The Johnston Karate Guide to Functional Strength
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Johnston, Owen
The Johnston Karate Guide to Functional Strength
Fitness Instruction, 2nd Edition
Copyright 2014/5
All Rights Reserved. This version of the book may be freely distributed or copied for
personal or classroom use, but may not be modified or used for profit. It may also be posted
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edition, however, may be used for profit. If you are interested in reselling the trade paperback
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Author & Publisher - Owen Johnston
Editor - T.O.D. Johnston
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For more about me, please see the 'About the Author' page at the end of the book. If you
would like to view full info on my qualifications, schedule a free trial class or consultation, or
contact me for any other reason, please visit the following webpage –
For a free one-page list of supplementary resources I highly recommend, visit the
Understanding Karate home page and click on the link near the top that says 'Supplementary
FREE Download – Johnston Karate PDF archive:
'For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.'
- Philippians 1:21
Guide to Functional Strength
This book is intended for people of good health and physical condition. The training
methods and advice in this book may not be for everyone. Always consult your physician
before starting a new exercise program. I am not a physician, and as such, nothing in this
book should in any way be taken as medical advice or a substitute for medical advice. Also,
this book should not be used to replace advice from your personal physician.
Physical activity always carries with it a risk of injury. When you practice the training
methods in this book, always practice proper safety precaution, use proper technique, and
apply common sense. The author can not assume any responsibility for any injury, illness, loss
or damage that may result from following the training methods in this book.
Lastly, this book is not a replacement for formal instruction. Be sure to seek out a
competent, qualified instructor who may carefully observe your progress and provide
feedback. This book is intended primarily to be a supplement to, not a replacement for, formal
Guide to Functional Strength
Table of Contents
Official trade paperback and Kindle editions
Fitness 101
Transform your life!
Thoughts on Training
Specificity in Training
Setting Training Goals
Workout Design
Workout Templates
Basic template - Advanced Training Session
Training Program for Fitness Client
Program Design for Beginners
Program Design for Advanced Athletes
Calisthenics Exercises using Benches
An Essay on Flexibility
One Arm Pullup Training
Gymnastics Backbend Tips
Mobility work – tension flexibility exercises
Methods of progression in calisthenics
Strength training stations workout for gymnastics
Sandbag training for functional, real world strength
Caveman Conditioning: Uncivilized, Minimalist Training Methods
All about progressive calisthenics
Progressive Calisthenics Lifestyle
Progressive Calisthenics for Strength
Ultimate Leg Training
Calf Training
Poetry in Motion
Kettlebell Training Tutorial
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with other types of
Body Weight Strength Training
Odd Object Training for Strength
Old Time Strongmen - Training and Resources
Street Workouts – minimalist training, anywhere
“Cheat sheet” section
- 86
- 91
- 93
- 102
“Train hard, train heavy, train progressively, and train smart.”
- Brooks Kubik
“You need to be as powerful and functional as you possibly can be, for a long time into
your old age. Calisthenics can give you that.”
- Paul Wade
This book is based on my continuing research and teaching experience. I believe in
continuously updating one's knowledge base and expertise, and as such, I am constantly
refining my teaching methods. As such, this book is intended to represent the most up to date
information possible regarding how I teach fitness to my students.
Keep in mind that this book is not meant to be a comprehensive text on fitness and
health. Consult your physician before starting an exercise program, and be sure to contact a
certified fitness trainer to help you discover a nutrition and exercise plan that suits your
lifestyle and individual needs. For free articles about nutrition and exercise, please visit my
fitness links page. Visit my home page and click on “Fitness Links” near the top.
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Fitness 101 – A Basic Tutorial
This is meant to be a concise article summarizing the benefits of exercise, plenty of
advice and links to quality resources that will give you a good headstart, as well as a
recommended exercise list at the end. If you would like to view a video demonstration of the
exercises, point your browser to the above website and click on the 'Fitness 101' link. Just keep
in mind that getting into shape and improving your lifestyle habits (including nutrition, rest,
scheduling, etc.) take a long term, disciplined approach.
There are many benefits to exercise, including burning calories, elevating your mood,
and heart disease prevention. Using cardio training to improve your fitness also improves
your circulatory system, strengthens your heart and lungs, improves bone density, which all
help immensely not just with other types of exercise, but life in general! Benefits to lifestyle
include improved mood, stress / depression relief, better posture, being able to fall asleep
quicker, as well as sleeping more deeply.
Not only that, strength training helps not only build your muscle mass and strength,
but also your endurance, and performance of daily activities such as lifting, carrying, and
walking. Your flexibility is also enhanced, which helps to prevent back pain, and pulling
muscles. Not only that, even your ligaments and tendons adapt to training, and become
stronger, and less prone to injury. The additional muscle and bone density gained in training
also help in reducing injury to joints. The metabolism definitely gets a boost with effective
training, which results in improved body composition. The end result will be more muscle and
less body fat. More muscle doesn't necessarily mean a big, bulky look - but regular, effective
exercise will (as a rule) result in improved muscle tone.
Since this is not meant to be a comprehensive article, keep in mind that there is a lot
more to understanding fitness than I can condense into just a few pages. Nutrition and
lifestyle changes are two important topics to consider when starting a new fitness program.
Also, it's a good idea to join a local gym where a certified fitness trainer can help you figure
out the best options and routines. Lastly, if you're new to fitness, you'll want to get at least a
basic idea about nutrition, body mechanics, and fitness concepts. As such, feel free to read
hand selected articles I've linked to from my Fitness Links page. Simply point your web
browser to my home page and click on “Fitness Links” near the top.
Also be sure to check out the blog below, which has plenty of YouTube playlists of
martial arts and fitness videos that I highly recommend.
If you're just starting out, I recommend calisthenics, also known as body weight
training. Calisthenics train the whole body – muscles and joints. This means no equipment
required, so you can practice the exercises anywhere. Practicing calisthenics builds functional
strength and muscle tone very naturally. It also boosts the metabolism. Even if you're already
in shape, easier calisthenics exercises can help train your whole body, strengthen any weak
areas, and rehabilitate joints.
Fitness 101 continued
I personally teach my own unique approach to calisthenics, which is given a general
description in the article “Progressive Calisthenics for Strength”. My approach is mostly based
on Convict Conditioning, which teaches training progressions that range from easy to insane
full body strength. I would highly recommend progressive calisthenics to anyone trying to get
into shape. It's an approach, not a set routine! Once you understand the basic concepts, you
can become your own coach.
Two other ways to build strength and muscle are weights and machines. If you decide
on either of these, start light, and build gradually over time. Before starting a program,
though, be sure to find a workout partner you trust, or visit a local gym and talk to a certified
fitness trainer. Gradually introduce more protein into your diet from natural sources, and
supplements if needed. (Nuts, grains, cheese, milk, various types of protein powders such as
whey and creatine, etc.)
I also recommend kettlebell training. Due to the ballistic, full body nature of a kettlebell
workout, it accelerates fat loss, packs on lean muscle, and builds explosiveness. Kettlebells
help with cardio, power, speed, muscle endurance, stance training, mental toughness,
efficiency in movement, and strengthening your core. Strength and stamina in the lower back,
legs, shoulders, and grip also benefit. Caution and proper form must be used at all times with
kettlebells – as such, seek out a qualified instructor before starting.
Change up your routines up once in a while if it helps you stay motivated. Also, what
you do outside of the gym or exercise in general is just as important, such as making any
necessary lifestyle changes, as well as getting the right nutrition and rest. Always try to eat
fresh and drink things like water, tea, gatorade, fruit smoothies etc instead of sodas.
If you want to bulk up, work up to heavy weight and/or hard calisthenics exercises with
low reps. If you want to tone up, you will want to start burning off any unhealthy weight, while
also building muscle in challenging strength sessions. The key is to burn more calories than
you take in. Remember to have a small, nutritious meal after a hard workout, such as a
protein shake and a piece of fruit. Also, always give your body enough recovery time after a
workout. Moderately heavy to heavy amounts of lifting should be done every other day to
allow time to recover. ("Heavy" depending upon what level of training you are at.)
Need to lose weight? Get out and get movin'! Get any kind of cardio you can fit into
your daily routine. Do laundry, some yard work, walk the dog, whatever! Get on the bike, jog,
take an aerobics class...The list goes on! Find a friend to go outside and get active with - have
fun with it!
