Before we start, let me just praise you for ending up on this particular article.
Instead of looking for a common phrase like “how to do l-sit” or “how to do human-flag”, you actually looked for the most important word when it comes to any kind of workout. Progression!
You probably know the phrase, location, location, location when it comes to property. Well, for any kind of workout, we should say progression, progression, progression.
Honestly speaking, the biggest reason people fail with their fitness plans, be it calisthenics, running, bodybuilding, fat loss or whatever, is that they don’t progress the right way.
Over and over again, I have seen this happen and you can categorize the failures in two groups.
In this group, we have mostly the guys. They come in very enthusiastic and want to train like crazy. Basically every day. They add heavy weights and want to master very complex exercises in a few days. The air is so thick of testosterone you can hardly breathe. 🙂
The result is often loss of motivation for the younger guys as things doesn’t happen fast enough and then fatigue or injuries for the older guys. They give up after some weeks.
The split is probably 25% men and 75% women. They often start out right but they stay on the same level. They don’t have a long-term goal and no progression template.
The result is no results. Nothing happens, so why bother. They also give up after some weeks.
Starting out right and then a steady progression plan is mandatory to achieve any long-term goals and avoid early fatigue or injuries.
However, you are not one of these persons as you have looked for calisthenics progression and that is what we are going to talk about.
As I mentioned above, progression is important for any type of workout. However, when it comes to calisthenics it’s even more important.
When training with weights, the progression is a bit more straightforward as we just add more weights (even though there are smarter ways to do it). But when we only use our body, we need to change the exercises or/and how we perform them. Of course, we can do more and more repetitions but at a point it wouldn’t make sense.
In order to make it a bit simpler, I have split the calisthenics progression into the following bullets:
How to work with this calisthenics progression template.
Time under tension
Rubberband for progression
I fully understand the limitation of this article to cover such a big subject as calisthenics progression. And I therefore have to stress that this is a simple suggestion that will work for most. But there are of course many other exercises and templates that can be used as well. If you are looking for more information, try to have a look at my other articles here or why not try one of my plans with careful progression implemented.
Below you have a simple pdf of what I will cover in this article, but now let’s get in to the details.
How should you work with this progression template?
As I already mentioned, this is a big topic we are dealing with, but I have tried to come up with a simple template. Not saying that this is perfect at all, but it will work and it’s much better than nothing at all.
I have split it into the most important categories as I see it and then again into three levels.
The idea is that you need to develop all areas.
Look at each area and estimate where you are. Now you know what your next challenge is and you simply go to the area that you need to work upon and then find the details there.
Often when you talk about calisthenics training or simply bodyweight training in general, you mostly focus on strength and all the difficult exercises.
Of course, it’s understandable that you want to be able to do handstand push-ups, muscle-ups and planche, but I can tell you that without a decent condition this will never be possible.
Here are some progression levels for condition and again there are of course other ways to measure this:
20+ min aerobic workout without breaks. Moderate pace.
We are not talking about running, but any kind of moderate physical activity you can maintain for +20min, with heart rate around 75% of max heart rate. Examples could be rowing, bicycling, swimming or workouts like, 20 Jumping Jacks – 20 Mountain Climbs – 20 Squats – 10 Burpees, which you do as many rounds as possible for +20min.
I have more of these workouts right here.
Being able to do +20min aerobic workout with moderate pace is seen as a beginner level.
Being able to run +30min without breaks. Moderate pace.
Running is great for your condition and it should defiantly be a part of your workout unless you have specific reasons to leave it out. Most issues from running comes by overdoing it and especially when you are not strong enough.
You have an intermediate condition level when you can run for 30min without a break in a moderate pace, meaning +5K in 30min
HIIT – High-intensity interval training. Extremely high pace for several intervals.
HIIT is very efficient in boosting your condition and metabolism, but it has to be done correctly. HIIT is done with your heart rate around 90-100% of max heart rate. It is extremely demanding and will require all your will power.
HIIT can be done by healthy beginners as well, but leaving it for later is a more vice approach.
Don’t fool yourself with all the different 5/7/8/9/10/12min workout you find on YouTube and believe all is HIIT; very often the pace and exercises are not demanding enough to be HIIT. You can read more about HIIT here.
An example of HIIT: For 8 rounds, work 40sec & rest 20sec. In the work time, do as many burpees as possible. For an intermediate level you are supposed to keep +12 burpees in each round.
Running 5K under 20min
When you have reached an advanced condition level, you are supposed to be able to run 5K under 20min. The lower the better, of course.
You might wonder what this has to do with calisthenics progression. Well, let me counter that question. Have you ever seen any calisthenics master with a lot of fat around their belly?
I’m not saying that you can’t be fit and have a high percentage of body-fat, because you can. I have seen a lot.
However, when it comes to calisthenics it’s a bit different as we only work with our bodyweight.
In contrast to sports like strongman or Olympic weightlifting, a higher body-fat percentage is not a big disadvantage. But when you want to control your body in challenging positions, you want most of the mass to be something that works for you and not against you. Therefore, we need to keep the body-fat percentage as low as possible.
For easy-to-measure body-fat percentage, have a look here.
When working out you will of course use more energy. But the most efficient way to deal with the cutting of body fat is to look at your diet.
I have another article here on calisthenics diet, but in short we need to:
Stop drinking and eating food that contains sugar.
Limiting the amount of simple carbs like sugar, white bread, and white pasta.
Control our blood sugar, not raise it, which increases the fat storage hormone, “insulin”.
Limit the intake of processed foods that often have been added simple carbs.
