When I talk about what I do to stay fit and that I have a website explaining it, the conversation often turns to the subject of workout routines.
Everybody is interested in the one program that will get them the results they hope for, be it getting lean, strong, big or just generally more fit. The problem with such preassembled routines is that the person that has to do them is not part of the equation. In order to create a routine that works for you, I need to find out your current levels of strength, conditioning, mobility, the specific goal and many other little factors.
And once you start doing your workouts consistently, all those levels change and we need to adjust the program. As it’s often the case, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Although you’re asking for a program, what you really want and need is a system.
Luckily, I came up with a nice system that’s targeted towards building strength and resilience. Read on to find out how it works.
Let’s call this program Strength Essentials. I’ve adapted this routine from the famous StrongLifts 5×5 routine. It’s a great barbell routine focusing on compound lifts and putting strength first, hypertrophy second. If I were into barbells, this is probably what I would do. Head over to stronglifts.com if you want to learn more about it.
But for us calisthenics people, adding weight is not an option. We like to keep it simple, just head to some place with some sort of bar and some space to do our workout.
To emulate a StrongLifts-like calisthenics routine, I came up with the following methods and exercises.
I simply substituted the exercises from StrongLifts with calisthenic moves that put emphasis on similar muscle groups, but still allow for some change of leverage so there is room to progress. Here is what I came up with:
|Bench Press||One-arm Push-up (OAPU)|
|Overhead Press||Handstand Push-up (HSPU)|
Follow the links I provided for the calisthenic exercises above for progressions. You don’t need to be able to do each of these exercises in order to start the program! I will explain in a later section how to choose the right starting progression and how to progress during the program.
Anybody who has read Convict Conditioning by Paul “Coach” Wade will recognize that these are 5 from the Big Six that Wade describes in his system. I left out leg raises, because they are not a necessity. Your core gets plenty of work during the other 5 exercises.
As you see, I have substituted deadlifts with bridges. Sadly, no exercise that I know of, be it bodyweight or barbell lift, does the deadlift justice. It’s a killer exercise that works your whole body from head to toe, with emphasis on the hamstrings, lower back, abdominals, upper back and trapezius. It’s one of the most effective exercises there is, period.
Luckily though, most of the other substitutes I chose are a better deal. The OAPU uses way more muscles than bench pressing does, due to the high tension you have to maintain throughout your body (especially the obliques). To keep the balance during pistols, you activate more core muscles (including the lower back). Also, HSPUs and pull-ups are to me more functional than barbell rows and overhead presses.
So overall, doing the exercises above in a StrongLifts 5×5 fashion should yield similar results. If you choose the right progression for every exercise, you will get a similar hormonal response as if you did heavy barbell lifting, and thus you will also likely build some muscle.
This is also a very straight forward substitution of the StrongLifts program. It’s two workouts, A and B. You work out three days a week, for example Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Workouts A and B alternate each training day. You will do pistols in every workout.
A typical two week workout series looks like this:
|Pistol 5×5||Pistol 5×5||Pistol 5×5|
|OAPU 5×5||HSPU 5×5||OAPU 5×5|
|Pull-Up 5×5||Bridge Hold||Pull-Up 5×5|
|Pistol 5×5||Pistol 5×5||Pistol 5×5|
|HSPU 5×5||OAPU 5×5||OAPU 5×5|
|Bridge Hold||Pull-Up 5×5||Bridge Hold|
5×5 means you will do five sets of five reps of each exercise. For one-legged or one-armed exercises, this means 5×5 for each leg or each arm, consecutively.
I don’t like to do bridges for reps (with one rep being coming up into bridge and coming down shortly after). You don’t get the same benefits. Repping out on bridges puts more emphasis on triceps and shoulders. Those get plenty of work during OAPUs and HSPUs. Also, you would get a less deeper stretch from bridges from doing just reps. And the time under tension in the lower back and hamstrings would be much lower.
For this reason, staying in the bridge position for a certain amount of time for 5 sets reaps the most benefits.
You will do all sets of one exercise in a row. For instance, on Monday, you’ll do 5 sets of pistols, then 5 sets of HSPUs followed by 5 bridge holds. Resting time between sets is 90 seconds.
Now, let’s see how we emulate the linear progression of constantly adding weight to the barbell each workout session. This is obviously the main advantage of using heavy weights: Measuring and implementing progress is much simpler. But it’s not impossible with bodyweight exercises, you just have to know how.
To get details on the progressions of the calisthenic exercises, have a look at the Neat Progressions. Or you can use the direct links above in the section “The Exercises”.
Where do I start?
How you start this program is crucial for success. You have to start ridiculously easy on each progression. That’s the magic of StrongLifts. StrongLifts proposes that you start with 50% of your 5 rep max (5RM, the maximum weight you’re able to lift for 5 consecutive reps) if you already have barbell experience, and just the bar if you have none. That way, you allow yourself to “grow” into the exercises.
So, unless you can do 25 perfect OAPUs, do NOT start with OAPUs right away. This applies to all other exercises in this program, as well. Even if you are an advanced trainee, put away your ego and use this program to polish your basic moves.