Next page – exercise list
Fitness 101 continued
Exercise List. Let's look at some recommended body weight, dumb bell, and curl bar
exercises. Remember to set realistic goals - such as allowing a few months to achieve the right
look. Feel free to research other exercises as needed to help train for your own personal
performance goals, and talk to your fitness instructor for ideas on how to tweak your routine.
1. Basic warmups and stretches. Warmups should usually include joint rotations, which
oil up the joints, and some kind of aerobic activity, such as skipping rope, walking, or jogging.
Aerobic activity warms up your body temperature and increases blood flowing. This helps to
improve your muscular performance and 'elasticity', which helps to prevent injury (such as
pulling a muscle).
If you do not stretch correctly, injuries can occur, so always start slowly if you are new
to flexibility training. Start with a few minutes of static stretching, which is used to stretch out
the muscles while the body is at rest, then move onto dynamic stretching. Remember to do
light aerobic activity such as walking or jogging and some more static stretching, at the end of
your workout to cool down the body. View the pages below for static and dynamic stretching
2. Pushup variations. These work primarily the pectorals, triceps, and deltoids. One
armed pushups are the gold standard in chest and elbow strength.
3. Curls with dumb bells – these work the biceps. If done standing, use light weight if
necessary to practice correct form. If using a curl bar, sit in a stable chair with your back flat
against it, with your elbows locked in against your body. This will help stabilize the body, and
isolate the biceps.
4. Alternating front raises with dumb bells - works anterior deltoid. Allow your body to
swing as little as possible – maintain correct form at all times.
5. Military presses with curl bar - works the deltoid muscles in the shoulders as well as
the core and legs, which you must use to stabilize the weight.
6. Squats with curl bar - works the quadriceps. If you have trouble with your knees or
ankles, lower the weight or do squats normally without the bar.
7. "Skull crushers" with curl bar - works the triceps.
8. Dead lift with curl bar - works grip strength with the erector spinae, gluteus
maximus, adductor magnus, hamstrings, and quadriceps serving as the primary muscles.
9. Pullup variations – pullups are a compound exercise that primarily work the biceps,
and latissimus dorsi (or 'lats' for short). The lats are the largest muscles on the torso, and run
from your armpits to down beyond the ribs. Most of the other muscles in the back also get
Fitness 101 continued
worked by doing pullups. Not only that, your fingers, palms, and forearms are given a great
workout by holding up and pulling your body weight as you grip the bar. This translates to
building grip strength. Lastly, pullups give your abs and hips a great isometric workout.
Because of these benefits, pullups help train the body for hanging leg raises.
To do a pullup, start by getting a good grip on a horizontal bar or anything sturdy you
can hang from. Keep your shoulder girdle tight and your elbows slightly kinked in the starting
position, to help prevent injury. Generally, with full pullups, you will try to pull your body
weight up until the chin clears the bar, and you then lower the body until your arms and
shoulders are almost fully extended. If you don't have the strength yet to complete the full
range of motion, start with easier variations of the pullup. Also, to work strictly on grip
strength, try working on hanging grip work (again using a horizontal bar or anything you can
hang from).
Visit the page below for ideas on improving grip strength
10. Leg raises from a horizontal bar. This primarily works all the muscles in the abs, as
well as your lats. You also get some benefits to your forearms and shoulders, since they are
used to hold your weight from the bar. When you first grab onto the bar, do nothing else until
your momentum has disappeared. Your body should be still and your legs straight before you
start the first repetition of the exercise. Slowly raise your legs as far as you can. As your abs get
stronger you can increase your range of motion in this exercise. If this exercise is too hard at
first, try hanging knee raises or flat bent knee raises.
Transform your life
With time, patience, proper training, proper nutrition, and proper attention to lifestyle
factors, almost anyone can transform their body and their life. It takes a lot of time and
dedication – it could take at least a full year to achieve a trim, proportioned, fit look. Yes, of
course you will see some results within two weeks if you’re training at least twice a week and
watching your nutrition.
But to get a whole new body – trimming down while building up the muscles – is a long
term, difficult process. It takes time to replace old habits with new ones. You also have to pay
a lot of attention to nutrition, losing weight slowly (instead of too quickly), learning how to
train (skill), building up the stamina and strength for truly intense training, while not over
training. Over training fatigues mind and body, slowing your progress, and over training also
leads to injury. Certainly, you do want to train hard, but allow for recovery. Push past your
comfort zone, but not to injury.
The fortunate thing, though, is that hard work builds not just strength, but willpower
and confidence as well. It takes guts and tenacity to train hard! Most people give up too easily,
before they see results. Don’t give up! Climb that mountain!
Thoughts on training – "slow and steady"
When it comes to training, whether in martial arts or for any area of fitness, let’s
remember the old phrase – “Slow but steady wins the race.” Never be in such a rush that you
don’t plan your workout, or that you do not train your body and mind through the preparatory
stages. It’s certainly great to feel out new exercises as a test of strength ability, but do not
venture into “over training”, which could lead to injury. Of course, this is not to say we
shouldn’t work hard when we train! Progression is the name of the game. We have to keep
steadily improving each workout. If we’re using weight, try to add sets, reps, variety, or weight
each week. If practicing body weight training, change something up a little bit each day that
you work out.
And remember slow but steady – gradual progress! This is especially true as we get
older. Aging is not a death sentence for your training – in fact, we can continue improving at
many things throughout a lifetime and maintain great health! But we must also be realistic
and remember that we have to accommodate a potentially slower recovery rate. And when it
comes to progress, especially when it comes to us older athletes (I was born in the 70s, myself)
“Longer is one thing. Never is something entirely different. And longer always beats never.” –
Brooks Kubik
If you want a pile of info on some sensible workouts, pick up his book, Chalk and
Sweat, through the below link. I don’t make a single cent by recommending the book. I have
read his Dinosaur Training and Dinosaur Body Weight Training books and they have been
working for me so far. As such, I am happy to recommend his stuff!
Specificity in training
I am certainly a huge advocate of building strength and fitness. However, I also try to
remind all of my students that it is necessary to engage in training specific to your athletic
activity of choice. This way, you will be able to properly express that strength in movement!
Understanding Sport Specific Exercises:
In the beginning, it is indeed important to build “absolute strength” in the muscles
needed for your chosen activity. This provides a foundation for the other end of the strength
spectrum, “speed strength” or power. On the other hand, if you started on the speed strength
end of the spectrum (basketball, for instance), you can still get some benefits to power by
working on absolute strength.
“Absolute strength – The maximum force an athlete can exert with his or her whole body, or
part of the body, irrespective of body size or muscle size”
Explanation of strength -
“Power {(Force × Distance) ÷ Time} represents the product of strength and speed of
movement expressed in Watts.”
Explanation of power -
For a better understanding, watch this video on the strength continuum.
Strength continuum video on YouTube:
Setting training goals
I try to keep the habit of writing out a training program for each new personal training
client. This helps both of us set clear goals to work towards. Of course, we have to remember
that consistency, hard work, and motivation are paramount in any endeavor, especially
training! Granted, it is important to personalize workout programs, whether for ourselves or
for a client. Understanding our emotional and mental health at the time, not just our physical
health, should (of course) be taken into account when planning our training.
Also, we have to figure out S.M.A.R.T. goals. Specific, measurable, attainable (or
actionable), relevant (or realistic), and timely. If our goals are vague and not concrete (or
measurable), there will not be any clear, objective way to work towards them. Specificity deals
with not just numbers (hitting a set / rep goal, or how much weight), but also, the reasoning
behind the goals. Basically, our long term goal(s) should help us define our S.M.A.R.T. goals –
like comparing strategy to tactics.
Here is an example. Do you want to become a better competitor in boxing or prepare
for a specific matchup? You will have to define your strategy around this, and your training
goals and tactics must support your strategy. Of course, your coaches will be of great help in
developing a sound strategy for winning. The types of training you will want to set goals for
will include – attending the gym to work with sparring partners who can help you prepare;
improving your physical conditioning (set specific goals for roadwork, sprints etc based upon
how many rounds the match will be); highly specific padwork; highly specialized strength and
conditioning work that will improve the physical qualities needed to defeat your opponent;
and so forth.
