Training Program: Calisthenics

“Just as knowledge is education for the mind, learning new skills is education for the body.” – John Tang

What is Calisthenics?

A quick google search will tell you that Calisthenics is defined as:
‘Gymnastic exercises to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement.’
Its origin comes from ‘Kallos’ – Beauty and Sthenos’ Strength.
However, in more layman terms, Calisthenics is simply a group of bodyweight exercises performed with the goal of improving one’s fitness and mastery of skills.

Why Calisthenics?

I do calisthenics mostly because its fun and I can teach my body to move differently and learn new skills. This aids in my overall fitness and helps me get more attuned to my body which in turn, may prevent injury. Other reasons include:

  1. Convenient – Calisthenics can be performed anywhere, anytime. No equipment or weights  required!
  2. Fun – Ever seen anyone do a handstand walk and wished you could too?
  3. Fitness – Calisthenics can improve almost every aspect of fitness. Strength, endurance, stamina, power, speed, balance, mobility, flexibility, coordination, agility, accuracy, etc.
  4. Progressions – Every exercise has an assortment of progressions from beginner to advance stages. Thus anyone young or old can do Calisthenics!
  5. Brain health – Regular exercise, coupled with learning new skills, keeps your brain sharp and healthy, well into your old age!

Calisthenics Exercises

Whenever I design a training program, I always try to keep it as practical, functional and interesting as possible. Hence, it is usually a full-body routine which includes as many compound exercises as possible. I also try not to rest too long between exercises or sets because it simply isn’t necessary! Go for a different bodypart or movement and you will turn your illicit an additional cardiovascular response too! Let your body be your guide and always trust your feelings.

Here are a list of exercises I feel are key to a good calisthenics program.
CAUTION: Always start with something you can handle easily and follow the progressions. Don’t do too much too soon or risk injury. Progress only when you feel you are ready.

1. PUSH-UPS
+ All variations
+ Ultimate goal: One-Arm Push-Up + X-Superman Push-Ups + Planches

2. HANDSTANDS
+ Handstand pushups, walking and other variations
+Ultimate goal: L-Lit to Handstands + Handstand walking + One-Arm Handstand Pushups

3. PULL-UPS
+ All variations
+ Ultimate goal: Muscle-Ups, 1-Arm Pull-Up

4. LEVERS
+ These are mostly for the core (The entire torso from abs to lower back and glutes)
+ Dragon-flagsFront & Back Levers, Human Flag

5. LEGS
+ Variations include squats, lunges (all directions), air lunge, pistol squats
+ I like to include a calf-raise or jump at the end of the movement just so I don’t neglect those muscles

6. AEROBIC EXERCISES
Yes, I consider running/swimming/kayaking/biking/skiing/rollerblading/etc Calisthenic skills as well. These are motor skills that take years of practice to master. They fit the definition of Calisthenics too as they improve overall fitness and when done with good technique, are beautiful to watch and admire.
Furthermore, they allow cardiovascular adaptations such as an enlarged heart and consequently greater cardiac output and VO2 max which is not so easily obtained from gymnastic exercises alone.

7. YOGA/PILATES
Never discount flexibility. It is as important an aspect of fitness as all the rest. True strength and power comes from being able to produce your desired movement through its entire range-of-motion. Besides, many Calisthenics moves require a lot of flexibility and mobility in your joints. I had to work on my shoulder mobility to do handstands and even muscle-ups.

How often should I train?

This is a tough question to address and the answer is always different for most people. I don’t focus on Calisthenics solely so I include some of these into my everyday routine. For example, at the end of my warm-up routine, I will include a set of 30 Burpees and as many Muscle-Ups followed by Pull-Ups as possible. After my workout, I will work on my handstands, L-sit to handstands, front & back levers and anything else I feel like doing. Its more of ‘Playtime’ than dedicated ‘Practice Time’ to me because its really fun!

Here are some suggestions on how to include Calisthenics based on how much you want to put into it.

