When you think of a calisthenics workout, what comes to mind? Sadly, for many people, it’s probably something like high school gym class or an aerobics routine. However, a true bodyweight calisthenics routine can help a person gain immense functional strength. A key feature of a calisthenics workout is that it should be a progressive training routine. In this manner, a person continually gets stronger rather than focusing on endurance.
What’s interesting about calisthenics exercises is that they’ve really been around forever. A calisthenics workout was the predominant form of training prior to modern advances. Warriors and strong men of old would use their own bodyweight and through progressive training gain considerable strength and power. The standard bench press pales in comparison to the ability to pull oneself up a mountain or push stationary objects.
Most people equate calisthenics with pushups, pullups, and squats. These bodyweight exercises provide a great starting point in building strength. The problem is that eventually these exercises focus on endurance rather than strength. It’s nice to be able to do 100 pushups, but I’d rather be able to do 10 perfect one-arm pushups. Strength training needs to be done with low reps to maximize muscular development. To perform low reps, bodyweight exercises have to be made more difficult. Well guess what, you can create a highly challenging calisthenics workout by using only your bodyweight.
Here Zuzana demonstrates what she considers the hardest pushup ever…guess she hasn’t tried one-arm handstand pushups!
Calisthenics not only help you gain functional strength, but can also help you develop a lean body. In fact, I’d argue that using your bodyweight alone can sometimes be preferred in getting really defined muscles. Consider that some gymnasts have never picked up weights in their lives. Meanwhile, they can support themselves on rings and bars and flip and jump through the sky. There are stories of gymnasts who can deadlift and bench press ridiculous amounts, despite never having lifted weights before. Pull ups are almost an afterthought unless they are held down by more than half their body weight. Aside from amazing strength, most gymnasts have massive, well defined arms.
Progressive Training Routine
It should be pretty clear that bodyweight exercises should be included as part of any training routine. However, ensuring that you keep progressing to harder and harder exercises, rather than more and more reps, is of the utmost importance. That’s why I recommend the progressive training routine outlined in Convict Conditioning. Essentially, you perform six different exercises that work the major muscles in your body. The 10-step progessions are constructed so that everyone from a beginner to advanced exerciser may be challenged.
- Pushups: Wall Pushups to One-Arm Pushups
- Squats: Shouldered Squats to One-Leg Squats
- Pullups: Vertical Pulls to One-Arm Pullups
- Leg Raises: Knee Tucks to Hanging Straight Leg Raises
- Bridges: Short Bridges to Stand-to-Stand Bridges
- Handstand Pushups: Wall Headstands to One-Arm Handstand Pushups
There are specific set and rep goals for each exercise prior to advancing to the next progression. This ensures you keep getting stronger rather than focusing too much on endurance training. There are even additional variations beyond the 10 steps. Given that only about 3% of people accomplish the final step for all 6 exercises, it’s unlikely you’ll need to do anything beyond, but it’s nice for variety.
Start Building Functional Strength
I’d like to offer a challenge. Join me in giving up weights for the next 2-3 months. Substitute your weight lifting routine for a bodyweight calisthenics workout. I guarantee your muscles will be challenged. In fact, there’s a good chance you’ll actually gain strength if and when you go back to lifting weights. Get started with a progressive training routine in order to ensure you continue to gain strength with calisthenics exercises that are increasingly challenging.
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