Calisthenics Progression Systems - Training Techniques Of Top Calisthenics Athletes

Calisthenics progression systems are KEY to building muscle and strength.

If you take anything away from this article, it must be this:

To make progress with calisthenics; you MUST get stronger!

The BEST calisthenics athletes in the world understand this concept well!

They know how to make progress in order to achieve superhuman strength!

In this article I’ll show you:

  • How Calisthenics Athletes Get Big And Strong
  • The Secret To Superhuman Strength – The Story Of Milo
  • The Most Optimal Rep Ranges For Progressing With Calisthenics
  • Calisthenics Progression Systems – The Training Techniques Of Top Calisthenics Athletes
  • My Favorite Calisthenics Progression System

By the time you’re done with this article, you’ll know exactly what to progress on your calisthenics journey.

How Calisthneics Athletes Get Big And Strong

Elite calisthenics athletes use the most effective training programs to get big and strong.

These training programs manipulate 2 key training variables :

  • Intensity
  • Volume

Intensity is the amount of effort put into each set, how hard (heavy) you train.

Volume is the number of sets and reps you perform in a workout. 

Volume = Number of sets x number of reps

The best calisthenics programs use calisthenics progression systems to manipulate volume and intensity.

If you want to get bigger and stronger, the intensity and volume of your workouts must go up over time!

But, you cannot continue increasing volume and intensity together forever. This is because your body can only handle so much stress at a time!

This is where calisthenics progression systems, come into play.

Calisthenics progression systems systematically increase volume and intensity over time.

I’ll show you how to use these calisthenics progression systems, but first, I’m going to tell you the story of Milo of Croton!

The Secret To Superhuman Strength - The Story Of Milo Of Croton

Milo was born in Croton and was the strongest wrestler of his time.

Milo was fabled to have the strength to carry a full grown bull on his back!

How did Milo achieve this superhuman strength?

The story goes:

As a boy, Milo lifted a calf on his back everyday.

At first, lifting the calf was easy, but as the calf grew, the task of lifting it became harder.

But Milo didn’t stop lifting the calf.

Until one day, the calf grew into a bull and Milo had the strength to carry a full grown bull!

But what can we take away from the origins of Milo’s superhuman strength?

In order to make progress, you must train harder over time!

This is the principle of progressive overload. It is the universal truth by which elite athletes gain superior size and strength.

Your strength training can never get easier! If it did, you’d get weaker and your muscles would get smaller.

Muscles move things around.

If you don’t give your muscles a reason to grow, they won’t. Your body will delete what it doesn’t need!

Of course, nobody is asking you to lift a baby bull!

But you can lift yourself up, this is what calisthenics is all about!

But is your bodyweight enough to build muscle and strength?

Read More: Calisthenics Vs. Weights – Which Is Better?

And what are the optimal muscle and strength building rep ranges when it comes to calisthenics?

Read on to find out.

Optimal Rep Ranges For Progressing With Calisthenics

Rep ranges matter.

Higher intensities (tougher exercises) will force you to work with lower reps.

While lower intensities (easier exercises) will allow you to work with higher reps (more volume).

For example, dips are tougher to than regular push ups.

This means that you won’t get as many repetitions with dips as you could with regular push ups.

But how does this matter?

The number of reps you get with an exercise matters because; rep ranges dictate the type of adaptation in the muscle.

Lower rep ranges (higher intensities) result in more strength adaptations, while also building some muscle.

While higher rep ranges (higher volumes) result in more muscular hypertrophy and some strength gain.

And even higher volumes will take you into the endurance rep ranges.

The lines between rep ranges are blurry.

It is hard to tell where adaptations in one rep range starts and ends.

This is because there is a lot of overlap between the rep ranges.

But, if your goal is maximum hypertrophy and strength then you must stay away from the endurance rep range.

The bars below will show you rep ranges for muscular strength, hypertrophy and endurance.

For strength and hypertrophy training, keep your sets within the 1-12 rep range, straying beyond only on occasion.

Don’t just keep increasing your volume forever!