1. Full-Time Calisthenisian: Body-Building Style

This is for the serious dudes and dudettes who want to become ‘BarStarrz’. This frequency of training will ensure the fastest rate of improvement but be careful not to do too much too soon! You will risk over-training and injuries. That’s why the program is split similarly to how body-builders train. This way, you give at least 48 hours of recovery before working the body part again.

For example:
Monday
AM – Pushing Movements (Pushups, Handstands)
PMLong Dist Cardio

Tuesday
AM – Pulling Movements (Pullups, Levers)
PMHIIT 

Wednesday
AM
– Legs
PMYoga or Full-body Self Myofascial Release (Self Massage)

Thursday
AM – Pushing Movements (Pushups, Handstands)
PM – Long Dist Cardio

Friday
AM – Pulling Movements (Pullups, Levers)
PM – HIIT

Saturday
AM
– Legs
PM – Yoga or Full-body Self Myofascial Release (Self Massage)

Sunday
Recovery day – Active rest

2. Part-Time Calisthenisian

Say you’re interested in Calisthenics but just starting out or you aren’t that serious. This plan is for you. You can choose from the following plans to suit your schedule or needs.

a) Alternate Days 

Monday – Pushing Movements (Pushups, Handstands)
Tuesday – Rest or do other stuff
Wednesday – Pulling Movements (Pullups, Levers)
Thursday – Rest or do other stuff
Friday – Legs/cardio
Saturday – Yoga/self-massage
Sunday – Active rest

b) Greasing the groove

This method is done throughout the day, whenever you feel like it. It can be a form of work-break/study-break to refresh your mind and get some exercise/practice in. Thus, there will be no dedicated workout time as your Calisthenic workout is spread throughout the day in small 10min batches. Don’t worry about not improving. From past experience, I guarantee you will feel sore after doing just 3 sets of 10 minutes throughout the day (for example before every meal).
Here’s an example from one of my training logs:

1. Ultimate Sandbag luggage carries – 1’/side
2. Inclined Rows – 8~10
3. Single-leg wall Handstand holds – 15″/side (still learning)
4. L-sit to handstand tries – 5 (still learning)
5. Assisted Pistol squats to calf raisers- 3-5
6. Assisted Front levers holds – 5″ / side
7. Sets completed: 5
8. Time per set: ~10mins
Total workout time: ~50mins

*Extras:
– jogged instead of walking around the house
– stood for most of the day, including meals

c) One max set a day

This last option will not have as rapid an improvement but your learning curve will still be quite steep! By doing just one set a day of as many reps or as long as you can hold, you will force your body to adapt and learn consistently and very progressively. Make sure you warm-up sufficiently because doing a max set ‘cold’ is a surefire way to injury. You may choose to do one set of each exercise a day or may even spread them out throughout the week.

How do I progress?

Progress can be measured by a number of ways.

1. Reps – simple, just count your repetitions! (E.g. Push-ups, muscle-ups, etc)
2. Holds – did you hold longer than your previous record? (E.g. Front/Back Levers, etc)
3. Time – how long did it take you to complete _____ reps? (E.g. 100 burpees!)
4. Rest – similar to time, how much rest do you need before going at it again! Can also count how many days do you need for the soreness in your muscles  to go away or or the blisters in your hands to heal.

Conclusion

Anyone and everyone can do calisthenics anywhere and everywhere. All it takes is a little motivation to start and the discipline to consistently keep working on your moves. Equipment wise you just need somewhere to hang and do pullups. You can hit all the other movements on the floor. Of course it helps to have a door pullup bar at home for convenience. But hey, no having on also forces you to get out there for some sunshine! It definitely helps if you enjoy what you are doing too. I hope this guide has been beneficial to your and there are enough links to keep you entertained and motivated for the long run. Be patient and celebrate every little progress you make.

ALL THE BEST!

“Progress is progress. Progress enough and you will find success!” – John Tang

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