Increase the intake of complex carbs from vegetable and whole grain.
Control the intake of fruits. Fruits are good, but keep it to 1-2 a day.
For a beginner level, males are supposed to bring their body-fat percentage down to 20% and females down to 35%.
For an intermediate level, males are supposed to bring their body-fat percentage down to 15% and females down to 25%. This is where abs start to become visible without having to flex.
For an advanced level, males are supposed to bring their body-fat percentage down to 10% and females down to 20%.
Before we move in to the exercises, I would like to stress again that there are of course different ways to approach this.
This is my simple suggestion and it has worked for me and others. But there exists other ways that will work as well.
The amount of reps should also be seen as a guide and not a strict rule. This means that it’s not a big sin to start working on pull-ups even if you can only do 5 horizontal pull-ups.
Pulling is often where most people are weak and need to develop strength. Massive time spent on keyboards, mobile phones and driving makes our upper back weak and stiff. The pulling exercises will address this.
It might be a good idea to work on some of the next levels exercises before you actually master the level. One example could be to work on dead hang & scapular pull-ups even before you can do the last level of horizontal pull-ups.
We will start with horizontal or even vertical pulls.
Follow the guide in the video and also read this article.
Choose a level where it’s a challenge to do 3-5 sets of 10 reps.
Move on to the next level as you master 3-5 sets of 10 repetitions
When you can do 3-5 sets of 10 repetitions with your feet elevated, it’s time to move on to the intermediate.
Pull-ups start with dead hang and scapular pull-ups
Follow the guide in the video and also read this article.
Move on to the next level as you master 3-5 sets of 10 repetitions
When you can do 8-10 strict pull-ups, it’s time to move on to the advanced level.
Continue to work on your pull-up strength even when you can do 10 strict pull-ups.
Muscle-ups can be done on bar or rings.
Follow these videos for progression. Ring muscle-up – Bar muscle-up
While pulling exercises mostly address the upper back and biceps, pushing targets more of the chest, shoulders and triceps.
As with pulling, the different exercises will address pushes from different angels, which also means slightly different muscle activation.
Push-ups with good form should be one of the first goals.
Look at the video and find a version where you can do 3-5 rounds of 10 repetitions.
Now increase the reps or the time under tension, meaning slower push-ups (I will explain this below)
When you can do 15-20 real push-ups with good form, it’s time to move on.
Handstand push-up is a more horizontal push.
Start with pike push-ups. Standing or elevated feed on a box as shown in the video.
Negatives are also a good way to practice them. This means you kick up in a handstand and lower yourself slowly.
Adding some mats under your head is also possible. The less range of motion will make them easier.
When we can do around 10, it’s time to move on
Also adding more range of motions by raising the platform where you hold your hands is a good way to make them harder.
Planche is actually more core and balanced than push power. Basically, it’s your complete body and a very demanding exercise. I can’t fully do it yet; therefore, please look at Carl’s gymnasticWOD on how to progress.
If there is one place you want to be strong, it’s your core and especially for people who are into calisthenics and bodyweight workouts.
As we advance into more challenging exercises, it’s the core that have to do most work and this is also why some strong guys and girls can’t do them. They simply lack that extreme core strength.
There are many good core exercises and I have selected some of them here.
The plank is a good way to start your core strengthening.
Find a version in the video that you can keep for a minimum of 20 sec, and then simply work it up to around 2min.
It can be varied with side plank on one arm as well.
Other beginner core exercises are flutter kicks, sitting jack knifes, sit-ups and crunches.
Follow this video for
When you can hold it for 1min, you have a very strong core.
Other intermediate core exercises are: Hollow holds & hollow rocks, Superman hold, Strict toes to bar.
Human flag is the ultimate bodyweight exercise and requires tremendous core strength as well as arm and shoulders, but mostly core.
Follow the video for progression
Other advanced core exercises are: Dragon flag
Legs can be difficult to address in a calisthenics progression template as we already are quite strong in the legs. Normally, we would add more weights in a back squat but now we are talking calisthenics, so that’s not an option.
Let’s look at what we can do.
It starts with squatting.
A minimum of 50 squats with good form should be accomplished before moving on.
Find the video and see how they should be done.
Static holds are great for strengthening the legs – more about it here.
Working with wall-sit up to 1 minute is great.
Other isometric holds can also be applied. Look at the video.
Pistols is an advanced leg exercise.
Here is a good progression video for pistols and also how to make them more advanced.
So we are almost done. But before we end this article, let’s talk a little bit about calisthenics progression from a repetition perspective and not an exercise perspective.
Time under tension (TUT)
Time under tension is simply the time the muscles are working.
The reason we are interested in this is that TUT will apply stress on the muscles and a good amount of stress will make the muscles grow bigger and stronger, but too much stress will destroy them.
So we want as much TUT as possible without crossing a healthy doze.
Many repetitions will equal a long time under tension, but if we slow the movement down we will also increase the TUT.
Therefore, a calisthenics progression template is not always about increasing the repetitions or shifting to a more complex exercise. Sometimes we can just slow things down or even better combine it in the eccentric and concentric movement. As an example with pull-ups, explode towards the bar and then slowly go back to fully extended arms.
Calisthenics progression with rubberbands
Lastly, I just want to mention the benefit of using rubberbands for progression.
In this picture you see me using a rubberband for the planche.
What it does is to give me a complete experience of the exercise but with some support that can be adjusted by the thickness of the rubberband.
So instead of doing something that is close to the actual movement, I actually do the movement but with less stress applied on the muscles and joints. This is a great way to do calisthenics progression.