With the amount of information, we are exposed to it is easy to overcomplicate our training. When it comes to calisthenics it can be quite intimidating because we always see the end product, the very best, but calisthenics is for all levels. There are various forms of calisthenics/ bodyweight training that you can do, based on what your goals are.
It’s important to keep things simple. You need to ask yourself this question “Does my training match my goals?”. I see it so many times that people aren't training specifically for the goals they want, they say they want apples but yet they are planting oranges trees.
This article is meant to simplify calisthenics training, guide you from beginner to intermediate to advanced and show you how all levels can use their body as a paintbrush to create their masterpiece.
GENERAL STRENGTH (BEGINNER TO INTERMEDIATE)
I know the temptation to try and advance as quickly as possible is big, but it will only lead to injuries, massive weakness, burnout and frustration. If you haven’t done this style of training before then start with the basics. Work on the big 6, pull ups, dips, rows, push ups, leg raises and handstand. These are the pillars of calisthenics training because they cover the muscle groups you will be used in many of the advanced skills. Do this for 3-9 months, it may seem long but it is the quickest way to advance. If you skip this vital stage in your development you’ll still have to come back to do it anyway, because the chinks in your armour will show, and progress will slow.
During this phase, the aim is to learn your 1st pull up, for example, then get comfortable with doing 10+ reps, as you progress start implementing different variations of these moves (free beginner calisthenics program “bodyweight student” available. Use this time to improve your mobility and flexibility so that it won't restrict you later. Keep in mind, mindful engagement is more is how to get the best results. As a beginner 3-4 days, 1 hour per session is enough time to put in good and quality work while allowing adequate time for your body to recover.
SPECIFIC STRENGTH (INTERMEDIATE TO ADVANCED)
This is when you start focusing on specific goals, static skills, freestyling, rings routines and more. Choose 2-3 goals to focus on such as the front lever, handstand push ups, muscle up 360’s, 30 pull ups continuously, it really depends on what you want and where you want to take your training.
Design your program in 4-8 week blocks, with your overall training 3-6 days per week. For example, if your goal is the muscle up and handstand push ups, each exercise you choose to do in your program should improve you in some aspect towards reaching those specific goals. For the muscle up you work on specific pulling strength, explosiveness, grip, rotator cuffs and core. Handstand push ups work on specific pushing strength and balance. If it doesn't improve those aspects then eliminate it.
HOW TO BUILD STRENGTH
The word strength is used too loosely in fitness so let's define it. When I mention strength I’m referring to absolute strength (1 rep max) and maximal strength (85% to 90% of 1RM). The stronger you are, the more calisthenics skills you can do. Understand that your body has 3 energy systems that it uses independently or simultaneously to contract your muscles. Creatine phosphate lasts 1-12 seconds and is used for high intensity and demanding tasks such as heavyweight or difficult bodyweight exercises that you can only do for low reps. The glycolysis and oxidative system are used for muscle building, conditioning and endurance. The anaerobic system lasts for 10s-2mins. The aerobic system is low intensity and lasts for a long time, this is your endurance training or daily tasks.
Strength training is heavily taxing on the nervous system so allow adequate time to recover between strength sessions, minimum 24 hrs. Train it 2-4 days per week. Training your absolute strength/ going to failure should be used sparingly to test your current level or to gain that motivational boost. You cannot train like this all the time because your nervous system will not recover between sessions and it will ruin your progress. Instead, train your maximal strength leaving 1 rep in reserve, If you know/ think that you can do 3 reps of an exercise max (eg muscle ups), then all your sets do 2 reps! This builds strength while not overtaxing the nervous system. Train high sets 4-8 and 1-5 rep range, for isometrics (during contraction the muscles don't noticeably change the length and the affected joints don't move) 1-12s, eccentrics (contraction caused by the muscle's lengthening) 1-5 reps, each rep 7 seconds long. Remember if you feel the pump or burn in your muscles you’re no longer effectively training strength.
HOW TO BUILD MUSCLE
“You can’t build muscle with calisthenics” run away from anybody who says that. Your muscles don’t know the difference between bodyweight exercises, weights or a table. It can’t identify whether you’re picking up a 6kg, 20kg dumbbell or bodyweight. Your body feels resistance, how heavy (intensity) and taxing a movement is.
How does the training look? A rep range of 6-12 reps (working at 65%-85% of 1 rep max) is the most effective way to stimulate muscle growth. Instead of increasing the weight, you increase the difficulty of the bodyweight exercises. Choose exercises that are challenging to you in this rep range. When pull ups become easy do a harder variation such as close grip pull ups. Utilise the same muscle building techniques you would do with weights such as mechanical tension, eccentric damage, matabolic stress, push pull splits, drop sets and more.
The current culture wants to create a rivalry between calisthenics and weights when the reality is you can use both. Gymnastics is a bodyweight sport and they utilise weights in their training. Many sports, football, basketball, athletics, use weights to improve performance, calisthenics is the same. Doing weighted calisthenics (weighted pull ups, weighted dips, etc) is a great way to build strength and muscle. Bodyweight exercises and weights are great to train compound movements (multiple muscle groups and joints) and with weights there's a wide variety of isolation exercises (multiple muscle groups and one joint). With isolation exercise you can target certain muscles which is great for improving aesthetics. The lower-body is naturally powerful so bodyweight training can only go so far that's why weighted squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts are excellent for building muscle.
I always say there’s no perfect way to train, it depends on your abilities and goals. Make sure your training matches your goals, and train specifically with them in mind. Train like a powerlifter if you want to do those advanced calisthenics skills. Train like a bodybuilder if you want to be in the best shape of your life. Train like an athlete if you want to be crazy fit.
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