While it’s also possible to gain significant muscle mass with just calisthenics, this is not my main concern. Most of the time, I want to get better at calisthenics moves, which is what I mostly want to help everyone with who reads the articles on this site.
Read on to learn the best methods for effective strength improvement.
The key to effective strength training is to internalize the following mantra: Strength is a skill.
This one time at the bar, I watched two guys arm wrestling. They both looked quite capable, physically, though they were built very differently.
One guy looked like a real fitness buff who hits the gym religiously to work on those biceps curls. The other guy had a much more scrawny look to him, while still looking generally fit. He could have been a rock climber or something.
When they both started arm wrestling, the expression on the big guy’s face was priceless. He was so startled that he actually had to really fight to not lose this testosterone infused contest. It looked like someone stole his lunch money.
End of story: The scrawny kid won (he was like: “Do you even lift?”). The big guy, while wiping his pride off the floor, tried to figure out what happened. Intending to save some of his dignity, he declared: “Well, you must have better technique than me.”
It sounded like he wanted to say that he is still the strongest guy at the bar, he was just outsmarted — yes, tricked — by this skinny guy (I wonder how that’s any better).
But, are you really stronger if you lose a strength competition?
Strength and Technique
The thought of technique vs. strength stuck with me. Where is the difference between technique and strength? Is there any?
Strength is the effectiveness of generating force with your muscles to perform a certain movement, while overcoming some kind of resistance.
I’d say in the story above, scrawny kid was definitely stronger at arm wrestling than meat head. He simply generated more force than the other guy to press his opponents hand down. If you can throw a baseball wider than me, you have a stronger throw than me. Nobody cares if I am not properly angling my arm to throw the ball, you are just stronger at this thing.
Olympic powerlifters certainly don’t just pick up the barbell until they get their pump. They tweak little thinks like their posture, feet positioning, timing and gripping the barbell right. They practice until they’ve optimized their way of lifting the barbell, so that they can lift the maximum weight possible. In other words, they get stronger through perfecting technique. They do this by going through the movement patters a hundred times and more per week.
They don’t work out, they practice.
Practice, Practice, Practice
There is more to strength than just having big muscles. It’s the same thing with racing cars: If two cars are tested on a race circuit, it’s not only their motor power that is crucial to speed. The quality of their tires, the handling and the experience of the driver play a huge role. And at the end of the day, the car with the best time was the fastest car. Period.
So let’s say you just have that one racing car, but still want to hit another best time at a specific race circuit. How do you do it? You are driving the freaking circuit an awful lot of times. You will hit the finish line so many times that you could drive with blind folds.
The same applies to strength training. Want to get better at pistols? Do a lot of pistols.
Your new muscle is your nervous system. You’re gonna train this one hard.
Basically you want to teach yourself to perform a certain movement as effective as possible. You’re not focusing on stressing your muscles (which is the conventional way: stressing the muscle so hard that it adapts in a way so that it grows bigger and a bit stronger). By training the nervous system, you adapt by using your muscles in a smarter way.
Let me illustrate that with another example. Let’s say you want to shoot something (I know, I have terrible examples). How do you make sure you hit your target? Your first option is to buy a bigger gun. Maybe you get a big massive cannon. With that cannon, you don’t have to struggle too much with aiming. If you get the direction just approximately right, you will hit your target.
I would argue that the smarter and more effective way is to work on your marksmanship with the gun you already have. That way you don’t have to buy a ridiculously big cannon, which can be quite expensive and bulky to carry with you.
A reasonable approach could be to get a slightly bigger gun (one that’s sturdier and makes it easier to aim with) and practice aiming with that one.
And this is what will probably happen if you treat strength training as skill practice. Your body adapts by activating more fibers in the muscles involved in a certain movement (meaning your nervous system adapted by firing signals to more muscle cells). This is also physically noticeable: When you contract your muscles, they feel much harder than they would if you just concentrated on hypertrophy.
You also get a better feel for a movement once you practice it thoroughly, which means you position your whole body for better leverage and activate your core more to allow for improved stability.
Along the way, you will naturally build some muscle. You can only build a limited amount of strength without gaining size. Some say this is a nice side effect of pure strength training, but it’s the other way around: Gains in muscle size is necessary to gain a certain level of strength.
You can use this to your advantage by periodizing your workout routine: Do a bodybuilding routine for a few weeks (buy bigger guns) and then switch over to a strength-only routine (learn to handle those new, bigger guns).
Even if your main concern is adding muscle mass, you will still benefit from being just stronger. More strength allows you to perform exercises with higher resistance, which in turn will lead to faster growth (given you eat and sleep right).
How to Practice Strength
Now that you know you should practice your feats of strength like skills, how do you actually practice them?
You do the exact opposite of what the average gym rat tells you:
- Do not train to failure at all
- Rest a lot between sets (about five minutes)
- Practice often, ideally almost everyday
- Concentrate on perfecting form
Your goal is not to get any kind of burn or pump in your muscles. You want to avoid major muscle soreness (though a bit soreness won’t kill you), which prevents you from training again, and a high training frequency is what you want in order to gain pure strength.
You want to do your practice sets always in a fresh state. This means you will mostly do sets of 2-3 reps. Those repetitions should still be very hard. But this also means you can do more sets (around five or more is something to aim for), which gives you more practice. The goal is to do the movement as often as possible, without fatiguing your muscles.
Doing only 2-3 reps per set allows you to fully concentrate on the current movement. For every rep, put all your effort into performing this one rep with perfect form. Squeeze every muscle necessary for this movement as hard as possible.
Effective Practice Routine
Naturally, there are lots of possible routines to implement this practice.
One rather popular is Greasing the Groove (GTG), made famous by russian strength expert Pavel Tsatsouline (highly recommend his book The Naked Warrior. A must read for every strength and calisthenics enthusiast). Basically it works like this: Pick a skill you want to improve, do lots of sets throughout the day. But each set, you only do around 30% of your maximum rep number for this exercise.
While GTG is a super effective method for developing strength, it never proved to be practical for me. Especially if I want to work on bar movements, it is hard to go and find a bar every 2 hours to do my practice set.
I like it simple and therefore I like to get my practice done in one session, with laser focus, and then get on with life. And repeat the next day.
I also don’t like sitting around five minutes doing nothing. With all the moves I want to practice, I could easily spend one full hour just resting between sets. In order to make my training sessions more time efficient, I do circuits or super-sets. I usually pick a few skills that emphasize different muscle groups. That way, one muscle group can recover while I use the time and practice another skill.
Doing circuits also provides quite some intensity. While keeping my muscles fresh for the next practice set, I still can break a sweat. I like that my workouts still feel like workouts. But bear in mind that breaking a major sweat and destroying yourself is not the purpose of these workouts. Focused, productive practice is what these workouts are all about. Also, be sure to log your results and to stick to a consistent routine.
The programming depends on your own, personal goals. It’s absolutely honorable to train not only for strength, but also for muscle mass or endurance or just to burn calories to slim down.
With these tips, you should have a solid basis of principles on how to train if your main concern is getting better at calisthenics and getting really strong.