Welcome to the second part of my programming 101 series, to teach you the basics of how to create a well-written program from scratch – not just for calisthenics, but in general.
While the first part covered the more general guidelines, everyone should consider while writing a workout program, this part goes more in depth on calisthenics programming. 1
The third and final part covers an easy to work through checklist.
I encourage you to have fun structuring your workouts and be curious to find out what works for you.
Working out is so much more than exhausting oneself and growing physicially. It is also about growing mentally and learning about life along that path.
So let’s get right at it!
How to write an awesome calisthenics program!
After working through the first post you should be able to answer these questions briefly:
- What are volume and frequency?
- What are my standards? How often and how long can I train? What are my goals? And so on 😀
- How does recovery look like in my life? Do I sleep enough? Am I stressed out? Is there room for improvement?
- What are cycles and deloads?
As you can see, we already got a lot of ground covered!
- If you want to deepen your knowledge on the topics above I can fully recommend the two books The Muscle and Strength Pyramid by Eric Helms*, as well as Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning* to you.
- If you want to read about programming in calisthenics more specifically I can recommend Another great book specifically on bodyweight training, progressions and workout structure is Steven Low’s Overcoming Gravity*.
Alright, now comes the fun and practical part – choosing exercises and really building something.2
Choose a split
Your chosen freqency will determine your split strongly – but there is still room for creativity.
There are many splits and principles to structure your workout after. My favorites can be found later on in this post.
Now it is your turn to choose one which resonates with you and is of use for your total amount of sessions.
Which ones you really like is a mattter of trail and error. Nonetheless, there are a few which are valid in many cases:
- Beginner never go wrong following a 2-day split or the legendary push/pull/legs split
- Experiences athletes can play around with Bent and Straight Arm Strength specific training or train specific skills more often throughout the day à Grease the Groove. Or they could stay with the both named previously.
- Beginners, as well as more experienced calisthenics enthusiasts, could also follow a full body program. It is harder, but saves some time and is very efficient.
Most important is that you stick to something. Jumping from approach to approach, month after month, won’t get you far.
It is far more important that you put in the work than the way you put it in.3
That is why I would advise you when starting a new program – promise yourself to stick to it for a set timeframe. Cut out all the noise around on Instagram with its fancy exercises and best ways to train for anything.
Building up strength, as well as skills, is not measured in months. It can be looked back upon on a much larger timeframe. It is measured in showing up consistentyly and doing the work for years.
Or said differently, it is no sprint, it is an ultrathon – a lifestyle which shall be buried within yourself in the same coffin.
You can find even more splits over at the awesome bodyweighttraining community on Reddit.
Why seperate Skilltraining and Conditioning?
When your goal is to learn specific skills, developing them needs much focussed work.
That is why it makes sense to divide your practice into a skill-specific and strength-specific part.
You only learn a skill through practicing it endless times. But without sufficient general, as well as specialized strength, your journey will get much much longer.
There are many insanely strong people around – but not every one of them can do a front lever at once. To get there it needs thousands of repetitions.
Nonetheless, general strength is important and will make any skill you wanna learn easier. Even better than general strength is strength specially targetted at a certain skill.
Take the planche and planche pushups for example.
For now, let’s look more closely at above two points of skill work and conditioning.
Planning your skill work
Let’s say you wann learn a Front Lever.
It is important to work at this skill first – fully refreshed, mentally focussed and properly warmed up.
Skill work is about getting the technique of the particular skill down. To learn how it should feel, which muscles need to contract when to produce a nice shape.
To do so you just need to spend time in an easier sub-maximal level of that skill which allows you to focus on above points.
This part is not about trashing yourself and hitting it extremely hard.
Planning your conditioning
To learn above front lever it makes sense to build some specific strength as well as overall strength.
Take for example ring rows or front lever raises. These build up bent arm and straight arm pulling strength and allow you to spend some extra time in a front-leverish shape.
