In a Nutshell – This guide is for those who are just getting started and/or those who want to build muscle and strength and are not necessarily interested (yet) in complex skills such as handstands, front levers and muscle-ups. This is a summary of my book The Progressive Calisthenics Program for Everyone with video accompaniment.
In a nutshell, you will choose a pushing, a pulling and a squatting exercise, each being appropriate for your strength and experience level. This means that you are able to perform at least five repetitions of each exercise with good form. Once you have selected the appropriate exercises and have practiced them with good form, you will do three workouts a week, doing three sets of each of the three exercises per workout while maintaining good form. Once you have reached a target number of reps for the three sets, you will move on to the next most difficult exercise in the progression and repeat the process. This is progressive calisthenics.
Step 1: Choose your pushing movement
How many regular push-ups can you do with good form? Legs are outstretched, toes on the floor, back straight, core tight, glutes tight, hands shoulder-width apart, elbows tucked. If it’s less than five, then start with knee push-ups or incline push-ups. Can you do eight or ten, but your form starts to deteriorate at the end? Great, start with regular push-ups. What if you can’t do a single regular push-up and knee push-ups or couch push-ups are still too difficult? We’ll start with negatives. Check out the video below to see all of these.
Let’s say you can do ten push-ups fairly easily and can maybe even squeak out twelve. Great, let’s start with decline push-ups. The stance for decline push-ups is similar to the stance for regular push-ups, except that you have your toes on an elevated surface such as a stair or bucket rather than the ground. This places more weight towards your chest and makes the push-up more difficult.
Another option would be to do diamond push-ups. With diamonds, your hands are close together under your chest so that your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond. The angle is such that the exercise is more difficult and relies on more effort from the triceps (the muscles on the back of the arm) than the chest. Diamonds are great for building big triceps. Of course, you can progress the diamond push-up as well by elevating the feet.
If your push-ups are fairly advanced, meaning you can handle diamonds, declines, and offset push-ups, it is time to start with one-arm push-up variations. With one-arm push-up variations, your primary pushing arm is positioned under the mid-line of the body and your other arm is used as assistance. You can vary the amount of assistance such as putting your assisting hand on a basketball or other object versus having the assisting arm extended straight out, perpendicular to the mid-line of the body. This “archer push-up” would be the most difficult variation. Of course, with assisted one-arm push-ups, you need to do a set for each arm, so you are doing six total sets (three for each arm).
Step 2: Choose your pulling movement
Can you do a pull-up? Most people cannot do a single pull-up. It is a more advanced movement than the push-up. Fortunately, we have the push-up’s flip-side – the row, or Australian pull-up. If you can get good at rows, you can approach getting your first pull-up with confidence that you will achieve it. Rows work best under a bar that is about waist high. The higher the bar the easier the exercise, the lower the bar the harder. Position yourself under the bar and hold it with arms about shoulder width apart or a little more. With legs straight out in front of you and heels on the ground the exercise will be the most difficult. With knees bent and feet flat on the ground it is easier. If you can do five to eight rows with knees bent and feet on the ground then start there. If you can do eight or more, start with straight leg rows.
Not everyone has access to a waist-high bar. There are other options, such as a table-top (make sure it’s stable) or a tree limb or fence. Additionally, you can buy suspension trainers or gymnastics rings that can attach overhead and be adjusted. Such a setup is ideal for the beginner because it allows a wide range of foot positions that alter the difficulty of the exercise.
The most difficult rowing option will be with feet elevated so that the body is horizontal at the starting point. If you can do ten rows with knees bent, start with this one. Once you are good at these you can move to assisted one-arm rowing options such as the archer row. Again, keep that ten to twelve rep guide as your cue to move on to the next exercise in the progression. After one-arm rows, you are ready to get your first pull-up!
The suspension trainers or gymnastics rings discussed previously will work well to assist you with your first pull-up. Set them at about chest height and use your legs to assist you with the pull-up movement. Additionally, you can do Jackknife pull-ups with your feet on an elevated object and your body bending at the waist.
When you are ready to try pull-ups using your full body weight, you should start with the negative. Each complete movement of any strength-training exercise has a positive and a negative component and, in the case of the a pull-up, the positive is when you are pulling yourself up and the negative is when you are letting yourself down. We are usually much stronger in the negative portion of a movement, so this is the place to start. If you have a bar or can adjust your rings to chest height, you can position yourself at the top part of the movement and then remove your feet from the ground and let yourself down as slowly as possible. This will not be very slow at all the first time you try it, but you will quickly grow stronger. Once you are able to do a slow descent, try holding yourself at the top for as long as you can before letting yourself down. If you do not have the suspension device or a bar at chest height, you can use a pull-up bar. Position a chair or stool under it and then (carefully!) stand on the stool so that you are at the top position of the pull-up. Slowly step off the stool and hold yourself up as long as you can and then slowly descend. At this point you are ready to try your first pull-up.
