Back when I started training calisthenics I was very excited about the potential for building strength and muscle with basic movements such as push-ups, pull-ups and squats. That excitement has not waned ten years later and has served as the basis for my humble little book on the subject. Although calisthenics skills such as the human flag, handstand push-up and back lever are extremely impressive, I was never really compelled to pursue them. I’ve always been leery of injury and more interested in building muscle and conditioning as I age with basic exercises. That’s why I was quite excited to come across Kyle Boggeman’s YouTube channel, as he is using his extensive education and experience training clients to really produce a knowledge-base around building strength, muscle, conditioning and flexibility with basic calisthenics movements and training parameters such as fatigue management, frequency of exercise, and proximity to failure. Below is Part 1 of a two-part interview with Kyle, where he shares the wisdom behind his unique and effective way of training calisthenics.
Steve: Can you tell us a bit about who you are and your experience and background in the fitness industry?
Kyle: I’ve been a trainer in San Diego for a decade now. I originally got into fitness through martial arts training when my first teacher introduced me to basic calisthenics. I was probably 12 years old at that time, and I absolutely fell in love with physical culture and the whole concept of self development. I have been training ever since, and have dabbled in several different training modalities over the years. No matter what I have tried, basic calisthenics have always served as my foundation.
As far as my professional experience goes, I owned and operated a gym in San Diego where I worked mostly with combat athletes, military personnel, and law enforcement. I racked up thousands and thousands of coaching hours working with several hundred clients over that time. It was a hard job in a competitive market, but the amount of experience I gained coaching was the best education I could have asked for. As far as my academic background, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s degree in Kinesiology. Both have been equally helpful in my career. Philosophy trains you to think critically, and to look at things from a different perspective. It also ingrains skepticism and encourages a systematic approach to analyzing concepts and ideas, both of which are incredibly useful for interpreting scientific literature and sifting through the mounds of terrible misinformation that exists within the fitness industry. On the other hand, my education in kinesiology greatly enhanced my understanding of exercise science and statistics. I’m also certified by the NSCA as a CSCS, a TSAC-F and a CPT.
Steve: I think most people, myself included, think that if they get into calisthenics they need to start learning skills like handstands, human flag, and front lever as soon as possible. I wonder what your thoughts are on this and why we never really see you doing skills.
Kyle: It is certainly understandable. Calisthenics skills are extremely impressive to see, and when you first try them, they feel impossible. They attract a lot of people to calisthenics and serve as a very concrete goal for many. This has definitely shaped the current calisthenics training paradigm. You add to this the fact that basic calisthenics are often dismissed by most people in the community and are seen as a stepping stone to something greater, and it becomes clear why the current love affair with skills exists.
I’m a firm believer in building a foundation first. Prioritizing competency with the basics, and improving your body composition are the best uses of training time for beginners. In terms of exercise selection, skill training is not an efficient way to improve basic health and fitness because it is not efficient method for improving body composition. I know this sounds blasphemous but, I will lay out a logical argument for why this is the case. First, in terms of building muscle mass, exercises that train a muscle through a greater range of motion are superior to exercises that use less range of motion, or no range of motion at all. We also know that the relationship between weekly volume and muscle growth is a dose dependent one, insofar as the more volume you can do and recover from, the more muscle you can build. With this in mind, exercise selection needs to be optimized to allow for higher weekly training volumes. To accomplish this, we need exercises that are easy on the joints, and are safe to take to, or close to, failure. We also want exercises that are limited by the target musculature, not balance, stabilization, joint integrity, limb proportions, or skill. Finally, we want exercises that don’t carry an elevated or unique injury risk. If an exercise fails to check all of these boxes, it is not a good choice for a high volume program. Obviously, many skill progressions fail to check these boxes and are isometric in nature, making them poor choices for high training volumes, and poor choices for muscle building in general. This isn’t to say that they cannot build muscle at all, or that some people cannot perform skill training frequently, just that it is not an efficient path for the vast majority of people looking to build muscle and get into shape while staying free from injury.
Even in your ultimate goal is to perform skills, keep in mind that skills are a display of athletic qualities that are, in a large part, dependent on good body composition. The levers, the planche, the human flag, single arm skills etc. all become significantly easier to develop when the athlete has excellent body composition, or in other words, is very lean, muscular and well conditioned. Once you have gotten lean and muscular, targeted and intentional low volume skill training can quickly develop the particular joint strength, balance, and neuromuscular coordination required by the skill. Improving body composition is the hardware upgrade and raises your potential for strength and athleticism, and skill training is the software upgrade that allows you to get the most out of the hardware that you have built with the basics.
When I was younger, I definitely messed around with skill training. As I got older, I became more concerned with the injury risks associated with my approach to training, and my focus shifted to general health and fitness. As I approached my thirties, a few things became abundantly clear- I was not indestructible, and nothing ruined my gains like getting injured. Because of this, I began to focus more on improving my body composition and general fitness by using exercises and programming strategies that carried a lower injury risk. I realized that the basics and higher training frequencies allowed me to accumulate and recover from more training volume, ultimately allowing for better gains in terms of general fitness, health, and body composition. As my understanding of exercise science deepened, I concluded that skill training was not congruent with my goals, and ultimately would not be the most productive use of my time.
Steve: You have talked quite a bit on your Youtube channel about mastering basic movements. I think you mean a lot more with this than just being able to do a lot of reps of a basic exercise. When it comes to something like the pull-up, the push-up or the squat, what do you mean by mastering the movements?
Kyle: Mastery is more of a process than a destination. It’s about going “into” the movement and trying to feel all of the subtle things going on during the process of performing a rep. It’s the pursuit of the perfect rep, learning to really feel the muscles contract, and learning to feel and correct the tiny compensations that you otherwise wouldn’t even notice. When you bring this level of intention and mindfulness to something basic like push up or a pull up, it opens up a whole different perspective and allows you to see the depth, complexity, and potential that truly exists within them. Ultimately, it allows you to extract more out of the basics than you otherwise could from mindless and sloppy repetitions.
