Here at Form Is Everything we are about basic calisthenics exercises and programs for building strength and muscle with minimal injury risk and for any age and experience level. Rather than progressing towards skills or more and more difficult versions of the exercises, we build strength by improving technique, adding manageable volume, and increasing frequency of movement. We avoid injury by avoiding risky exercises, by carefully monitoring and addressing fatigue, and by constantly varying hand and foot position to avoid repetitive stress. We measure progress by weekly productive volume of sets performed with good technique and with effort that approaches but does not reach or exceed technical failure on each set. Fatigue is managed by varying proximity to failure over the week’s effort.
With this approach, progress comes mainly in the form of added sets and repetitions performed with good technique. The strength and muscle-building sweet spot is ten to twenty weekly hard sets of each of the three movement patterns of push, pull, and squat, and the programming allows the trainee to spread these sets evenly throughout the week. An advanced level is achieved when the trainee can perform two to three hard sets of each of these movement patterns per day every day of the week while still managing fatigue and making slow but measured progress. This approach has many advantages, including low time commitment per workout (about 20 minutes), and keeping one’s whole body fresh and energized every day rather than exhausted and fatigued. Focusing on technique also builds flexibility and mobility improvement into the mix. It also provides a nearly infinite amount of variety in exercise variations and effort levels.
The purpose of this article is to illustrate how a beginner of any age can progress to this advanced level in approximately one year.
Provided that you are healthy enough to begin a strength training program, I will assume that you have no experience and are starting from scratch.
For month one you will perform three exercises: push-ups, rows, and squats. For the first two weeks you will dial in your technique using the Grease the Groove method. This method allows you to practice a movement multiple times throughout the day without fatiguing yourself so you can master the technique and build strength. First, choose the push-up that is appropriate for your strength level, as illustrated in this video:
Then, practice push-ups by doing as many sets as you are comfortable with throughout the day with no more than half your maximum repetitions per set. For example, if you are doing incline push-ups, and your max is six, do two or three per practice session. Feel free to scatter these sessions throughout the day.
Follow the same guidelines for rows:
Months 2 and 3
You will do 3 sets of push-ups, three sets of rows, and three sets of squats per workout. Use the best form you can, and take each set one to two reps shy of mechanical failure (which is when you would not be able to perform another rep). So that’s nine total sets each workout, three each for push, pull and squat. For month 2, do this workout twice a week, and record your reps. Each week try to exceed the rep totals for the prior week.
For month three, perform the same workout but do it three times a week instead of two, with at least one day off between workouts. Again, try to exceed your rep totals week to week.
You will do three new exercises: dips, pull-ups and/or chin-ups and lunges. These exercises are more difficult than the three you have been doing up until now as the load is greater for each. Take a week to work on your form for each exercise using the Grease the Groove technique.
Some examples of dips:
Examples of pull-ups and chin-ups:
For the remainder of months 4-6 you will follow the same template as in months 1-3. Once you have mastered the form, do two workouts of three sets of each exercise per week for the remainder of month 4. For months 5 and 6, move up to three workouts per week of dips, pull-ups and lunges. Again, record your rep counts and try to exceed the totals week to week.
In month 7 you will begin to mix the workouts and you will begin to work out on consecutive days. For these months you will do the first workout on day one, the second workout on day two, rest on day three, the first workout on day four, and the second workout on day five, rest days six and seven. For example, Monday is 3 sets each of push-ups, rows and squats. Tuesday is three sets each of dips, pull-ups and lunges. Repeat this for Thursday and Friday. As always record your reps and work on adding a few from week to week.
Here is where you will put it all together. You will do each separate workout every other day of the week. So Monday is push-ups, rows and squats, Tuesday is dips, pull-ups and lunges, Wednesday same as Monday, Thursday same as Tuesday, etc. It’s as simple as that. Feel free to mix and match. You can switch your push-up and dip days, for example.
Some tips for success
If you feel lingering fatigue and stop making progress, dial back your intensity but not your frequency. That is, continue to do the workouts on schedule (rather than adding rest days), but take it easy on the sets, like 4-5 reps shy of failure. For variety and joint health, you can vary your hand or feet positions. Always keep your focus on form and revisit your form every month. Once a month, take a video of yourself performing each of the six exercise and check your form. Make the necessary corrections. Also, from time to time go back and look at early workout rep counts. You will be surprised at how far you have come. Also, I haven’t talked about rest. I do not believe you should worry about timing rest between sets. Rest as long as it takes so that your performance from set to set of the same exercise is about equal for that day.
In the first phase of the program, you did six total hard sets per movement pattern per week. You moved up to 9 and then 12. This is the lower end of the sweet spot for building strength and muscle, and what you are doing with this approach is distributing your hard sets throughout the week rather than concentrating them on one or two days. This distribution allows you to insure that each set is top quality and not rushed or cheated. By the final phase of the program, you are at 21 hard sets per movement pattern per week, which is the upper end of the sweet spot for muscle and strength building. Congratulations!