Working outside the strength-hypertrophy rep range, won’t get you stronger!

More than 15-20 reps/set should rarely be exceeded when building muscle.

If you are able to achieve 12- 15 reps in an exercise, it is time to increase the intensity and lower the volume.

This manipulation of volume and intensity can be done using the calisthenics progression systems below!

Strength Training
1 - 5 REPETITIONS
Hypertrophy Training
6-15 REPETITIONS
Endurance training
20+ REPETITIONS

 

For strength and hypertrophy training, keep your sets within the 1-12 rep range, straying beyond only on occasion.

Don’t just keep increasing your volume forever!

Working outside the strength-hypertrophy rep range, won’t get you stronger!

More than 15-20 reps/set should rarely be exceeded when building muscle.

If you are able to achieve 12- 15 reps in an exercise, it is time to increase the intensity and lower the volume.

This manipulation of volume and intensity can be done using the calisthenics progression systems below!

Calisthenics Progression Systems – The Training Techniques Of Top Calisthenics Athletes

“Calisthenics progression systems” manipulate the intensity and volume to make exercises harder.

Milo chose to manipulate intensity.

Every time the calf got heavier, Milo had to put more intensity into lifting the calf.

Milo could have also chosen to increase volume!

He could have picked the calf up twice a day instead of once!

The easiest way to increase intensity is to lift heavier weights. And the easiest way to increase volume is to do more sets and reps!

But since pure bodyweight calisthenics practitioners do not lift weights!

How do you increase the intensity of your bodyweight exercises?

By using the calisthenics progression systems mentioned below:

  1. High Frequency Training
  2. Form And Technique Training
  3. Speed And Acceleration Training
  4. High Volume Calisthenics Training
  5. Range Of Motion Training
  6. Relative Strength Training
  7. Changing Leverages (High Intensity Calisthenics Training)
  8. Unilateral Training
  9. Time Under Tension Training
  10. Pre-Exhaustion Training
  11. Post-Exhaustion Training
  12. Density Training

NOTE:

Using the calisthenics progression systems mentioned below will give you a calisthenics program that you can use for the rest of your calisthenics journey!

High Frequency Training

Increasing the frequency of your training is one way to increase volume.

Frequency is the number of times you train a muscle group in a week.

Frequency is important, because the more you train the more chances you have to grow!

Doing pull ups twice a week instead of thrice will constitute an increase in frequency and thereby an increase in volume.

Increasing the frequency of an exercise also makes you better at performing that exercise.

This is because practice makes perfect, and an increased frequency means more practice.

But, it is easy to overdo frequency.

Remember, your muscles need time to rest and recover from the previous workout.

Overdoing both frequency, intensity, and volume can be a recipe for disaster, if not monitored properly.

A frequency of 2-3x per week per muscle group is a good starting point most beginner and intermediate trainees.

Form and Technique Training

Using good form is absolutely necessary when training. Neglecting proper form and technique can lead to injury.

But did you know that form improvement can work as progressive overload?

Using bad form, distributes load to muscle groups other than the targeted ones.

Thus, using bad form reduces the intensity on the targeted muscles.

Improving your form increases the intensity on the targeted muscles. This increases the force production of the targeted muscles thereby inducing progressive overload!

Improving your form will also reduce the risk of injury. This will keep your working out for a longer period of time as opposed to not training.

Once your form is good enough to move to the next calisthenics progression system, do so immediately!

Speed and Acceleration Training

Speed and acceleration training takes off where from improvement left off.

Increasing the speed and acceleration of your reps, forces the muscles to recruit more muscle fibers.

Training this way increases the intensity of each rep, thus increasing stress on the muscles.

It also increases your force and power production, thus making you more stronger and more explosive.

Once your form is on point, working to increase the speed and acceleration of your reps will act as progressive overload.

But just like form improvement, speed and acceleration training is hard to objectively quantify.

For example, it is hard to measure how explosive you’re being on a set of heavy weighted dips.

But, it is possible to measure acceleration on exercises like box jumps.

Because if you didn’t accelerate fast enough, you won’t be getting to the top of the box.