In order to find a starting point for your progressions, choose an exercise that you definitely know you can do for ten reps, five sets (5×10). And I don’t mean three sets of ten good reps and then two sets of ten half-assed reps. 5×10 with perfect form. If you’re not really sure if you can do it with the exercise you’re considering, choose an easier variation.
The first 2 to 4 weeks may seem like a breeze to you. You might be thinking I’m kidding you with this. I’m not.
The reason for starting so low is that you want to make the exercises slightly harder in each workout. You want to leave some room for improvement. This will give your joints and tendons time to catch up to the strength gains of your muscles. Also, doing this routine with the hardest exercises you’re able to perform is no cake walk. For example, I didn’t do a lot of HSPUs in the last couple of weeks. Doing them 5×5 would definitely get me sore shoulders. The slow adaptation to the volume that this routine offers is what makes it so effective.
When you finally get to the really hard variations like OAPUs and strict pistols through SLOWLY progressing to them, your body will have developed a resilience like never before. You will recover faster from your workouts and suffer less from delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
How to progress slowly
I propose you progress in two dimensions: Changing leverage and stopping at the “sticking points”. I explained these and other progressing methods in an earlier article. The short version: While doing a rep of an exercise, stop the rep and hold your position when it’s the most difficult.
For example, performing a squat, stop when your legs are parallel. Hold this for one second, then finish the rep.
You can do this on your way down or on your way up (up is slightly harder for most trainees). You can do this for both directions. You can vary the holding time from 1 to 5 seconds. That right there gives you ten little progressions with just one exercise.
Changing the leverage is the better known approach to progressing with calisthenics. Basically, you do harder and harder variations of an exercise by positioning your body in a less favorable way (elevating your feet, closer/wider hand or feet positioning, leaving out one extremity, etc.).
For bridge hold progressions: Just add more seconds to the hold and work your way up from straight bridges to full bridges. Throw in some extra stretches when you rest between bridge sets.
Dude, how slow does it have to be? I wanna do the fun stuff!
Slower than you’d like, probably. Impatience is the enemy of success here (as with everything that’s worthwhile learning). I’d suggest to include sticking points first, then change the leverage. You should change the leverage every 4 weeks AT THE MOST.
The closer you get to the high level exercises, the more you should work with sticking points. The reason for this is that leverage changes with high-level exercises add much more difficulty than doing so with their low-level variations (elevating your feet while doing regular push-ups is a much smaller step than adding the same feet elevation to OAPUs).
It seems that the whole sticking point and leverage progression thing is not so intuitive. So I’ll give you an example here. Bear in mind that this is just an example. Your own experience might be very different.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s consider the squat, because you’re going to train this 3 times a week, every week. Assume a trainee that starts this program with deep squats. Her first 4 weeks might look like this:
|1||Deep Squats 5×5||DS 5×5 +SP[d,1]||DS 5×5 +SP[d,1]|
|2||DS 5×5 +SP[d,2]||DS 5×5 +SP[d,3]||DS 5×5 +SP[d+u,3+1]|
|3||DS 5×5 +SP[d+u,3+2]||DS 5×5 +SP[d+u,3+3]||Narrow Squats 5×5|
|4||NS 5×5 +SP[d+1]||NS 5×5 +SP[d+2]||NS 5×5 +SP[d+3]|
Apologies for the cryptic notation. What this means is the following:
+SP = Sticking point added to each rep of each set
[d,1] = On the way down, hold for 1 second
[d+u,3+1] = Hold for 3 seconds on the way down, and hold for 1 second on your way up
Because she started with a relatively light exercise (considered that the exercise is only done 5 sets of 5 reps), she can add sticking point time every workout. Every session is a little success! This will give the joints and tendons time to develop and catch up to the muscles. Sticking to one exercise for a longer time and using sticking points also let’s you practice your form really effectively. For implementing sticking points with a 3 second hold on your way up and down, you really have to be in control of the movement!
Later on, when she’s worked her way up to assisted pistols, she might not be able to add a sticking point to each rep right away. In fact, the more advanced an exercise variation is, the less linear your progress is going to be.
As I mentioned in many of the Neat Progressions, there is no one way to progress to the very advanced exercises. You might have to go back and forth and try different progressions.
The Neat Essentials Program is just a nice way to establish a solid basis as well as a greater resilience. When you get to the point where you are experimenting with the advanced moves, you might tweak the program a bit. Maybe you’ll add a rep instead of a sticking point, so it’s not strict 5×5 anymore.
How to Use This in Your Overall Programming
To get real benefits out of this program, you have to stick to it for a couple of weeks and months. If you’re new to calisthenics, I suggest progressing with this system first before you add anything else to your training regimen. For advanced trainees, it’s a really good way to introduce some basics back into your strength training, basics you might have neglected to do more of the advanced stuff. You might even notice that you can improve the form of a couple of the “easy” exercises which will give you great benefits once you do the high level exercises again.
This routine is an overall goodie, because you will build up your resilience, strength and – if you eat right – some muscle mass along the way.
It’s a great tool to bust plateaus on the 5 exercises above. It’s also a great starting point for beginners. In fact, Strength Essentials is applicable for all trainees regardless of their level.
Have fun with this workout routine. If you stick to it for a couple of months, you will be a much stronger, more resilient individual.
Photos: Sabine A
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