HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR CALISTHENICS TRAINING
Updated: Feb 8
FIND THE RIGHT FORMULA FOR YOUR CALISTHENICS PROGRAMMING, AND SUBSEQUENTLY DEVELOP YOUR STRENGTH AND SKILLS TO THE NEXT LEVEL.
Calisthenics is taken from the Greek 'Kalos/'κάλλος' (beauty), & 'Sthenos'/'σθένος' (strength). The bodyweight discipline walks the line between sport and art, and consequently requires a unique type of dedication, perseverance, and consistency. A well designed programme will facilitate success, and this article will help you create that.
STEP 1; WHAT LEVEL AM I AT?
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume you're either a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced.
If you're elite then you probably shouldn't be on my website.
BEGINNER: New to Calisthenics, relatively new to the concept of training, but not inexperienced with bodyweight exercise.
BEGINNER SKILLS/THE BASICS: Ability to hang on a bar for +20s, can hold a deep squat, hold a plank, and train for an hour without checking your phone.
INTERMEDIATE: Experienced with Calisthenics, and with consistent training on the whole. Body adapted to training 4-5 days a week minimum
INTERMEDIATE SKILLS/THE BUILDERS: see builders: 5-10 strict Pull Ups, 10 strict Push Ups, Holding a Frog Stand for +30s, consistent handstand development (almost balancing for 15s+) working towards levers
ADVANCED: Several years of Calisthenics practice underneath you, maybe even moving towards weighted Calisthenics training. Your body is prepared and used to training 6 days a week of high intensity athletic training, and you understand the principles of physical overload & adaptation, meso/macrocycling, and the bio-mechanical knowledge required for successful progress.
ADVANCED SKILLS/THE BOLLOCKS: Owning a minimum 3/5 of the big moves (Handstand, Planche, Muscle Up, Flag, Levers (F/B),
ELITE; Not covered here. Give me a few more years and hopefully I'll be there.
STEP 2; WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DEVELOP?
CHOOSE YOUR SKILLS!!
I always say focus on developing just 3 skills. Better to be awesome at three moves than shite at 7...
Pick the moves you want to learn (see the pic below for a non-exhaustive list)
example beginner skills:
20s Side Plank
Get your first pull up
10s Frog Stand
20s Wall (facing in) handstand
10s Tuck Lever hold
10 strict Diamond Push Ups
20s Free Handstand hold
Bar Muscle Up(s)
Flag Hold (10s)
Once you know which moves you want to bag, you'll need a weekly training plan to help you chase the dream...
STEP 3; HOW MUCH TIME CAN YOU DEDICATE?
A GOOD Calisthenics sessions takes as long as is necessary to improve. But as a rule 30mins minimum (single skill focus), and 90m maximum.
1 x a week: Little to no progress (very slow)
2 x a week: Slow progress
3 x a week: Steady progress
4 x a week: The sweet spot for development for beginners
5 x a week: Ideal for breaking from beginner-intermediate
6 x a week: Athlete
7 x a week: Knob
Once you know how much time in a week you can dedicate, write on your calendar which days you are going to train.
Make a deal with yourself to stick to the plan, and don't let yourself down!
The best training plan is the one that you stick to. Be consistent!
STEP 3: CHOOSE A TRAINING PATTERN
In other words, what sort of exercises do I do on what day, or how do I arrange my workouts throughout the programme?
There's a lot we could cover here, but instead of boring you to death I'm just going to list a few tried and tested workout splits for you to chew over.
PUSH: PULL: LEGS
My all time favourite. Interspersing PUSH moves (handstands/dips), PULL moves (levers, pull ups), and leg moves (Pistol Squats, Deadlifts etc) across an evenly loaded workout frequency.
UPPER : LOWER
A simple split, great for those with less time and a need to fit more into a single workout, or if you're onto your umpteenth mesocycle and looking to increase the overall load.
SKILL SPECIFIC SPLIT
Some of my clients have had great results adopting a skill specific split, and dedicating each session to just one skill. For example Handstand training on Mon/Wed/Fri, and leg training Tue/Thu (or similar).
The advantage of this routine is the technique mastery and understanding gained through single exercise focus. More moves often equals less quality.
Not my favourite but I'm open to rethinking my preferences here. The trouble with a full body workout is you generally need 1-2 days to recover in between or you just won't improve performance. Full Body workouts are great in their own right, but in the context of training I find it far more beneficial to break the body down into individual sections to develop (so long as you maintain muscular balance & link the sections together adequately).
STRAIGHT ARM : BENT ARM
Many Calisthenics skills can be neatly divided into straight arm/bent arm skills (ie: Levers/Muscle Ups). There are specific muscular advantages gained through adopting this pattern, however I personally recommend adopting a Push/Pull split, over the Straight Arm/Bent Arm split, due to it's efficacy in my own (and clients) training.
There's plenty more viable splits, sport-specific, vertical/horizontal push/pull training, hell you could even go Left/Right side of the body for the laterally divided among us (I wouldn't recommend it). But either way, choose one, write it down, move on.
WHAT ABOUT LEGS LT DAN?
One of the fundamental flaws of Calisthenics is its distinct lack of leg dominant exercises. Spend too long walking on your hands and you'll have the shoulders of Arnold Schwarzenegger with the legs of Lieutenant Dan.
My lesson here is to train legs to a similar volume as the upper body (for me that's 3 x p/w), interspersed between upper body workouts, so while the arms rest the legs work, and vice versa.
The pistol squat is about the only Calisthenics leg exercise worth noting here, and is well worth developing!
But where possible keep the legs strong with weighted exercises such as the barbell squat, deadlifts, and hinges.
Select a training split that compliments your goals and lifestyle. Be sure to incorporate adequate leg training, lest ye become all wedge shaped and topple over.