It is also easy to compromise form in this type of training. So make sure that your reps are as explosive as possible while using strict form!

Once the speed and acceleration of your reps are explosive and controlled, you can start manipulating volume!

High Volume Calisthenics Training

Now that your training frequency is optimal, your form is on point and your reps are explosive, it’s finally time to increase your volume!

Volume is easiest training variable to manipulate in bodyweight calisthenics.

Increasing a rep or set every time your train, is as simple as it gets.

The majority of your bodyweight calisthenics progression will come from manipulating volume.

Increasing volume makes your training harder by placing more stress on the muscle. This results in a bigger muscle.

When it comes to bodyweight calisthenics, volume is your best friend.

This is because volume manipulation is precise and progress can be easily tracked.

If you did more reps than last time, then you got bigger and stronger.

Its that simple.

But the High Volume Calisthenics Progression System isn’t perfect!

You cannot continue increasing reps and sets forever.

Well, you can, but your workouts will also take forever to end.

And going beyond a certain rep range won’t give you any strength benefits. At this point you’re mostly chasing the pump.

When you start an exercise that is hard to perform, naturally your reps will remain low.

Work on improving form and explosiveness on every rep, and as you get stronger, slowly increase your reps and sets.

Thus, you can move from the strength training rep range to the hypertrophy rep range this way.

Once you reach a rep target you’re happy with (maybe 12-15 reps ), then add sets or change the leverages of the exercise.

Increasing Range Of Motion

Making your muscles work through an increased range of motion forces them to do more work.

Firstly, all exercises must be performed within their maximum effective range of motion.

But, certain exercises can and benefit from adding extra range of motion.

Increasing range of motion in an exercise, increases the intensity of the exercise by forcing the muscles to do more work.

For example, knuckle push ups increase the range of motion of regular push ups.

Although the same can be done with gymnastics rings or parallettes, the principle remains the same.

Read More: Knuckle Push Ups – Do They Work Or Is There A Better Alternative?

Some exercises like handstand push ups already suffer from decreased range of motion. Your head touches the floor before your shoulders reach their maximum range.

This does not mean that handstand push ups are an easy exercise to perform, far from it.

But handstand push ups can be made harder by doing them on parallettes or any other elevated surface.

The same technique of increasing range of motion can be applied to pull ups as well!

Instead of bringing your chin above the bar, bringing your chest to the bar increases range of motion.

Increasing range of motion allows for maximum muscle and strength gains.

It is important to strive for maximum effective range of motion at the start of any exercise.

But, sometimes, increasing range of motion can be hard, especially in calisthenics.

If this is the case (as with handstand push ups), first start by trying to achieve perfect form.

Then increase reps, until the you reach the upper end of the strength-hypertrophy rep range (12-15 reps).

Once you achieve 12-15 reps with the exercise, try increasing range of motion.

This will increase the intensity, and reduce the volume, so you can continue making gains.

Once you’ve achieved maximum range of motion, it is time to move to the next calisthenics progression system!

Relative Strength Training – Increasing Your Strength To Body Weight Ratio

Relative strength is your strength to weight ratio; how strong you are relative to your body weight.

Strength to weight ratios are seen in sports that have weight classes, like:

  • Wrestling
  • Boxing
  • Powerlifting
  • Weightlifting

But strength to weight ratios apply to bodyweight calisthenics as well.

Calisthenics exercises are easier for individuals with lower body weights.

You will see many skinny calisthenics athletes performing gravity defying stunts like they were born doing it!

But these athletes are not strong for their body weight. It is their lower body weights that allow them to perform these stunts.

Lighter athletes have an advantage over those with heavier builds.

It is rare to see athletes with heavier builds performing elite calisthenics exercises.

A heavier athlete who is capable of doing a one arm pull up is far stronger than a lighter athlete who can do the same. He is pulling up more weight than his lighter counterpart.

Calisthenics trainees can use weight gain as a form of progressive overload.

In fact i think this is a highly underutilized form of progressive overload in the calisthenics world that no one is talking about!