Below is a great motivational article on S.M.A.R.T. goals that includes a printable PDF
Workout Design
Set S.M.A.R.T. goals – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely
For more about setting goals, view the previous article
Workout frequency – 1-3x / week for beginners
Workout structure – full body workouts, push/pull split, upper body / lower body split, full
body / sports split, or other variation
Test your abilities in training progressions to verify which progression(s) you will include in
the current or next training cycle
Always include at least some warmup sets before your work sets; try to also include
skill work (hand balancing, gymnastics rings, parallettes, or any other skill based movement)
– even if you’re not a gymnast, this is still useful as it helps you develop control, stamina, and
general body awareness; also try to include some mobility work and active flexibility (bridges,
L-sits, twist stretches, joint work in general)
Work volume (how many total repetitions / sets) and variety (number of exercises per
workout) – keep relatively low if you’re a beginner; normally I recommend no more than 3
exercises per workout and no more than 4 or 5 total sets (2-3 warmup sets, 2-3 work sets) if
you’re a complete beginner
Intensity and load – in weight lifting terms, having more weight – “load” will make the
exercise more intense and more likely to force adaptations. In calisthenics, there are variables
you can experiment with that will make an exercise more or less intense. The harder an
exercise is, the less reps you will be able to do. I do not believe there is any “perfect” rep/set
scheme! It depends on your body type, your goals, the exercise in question, and other factors.
A basic guideline to keep in mind is that you do need to make sure that the exercises you
select are difficult enough to force adaptations, meaning that you will build strength and
“Are You Sabotaging Your Gains with the Wrong Rep Range?” - article page, short URL
The above article is more weight lifting oriented, but the principles still apply to
calisthenics. However, I will still link a calisthenics related FAQ. The author details some
training programs, from beginner to advanced. FAQ link
Workout Design continued
Working up – if you’re a beginner to intermediate trainee, slowly build up repetitions
until you can meet the “progression standard” (set amount of reps / sets) for a particular
progression, then test your abilities again to see if you can move up in the progression. If you
can’t, there are a few things you can try – add an assistance exercise (such as using a wrist
roller to assist grip strength for pullups) or change a variable or two in the exercise you met
the repetition standard for (perhaps slightly change hand positioning, locking down your form
better, using slow eccentric reps, etc).
If you’re new to writing workout programs, check out the modified version of a training
program I wrote up for a client, which starts on page 20.
Training cycles – as you become more advanced (around 2 years of training) you may
need to explore more advanced workout structures or weekly cycles. I include an advanced
session template in this book as an example. It is on page 19.
The below article by the author of “Overcoming Gravity” details beginner training
programs, as well as how to progress beyond them, and also links out to intermediate
programs -
“Overcoming Gravity” also has some advanced training program ideas. I highly
recommend it – you can purchase a printed or PDF edition of the book at the below page
Workout Templates
Calisthenics Workout
Warmups – cardio, mobility, stretches
Skill work – gymnastics holds and agility drills
Core of the workout – calisthenics warmup sets and work sets (add sandbags if desired)
Finisher – sprints, sandbags or “hojo undo” corner, then do neck, gut, and grip work
Sandbags Workout
Warmups – cardio, mobility, stretches, calisthenics warmup sets
Core of the workout – clean and press, shoulder toss, upright rows, bear hug carry, curls,
deadlifts or squats, shoulder carry, farmer’s walk
Finisher – pick a “hojo undo” tool to work for a few minutes, then do neck, gut, and grip work
Warmdowns – stretches, massage, active flexibility work (bridges, hold lunges, etc)
Hojo Undo Workout
Warmups – cardio, mobility, stretches (focus on the wrists, shoulders, elbows, and ankles)
Core of the workout – warmup sets with lighter tools, with a focus on technique; work sets
using heavier tools or high rep work sets with lighter tools – make sure to use a variety of tools
Finisher – neck and gut work, “hojo undo” makiage kigu (wrist rollers) for grip work
Learn more about calisthenics - “All about Progressive Calisthenics” article in this guide
Learn more about sandbag training – see the article in this guide
Learn more about “Hojo Undo” -
Basic template – advanced training session
I prefer to have slightly sophisticated yet also very difficult training sessions for
advanced martial arts students and competitors. Below, I detail a basic template for this kind
of session, which includes warmups, mobility, strength and conditioning, and martial arts
practice, then a finisher. For students who are tight on time, you can squeeze all of this into an
hour, if you don’t do as many “rounds”. However, a two hour session is preferable. Compare
to a session at a boxing gym. On Saturdays, when students – on average – will have more time
available, I will normally run two separate sessions – one for strength and conditioning, and
another for martial arts practice, both with “finishers” – with a half hour break inbetween
(usually with sports drinks involved). Here is the basic template for a consolidated “advanced”
session, which can be modified to suit intermediate students:
Warmup to sweating – more or less depending on goals – but if you need a lot of cardio for
your goals, you’ll need a separate session altogether for it
Joint circling – primarily the joints you’ll be using in the workout – do so between rounds of
skipping rope or when you take a break during a run
Water break
Massage and stretch whatever is stiff – take 5 to 10 minutes of active stretching
Skill work – agility drills, hand balancing, gymnastics drills, whatever
Warmup sets – wall pushups, chair pushups – that kind of thing – easy exercises that help
you warm up to the movements in the “work sets”
Work sets (will depend on goals, current level of conditioning, etc)
Water break
Stretch and “circle” as needed
Martial arts basics and drills, or forms and applications – depending on the day of the week or
the style that the students are working on that night
Finishers Sandbag training, sparring, grappling, any required toughening (for a sport – such as rice
bucket training for baseball or martial arts), whatever
Cooldowns Walking, repeat a few of the warmup sets from earlier, that sort of thing
Mobility exercises as needed for your particular sport or needs (the key is injury prevention)
Training Program for Fitness Client
I wrote up a program for a new fitness client. She is more or less totally new to being in
a dedicated fitness program, but she wants to lose weight and tone up. As such, the program
had to start her off with the basics. I chose a short list of training progressions for body weight
exercises. The goal is to gently train every area of the body with easy, therapeutic calisthenics
exercises. Once the goal number of repetitions for an exercise is attained, with good form, we
will move up in the progression, in order to continue building strength – which of course will
also add some lean muscle mass.
Here are the major reasons why I will keep the client on a steady diet of calisthenics.
Most calisthenics exercises are compound movements, meaning they act on multiple joints.
This means more muscles being worked instead of only working one muscle in isolation.
Stabilizer muscles get work as well. As such, calisthenics build functional athletic strength,
and as a result, will take the physique to optimal development – not some freaky “muscle
magazine” look. Not only that, they protect and strengthen the joints and connective tissues,
unlike heavy weights work. Lastly, a steady diet of calisthenics normalizes and regulates body
fat levels. All of these fall in line with my client’s goals.
I also need to explain a bit about why relatively high repetitions are the way to go with
calisthenics. The early techniques in each progression have a rehabilitative effect, especially
when done for very high repetitions. (Of course, when you move up in difficulty, it will drive
rep counts down.) High reps also ingrain proper form, as well as demonstrate strength in a
particular technique. (Who’s stronger at pushups? Someone who can do 10, or 20?) Of course,
if you want to continue building strength through calisthenics, you can’t simply continue
adding repetitions. At some point you have to make an exercise more difficult, which will
mean you will not be able to do as many repetitions. Generally, to go beyond 20 or 30 reps is
to venture into endurance building, rather than strength. This depends on the exercise and the
person, though.
“Are You Sabotaging Your Gains with the Wrong Rep Range?” - article page, short URL
Below is a slightly modified version of what I wrote up for her:
We will build up to doing all of the below warmups, moves, and holds. Pick at least one
day during the week to do all of the moves. You could instead do your repetitions of one move,
per day. (Such as doing your pushups on Monday, squats on Tuesday, etc.) Always remember
to warm up for at least 5 to 10 minutes before doing any of the other exercises. Anything that
gets your heart pumping. Also, remember to stretch and work on your joints. You don’t want
to do anything too rigorous right before doing the exercises, or it will take away from them.
