to an ability to perform them at will.
When the pandemic settled and business opened back up and I had to go back to work. Then I had to figure out how to manage training so many hard skills with less time and energy. Regardless of the time, goals, or energy there have been five principles which I found to be super helpful in guiding calisthenics training.
1: Stick To The Program
One of the biggest pitfalls I find myself encountering is getting bored or frustrated with a program that I spent weeks trying to refine. I see progress from one session to the next but the moment where I notice a change in that progress I abort the mission and go back to the drawing boards. This may seem like a natural response for anyone. Why bother pushing through if something stopped working? A problem is that it doesn’t give you an opportunity to notice other variables that may be influencing your performance. Such variables may include that energy of the day, time of day, nutrition going into the workout, activities prior to the workout, things on your mind, et cetera.
If I look at the bigger picture of my training timeline and see where I was when I started compared to where I am now there is a noticeable difference in performance. The issue is that if I look at it week by week then I don’t feel any closer to my goals such as a one-arm pull up or a single-arm handstand. The reason there is an overall increase in performance over an extended period of time (~ 2 years) is because my training revolved around the same goals week in and week out. The reason I wasn’t seeing steady progress was that I kept changing my programming the moment I had a crappy workout.
Since I heard a young YouTuber say “Stick to the f...ing program!” in an Eastern European accent on his one-arm pull journey it’s stuck like a mantra. I’m a CSCS and a CPT so I feel confident in my ability to program workouts. If a training client got bummed because he didn’t do as well in one workout does that mean I throw out the whole routine? No. Calisthenics is a different beast which isn’t touched upon at all in most personal training or athletic coaching programs, yet it isn’t rocket surgery. Since I’ve started sticking to my 4-6 week programs I’ve noticed my overall gains escalate at a higher rate. I stopped paying attention so much to my weekly gains and concentrated on whether or not I feel better doing the movements I prescribed myself in my programming.
Give yourself a training period (e.g. 4-6 weeks) and just consider it an experiment. Don’t lose your focus in the data because that inhibits your view of the true results of your experiment. There’s plenty of time to train and reprogram so what have you got to lose? Give yourself that commitment and I’m pretty confident you’ll see progress.
2: Skills First, Then Strength
Speaking of programming, one of the more important variables to consider is the order in which exercises are performed. A general rule of thumb in any sort of athletic training program is to do the most intense, complicated, and explosive movements first before moving on to other exercises. You gradually work your way through your workout towards more isolated movements. A footballer, for example, may start his workout with power cleans and end it with seated leg curls.
When it comes to calisthenics it's not that much different except it’s not barbells and dumbbells being lifted, it’s body-weight. Working with body-weight requires more work from our proprioceptive and coordinative systems. If we are to program a calisthenics workout then the work that is most challenging for these systems should be placed first in a workout, after a fitting series of warm-up exercises. If you are working on handstands for example, then you should aim to practice handstands at the beginning of your workout instead of at the end. You want the most energy for doing what it is you ultimately want to do.
Even though there are some benefits to training a complex motion after per-fatiguing the muscles supporting that motion, it too often promotes the formation of bad habits. One of the only times that makes sense to me is when you want to train endurance or run a test of your willpower in pushing through limitations just for the sake of the push. If you’re just simply looking to enhance your skills, have a fun workout, and develop a strong body then by all means train the more advanced stuff when you’re at your best.
3: It’s Like Butter, It Taste Better When It's Spread
As a person who got into training through a bodybuilder’s mentality I still think of each day of the week as being specially reserved for hammering away at a certain muscle group. This gives them an entire week to recover from a 2-3 hour training session. At least that’s how it was for my training after reading Arnold Schwarzenegger's Encyclopedia to Bodybuilding when I was a teen looking to get into shape. The main difference between Arnold and myself that I was naive to the fact those were workouts from a guy who made a living on lifting and having big muscles. I just wanted to be fit and strong for mixed martial arts. The two to three hour training sessions did lead to some strength gains but overall I felt tight and stiff. When I’d go to the MMA gym I didn’t have any power left and spent most of my training learning how to defend myself on low energy reserves. If you can imagine a bunch of US Marines wrestling an oversized baby seal then you’ll have an accurate image of my first year of MMA training.
As I became interested in acquiring more skills than looks I realized very quickly that I couldn’t fit all these things into a week. I also couldn’t get by hammering away at my muscles on different days and expect myself to bounce right back into hand-balancing. The same naïveté exists here as it did in my days training with Arnold’s manual in that I think I could train a single skill for 2-3 hours on the regular. The truth is I am again comparing myself to guys who do this stuff professionally and, unless I’m earning an income from it, I can’t donate so much time to single sessions. There are rare moments on days off when I get to play with skills for an extended duration yet the workouts are more like chill sessions where I try something for a minute and walk around, stretch, tinker, and chat for the next five.
It makes better sense to me to spread out my skills throughout the week in mini-sessions. Four days of thirty minute handstand sessions feel a lot more potent than one two hour session. You may at first need to rest a bit more in between sessions when starting out, yet with body-weight skills such as these the real challenges are coordinative. Coordination is something you can develop every day of the week and the more regular you are with your training the easier it will become. Regularity and frequency of training is what differentiates an amateur from a professional. When your focus is on building muscle or strength as opposed to a skill, then 48-72 hours or more of rest is indeed necessary since the goals there are to break down tissue, shock the nerves, and stimulate physical growth. The trick is in making your training a seamless part of your everyday life.