Once you know what you want to work on, how much time you have, and what sort of training split you're going to adopt...
STEP 4; DESIGN YOUR WORKOUT
Most Calisthenics workouts follow roughly the same order; WARM UP, PREP, SKILLS, and DRILLS.
The guidelines below are based on an average 60min workout time frame.
WARM UP (3-5mins): Increase Heart Rate, Joint Mobility, Activation drills, Balance and Focus drills, exercise/athlete specific preparation.
PREP (10mins): Skill specific preparation. Handstands need full wrist mobilisation, Pull Ups need some hanging work prior to pulling, you get the idea; mobilise the joints to the full Range of Motion (ROM) required, practice lighter intensity variations of the skill you wish to master, listen to your body as you progress from warm up to workout.
SKILLS (30mins): At least 40-50% of your workout should be focused on developing perfect form for your chosen skills. Try to focus on 1-2 skills per workout (preferably in keeping with the focus of the workout, ie. PUSH/PULL/LEGS. This will require BIG rest periods of 90-180s in between attempts, and use the rest time to analyse and re-focus. Avoid 'rest exercises' and picking up the phone at all costs; analyse your performance, recover, repeat, improve.
DRILLS (15mins): Once performance fades, focus on achieving muscular overload of the intended muscles through low rep, high intensity sets with perfect form. For example on a PULL day; 3 sets of 5-8 Strict Pull Ups, 3 x 5 Banded Levers, and 3 x 20s Tuck Lever holds.
Practise doesn't make perfect. PERFECT practice makes perfect.
Frequency yields greater results than intensity.
A good training cycle focuses on developing perfection across a small number of exercises.
STEP 4; DO IT!
Yeah yeah we all know what comes next. Nike knew it too...
This part is down to you, and consistent motivation is something you have to develop through observing the benefits of a consistent training pattern. Get on with it.
SAMPLE TRAINING PLANS
NOTE: **GUIDE BELOW DOES NOT INCLUDE ALL NECESSARY PREPARATION, ACTIVATION, AND MOBILITY WORK. THE SUGGESTED EXERCISES ARE JUST TO PROVIDE A GENERAL OVERVIEW OF A WORKOUT**
Sample Beginner Routine:
GOALS: Frog Stand/30s in all 4 Planks/Push Ups
TRAINING FREQUENCY: 4 days a week, 40-60mins
MON: PUSH: 5 x max hold Frog Stand; 3 x 8 Eccentric Push Ups, 3 x 20s Wall Plank
TUE: REST: Trawl the internet for footage of people not obeying lockdown culture. Comment aggressively. WED: PULL: 5 sets of 5 Banded Pull Ups; 3 x 3 German Hang. Plank Practice. THU: REST: Mobility Session (Stick work, Hamstring & Hip stretching)
FRI: LEGS: Squat & Deadlift Session SAT: PUSH/PULL: Frog Stands, 3 x 8 Knees down Push Ups, Plank Practice SUN: REST: Church, lunch, and antiques roadshow. Remain wholesome.
Sample Intermediate Routine:
GOALS: Handstand/Levers/Muscle Up
TRAINING FREQUENCY: 5 days a week, 80-100mins
MON: PUSH: Handstand practice, 3 x 5 Wall Handstand Push Up, 3 sets of 10 wall shoulder taps
TUE: PULL: Lever practice, 5 x 5 banded Dynamic Levers, 3 x 5 High Pull Up
WED: LEGS: Full Pistol Squat practice, 3 x 10 Chair Pistols, 3 x 5 Eccentric Pistols, 3 x 10 Bulgarian Split Squats (weighted), Archer Squat mobility development.
THU: REST: Pick a side on the 5g conspiracy and tweet accordingly. Make some new online friends (and enemies) and embarrass yourself digitally.
FRI: PUSH: Handstand practice, 3 x 8 Archer Push Ups, 3 x 10 Diamond Push Ups, Elbow Lever practice, 3 x 5 Pseudo Planche Push Ups
SAT: PULL: Muscle Up Practice, 3 x 5 High Pulls, Bar Pullovers, Skin the Cat, 3 x 10 Bar Dips, Lever practice.
SUN: REST: Argue with the wife over something remarkably trivial. Watch antiques roadshow with an unreasonable amount of anger still bubbling away, make incorrect estimates on the price of a Gregorian vase, angry dog walk, bed.
Sample Advanced Routine:
GOALS: Handstand mastery & development/Lever endurance/Planche
TRAINING FREQUENCY: 6 days a week, 90-120 mins
MON: HANDSTAND PRESS TRAINING & MUSCLE UPS (BENT ARM)
TUE: LEVER ENDURANCE, PLANCHE DEVELOPMENT & HANDSTANDS (STRAIGHT ARM)
WED: LEGS (BARBELL SQUATS & DEALIFTS)
THU: PLANCHE DEVELOPMENT & FLAG TRAINING (STRAIGHT ARM)
FRI: HANDSTAND PRESS & LEVER ROWS (BENT ARM)
SAT: LEGS (PISTOL SQUAT DAY)
SUN: Think about doing more Calisthenics. Pace around the house impatiently waiting for your muscles to recover so you can go and train again. Get unnecessarily irate about people who watch the Antiques Roadshow, attempt to pen a letter to the BBC demanding to know why they still show it, break pen accidentally with your superman levels of grip strength and cry into a pillow. Sad muscular wank, and bed.
If you've made it this far well done. As you've undoubtedly noticed by now my mind does tend to drift.
I thank you for bearing with me and sticking it through all the way to the wank jokes at the end. I hope it was worth it.
Now go and use that new found vigour and go CREATE THY OWN CALISTHENICS PROGRAMME.
Wash your hands, and remain indoors.