Step 3: Choose your squat
Squats are different from push-ups and pull-ups. The body-weight squat, or “air squat” is a fantastic movement, but most people are not as limited by strength like they are with push-ups and pull-ups, but rather with mobility. Despite what many people believe, a proper body-weight squat involves squatting below parallel with feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly outward. The squat should go all the way down (parallel is when your thighs are parallel to the ground) and your back should remain straight and upright. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It is best to keep your arms outstretched in front of you as a counter-weight. This proper squat requires a great deal of ankle mobility to allow for the movement and keeping the back straight without falling over backwards. That’s why it is best to perform the movement at first in a doorway or with some object in front of you such as a pole that you can hold on to as you go down. Concentrate on keeping your back straight and head up and practice this until you have achieved the required mobility to do it without grasping the doorway or object. You can also elevate your ankles an inch or so to help with this problem. But eventually shoot for keeping your feet flat on the ground.
Once you’ve mastered the squat movement and can do 15 or more body-weight squats with good form, you are ready to move on to one of the many one-legged squat variations. But don’t think about rep counts too much with air squats. Again, just about everything here is about form and mobility and flexibility. And I guarantee you that once you have the form improved to the point that you can squat deeply with a straight back, your legs will feel it! Strength building will occur, but correct form must be in place first.
One legged squats are nothing like two legged squats with twice the weight. Doing squats on one leg not only adds load but adds an additional mobility challenge and a big balance requirement. And these are good things! There are many options here that vary quite a bit in terms of posture and difficulty. Each option adds a balance requirement that can be approached by using a support such as a wall or door to hold you stable while learning the movement. Your reliance on the support can be systematically reduced to help you build the balance and mobility to perform the movement without help. At first, grasp the support with both hands. Move to one hand and then a finger or two for balance.
A couple of examples of one-legged squats would be the lunge and the pistol squat. The lunge involves keeping the non-squatting leg behind you and in contact with the ground. You can remain stationary and lunge forward or backward, or you can do walking lunges. The pistol squat is the mother of all body-weight squatting movements, and involves keeping the non-squatting leg straight at all times and, as you squat down, it is extended out in front of you. Pistol squats lend themselves well to assistance, as this advanced movement takes a very long time to master. Between these two movements is the hover lunge, which is like a lunge but with the non-working leg staying just above the ground rather than in contact with it.
One option to intensify squats without going to one leg would be to progress to an explosive or plyometric movement such jump squats. I do not train these or necessarily advocate them because, at 55 years of age, I am careful not to introduce a movement that might be hard on the knees, particularly as the exercises is progressed. However, if your knees are healthy and you perform your jumps squats on a forgiving surface such as the ground, you should be ok. Just make sure to back off if you feel any knee pain.
Step 4: Practice the movement to master the form and improve mobility
This step is primarily for the beginner or one who has been away from strength training for some time. But it could not be more important and should also be regularly revisited by the experienced trainee. Form is everything, after all. How you do an exercise is much more important than how many reps you do. A single rep properly performed is more stimulating and effective than five poorly preformed reps. Additionally, proper execution of the exercise helps to spare the joints and avoid chronic stiffness, pain and damage. This is because mobility and flexibility in addition to strength are built into a full range of motion. Performing exercises with proper form gives you these three benefits at the same time and is therefore a superior way to train.
For Step 4, choose your target exercise in each of the three categories and simply practice that movement with your attention to form only. Do not perform enough reps to exhaust your muscles. Instead, practice the movement and master it. You can do this as often as you like. If your chosen push movement is the standard push-up, and you can do a max of 10, practice in sets of 3 or 4 with perfect form as often as you like. You will find that the comfort level and muscle memory will grow quickly and you will be ready very soon to start your workouts.
Step 5: Do three workouts a week and three sets of each exercise per workout, record your reps
Three is the minimum number of sides required to enclose a geometric shape with straight sides and is the minimum number of legs to allow a stool to stand. It is also, perhaps, the minimum number of workouts per week, exercises per workout, and sets per exercise to allow muscle growth. This not set in stone and is more of a context or reference point than a strict rule. But there is a very long history of muscle and strength success in this model, and it has certainly served as my main approach and that to which I return on a regular basis.
Working out once a week as a beginner will have little value, as you will not be equipped to perform the amount of volume and intensity needed to spark growth. On the other hand, working out five times a week as a beginner would quickly lead to exhaustion and defeat. Three times a week with a day between each workout is a great place to start.
The most important things are that you need to work as hard as you can in the workouts, you need to give your muscles time to recover, and you need to make progress. The 3 sets / 3 exercises / 3 workouts scheme is a framework for you to reach these goals and to assess your progress. You can change it later but it’s a great place to start.
For each set of each exercise, you need to work hard enough so that the last couple of reps are difficult but not impossible. That is, leave a few reps “in the tank”, meaning you could do another or two more if you had to. But refraining from going “to failure” (couldn’t do another rep) ensures that you can continue the workout and will not exhaust yourself too much. And coming close to failure will insure that you will build strength and muscle.
