HOW TO PROGRAMME FOR CALISTHENICS
Updated: Apr 21
FIND THE RIGHT FORMULA FOR YOUR CALISTHENICS PROGRAMMING, AND SUBSEQUENTLY DEVELOP YOUR STRENGTH AND SKILLS TO THE NEXT LEVEL.
GRAB A COFFEE, A PEN & PAPER, AND PREPARE TO GET MOTIVATED!
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.
WHAT LEVEL AM I AT?
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to assume you're either a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced. Or Elite. But if you're elite you're practically a ninja and I have no idea how you stumbled across my website.
BEGINNER; New to Calisthenics, relatively new to the concept of training, but not inexperienced with bodyweight exercise.
BEGINNER SKILLS; Ability to hang on a bar for >20s, can hold a deep squat, hold a plank, and train for an hour without dying on the floor.
INTERMEDIATE; Experienced with Calisthenics, and with consistent training on the whole. Body adapted to training 4-5 days a week minimum
INTERMEDIATE SKILLS; 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
ADVANCED SKILLS; Owning a minimum of 4 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.
THE THREE MOST IMPORTANT RULES (IN PRIORITY ORDER)
1: CONSISTENCY; ADOPT AND ADHERE TO A PROGRAMME
Consistent training is key to all physical development.
Trying a few handstands here and there will yield some results, but by training handstands consistently and adopting a strict routine designed to progressively overload will develop you much further.
That involves working on the same drills, in a well designed programme that you adhere to consistently, for a minimum of three weeks (6 ideally), each week getting progressively tougher with a clear goal at the end.
For beginners this means pushing past the boredom barrier, and resisting the urge to go and work on another exercise.
Summary: Set out your training days, Calisthenics goals, and stick to them without failure, until the end of your training cycle.
2: FOCUS; MIND AND MUSCLE HARMONY
Calisthenics is an 'all in' kinda discipline. It requires a level of focus usually only attained through meditation. To me that's part of the beauty of Calisthenics, it's not the kind of exercise where your mind can wander off, you have to focus or you end up face-planting!
To successfully hold a handstand, you need both the short term focus (to hold and balance the move), and the long-term focus to train consistently & successfully for it.
Cross-Training (combining Calisthenics with another discipline, BodyBuilding for example) will only limit your results (although it is achievable) so I encourage you to limit, reduce, or loosen your grip on other physical disciplines. You're not getting the most out of your handstand sessions if you've run a half marathon that day...
Summary: For optimum Calisthenics success focus solely on Calisthenics. Ditch or limit the other physical disciplines (particularly activities that may work against Calisthenics) and feed them back in later.
3: MANAGE ALL LIFESTYLE FACTORS
Hard work will only get you so far in Calisthenics. It doesn't matter how long your sessions are, or how much they hurt, you won't achieve success until you manage ALL lifestyle factors. And luckily that's easier than you'd think. You don't need to become that uber-dick at the gym who counts his grains of rice before consumption, but you do need to remain mindful of all the factors that contribute to your athletic abilities, especially R & R.
In no particular order, below are some of the more important factors to consider which (if managed) will positively impact upon your training and success.
Healthy bodyweight & composition
Consistent mobility training
Ample rest and recovery between sessions (inc Rehab & Prehab)
Nutritional development (finding what works for YOU, and sticking to it)
Summary: Understand that your success is determined by everything that goes on in your life. Make a plan to improve any areas that could be holding you back, and stick to it.
MANY MANY QUESTIONS
Take action time. This next section is made up of questions (in ORANGE) that I want you to find your answers to.
Trust me, go grab that pen and get scribbling NOW.
Q1: WHAT MOVES DO I WANT TO LEARN?
Everyone wants to be able to do the lot; Flag, Muscle Up, Handstand, squat heavy, run for miles, have a healthy work:life balance and a happy social life alongside that. Good luck. Total pipe dream I'm afraid.
Like butter spread too thinly all these areas will lack substance, and you're better off refining your answers and applying some focus.
Pick 3 moves, and work on them religiously. Soooo in my example that's Handstands, Levers, and Muscle Ups. You're welcome to practice with other moves along the way, but don't let them cloud your training routine.
