Everybody who is somewhat involved with strength training does it for a specific reason: recompositioning their bodies, getting stronger to peform better in sports, to boost general mood and health or just as a recreational hobby.
The question is: How do you train to achieve that specific goal of yours?
One of the great things about bodyweight strength training is that you don’t need a gym and can train on your own terms. The downside (and possible upside): You are the only one who is responsible for your progress. No one tells you what and when and how and how much to do. Apart from the motivational factor, this can be quite a challenge.
So, how do you set up a strength training routine? I think I found a system that finally worked for me. Read on to see what it looks like.
First and foremost, you need to know what you want. Deciding what you want with the intention of getting it is called goal setting. This can be either aiming for perfecting a movement, or progressing to something harder or various body recompositioning goals. As long as you keep the following list in mind, all goals are good goals.
- Be specific: You need to be precise here. “Getting better at handstands” or “working on core strength” won’t cut it. Instead, set goals like “hold a free handstand for 20 seconds” or “hold L-sit and back bridge for 30 seconds”.
Without any specific goal in mind, programming doesn’t even make sense, because you don’t have any real motivation behind your training. Of course you can “enjoy the process”, but if there is no defined process, what’s there to enjoy?
- Be realistic: The goals have to be realistic, too. If all you can muster up is five good regular push-ups, training with the primary goal of doing one-arm push-ups is not a good idea. This will lead to program hopping and makes your training inconsistent. In the end, you won’t achieve any of your goals.
Instead, aim lower. Something you can accomplish in six to eight weeks, like going from five to twenty good push-ups, is a good goal.
- Limit your number of goals: You don’t want to spread your focus and your physical capabilities too much. Choose about three goals that you want to focus on for the next couple of weeks. After you nailed those, you can tackle new things.
- Write it down: Actually make a list of things you want to achieve. Write it on the first page of your training log (more on that later). All your training sessions have to be based on those goals. This form of accountability will keep your training consistent.
Diligent obedience to your workout plan is crucial in order to reach your goals any time soon. Consistency over time will get you there. But nobody wants to do the same old boring thing over and over again for more than a couple of months.
This is where periodization enters the game. Periodization is a tool to smoothly shift your training focus. This keeps your routines fresh while avoiding program hopping.
Shifting is really the important thing here.
Training push-ups for six weeks, then six weeks of squats and four weeks of L-sits is jumping too much. It’s not very effective.
The goal of a smooth change of focus is to complement the different training periods with each other. The next training period should build on the one before.
Going from dips and planks to L-sit training is much smoother, because the exercises have a lot of carry-over to each other.
So you’ve set your goals and have a specific time frame in which you want to achieve those goals. Now is the time to plan according to your goals.
There are three factors that determine a workout plan: Frequency, intensity and volume.
Frequency: This is the number of training days, i.e. days per week when you actually do a proper strength training session.
Intensity: How hard is each single rep that you perform for a given exercise (relative intensity)? An exercise is very intense if you can only do 2-3 consecutive reps with clean form. How intense is the set (absolute intensity)? If you still have 5 reps in the tank, the set was not very intense. Overall intensity is a product of relative and absolute intensity.
Volume: This refers to the number of sets (per week) you did of one exercise.
In order to ensure optimal recovery (because recovering from the workout is what makes you stronger, not the workout itself), those three factors have to be balanced. You cannot do high volume, high intensity and high frequency simultaneously for each exercise.
If you like to train very intense or if intense training gives you the best progress possible for your goals, you have to train less often. And you possibly have to reduce overall volume as well.
Also note that you have to take into account if two exercises target similiar muscle groups. Doing an intense session of one-arm push-ups probably makes you too sore to do dips the next day.
In order to engineer this kind of balance, there are two options: You can do full body workouts a couple of times per week, split workouts (one or two muscle groups per workout) or some form of high intensity interval training (HIIT). Splits are usually push/pull/leg (all pushing exercises on one day, on another day pulling and legs on a separate day, as well) or upper/lower body. Neither is superior, use the one that works best for you.
As a general rule of thumb for beginners: Always do full body workouts. As a newbie, you recover faster from workouts, because you are not able to work out very intense, yet. You will make very fast gains compared to an intermediate or advanced trainee. You can maximize your beginner gains by doing full body workouts as often as you can (everytime you are not sore is a good opportunity to work out).
Here are a few guidelines to match a routine with a goal, which are by no means fixed rules.
Strength endurance: Full body workouts with medium intensity. You can throw in tabatas or other forms of HIIT. Circuit training with almost no rest between exercises and a short resting time (about one minute) between circuits is great to work on your cardiovascular capabilities. Aim for 3-5 circuits of 5-6 exercises. A wide rep range of 5-30 repitions per exercise will work, depending on the type of exercise. A medium frequency of 4 sessions per week works well here.
Absolute strength: Strength workouts are like practice. Do lots of sets (5 per session is good) with limited reps (2-5) and lots of rest (about 5 minutes) between sets. Relative intensity is high, while absolute intensity is medium high. This means you’ll do very hard exercises, but you’ll leave a few reps in the tank. Splitting or not depends on how advanced you are and how many skills you’re working on. If it’s just a few exercises each week (3-5), a full body routine where you rotate through the exercises is enough. If it’s more, you can start thinking about splitting your workouts by muscle groups so you have time to recover for the next time you hit each body part. High training frequency (6 sessions per week) is recommended.