Your goal should be three sets of twelve repetitions for each exercise. Once you have reached this goal, you will move on to the next most difficult exercise in the progression. Once you have progressed enough that you are approaching this goal, it is best not to spend all your energy on the first set or the second set. That is, let’s say in the last workout you got 12, 11 and 10 for your push-ups. That means three sets of twelve are in sight. In the next workout, if you could do 14 reps on the first set, don’t. Save it for the last two sets. Try to expend most of your effort on the third set. Using this “back fill” method will help you reach the milestone much more effectively.
Step 6: Once target reps have been achieved, move to the next exercise in the progression and repeat Step 5
This is the essence of progressive calisthenics! Once you have achieved your target reps on the three sets of an exercise, you have “graduated” from that exercise, and you are ready to move on to the next most difficult exercise in the progression. This is a little like adding a weight to a barbell that you’ve never tried before, although it’s much more interesting.
To illustrate, let’s say that you started with regular push-ups, and after a couple of weeks you reached three sets of twelve. It’s time to move on, and moving on means adjusting your posture or limb positions in order to either remove advantage or increase load. For example, if you moved from a regular push-up to a diamond push-up, you would move the hands closer to the mid-line of the body, thereby increasing the requirement of the triceps (muscles on the back of the arm) and decreasing it for the pectorals (chest), making the exercise more difficult. You are removing the advantage of having the larger muscle group (the pectorals) do most of the work. Alternatively, you could keep the same hand position but elevate the feet. This will increase the load over the pushing muscles, making the exercise more difficult.
At some point your progress will take you far enough that you will need to move to unilateral movements. Unilateral movements place the focus on one of the working limbs at a time. Examples here would be one-arm push-ups, pistol squats, and archer pull-ups. But here’s the thing: one-arm push-ups and pull-ups are MUCH more than twice as difficult as their two-arm versions. The increase in load alone is dramatic. By load standards alone, it would be like going from a 185 lb bench press to a 370 lb bench press. This, in addition to the balance and mobility requirements making a move from a two-limbed movement all the way to a one-limbed movement in one step completely impossible.
Fortunately there are many steps between the bilateral and completely unilateral versions of each movement. Each of these steps serves as a notch on the progression. For example, the king of all one-legged squat variations is the pistol squat. When you perform this movement, the non-squatting leg stays off the ground during the entire execution of the exercise. There are other aspects of the pistol squat as well that make it difficult. But take instead the lunge. The lunge can be performed in many different ways, but all of them involve the non-working leg staying in contact with the ground. The lunge should be your next leg exercise after the air squat.
The down-side of unilateral movements is that you must perform each working set twice, one for the left and one for the right. But the trade-off is that you are building immense power and balance, and you are naturally overcoming any strength imbalances you may have on one side or the other. For example, if your left leg is weaker than your right, this problem will not be overcome with air squats, as you will likely compensate by working harder with your right leg. This is not possible with a unilateral movement.
Step 7: Repeat Steps 5 & 6
As you progress from one exercise to the next within a category (such as going from feet-elevated rows to pull-ups), your rep totals will drop back down. If you got three sets of twelve regular push-ups and then move on to feet-elevated push-ups in the next workout, do not expect three sets of twelve. You will work your way back up to three sets of twelve (more quickly than before) and move up once again. That’s how the whole thing works. Lather, rinse, repeat. You never have to worry about not knowing what to do next. Isn’t it beautiful?
Post-Script: Advanced Programming and Splits
At some point you will outgrow the three-workout-per-week program described here. Your work will be so advanced and so intense that you will need more time off between workouts than a single day. This is a good thing. At this point you may want to either take two days off between workouts or switch to a split routine. With a split routine you divide the exercises up across days. You may do the pushing and pulling movements on one day, squats the next, and then take the third day off. This is commonly referred to as upper/lower (upper and lower referring to body). Another option is the very popular push/pull/squat. Pushing movements one day, pulling the next, squats the third. Then you can take a day off or start over if you feel ready. With the upper/lower and push/pull/squat, you may want to see if you can handle more sets per workout.
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, and don’t worry too much about numbers. To be perfectly honest with you, I spend most of my time doing basic push-ups, basic pull-ups, and air squats. Write things down if it makes you feel better but you don’t have to. Three workouts, three exercises, etc., those are just reference points. Twelve reps per set as the signal to move on… again, just a reference point. You might feel better with eight or with twenty. The point is to find a place to start and to actually start and to keep at it. BY FAR the most important things you can do are use good form, work out out as often as you can while still maintaining consistent progress, and push your sets to near failure. Oh, I almost forgot the most important one – keep it up! Get to a point where it’s second nature to you to do strength training. Design a program that does not stress you out but still meets the main requirements. And by the way, age is not a factor. I didn’t start training calisthenics seriously until I was in my mid 40s and didn’t get certified as an instructor until I was 54. Now that you know how simple it can be, you can do it anywhere, any time, at any age. But most importantly, just do it!