The guide below includes some other routines we can borrow from later on once we
have you used to the basics. The point is not to get stuck on routines, but to teach you the
approach so that you can be your own coach and figure out what routines are best for you:
Training Program for Fitness Client continued
I recommend doing all of the listed moves and holds in one routine, since it makes for a
full body routine. Your goal at first is a minimum of 10 repetitions per exercise. That would
make one set of 10 repetitions. If you know you can do more of the exercise, try to do a second
set of at least 10 repetitions. If you can do a third set of any exercise, great! If you can only do
one set of an exercise at first, add repetitions each week until you can do one set of 20 or 25.
Then, the following workout, try do the 20 or 25, then do a second set for as many as you can
up to 20 or 25. Once you have built up to this, we’ll be able to start a more difficult exercise.
Don’t worry – we will expect less reps of the more difficult exercise, so we won’t be jumping in
at the deep end!
Warmup exercises – we’ll go over these each week. Just do the ones you can remember
whenever you work out, or design your own warmups. At least include some kind of cardio or
aerobic activity for 5 to 10 minutes, joint circling and active stretching (such as shoulder
rotations). Try to stretch out all of the joints and muscles you’ll be using in the workout and
try to simulate the movement patterns you’ll be doing as well.
Once you build up to a target number of repetitions for an exercise and move up to a
harder one, you can add the exercise you mastered to warmups. For instance, once you hit the
repetition goal for incline pushups, we will move on to kneeling pushups, and you will do a
short to medium set of incline pushups as part of the warmups for kneeling pushups. Below
are the 5 progressions from we’ll be drawing from until we move up in difficulty a few levels.
Once we have done that, you’ll have the foundation of both strength and skill to move into
other progressions.
Pushups (we’ll start with wall pushups or inclines depending on what you can do)
Pullups (starting with vertical pulls – very easy)
Leg raises
Notes: We’ll try two types of each of the last three to see how we should progress. For
the time being we’re going to work on the basics – getting the form down. Building up to a lot
of repetitions is important for ingraining the correct form into your nervous system. Of
course, this builds your strength in the first stages of learning, and then your stamina as you
add lots of reps. As you improve we’ll keep tweaking your form. Once you hit the target
number of reps for an exercise, we’ll start working on the next exercise in the progression.
Sometimes, though, we will have to make small changes to an existing exercise, making it just
a bit harder, instead of jumping up in the progression. This is because some in some cases, the
next exercise in a progression will require quite a lot more strength than the previous one, and
may be too difficult for you to do for multiple repetitions. Of course, I’d still want to teach you
how to adjust different variables for every exercise you master, so that you can make them
easier or harder, or hit muscles in different ways.
Training Program for Fitness Client continued
Summary – once you master an exercise, we’ll find ways to make an exercise more
difficult, or work on the next exercise in the progression, and ultimately, we’ll work on both.
Take a break of at least 1 minute, and a maximum of 3 minutes, between sets. One you
can hit progression standard on each exercise, your total time working on the exercises, with
rest breaks between sets, will be 20 to 30 minutes. With the warmups and some static holds
added in, eventually your workouts with me will be 45 minutes to an hour.
As you add sets and reps, your workout time will increase, meaning more calories
burned, your metabolism will improve, cravings SHOULD lessen, you’ll start looking and
feeling better, and you’ll feel stronger as well. Once we’ve moved up a few times in each
progression, you’ll have the strength, stamina, and skill to branch out into a few other
Now for a few “static holds” – you will want to hold these for at least 10 seconds each,
and build up time each workout. The goal is at least 1 minute each.
Lunge – push off with one foot and step forward as deeply as you can with the other.
For instance, if you step forward with your left leg, you will want to push off on your right foot.
You will end up with the front knee deeply bent. As you bend forward, you should feel a good
stretch on the back leg. Keep the back knee at least slightly bent. Once you build up to being
able to do a very deep lunge, you will want to be on the ball of the back foot. Hold the lunge
position for at least 10 seconds and concentrate on stretching as deeply as you can, without
pain. The number one rule of any stretch is to do so to the point of mild to moderate
discomfort, not pain. Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong or that
you are doing something too hard, or too much. Lastly, make sure that after you hold a lunge
with one foot forward, do the same with the other leg, and try to hold the same amount of
time. Try to add time every week until you’re holding for 30 seconds, two to four times each
leg, then we’ll add another static hold for the legs.
Six inches – lay flat on your back with your knees straight. Lift your feet 6 inches off the
floor and do NOT bend your knees! Hold your knees stiff and your feet 6 inches off the floor
for a minimum of 10 seconds. Add time each workout until you can hold for 30 seconds, 4
times (or more!)
Horizontal hang grip – find something sturdy that you can climb under and hold onto.
This might be a desk, chair, parallel bars such as at a gym or park, or even a hand rail (such as
on a wheelchair ramp or a walkway). Again, hold this for at least 10 seconds and add time
each workout if possible.
Calisthenics Program Design for Beginners
If you’re a rank beginner to the fitness world, coming back to it, or just coming back
from an injury, I recommend starting slow and working on a handful of simple holds and
moves at first. The exercises I list below are all compound movements but they each each
emphasize certain muscle groups. Below are some simple compound moves that you can start
with. By no means do you have to stick to only these exercises, especially if you’re already into
Yoga, gymnastics, or similar. Also, once you get used to these exercises, you can add at least
one new training progression and/or a new training day each week. The idea behind this
article isn’t to get new trainees “stuck in a box” but to share some basics that each train
multiple muscle groups, are easy to learn, and can help you put together “full body workouts”.
View previous articles in this guide for more information about setting training goals
and designing your own workouts.
Midsection holds
Shoulder holds such as downward facing dog, headstand, frog stand
Bottom of a deep squat
Wall pushups, chair pushups
Sit in a chair and perform knee tucks
Or lie on your back for knee raises, or leg raises
Let Me Ins
Gradually build your range of motion and your reps. You can split the exercises across
different days depending on your goals and current level of stamina. I recommend starting
each workout with a few minutes of cardio. Getting your heart rate up and a light bit of sweat
is the goal. Then do some light stretching for the body parts you will train that day and joint
circling for anything that feels stiff. Thirdly, practice at least two or three holds with an eye on
form. Your moves should be done for 2 or 3 short sets each at first, and you'll gradually build
Remember to balance the workout. For instance, work pushing muscles, then work
pulling muscles, repeat, or do an explosive exercise then a deep stretch hold, for example. For
holds you can build up to at least a minute each or perform them as moves for reps. (Such as
bridge pushups or moving into different planks.)
Calisthenics Program Design for Beginners continued
Strength training sessions should be every other day for beginners!
On the other days, it’s totally fine and actually encouraged to stay active! Do something that
you enjoy - gardening, Zumba, what have you!
Example day 1
Light stretching
Deep squat
Shoulder bridge or tabletop bridge
Let me ins or another pulling movement
Any pushup variation
Knee tucks or any other leg raise variation
Do some “cooldowns” at the end - deep stretching and breathing, joint circling, etc. I
recommend practicing deep breathing exercises while in a “hold” (such as the bottom of a
squat, or in a Yoga posture, for example)
Example day 2
Light stretching (especially wrists, thighs, hamstrings, and ankles)
Shoulder holds or inversions (tripod, headstand, frog stand, etc.) - build up to 2 minutes total
Midsection holds - choose from six inches, candlestick, sitting in a chair and extending your
feet (knees locked), and similar holds that you have the strength for
Add other lower body work once you have built up enough strength and range of motion in
squats and bridges - do at least two other exercises - ideas include squat jumps, lunges, and
duck walk to work the legs, also add in calf raises and short bridges as a move (aka bridge
curls - with or without a chair).
Calisthenics Program Design for Beginners continued
Example day 3
Light stretching
Hold a shoulder bridge or tabletop bridge for time, then deep hamstring stretch, repeat
Midsection holds - build up to at least 2 minutes total time each
Short bridge (aka glute bridge)
Planks - build up to at least 2 minutes total time each
Light stretching and joint circling for at least 1 minute
Knee tucks - build up to doing two short sets and two or three work sets
(Move on to leg raises and start with a lower number of sets again, once you’re used to knee
A note about time: I don't mention how long to warm up or how long each workout
should be because there are so many variables. Some days you'll need a longer, more gradual
warmup. This is more true as we get older. Don't rush it - think of it as like cooking - it's a slow
roast! The workout should be fairly brief, with bouts of intensity, but definitely long enough
for your body to get the "training stimulus". More than 20-30 minutes for the exercises done
for reps will usually be unnecessary if you're working hard enough. Still, focus on the intensity
of the moves rather than how long you do them or how many reps you can do. The reps will
come in time. Add a little here, a little there. Mainly focus on the quality of your exercises.