But don’t just go all out on straight arm pulling strength and neglet the other movements your body is capable of.
Getting strong generally will aid you in many other things, too.
Other skills will get easier and having strong joints might save you some injuries, too.
One principle to rule them all, …
Unfortunately, I do neither know what is the best principle to train after. It is like trying to name the ultimate diet. There is no absolute answer.
There are 1000 principles to stick to. While some are obviously crap for most people – way more are good. Everyone likes to train slightly different. Taste can be a confusing thing.
But – next, I will show you at least my 5 favorites. Maybe one resonates with you, too!
Bent Arm Strength and Straight Arm Strength
This principle organizes as the name suggests by the manner your upper body can generate force.
To do so train a bent arm and a straight arm session 1-2 times a week each. That said – it can be trained on 2 or 4 days.4
Bent arm days are all about conventional strenght training. You can do pushups, pullups, dips and many more exercsies here, as long as you bent your arms.
On straight arm days you lock your arms out and train exercises like l-sits, levers, handstands or planches.
The difference between them is the way where and how your body controls force. You can read more about it in my article over here.
Through training your upper body on 2 consequetive days up to 4 times a week this principle is nothing for beginners.5 Regeneration can be hard here and your body needs much time to accustomize itself to this much volume.
Push, Pull and Legs
Likewise the name suggests, this is a three day split, dividing its sessions into a pushing day, a pulling day and a leg day.
But it can also be training twice – on six days a week. As with any other three day plan the biggest benefit is that you shouldn’t go into a training trashed by the previous one.
It is a highly flexible principle, suited well for beginners and experienced athletes alike.
Read more about it here or even check out full p/p/l program I wrote.
The biggest benefit of this two day split is that it is not as focussed on your upper body as the previous ones.This way you have lots of time to build strong legs and do some mobility work as well.
This combo can be trained up to 3 times a week on six days.
Don’t think of full body or 2 day splits as easy or beginner-stuff. They aren’t. In fact they are often times very hard.
Nonetheless beginners can benefit from training often by learning the exercises properly and doing them often. But also experienced athletes can achieve good gains while following it.
Grease the Groove
This principle originally invented by Pavel is great for learning specific skills. You train multiple times a day, but keep it short and sub-maximal.
A great example for this would be to do 3 times a day a few sets of chinups on a pullup bar at home. Or even every time when walking thorugh that doorframe.6
You will be astonished of how fast you increase your overall pullup strength and reps by incorporating these daily into your life.
Especially for time-intensive skills as handstands, planches or front levers time in that position is the most important factor. This way your body can learn how he has to work.
And that’s what GTG does in an elegant way. By not trashing yourself and training often but not hard you get lots of time in these positions.
This principle only makes sense for experienced athletes working on a specific skill.
This principle is about cycling your goals.
You train for a set timeframe on one goal, try to get better at it and then on another. Or even on another sport.
After this second cycle you start anew.
This way you come back stronger every time and can increase multiple skills or even acitivites. Think of it like climbing stairs, going each step one after another.
It is a very farseeing but effective way to plan your workouts, especially when your focus lies on different goals or even acitivities.
Calisthenics Programming – Choose the right Exercises
Ok – now that the very basics are covered, and you fell in love with a principle, all this mess seems to take form! 😀
The only thing missing are some badass exercises, aren’t they? Let’s get this fixed and plan your skills and conditioning.
How to plan Skilltraining?
As a general guideline:
I wouldn’t work on more than two skills per day prior your training and no longer than 30min in total.
Depending on your following workout you could either train pushing skills prior a push session or vice versa.
Or you can be like me try-hard and train handstand stuff prior every session.
Set yourself a time or rep goal to work on each skill:
- Work for 10 minutes on your free handstands
- Practice the appropriate front lever progression for 5x20s
- Or just do 5x5r wonderful pullups focussing on your technique
The important question now is – what is considered a skill?