Gaining significant amounts of bodyweight makes calisthenics exercises a lot harder to perform.

But calisthenics athletes do the opposite instead! They try and lose bodyweight so they can perform elite exercises easily.

This strategy comes at the cost of building less muscle and strength! It is counter intuitive to what you are training to achieve.

If you are trying to achieve gravity defying stunts, then by all means, lower your bodyweight.

But, if you are trying to get as big and string as possible with only your bodyweight, you have to get heavier!

Of course, if you are on a cut, or trying to lose weight, this is a different story.

But the best way to use relative strength training is on a bulk! Don’t be afraid of putting on a little fat, you can go on a cut and lose it later!

Focus on building as much size and strength as possible!

Changing Leverages (High Intensity Calisthenics Training)

The main way to increase intensity with bodyweight calisthenics is by changing leverages.

Placing the body in a disadvantageous position places more emphasis on certain muscle groups over others. This increases the intensity of the exercise.

Increasing the intensity allows you to reduce reps and stay within the strength-hypertrophy rep range.

Take push ups for example. If you can do 20 regular push ups, you’re working in the endurance rep range.

Switching to close grip push ups shifts emphasis to the triceps, thus forcing you to reduce reps.

Read More: Diamond Push Ups Or Close Grip Push Ups – Which Is Better? 

Increasing volume will only take you so far.

Doing more sets and reps make your workouts go on forever.

Read More: High Volume Calisthenics – Why It Sucks.

This is where changing leverages comes into play.

Once you pass the hypertrophy rep range, its time to increase the intensity of your exercises and reduce the reps.

NOTE: Dramatically changing leverages can completely change the muscles worked during the exercise.

Switching from regular to close grip push ups works the triceps more than the chest and shoulders.

While transitioning to decline push ups, shifts emphasis to the upper chest and shoulders.

You’re still performing pushing movements in the exercises above. But you’re not working the same muscles that you were in regular push ups.

Once you’ve changed leverages, you can:

  • Slowly improve form and technique
  • Improve speed and acceleration of your reps
  • Increase range of motion (if possible) and
  • Increase volume, till you’re ready to transition to the next progression

You can run this exact same calisthenics progression system for life, till you reach the toughest variations of all calisthenics exercises.

You will then have to shift to unilateral training.

Unilateral Training

Unilateral training is the ultimate form of bodyweight calisthenics mastery.

Unilateral training consists of performing an exercise with only one limb at a time.

This means that you’ll be working the muscles of one side of the body instead of both.

Removing one limb from the equation introduces a bounty of challenges.

It places more weight on the working limb, thus increasing the intensity of the set.

Unilateral training also brings a balance component to the exercise. It places the body in a mechanically disadvantageous position that makes the exercise harder to perform.

But, there are several cons when it comes to training this way.

Unilateral training takes longer to complete than bilateral training.

To work both limbs, you would have to perform two different sets – one for each limb.

Secondly, it is hard to replicate perfect form with both limbs.

Moving the non dominant part of your body the same way as the dominant side is difficult. This could lead to force production imbalances in the long run.

Unilateral training is also highly dependent on your weaker limb.

To train both limbs equally, you have to limit your dominant limb to the same reps as the non-dominant or weaker one.

Thus, unilateral training can hold you back from achieving optimal gains.

But, if you choose to limit yourself to bodyweight calisthenics, unilateral training is the way to go!

  • When using unilateral training, make sure to start with your weaker limb first. This will ensure that you get even reps with both limbs.
  • Do not work both limbs in the same set. Dedicate only one set to each limb at a time
  • Unilateral training should be used as a last resort at progressive overload. If you’re a beginner other progression systems will allow you to milk your strength and size gains longer.

This is because unilateral training is an advanced bodyweight training modality.

Focusing on improving the basics with other progression methods will serve you better.

So what do you do now that you’ve reached elite level of bodyweight mastery?

The following advanced calisthenics progression training systems will help!

Reducing Rest Times – Density Training

Longer rest times between sets play a crucial role in strength training.

If you want to get stronger, you must rest enough to complete your targeted reps and sets for the day.