With this in mind, remember to take up to a 2 or 3 minute active rest between moves so
you can refresh the muscles. I recommend stretching, or pacing your training area while joint
circling, perhaps even get into a hold (such as a headstand or bridge) for up to a minute or so.
Remember to practice deep breathing - this helps recover much faster, as well! As you
improve, you can up the intensity by decreasing rest times and later add other intensity
variables such as supersets, drop sets, slowmo training, burner sets (where you try to do all of
your work sets for an exercise back to back), etc.
Also on the topic of quality, I recommend doing two brief warmup sets of a move before
performing your "work sets" - such as doing some wall pushups or chair pushups before doing
kneeling or full pushups. This helps you focus on the quality of the movements and it also has
a neurological benefit for your work sets. (It has to do with "warming up" your mind and your
neural pathways for what you're about to do- helps recruit more motor units, basically.
Strength is a skill!!)
Calisthenics Program Design for Beginners
Don't worry too much about adding other exercises yet unless you're comfortable with
any that work the same muscle groups as any of the exercises I've mentioned. In those cases,
mix and match - find a good groove and remember to log your workouts so that you can chart
progress. Write down what you're working on, any thoughts or comments (even if it's just how
your emotional state was that day and how it helped or how you worked through it), your
goals, and your sets / reps for moves and time for holds.
Also don’t worry about more complicated training programs for a while. Try to master
the basics first, and then make them harder by adding “tougheners”. Once you’ve gained some
experience, and you feel like moving beyond the basics to fancier exercises, I recommend
moving on to gymnastics skills and/or more advanced progressive calisthenics movements
and holds.
Program Design for Advanced Athletes
Depending on your experience, strength, and goals, choose a 2, 3, or 4 way weekly split.
A 2 way split could be handled a number of ways – a push/pull workout and a lower
body/abdominal workout; two different full body workouts; etc. A 3 way split could use the
first 3 programs that I list in the workout template section of this article. Feel free to
substitute or add exercises that fit your goals. One may add a short skill session or full body
session as a warmup to any of these routines, borrowing ideas from the other two workouts
listed. One could also add a 4th hard workout to the weekly split, and a 5th day for skill
practice & mobility.
Never over-train (as it could lead to burnout and/or injury), or work the same muscle
group very hard two days in a row, though! If you're into athletic sports, this is especially vital.
Plan your own training cycles. I recommend reading the following “Grease the groove” cycles -
Periodization -
Beginning on the 5th page of this article are my own advanced strength training
workout templates. Of course, each workout is going to be a little different depending on
exactly what I want to emphasize and how I've been progressing. All of the exercises are
bodyweight only except where I specifically state a type of external resistance.
Calisthenics skill work to choose from (by no means a comprehensive list) - muscleups,
levers (back, front, side, elbow), midsection holds, hand balancing (hand walking, transitions,
one arm work, and so much more), advanced pistols
Specialization exercises - the programs starting on the next page already have some
specializations built in. The sky is the limit, though - you can progress to old school feats in
these specializations and train them to develop overall body power. Such feats include partner
press flags (which are technically side levers), partner resisted bridges, and so forth.
There is a lot of variety to hand and forearm specializations as well. This includes digit
grip hangs, digit pullups, uses for towels and thick bars in hang grip work and pullups, wrist
curls (vertical or Australian), wrist pushups, working with awkward objects and/or sandbags,
wrist rollers, and so forth.
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Remember to do plenty of mobility work for the hands and to be cautious as to how
hard you train them. Do work hard, but keep in mind that the hands have a lot of small
delicate joints that can be prone to injury and need to be trained gradually. Start with the
recommended number of sessions for grip and fingers each week. As you build up your joints,
though, you can start seeing great progress! Eventually you can add a bit of hand and forearm
training to other sessions. Specializing in various hollow body holds and other gymnastics
related skills is another avenue.
Prehab, short for “pre-habilitation” is an important part of your warmups.
Add neck, midsection, back, grip, finger, and skill work as needed into your sessions
once you're ready. Partner leg throwdowns, decline situps (with or without weight), and
dragon flags are great midsection exercises. For the back, add some sandbag good mornings
after you finish up your bridging work. You can hold the sandbag in the Zercher position, in a
bear hug, on a shoulder, or across your shoulders.
Transitional work is a major component of training towards fully asymmetrical pullups,
pushups, and squats (such as one arm pushups, one arm elbow levers, and pistol squats). In
these exercises, both arms or legs will still be used, but one limb is worked harder than the
other. Such exercises are called transitional, since they help you transition from symmetrical
to fully asymmetrical.
Sandbags can be used to add resistance to bodyweight exercises, but it is recommended
to not do so until you have move up in various progressions and gained sufficient technical
proficiency. Partner resistance is another great method. Just be sure to perform 2-3 warmup
sets and 1-3 work sets without weight before doing any work sets with added weight. You can
do this for every calisthenics progression that you are working that you have sufficient
experience, technique, and strength in. Keep in mind that adding weight will not be safe or
even possible with certain skills or progressions.
Personally, I usually add at least a few extra minutes of skill work to a workout if energy
and motivation allow. If I have "hojo undo" tools available, I'll sometimes use at least one as
part of my mobility work (such as rice bucket exercises or performing blocks and other
movements slowly and deeply with a light strength stone), or perform lifts with a moderately
heavy tool in place of / in addition to sandbag work.
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
If you are aiming to build muscle, either a calisthenics-oriented bodybuilding protocol
or calisthenics strength training will yield results. Strength and mass are not mutually
exclusive, but are on a training continuum. Still, I'll summarize the basic ideas:
“Bodybuilding” (hypertrophy with a focus on the muscles):
The goal is to exhaust the muscles with high reps of simple to moderate complexity
exercises that allow you to perform a moderate to full range of motion, and generate intense
muscle contractions. While the intensity should be kept high, it should also allow you to
perform enough sets and reps to exhaust the muscle(s).
The sets you perform each exercise for should be kept low to moderate, while the reps
should be kept high, and the rest periods between sets (inter-set rest) should be kept relatively
short. Training frequency should be low, to allow muscles to recover. Don't do bodybuilding
workouts two days in a row, and 3 per week is usually enough for even advanced athletes.
Useful tactics: Ladders (sets of increasing reps), supersets, extended sets (such as using
eccentrics / negatives, rest-pause sets, and/or drop sets), even higher reps, very slow reps,
emphasis on a muscle or muscle group (specialization exercises), and going through a
strength training cycle (since stronger muscles can use higher loads and generate more
intense contractions).
Great article on building mass through calisthenics
Strength training (hypertrophy with a focus on the nervous system):
The goal is to perform slightly high sets of low to moderate reps of the most difficult
compound (multi-joint) movements that you can do with good form in each rep. The rest
periods between sets should be just long enough to allow you to practice “fresh”. An example
number of sets and reps for strength training – 2-5 sets of 1-6. Training frequency can be built
up to a moderate amount. Multiple weekly sessions are viable since the muscles aren't being
worked to complete exhaustion.
As a rule, you are focusing on ingraining these intense movements into your nervous
system. Gradually tighten up form. Of course, it's still important to utilize high rep sets for
warmups to gradually prepare the mind, muscles, and nervous system for the hard work to
Useful tactics: Pyramids (sets of decreasing reps), grease the groove, high intensity
interval training, skill work
Technique: Tension, bracing, breathing methods, laser focus, muscle synergy
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Advanced templates begin on the next page. Remember that the key words are
progression, intensity, recovery, safety, therapy, and nutrition. Lifestyle factors are actually
more important than the training itself, but always stay motivated and train hard as well!
Keep safety a priority when training, especially when stretching. Ease into the stretch
slowly while focusing on how you are breathing, in order to allow the muscles to relax.
Generally, hold stretches for at least 30 seconds each. Listen to your body and let it tell you
when you've touched your limit. The rule here is to stretch to the point of mild to moderate
discomfort – not pain; stretching should feel good! Avoid any stretches where you bounce, but
dynamic stretches and Yoga are still highly recommended! Just practice care and caution, and
remember it will take time to increase flexibility.