4: Keep It Simple
This is another lesson I’m having trouble learning though it’s becoming clearer as I change my approach towards achieving my goals. The transition from a bodybuilding style of weightlifting to calisthenics has been an interesting one. At first there was some degree of synthesizing the two and now I’m finding less and less use of isolated resistance training. I still meander over to the machines every now and then for warm-ups or on days when I’m too sore to balance on my own two feet. I don’t rely on them though and if they’re taken up at the gym and have no problem finding something to do on the floor as a substitute. Floor exercises are also probably more beneficial overall and I’m just ever resistant to doing them for whatever reason.
With the transition period I found myself trying to program a calisthenics workout like a bodybuilding routine. I realized quickly while trying to match with my body what I wrote down on paper that I was overly ambitious with my prospective workout. Arnold used to show how he’d work a muscle in as many different directions as possible. This usually translated into something like an incline, decline, and flat version of a movement such as a bench press. I felt a similar need to do that with things like push-ups and pulls yet I found myself not having a lot of energy for the exercises. If my goal is to do a one arm-pull up then why would I want to add a bunch of overhead pull varieties into the mix. If anything that’s going to detract from my ability to skillfully train for the one-arm pull up. A more logical option would be to train modified versions of the one-arm pull up for the same amount of volume as I would if I added in a bunch of other overhead pulls.
Here’s an example of what I mean and below you’ll see the difference between a body-building/calisthenics workout and a calisthenics workout:
Assisted Single Arm Pull Up (5 sets - 1-5 reps)
Neutral Grip Pull-Down (3 sets - 8-12 reps)
Back Hyper-extension (3 sets - 20 reps)
Single Arm Row (4 sets - 10 reps)
Lat Pull-down (3 sets - 8-12 reps)
Reverse Hyper-extension (3 sets - 20 reps)
Machine Row (3 sets - 10-20 reps)
Dumbbell Biceps Curl (3 sets - 10-20 reps)
Assisted Single Arm Pull Up (6 sets [2 sets - 3 reps, 2 sets - 2 reps, 2 sets - 1 rep])
Assisted Single Arm Pull Up (Negatives) (5 sets - 1 rep)
Inverted Row (4 sets - 6 reps)
Body-weight Curl Up (4 sets - 6 reps)
Weighted Hyper-extension (3 sets - 8-12 reps)
Weighted Reverse Hyper-extension (3 sets - 8-12 reps)
I didn’t say this was an exact science but I think you can see what I mean when I’m talking about keeping the workouts simpler and more focused. Your muscles are going to grow either way and why not encourage them to grow in a way that supports more skills than “picking things up and putting them down.” This isn’t to suggest removing weight training entirely. I think there is some crossover in weightlifting to calisthenics with compound lifts such as overhead presses, squats, and dead-lifts. The important thing is to maintain balance in volume and intensity. If that’s difficult to envision in your programming then consider more of a percentage breakdown. If you want to get better at body-weight exercises then your workouts should be composed of a greater percentage of body-weight exercises than not. For example, my own training has transitioned from about a 75/25 split where 75% was weights and 25% was body-weight to now being about an 80/20 split where 80% is body-weight and 20% is weights.
5: Everything Will Come In Time...Lots of Time
I hinted towards this point earlier with sticking to the program but I’m not just talking about a meso-cycle, nor am I talking about a macro-cycle. I’m talking about years of training and adaptation. A lot of the people you may see picking up a skill in 30 days or within a period of months have some sort of training background. The more advanced skills are acquired quickly through people with more advanced backgrounds. This is even more true if they practiced some form of body-weight training in their developing years such as gymnastics or martial arts. Even after years of being away from these activities such people may find it easy to get back into the motions because their bodies have a memory both in the physical structure and in the nerves of how to perform such activities.
With that in mind it's a common thought to think that if you didn’t practice these things as a kid then you’re pretty much screwed going into them as a fully formed adult. Though the factor of physical development is a real one to consider it still boils down to how much total time in your life have you dedicated to practicing a skill. People say musicians like Beethoven and Mozart were prodigies yet they lived, breathed, and played music endlessly throughout their lives. Your handstand may not ever look as natural as Simone Biles’, but if you’re strong and healthy you’ll find a way to make it work for your body.
I’ve been really focusing on calisthenics goals for a few years now and though I’m not at where I want to be, I’ve come a long way. Looking back my strength has significantly improved and not just in body-weight training but in my lifts as well. Again if I concentrated on weekly progress I’d lose sight of this progress and just feel the failure of not being where I want to be, even after years. The body takes time to adapt to the changes in its functional demands. I just achieved a full side split a couple of weeks ago, after two years of regular work. As a teenager I was trying to achieve the same thing with nightly sessions for months. After a few months I didn’t get to my full splits and so I gave up trying. Even though I gave it up over a decade ago I think that initial training remained in my body’s tissues for when I would try it again. Now at 37, I’m more flexible than I was than I was in my teens when that seems counter to what a majority of people would believe. We associate nimbleness and flexibility with youth, yet youth doesn’t have to be a symptom of time.
Getting better at calisthenics requires more changes in fascia, ligaments, and tendons than it does in the muscles themselves. These structures take longer to get stronger than muscles do because they have greater concentrations of connective tissue which takes much longer to adapt to change. Cellularly speaking our bodies die and reproduce themselves completely every 7-10 years. Some cells reproduce faster than others such as the difference between skin cells and bone cells. We’re literally walking Wolverines yet it may not feel or be as magical as in Marvel. That said, there’s no reason to think we’re stuck with what we have. The only thing that gets stuck is our mentality around our potential to change. The bad news is we’re getting older either way. I’m going to be 40 in a few years. The good news is that we can choose where we’ll be as we age. I can choose how I want to be when I’m 40 and I can start manifesting those choices now and my body will grow to support my intentions as best as it can.
- Noel L. Poff