But, reducing your rest times between sets is another way to increase the intensity of the next set.

This involves doing more or the same amount of work in less time.

If you are able to complete the same or more sets and reps in less time, it means you have gotten stronger.

NOTE: Do NOT attempt to reduce rest times at the cost of missing reps.

Achieving your targeted reps and sets will give you more results than missing them in an attempt to reduce rest times!

The calisthenics progression systems mentioned above allow for more than enough stimulus for your muscles to grow.

Only attempt to reduce rest times once you have completely mastered a movement.

Time Under Tension Training

Time under tension is the opposite of speed and acceleration training. The aim is to induce higher intensities at the same or lower reps.

This is done by increasing the time taken to perform each rep.

Time under tension training places the muscles under mechanical tension for longer.

This induces more stress on the muscle while also pumping more blood.

Post Exhaustion Training

Post exhaustion training involves taking sets past technical failure. It must be done with the utmost care for form and technique.

Reaching technical failure means that no more repetitions can be done with good form.

NOTE: Recovery must be accounted for when performing post exhaustion training.

It is easy to dig yourself into a hole that it will be hard to recover from if you go too far with this training technique.

Once you can do no more reps, you can use one of the following techniques to take your set past failure:

  • Rest-Pause Sets
  • Partial Reps
  • Static Holds
  • Negative Reps
These training techniques are listed below!

Pre-Exhaustion Training

Pre-exhausting the muscles before your main set increases the intensity of the set.

The idea is to perform an exercise that targets the muscles worked during the main set.

Choosing the right exercise to pre-exhaust the muscles is important.

The exercise chosen to pre-exhaust the muscles must be easier to do than the main set.

The idea is to perform the main exercise in a state of relative fatigue.

For example, perform bodyweight rows before performing your pull ups.

This will increase the amount of stress the muscles experience during pull ups.

Rest-Pause Sets

To perform rest pause sets:

Pause a couple of seconds after you fail the main set (say about 10-15 seconds) and then perform a few more reps.

Pausing briefly allows some of the fatigue that has built up during the main set to dissipate.

Rest-pause training takes the main set beyond technical failure. It a also adds volume and intensity to your training.

If done right, every set after the main set will end with fewer and fewer reps, until you have nothing left in the tank!

Partial Reps

As the name suggests, partial reps training involves the use of half reps.

Half reps have always been a pet peeve of mine.

Doing partials is never the best way to build size and strength, when used as your main training modality.

Taking your muscles through the longest range of motion is key to maximizing your gains.

But, partial reps have their place in bodyweight training. They can take the set past technical failure.

After completing the main set, take some time and perform partial reps. These reps must be done at the hardest part of the movement.

For example the top half of the pull up.

Then rest a little again and perform partials in the easiest part of the movement – the bottom half of the pull up.

Do this until you cannot perform any more partial reps.

Negative Reps

Negative reps include only the negative or eccentric part of the movement.

Negative reps can be used with a variety of different calisthenics movements.

Negative reps can also be used if you don’t have the strength to perform a new exercise. Ex: Negative Push Ups.

Read More: Negative Push Ups – Are Incline Push Ups Better?

Your muscles are stronger in the negative part of any movement, compared to the positive!

So, if you don’t have the strength to do the positive part of the lift, you can build strength in the negative.

To use negative reps as a post exhaustion technique:

After completing the main work set, wait for a few seconds and start doing negative reps.

This will take your set past technical failure.

Static Holds

Static holds can be done at many different positions within the rep range of the exercise.

For example, you can hold the rep at the top, middle, or bottom positions of any exercise.

Static holds place the muscles under isometric contraction.

Holding a rep at peak muscle contraction during the exercise will be the hardest.

For example, holding the top part of the pull up. The middle and the bottom positions of the exercise will be progressively easier.

I am not a fan of static holds for muscle building, but static holds do have their place in post as well as pre-exhaustion training.

Static holds can be used after or even during the main set.

Here’s a sample workout using all the post exhaustion techniques mentioned above:

You can also use all these techniques together in one giant set.