I highly recommend also reading the books “C-Mass” (by Paul “Coach” Wade, author of
“Convict Conditioning”), and “Chalk and Sweat” (by Brooks Kubik, author of “Dinosaur
Training”) for the many great programs they have for beginners, intermediates, and advanced
Calisthenics Mass: How To Maximize Muscle Growth Using Bodyweight-Only Training
Chalk and Sweat
For exercise descriptions, progressions, and more, check out my training articles and videos.
Visit the site below and click on the link of interest in the top menu.
A YouTube playlist I put together with plenty of tutorials for calisthenics, sandbags, and much
I also want to recommend the book “Diamond-Cut Abs” by Danny Kavadlo. The book is worth
the asking price for the nutritional advice alone. Danny cuts past the BS and myths that the
fitness industry perpetuates, and lays it out straight. Of course, the exercises are amazingly
functional as well!
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Lower body and core workout
Full bodyweight squats give plenty of work the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and
calves, if practiced with good form. As such, you may not need specialized exercises for those
muscle groups. If you are using a strength training protocol, squats, calf raises, and explosives
should be plenty to give you powerful, well proportioned legs. If you want to use a
bodybuilding protocol, design your workout around exercises that emphasize particular
muscle groups. Keep in mind that, for most people, the calves are primarily made up of slow
twitch muscle fibers, which can work for a long time before tiring out. As such, you will need
to use relatively high reps for your calves, even if you are using a strength training protocol.
Cardio, light stretching, prehab
Bridging for time (to warm up the legs a little more and to open up the back)
Two warmup sets of a squat variation that is easy for you personally
(At least 1 level down in the progression you're working on)
Deep stretches as needed
At least deep runner's stretch and/or a few Yoga stretches
Work sets
Squats - usually at least one type of bodyweight squat and a sandbag squat, or a few types of
bodyweight squats
Calves - various calf raises, squat jumps
Hamstrings - glute-ham raises, bridge curls
Quadriceps - sissy squats, duck walks, etc.
Back work - Full bridge work
2-3 warmup sets with light sandbags, partner resisted exercises, or park bench lifts
2-5 short work sets (such as with moderate to heavy sandbags, or harder partner resisted
Explosives - sprints, hill sprints, jumps, etc.
Cooldowns (if desired / needed)
Deep breathing, joint circling, stretching (especially for the muscle groups you worked)
Massaging of muscle groups you worked (use a muscle rub such as Icy Hot© if needed)
Light walking / cardio if desired
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Upper body pushing - chest, shoulders, and triceps emphasis
Pushups, dips, and handstand pushups work basically all of the upper body pushing
muscles. Any one of these could be its own workout, or part of a full body workout, which are
both valid options when using a strength training protocol. These three types of pushing
movements work nearly all of the upper body's pushing muscles, but emphasize certain
muscle groups. Pushups - pectorals and triceps; parallel bar dips – lats, triceps, and pectorals;
single bar dips - pectorals, but also triceps to a good degree; chair / bench dips – triceps.
Cardio, light stretching, prehab
Bridging for time
Deep stretching as needed
Work sets
Do at least 1 or 2 warmup sets of a type of movement before performing the work sets for it;
use an exercise that is 1 or 2 levels down in your chosen progression from the “work set”
exercise. Rep ranges for the warmup sets will depend on your conditioning level and goals.
Pushups At least two types. Once you learn some progressions for pushups, you will have a lot to
choose from. Work towards one arm pushups and Jowett pushups.
Jowett pushups - tutorial video:
Dips - Parallel bar dips, bench / chair dips, and/or horizontal bar dips
Triceps exercise - Tiger bend variations, etc.
Fingertip training
Hand-balancing and/or handstand pushups of any kind
Deep breathing and mobility exercises
Cooldowns (if desired / needed)
Deep breathing, joint circling, stretching (especially for the muscle groups you worked)
Massaging of muscle groups you worked (use a muscle rub such as Icy Hot© if needed)
Light walking / cardio if desired
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Upper body pulling - back, biceps, forearms emphasis
Pullups and horizontal pullups target the upper body pulling muscles in different ways,
and progressions for these may be all you ever need when using a strength training protocol.
Potential strength workouts include pairing vertical and horizontal pulling movements,
including one or both types in a full body strength routine, and having them as separate
workouts. Training goals should determine how you program these movements into your
weekly cycle(s).
If you are using a bodybuilding protocol, add exercises that emphasize certain muscle
groups more, such as close grip underhand pullups to target the biceps. Add in levers that hit
the shoulders (side, front, and/or back levers, for example). Lever training by itself can be a
full body workout if desired, or part of a workout, depending on what parts of the body you're
Workout template on the next page
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Upper body pulling, page 2
Cardio, light stretching, prehab
Bridging for time
Deep stretching as needed
Work sets
Do at least 1 or 2 warmup sets of a type of movement before performing the work sets for it;
use an exercise that is 1 or 2 levels down in your chosen progression from the “work set”
exercise. Rep ranges for the warmup sets will depend on your conditioning level and goals.
Two types of pullups
Horizontal pullups (bar or rings)
Biceps work
Grip work
Lever work is optional; the inclusion of levers and types of levers used depend on goals
Back work - Full bridge work
2-3 warmup sets with light sandbags, partner resisted exercises, or park bench lifts
2-5 short work sets (such as with moderate to heavy sandbags, or harder partner resisted
Cooldowns (if desired / needed)
Deep breathing, joint circling, stretching (especially for the muscle groups you worked)
Massaging of muscle groups you worked (use a muscle rub such as Icy Hot© if needed)
Light walking / cardio if desired
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Specialization and skill work
Cardio, light stretching, prehab
Deep stretching as needed
Two exercises from calisthenics progressions that are similar to the ones you're working
Skill work
Choose a few skills to work from the below categories:
Levers (back, front, side, elbow)
Midsection holds
Hand balancing (hand walking, transitions, one arm work, and so much more)
Bridging, Backbends and/or other tumbling skills
Advanced pushups, pullups, squats, or abdominal work
(Any of these can be its own workout, as well!)
Specialization work
Extremities (neck, fingers, forearms, wrists, calves)
Emphasis on one or more particular muscles
Specialization in a particular category of skill work or a particular skill
Cooldowns (if desired / needed)
Deep breathing, joint circling, stretching (especially for the muscle groups you worked)
Massaging of muscle groups you worked (use a muscle rub such as Icy Hot© if needed)
Light walking / cardio if desired
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Full body routine
Cardio, light stretching, prehab
Bridging for time
Deep stretching as needed
Work sets
"Century Test" (to be done in 8 minutes or less, but all 100 reps must be done with good form
- 40 squats, 30 pushups, 20 hanging knee raises, 10 pullups)
Handstand pushups
Horizontal pullups
2 bench lifts or sandbag lifts - 1 push and one pull or two sets of a "complex" (such as
shouldering a sandbag then squatting and pressing it, and repeat for the other shoulder)
1 or 2 skills / specializations that heavily work the abdominals (any levers, flags, and/or late
progression leg raise movements)
Fingers / wrists / grip
Work sets – variation
Do 1 or 2 warmup sets of each type of movement before doing the work sets; use an exercise
that is 1 or 2 levels down in the progression from the “work set” exercise.
Horizontal push; vertical pull; abdominals; legs
Work sets – variation 2
Same recommendation as previous variation.
Vertical push (dips, handstand pushups, etc.); horizontal pull; abdominals; legs; bridges
Cooldowns (if desired / needed)
Deep breathing, joint circling, stretching (especially for the muscle groups you worked)
Massaging of muscle groups you worked (use a muscle rub such as Icy Hot© if needed)
Light walking / cardio if desired
Variations on this template can be used to great effect for beginner and intermediate athletes.
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Abdominal training, page 1
The abdominals are involved in a lot of lifts and calisthenics movements, so you may or
may not need to emphasize them. Still, it is highly recommended to train your abs specifically,
especially if you're into martial arts, gymnastics, and so forth. The abdominals are very
resilient and tend to require higher reps. However, don't make the mistake of thinking you
need a ton of different moves to work the abs – they are designed to work as a cohesive unit.
Use movements that work the entire midsection!