Build muscle: This again depends on your strength levels. If you’re already very strong, a full body routine might not be enough to work each muscle to trigger growth. 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise with medium rest (2-3 minutes) works well for me. Choose compound exercises and keep intensity high. I like to do super-sets (two exercises are performed one after another, like a mini-circuit) to save some time. Sprinting is a great way to boost muscle growth.
A three or two split might work best, with a low to medium frequency (3-4 training sessions each week) yields good results in my experience. Eat more.
Reduce body fat: Eat real food. Once you’ve got that dialed in, you can think about the right workout regimen. I like to do one sprint session, one full-body HIIT and 1 or 2 full body strength circuit training sessions per week. I also try to walk more than usual. But diet is much more important than training when it comes to body recompositioning. You could also get good results by just eating right no matter how you program your workouts.
In order to reach your goals, you need to get closer to them each week by making subtle changes to your routine.
Working out without weights makes implementing progressive overload (increasing mechanical stress on muscles) a bit more of a creative task.
There are several ways to progress in calisthenics. Below, I listed the most common ones and explain how and when to use them. Make sure to check with the recommendations above, so that all your parameter adjustments still fit your goals (for example, adding 30 reps to your push-ups won’t help very much for muscle building if you can already do 50).
- Adding reps: Obviously, an exercise gets harder if you have to do it more often without rest. Keep in mind that adding 1 rep per set is tremendous progress if you do several sets.
- Adding sets: This makes especially sense when you’re working on skills. The more sets you can do, the more practice you get. This can also be used to work endurance (adding another circuit to your workout). I don’t recommend this for building muscle, where intensity is more important than volume.
- Decrease rest: This gets your heart rate up, which in turn works your endurance. This can be used for HIIT by keeping the exercises the same but adjusting the work/rest ratio of the intervals.
- Increasing leverage: The classic way to progress in calisthenics is to change the leverage so that exercises will be harder. You can, for example, elevate your feet during push-ups. This way, more weight rests on your hands and pushing gets harder. Taking away points of contact also falls into this category. (Points of contact are the points on which your weight is distributed. In most cases, these are your hands and feet.) So doing an exercise with one extremety instead of two usually makes it significantly harder. Another example is shortening and lengthening your body in relation to the points of contact. Hanging knee raises are easier than hanging leg raises.
- Increasing range of motion (ROM): For example, you can try to touch the bar with your chest during pull-ups instead of just getting the chin over it. You can elevate the hands on two platforms during push-ups, so that you can lower yourself down more in relation to your hands. Instead of bringing your legs parallel to the ground during hanging leg raises, you can try to touch the bar with your toes. Exercises will be harder and more muscle fibers will be activated.
- Change the dynamics: Do the exercise faster (more power) or slower (more time under tension). You can do clapping push-ups instead of regular push-ups, or you can do them very slow. Both have their benefits. Always keep strict form, no matter the exercise tempo. It should always feel like you are in control of your movements.
- All of the above: Progress in multiple dimensions by combining the progression methods above. Choosing only one method is usually too limiting and will result in plateauing. A good way to combine these methods is to go back and forth with them. For example, you could start a progression by performing an exercise 3×5 (3 sets, 5 reps). Each, session, you try to add one rep per set, until you are able to do 3×10. Next time, you’ll do 4×5, work your way up to 4×10, then 5×5 to 5×10, at which point you could think about choosing a more difficult exercise and start again at 3×5. Be creative here.
Knowing if a certain program works for you or not is not easy to classify if you just eyeball it. You should write down beforehand what you are going to do in a workout (exercises, sets and planned reps).
It’s best to keep all your workout related notes in one place: a workout log.
You can buy a paper notebook for this, log everything digitally with Evernote or a smartphone app, or a simple text-file on your desktop, or get fancy and create spreadsheets. Or subscribe to the Neat Newsletter and get my minimalist workout log.
The medium is not important. You just need a system that works for you, one you like using. By consistently logging your workouts and progress, you’ll have far more control over your routine.
By sketching out a routine beforehand, you’ll have more focus during your workout, because you don’t need to think about it when working out. You can just do it.
Parameters worth logging are:
- Sets and reps
- Resting time
- Dynamics (3 seconds moving up, 5 seconds moving down for push-ups, for example)
- Mood/engery level (how you “feel”), rated on a scale from 1 to 10
- Leverage (feet elevated 5 inches, 10 inches, etc.)
You don’t need to log everything with a stop watch, but write down if you did extreme slow push-ups or plyometric variations. Every log entry should be comparable to future and past entries.
Logging your results (resting time, sets, reps, etc.) gives you a tool to analyze your progress. You will actually know that you’re plateauing, in which case you can work on a solution. It is also motivating, because you see the numbers of your last workout and know what to increase to actually be better than last time. But do yourself a favor and be honest. By counting half-assed reps as full reps, you’re only lying to yourself.
There you have it, an in-depth guide on how to design your own workout routines. You can now end your subscriptions for Men’s Health, Women’s Health and what not. I just taught you how to fish. Now go fish.