Steve: There is a lot of dogma in the muscle- and strength-building world around rep ranges and time between sets and “rest days”. Many people believe that an “optimal rep range” for building muscle is 6-12 and lower reps are for strength and higher reps are for endurance, etc. You have indicated many times that you think none of these things are necessarily true. What do you think are the most important factors in building strength and muscle?
Kyle: Optimal rep ranges and the concepts of rest days are two common prescriptions given without context. Research in exercise science has come a long way in the last 20 years and we now know both of these “rules” are not rules at all, but rather incomplete understandings at best. Currently, the literature is quite clear that the muscle building rep range is enormous, and that training frequency (and by extension rest days) are just a function of volume distribution. We don’t actually “need” rest days, because the amount of fatigue we generate from a workout is not fixed. How much fatigue we generate depends on our exercise selection, training volume, proximity to failure, as well as our own fitness, work capacity, and training status. If I’m in shape and used to doing a lot of pull ups, do I really need to take a day off after I do two hard sets? The answer is no, simply because that level of stress doesn’t require a full day of rest to resolve the fatigue it generates. So, by properly structuring a training program, you can distribute training volume in such a way that no single workout ever drives you into a recovery deficit that takes extended time to pull yourself out of. Also, by knowing what it takes to stimulate muscle growth, you can train in a way that provides a sufficient level of that stimulus in a manner that is sustainable day to day.
I think the most important factors are consistency and effort. Nothing you can do in a single session in terms of manipulating training variables compares in importance to consistency and effort over time. Equally important is good exercise selection. This can be make-or-break insofar as good exercise selection maximizes your return on your time investment, and more importantly, reduces injury risk. Nothing derails muscle gains like injury. Good exercise selection is also necessary to maximize the growth response, so if you want good gains long term, pick your exercises wisely. Finally, in terms of program variables, total weekly volume, as measured by high effort sets, is a powerful predictor of muscle gains, but it needs to be matched with your ability to recover.
Steve: You train the same movement patterns pretty much every day. Another common belief is that you must take “days off” from training the same muscle group. How are you able to train the same movement patterns every day, and is it actually better than taking days off?
Kyle: High frequency training relies on good fatigue management. When this is in place, it works incredibly well. There are a few common pitfalls that are common to this approach, and these are doing too much weekly volume, training too close to failure, and not cycling through exercise variations. While a higher training frequency can allow you to accumulate more weekly volume with less perceived effort, the fatigue can still accumulate past your point of daily recovery. A lot of people make the mistake of doing their same 3 day per week workout 7 times per week and come to the conclusion that daily training doesn’t work. What they needed to do instead was distribute their 3 day per week workout over 7 days, then slowly add volume over time.
In this same vein, excessive training to failure will typically lead to excess fatigue in all but the youngest and most genetically gifted among us. With this in mind, I usually recommend training a few reps shy of failure for most sets to reduce fatigue, along with perfecting form to minimize joint and connective tissue stress. The reality is some days you just don’t have it, so taking light and easy days when you need them is another key component of making this system work.
The final piece of the puzzle is rotating through exercise variations. Now, starting out, I prefer to keep exercise selection minimal to encourage rapid development of fundamental motor patterns. After a while though, when training stress increases and people begin to display better technique, introducing variations of movements works really well to manage fatigue as well as stimulate new gains in muscle mass. Variations in grip width, hand orientation, torso positioning, tempo, and even intention, all change how stress is distributed across the tissues. While all the same muscles might be working, the emphasis will be different, allowing for various levels of recruitment and recovery throughout the week. However, if an exercise is too different, you may not be able to perform it efficiently, since the motor pattern is not well developed, and this will ultimately limit your ability use the exercise to deliver a robust growth response. Ultimately, I think it is wise to have a limited number of motor patterns, but a higher amount of variation within that motor pattern.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview coming soon.
Here is a preview of the questions Kyle will be addressing in Part 2:
In my own experience, one of the biggest challenges with frequent training is how to reconcile fatigue with the concept of making “progress”. In fact, you have told me before that the notion of progress changes as the trainee becomes more advanced. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Is it possible to progress an exercise in ways other than doing more reps or more volume or a harder version? Can one progress an exercise (and consequently get stronger and build muscle) just by improving form and technique? If so, what would be a good strategy to work on this? Do you think it would be possible to make progress without counting reps or sets?
Sometimes I feel boxed in by the notion that I have to follow objective rules like tracking progress, tracking volume, choosing the proper order of exercises, etc. Sometimes I just want to do whatever I feel like. It can be liberating. But am I wasting my time when I decide, for example, that today I just want to do as many push-ups as I can? Is this hindering my progress?
It’s a common belief among calisthenics people that one can build strength and muscle in the upper body with body-weight only, but for legs you must use weights. Do you think this is true? You seem to do a lot of very high rep sets of body-weight squats, even a set of over 500 as I recall! Does this approach have a muscle building effect or is this mainly giving you conditioning?
Any advice for those of us in our 40’s, 50’s and above (or anyone else) for avoiding chronic pain and injury?
In terms of diet, I find the notion of tracking calories or restricting a macro-nutrient or food group more stressful than the 15 pounds of belly fat that I need to lose. And yet, diet has a whole lot to do with physique goals and performance, particularly as we get older. But on the flip side, feeling like you constantly have to be restricting yourself is no way to live. Do you have any basic diet and nutrition guidelines, particularly in terms of fat loss, that would be approachable and wouldn’t have us weighing food and strictly timing our meals or entering them into My Fitness Pal?