If you're using a strength training protocol, choose one or two progressions to
specialize in for at least one training cycle. Of course, one may also use other progressions in
one's workouts, but these will depend on personal goals, needs (such as for a particular sport),
and current level of conditioning. For your primary progressions, work high sets of low reps
with the most difficult exercises you can perform from those progressions (with good form, of
course). The other progressions you choose can be used for assistance exercises or help round
out a full body workout that has an abdominal emphasis. (Such as adding lever work, which
hits multiple muscle groups, and can often be used to target the midsection.)
For a bodybuilding routine, the goal is still to exhaust the muscles, which means low
sets of high reps. One may superset an abdominal movement with a short stretch period
and/or bridging, for example, or pair an abdominal movement with a midsection hold, or do
all 3 back to back.
Lastly, one can perform an abdominal workout by itself, or add ab work as a finisher to
another workout.
Program Design for Advanced Athletes continued
Abdominal training, page 2
Cardio, light stretching, prehab
Bridging for time
Deep stretching as needed
Work sets
Do at least 1 or 2 warmup sets of a type of movement before performing the work sets for it;
use an exercise that is 1 or 2 levels down in your chosen progression from the “work set”
exercise. Rep ranges for the warmup sets will depend on your conditioning level and goals.
Choose from the following progressions, depending upon goals and current level:
Dragon flags
Leg raises
Levers that can target the abs (such as front, back, and side levers)
Midsection holds (sits, planks, hangs, etc.)
Cooldowns (if desired / needed)
Deep breathing, joint circling, stretching (especially for the muscle groups you worked)
Massaging of muscle groups you worked (use a muscle rub such as Icy Hot© if needed)
Light walking / cardio if desired
Calisthenics Exercises using Benches
Split squats with front or back foot on the bench
One leg squats with working leg standing on the bench and the other on the floor
Self assisted two leg squats or pistol squats
Jumbo shrimp squats
Partial ROM (range of motion) squats - back facing bench - sit down to bench and stand up
(using one leg or two)
Posterior chain
Partner or solo prone hyperextensions on the bench
Cross-bench Superman
Angled bridge
Bridge curls (one foot or two)
Knee tucks, flat or sitting
Leg raise variations, including scissors
Bent leg hold - between two benches or using a pair of pushup handles or parallettes on one
L-sit progression - same as above
Pushing movements
Incline and decline pushups - on palms, knuckles, wrists, or fingers. If you’re working wrist or
finger pushups, you can have both hands touching the ground in the same way (such as on the
back of the hand or on the fingertips), or in mixed positions, to make it easier (one hand on
the palm, the other on the back of the hand or fingertips). Also, one can use one hand, both
hands, or a transitional movement (such as archer pushups, uneven pushups. or self assisted
one arm pushups).
Calisthenics Exercises using Benches continued
Jowett pushups - can be done with feet on bench and hands on chairs or benches. This
exercise allows for a much deeper range of motion and provides a good stretch under tension
for the pectorals and deltoids, as the chest will go between the chairs or benches. This is a
brutal exercise, but it’s also a wonderful chest builder.
More pushing movements
Elevated pike handstand pushups
Bench dip variations
Bodyweight extensions - one or two hands; standing or kneeling
Tiger bend pushups - incline, decline, or elevated pike position
Planks - incline or decline; bent arm or straight arm; one leg or both legs; gecko plank (one
arm up and opposite leg up)
Elbow lever - decline or raised. These are both easier than practicing a full elbow lever, in
which you are supporting your entire body weight on your hands.
Calisthenics Exercises using Benches continued
Dragon flag progression
Don’t start this progression until you’ve accumulated a high degree of proficiency with leg
raises and hip thrusts. Be sure to get some formal instruction on this exercise, as it is highly
1. Dragon flag negatives. Lie flat on the bench, reach back with your hands, and grip the
end of the bench. The shoulders will act as the fulcrum point for “leveraging” the body
upwards. Kick up or leg raise and thrust into the top position then lower as slowly as
you can into the bottom position. The top position will look very similar to the
candlestick position in gymnastics. The goal is to lower under control until your feet are
an angle of about 30 to 45 degrees to your bench. This will be the bottom position. As
your form improves, add range of motion until you can nearly touch the bench with
your legs while using control.
When you come out of the hold, land softly under control. If you’re having a hard time
controlling the movement, have a spotter help you on the way down and cue you to
keep your hips locked during the negative (the lowering phase). Throughout the entire
negative, you will need to maintain full body tension, control your breathing, and keep
your hands, shoulders, and hips locked in. Gradually build up your repetitions. This
exercise could be done at the end of a workout, especially on days that you’re heavily
training abdominals.
Once you have built up reps, gradually tighten up form. Once you feel comfortable,
practice holding the bottom position for time, and build up to at least a ten second
2. Dragon flag tucks. Lock in your hands and shoulders, tuck your feet in close to your
hips, then slightly bridge up by pushing through the feet. You will need to get your hips
straight and locked in. Take a deep breath and squeeze the abs tight while maintaining
the tension in the arms, shoulders, hips, and glutes. Start raising your knees up while
keeping the hips locked in straight and squeezing hard with the arms and abs. At the
top position, straighten the knees. Lower under control and hold the bottom position
for a few seconds, then bend your knees and place your feet back on the bench, and
repeat the exercise for reps. Once you’ve built up your reps in this exercise, tighten up
Calisthenics Exercises using Benches continued
3. Dragon flag - fully locked. Your knees will be locked out straight throughout the entire
movement. Start with very low reps, but very high concentration and intensity. Again,
ask a spotter to help if needed while you’re building your strength in this movement. As
you improve, add a rep here and there. Continue tightening up form. As you improve,
start making each rep longer and more intense.
An Essay on Flexibility
As a martial artist with many years of experience, I have had the good fortune of
learning and testing out many kinds of stretching. I have found that it is important to have a
variety of “active flexibility” stretches where one uses muscular control to help affect the range
of motion of the stretching technique. Yoga and Pilates postures have been very effective for
me and my martial arts students in helping “open up” not only the hamstrings and shoulders,
but correct postural problems in our backs and help strengthen the back muscles while doing
so. This is very desirable for practicing martial arts, and for many types of resistance training.
I can imagine that performing many types of Olympic lifts would be greatly assisted by
improving one’s posture, back strength, and spinal health.
Static stretching, from my experience, is not conducive to resistance training, which is
supported by research. I have found that performing dynamic stretching – joint rotations and
so forth – form an integral part of any warmup routine. This is very important for warming up
the joints and muscles that are specific to the workout, and it also lubricates the joints with
synovial fluid, allowing for improved function of the joints.
This is necessary for skill work such as in martial arts, gymnastics and so forth, as well
as resistance training of almost any kind. As an example, before we train any Aikido
techniques, we carefully practice wrist rotations and wrist stretches. These help prevent injury
to the wrists when practicing the various wrist lock techniques, and the stretches also help us
to further ingrain the motions of the techniques. In this way, such stretches have “joint
specificity”. There are many examples of such joint specific stretches that assist in martial arts
As far as resistance training goes, we have indeed found that it does contribute to
increased joint flexibility. I previously mentioned Yoga and Pilates. These disciplines do tend
to help build strength throughout the full range of motion of the exercises, as well as balance
and posture. Similarly, other disciplines of body weight movements have been very helpful in
not only building strength in “natural” movements, but balance, coordination, and agility.
Such movements include various pushing, pulling, and squatting exercises, and many more.
As an example, I generally start most new, untrained karate students with a short list of
Judo style stretches and kneeling pushups, or wall pushups if necessary. Such pushups are
fairly remedial exercises that allow students to learn the basic form, and help stretch out the
muscles and joints while using the muscles to stay in control of the motion. Developing
muscular control is a very important concept in both flexibility and martial arts. There are
remedial variations of almost any exercise one can imagine, especially in calisthenics. The
position, leverage, and range of motion may be adjusted in any calisthenics technique such
that it can be made more difficult (progressing the technique) or less difficult (regressing the
Of course, during pushing movements, the antagonistic muscles hold some tension,
and the stabilizer muscles also get some training via holding correct posture and balance.
Once a set of pushing movements is completed, pulling movements are practiced to help
stretch out the muscles and joints on the other side. An example remedial exercise for pulling
is standing pulls, where one places one’s hands on either side of a pole, beam, or any other
An Essay on Flexibility continued
sturdy object or piece of furniture that one can safely put one’s hands around.