  • First do your main set to technical failure.
  • Rest 15 seconds
  • Perform one rest pause set
  • Rest 15 seconds
  • Perform one set of partial reps
  • Rest 15 seconds
  • Perform one set of negative reps
  • Perform one set of static holds

NOTE: This is only an EXAMPLE of what is possible with post-exhaustion training!

My Favorite Calisthenics Progression System - Weighted Calisthenics

Okay, if you’ve gotten this far, I’ve saved the best for last.

Weighted calisthenics is the perfect progression system.

It is:

  • Precise and measurable
  • Sustainable
  • Simple to implement
  • Effective and efficient

10 lbs is 10 lbs, you’ve either added it to your work set and gotten stronger or you haven’t.

  1. It is sustainable as only your strength is the limiting factor. It is simple and easy to implement, just add weight and you’re good to go.
  2. It is time efficient, unlike high volume calisthenics or unilateral training.
  3. Weighted calisthenics is the way I choose to train.

If you’re going the weighted calisthenics route, you wont regret it.

Weighted calisthenics will take your strength and physique to the next level.

Conclusion:

All calisthenics progression systems manipulate Volume and Intensity.

Not utilizing these calisthenics training systems will hinder your calisthenics progress!

As a beginner or intermediate calisthenics athlete; there are certain calisthenics progression systems that are better than others.

These calisthenics progression systems must be exhausted first, before moving onto the others.

They are:

  1. High Frequency Training
  2. Form And Technique Training
  3. Speed And Acceleration Training
  4. High Volume Calisthenics Training
  5. Range Of Motion Training
  6. Relative Strength Training
  7. Changing Leverages (High Intensity Calisthenics Training)
  8. Unilateral Training
  1. High Frequency Training: Before you start any calisthenics training program, make sure to set the frequency of your training right. The best training frequency for beginner and intermediate calisthenics athletes is 2-3x per muscle group per week. 
  2. Form and technique: Technique must be sorted and analysed before any progression takes place. Form and technique reduce the risk of injury. Once your form is good enough to progress, move o the next calisthenics progression system.
  3. Speed And Acceleration: Training You should try and improve speed and acceleration of every rep from the beginning. Improving the speed and acceleration of your reps is an ongoing process and must never end. Use this form of training throughout your calisthenics journey.
  4. Volume: The next and easiest progression system to use is the volume progression system. Increase volume until you reach the end of the hypertrophy rep range mentioned above. Make sure can perform at least 4 sets of 12-15 reps on an exercise before you move to the next progression system. This is a general guideline, it doesn’t have to be exactly 12 or 15 reps. You could progress earlier, depending on the exercise and your proficiency with it.
  5. Increasing ROM: As speed training ongoing (every rep must be done as fast as possible), increasing ROM is next. It is finally time to increase the intensity of your workouts and drop the volume back down a little. Increasing range of motion is the best way to do this as it will still keep you in the hypertrophy rep range. Keep working, until your reps rise beyond the hypertrophy ranges. It’s time to bring your intensity up again.
  6. Relative Strength Training: If you are on a bulk, try gaining weight to aid your calisthenics progression. Gaining weight will provide much needed intensity to your calisthenics workout. If you are cutting, skip this step.
  7. Changing Leverages: So your form is good, your volume is high and you’re using maximum effective range of motion. It’s time to progress to a more advanced version of the exercise. This is what all calisthenics athletes must strive for – advanced exercise variations. Choose wisely, don’t jump the gun. Select an advanced variation that brings your reps down low enough but not too low. Then follow all the progressions listed above, before moving to the next variation.
  8. Unilateral Training: Unilateral training should be your last resort when progressively overloading a movement. Milk the previous methods of progressive overload before switching to unilateral training. Doing so will give you the most gains. This does not mean that unilateral training is useless. Pure bodyweight enthusiasts will end up training with unilateral movements. Your reps should drop back down to compensate for the increased intensity. At this point every other calisthenics progression system can be added used for maximum gains!

Using these calisthenics progression systems in the order mentioned above will have you progressing for years on end!

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