The 'big 5' exercises are listed below (in no particular order);
Lever (Front & Back)
However, depending on your goals and abilities you may want to consider;
Complex Push Up variations (Archer, Aztec, Single Arm)
Complex Pull Up variations (Archer, Clapping, Single Arm)
Or even just some cool bar tricks such as;
Skin The Cat
TO DO: Pick three, and programme them in
Q2:HOW OFTEN SHOULD I TRAIN?
How long is a piece of string? It's one of those kind of questions I'm afraid. You get out what you put in,
Rule of thumb; Beginners should train 3-4 times a week, Intermediates 5 times a week, and Advanced trainers a minimum of 6 days a week.
TO DO: Make a decision about training frequency that fits with your life, write it down, and move on. Three a week will yield steady progress, 7 days a week will set you up for failure. Choose wisely according to your current strength levels, and lifestyle.
Q3: HOW LONG SHOULD EACH SESSION LAST?
Again this is fairly subjective. Older athletes will require longer to warm up than younger ones, those with mobility issues will need more time to loosen off, and so on and so. on.
Rule of thumb; 60-120mins. Minimum of 60 minutes on the beginner end of the spectrum, sliding upwards of 90mins as you progress through to intermediate & advanced.
Furthermore dedicate 'chunks' of your workout time to develop the skills you want to learn. I set aside 15 minutes of my PULL session for Lever practice, minimum. That number will raise as my endurance and power steadily increases (hopefully) and at that time I'll reassess.
TO DO: Write down your ideal training time allowance, and stick to it. Set a timer, don't quit early, and start forming habits.
Q4: WHAT SPLIT?
In other words, what 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)
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.
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).
There's plenty more viable splits; straight arm/bent arm, sport specific, hell you could even go Left/Right side of the body for the laterally divided among us (wouldn't recommend it). But wither way, choose one, write it down, move on.
WHAT ABOUT LEGS LT DAN?
One of the fundamental flaws of Calisthenics is it's 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 Heather Mills McCartney.
My lesson here is to train legs to a similar volume as the upper body (for me that's 3 x p/w), healthily interspersed between upper body workouts, so while my arms rest my 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.
TO DO: 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.
RICH'S TRAINING PROGRAMME
Most of you reading this know and train with me, so this should come as no surprise.
I want the HANDSTAND, MUSCLE UP, LEVERS, AND PLANCHE. Those are the four I develop through my training. I still piss around with Frog/Forearm stands and other fun playful moves, but it's those 4 I want to master.
MY TRAINING FREQUENCY
I'm a personal trainer for a living so naturally I took this pretty seriously and chose 6 days a week, around 90-120mins per session. Find what works for YOU!
Here's a very loose overview of my training split over a typical week. No session detail included, just an overview.
MON: PULL (Levers/Pull Ups) // 30mins mobility p.m.
TUE: PUSH (Handstands/Press Up work) // 30mins mobility p.m.
WED: LEGS (Bodyweight) // 30mins mobility p.m.
THU: PULL (Weighted) // 30mins mobility p.m.
FRI: PUSH (Weighted) // 30mins mobility p.m.
SAT LEGS: (Squats/Deadlifts) // 30mins mobility p.m.
SUN: REST // 30mins mobility p.m.
This is not set in stone, occasionally I shift the days around to suit my career and lifestyle but I NEVER miss a session. Consistency, & Focus. And remember I do this for a living, so I have to take it kinda seriously.
SAMPLE TRAINING ROUTINES
I've made a few sample routines for Beginner, Intermediate, & Advanced Calisthenics athletes below, covering workout frequency, splits, and goals. I have not detailed exactly what each workout should entail, as that would stop you benefitting from the creative process of discovering this for yourself.
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/Pull Ups/Skin The Cat
TRAINING FREQUENCY: 4 days a week, 60-90mins
MON: PUSH: 5 x 30s 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 Skin the Cat THU: REST: Big wank and an episode of midsomer murders. In that order.
FRI: LEGS: Squat & Deadlift Session SAT: PUSH/PULL (*PLAY DAY) 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 Handstand Push Up, 3 sets of 10 wall shoulder taps
TUE: PULL: Lever practice, 5 x 5 banded Dynamic Levers
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 8 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 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.