That is hard to answer – what for one might be skill work would kill another one. It strongly depends on your capabilities.
For some a tuck planche might be a skill – for others this is their max hold.
Generally speaking – skills are moves which don’t exhaust yourself. Of course they can involve strength but most importantly they need lots of repetition to nail.
Don’t trash yourself here and accumulate some quality time in that position.
How to plan your Conditioning?
To start with choose 3 exercises for your strength work. Perform 3-5 sets of each. If this is not enough volume for you add slowly more exercises up to a total of 5.
As previously, set a repetition or hold time goal for each exercise. Plus, think of covering different repetition ranges:
- As a rough guideline I would mostly work in between 5-10 reps.
It is a well-balanced range.
- When doing a harder exercise feel free to drop the reps down to 2-3.
Likewise conventional weight training, here shouldn’t very much of your total work take place.7
- If the chosen exercise is easier do more reps.
Most importantly try to cover each range and do the bulk of your work in the middle range.
Push yourself and hit it hard here and push your boundaries. Only he who can withstand some wisely chosen pain will get stronger.
Cover all basic movement patterns
There are a few basic movement patterns into which many exercises can be ordered.
Try to cover each of them at least once within your workout week.
These seven guys are our main actors:
- horizontal Push (Pushups/Planche/Bench)
- vertical Push (Dips/Handstands/Überkopfdrücken)
- horizontal Pull (Rows, Rows & more rows)
- vertical Pull (Pullups/Chinups/Lat Pulldowns)
- Squat (Squat all day long)
- Hinge (Deadlifts/Good Mornings/and all the fancy Instagram Booty Workouts)
- Carries (Carry something heavy around in different positions)
These are the basics – there are a lot of complex exercises which can’t be ordered that easily. Try chosing the right category for a skin the cat or an backward felge.
All these movement patterns will accomany your whole workout life in one form or another. So better get used to them!
Everyone needs the unsexy basics.
OK that’s it – we’re through!
Give yourself a high five or at least, clap yourself onto your shoulder proudly.
Writing a program might sound not that sexy at first glance – but hey here we are. And I seriously hope you are put together well.
Writing great programs is not easy. There are many different styles and subtle differences which are neither right or wrong. Despite the basics, much is learned through oldscool trail and error – on yourself or even your clients.
But after these two posts you should have all at your leisure to dive right into collecting experiences – what works for you, and what sucks.
Check out my list as a small reward for working through this. It is kept really to the point and shall guide you to write your own non-cookie-cutter program.
If you enjoyed reading this post or even the whole series let me know – a lot of coffee has been extinguished to get it written.
If you see some room for improvement, tell me, too. If you think I am a maniac, hit me up either. I would love to read from you.
And if you were just curious about how to write a program, but not wanna write one by yourself – feel free to check out my programs. Maybe one of them sparks your interest and is just right for you!
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Have fun programming and experimenting! I hope it is as much fun as it is for me.8Write you soon,
Sources and further reading:
- Great books on general programming are:
The Muscle and Strength Pyramid by Eric Helms*[/eal], as well as the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning*.
- Another great book specifically on bodyweight training, progressions and workout structure is Overcoming Gravity by Steven Low*
- Nonetheless, the guidelines layed out here are viable for every other strength training as well.
- I hope that sounds like fun for you, too! At least, for me it does.
- Considering you are doing somewhat the same. Working your jumps 6 times a week won’t get you a front lever. But training front lever specific with a p/p/l program or a two-day split won’t differ that much. It is much more about personal preferences and what fits your life.
- If you throw your legs within the mix it can even be trained on 3 or 6 days a week.
- Despite straight arm work is not the most optimal for beginners to start with. A solid bent arm strength foundation is definetly a prerequisite.
- I hope your pullup bar is not on the way to your kitchen. This will be a lot of pullups! :-D
- Or would you max out your bench press each session?
- …most of the time. As with anything – sometimes it sucks and is frustrating, too!