As the student progresses in muscular control, his or her technique improves and will
be able to perform more “high quality” repetitions. Also, as the student continues practicing
these techniques, his or her range of motion will generally deepen, allowing him or her to
make the exercise more difficult, as well as improve his or her own active flexibility. An
example is performing wide stance body weight squats half way down at first. This functions
as not only a resistance exercise, but also a stretch for the quadriceps where most of the
muscles of the legs are involved in the exercise.
Another great exercise is body weight calf raises. These help stretch out the calf muscles
as well as the Achilles tendon. Any menu of squats and calf raises is greatly supplemented by
ankle rotations and “runner’s stretches” (similar to lunges). As flexibility and muscular
control improve in calf raises, one can practice them with one foot and / or off a step. Of
course, it takes time and dedication with squats and calf raises to build up balance, and
flexibility in the ankles. The key point is not to rush things and gradually develop the
flexibility needed to keep the heels planted in the bottom portion of squats. Calf raises and
ankle rotations help immensely with this.
Naturally, connective tissues will get stretched and strengthened by practicing such
techniques. Simply holding tension (via muscular control) will work the ligaments and
tendons. Also, going through the proper ranges of motion in these techniques stretches them
and helps one’s body learn correct movements and postures. As such, not only can one build
muscular control, posture, balance, general proprioception and kinesthesia, flexibility, and
skill, but joint integrity and strength in ligaments and tendons. This helps maintain joint
health and prevent injury.
Maintaining strength balances in the body allows one, also, to maintain natural ranges
of motion. Asking any gymnastics coach about building shoulder health and flexibility will
certainly yield much useful advice on the topic. It can be argued, especially from a gymnastics
perspective, that excellent upper body flexibility is required to learn more advanced body
weight techniques. Also, to quote an article by a gymnast, “Keeping the shoulders
(glenohumeral / scapular articulations) operating optimally is the key to bodyweight strength
Referenced article - “The Fundamentals of Bodyweight Strength Training”
Light, gentle stretching as a part of cool downs has helped me and my martial arts
students reduce post workout pain. This usually involves partner assisted stretching and
massage to help “detox” the affected joints and muscles of waste products and so forth.
An Essay on Flexibility continued
So, as you can see by my approach to body weight training, calisthenics can be very
holistic in nature, help with flexibility, and provide light, moderate, and even very high levels
of intensity for strength training. My overall approach to strength and flexibility is based
around my years of experience in martial arts, progressive calisthenics, and gymnastics, as
well as experience and research into other disciplines (ballet, parkour, Yoga, Pilates, etc.), and
training with other instructors.
One arm pullup training
One arm pullups are an impressive feat of strength, and take a lot of dedicated training
to work up to. You don't need any specialized equipment, either – just your own bodyweight,
knowledge of progressive principles and exercises, and a horizontal bar. Progressive
calisthenics, a strength oriented approach to bodyweight training, focuses on minimalism –
little to no equipment, but high rewards. Your body is its own very versatile form of training
With all of this in mind, let's explore how to work towards one arm pullups. Firstly, I'll
recommend two books and a certification that are invaluable for calisthenics enthusiasts,
martial artists, and coaches. Secondly, starting on the next page is a description of a useful
strength training method as well as my own progression towards them. Lastly is a potential
The first Convict Conditioning book – which sparked the resurgence of interest in
progressive calisthenics - has an amazing progression for pullups, which helps lay out a plan
for training towards one arm pullups.
The book Overcoming Gravity has charts, gymnastics based progressions, diagrams
and explanations of the skills, and a ton more information. Check out the product page, which
includes a PDF of the book, and gymnastics rings. I don’t make a cent from any purchases
made through this page – I just think a lot of their products!
There are PCC (progressive calisthenics certification) workshops held regularly around
the world. Paul “Coach” Wade, author of Convict Conditioning, teamed with the Kavadlo
brothers to develop the PCC, which is the industry standard of bodyweight certifications. The
sheer amount of material covered in these workshops and the level of instruction are amazing!
I attended a workshop in July 2014, and after a rigorous examination at the end of the
workshop, called the “Century Test”, became certified. If you want to know more about these
workshops, visit
For a lot more information about progression in calisthenics, check out the other
articles further along in this guide. Don't forget to also check out my “Street Workouts” video
playlist on YouTube for video tutorials on a lot of the exercises mentioned in this article, and
much more! Short URL -
One arm pullup training
My progress towards the one arm pullup, a useful training method, and a sample progression
-Met the Convict Conditioning progression standard for uneven pullups (step 7 in the pullup
- Improved form and reps for bar and towel pullups, which are essentially a form of selfassisted pullups. Bar and towel pullups are similar to assisted one arm pullups (step 9 in the
progression), but you do not let go of the towel in the top half of the movement.
- Had trouble breaking into 1/2 one arm pullups, though, so I started working on the weighted
pullup progression in Steven Low's incredible “Overcoming Gravity” -
However, Paul "Coach" Wade, author of the Convict Conditioning books, frowns upon the use
of weight vests. His argument - which I tend to agree with – is as follows.
“They are worse than useless for bodyweight; the screw up form, they can cause aching joints,
and they never seem to do what they are supposed to--get folks up the next progression! You
are far better finding progressive "hidden steps" in your training.”
Coach brought this up when I posted a question in the comments section in one of his
articles, which details his own methods and that of his mentor Joe Hartigen, which I have
since been applying to training towards one arm pullups.
Article -
The Hartigen Method, as Wade calls it, is a 5/4/3/2/1 "ladder" protocol wherein you
choose the hardest exercise you can perform for 5 quality reps. Hartigen would often warmup
with an easier exercise, for two sets of 5, using slow, dynamic tension to add to the difficulty.
What I like about the Hartigen method is the built-in "hidden steps" and tougheners, such as
the dynamic tension! The final work set would often include “...a ten second dynamic-tension isometric at the top position of that very last rep. He’d follow
this with a slow negative of about ten seconds.”
I began training the pullup progression as strictly as possible while applying the
Hartigen method. The lower rep counts, as well as the dynamic tension and slow eccentric on
the last rep, allow one to focus like a laser on form and milk all the strength gains possible out
of these techniques. I was eventually able to perform uneven pullups with good form with
Joe's system.
One arm pullup training
*Note – there are others who do agree with the use of weight vests. The argument that
could be made for them is that they are an easy way to add intensity to a movement pattern
that is already ingrained, and that you can still monitor form if you are strict about it. It is
recommended to review the section on training for levels 7 and 8 in Overcoming Gravity. The
caution here is that if you're not near level 7 or 8 in your ability, then you shouldn't use a
weight vest until you have worked up through other progressions as needed. (Such as the
progressions for rowing, pullups, and pullups on rings + one arm chinups in Overcoming
-I applied a 5x5 scheme to Commando pullups, then revisited uneven pullups using the
Hartigen method. I eventually progressed to applying this method to Archer pullups. Over
time I tightened up form and built up to the full 10 seconds of dynamic tension and the 10
second eccentric at the end.
-I started working self-assisted one arm pullups using a “grease the groove” cycle. Grease the
groove is a protocol that essentially involves frequently practicing an exercise while “fresh”,
and never going to fatigue when you practice. I had slow but steady progress with this.
While I list this exercise after jackknife one arm pullups in the progression in the next page,
“regressed” self-assisted OAPUs can be easier than jackknives for some. Jackknives are the
first fully unilateral movement in the progression, which could hike up the strength
requirement a bit too much for some athletes. Visiting self-assistance methods are a valid way
to “regress” a movement and make progress. I personally “regressed” the self-assisted OAPUs
so that I could train through the transition from Archer pullups to Jackknife OAPUs. I kept
the assisting arm high at first and gradually worked up to having it at nearly a 90 degree angle
to my working arm. Some athletes may not even decide to use jackknife OAPUs at all.
-Short “grease the groove” cycle with Jackknife OAPUs. For some reps, I utilized a minor
amount of self-assistance – placing my free hand at a deep angle to my working arm on
whatever vertical base was available, and only pushing through the concentric sticking point.
-Aiming to build up to the Hartigen method with self-assisted OAPUs, then revisit the
tougheners, and repeat, until I can perform these as described in step 9 of the pullup
progression in Convict Conditioning. After that, the last step for this exercise is to build up to
the progression standard.
-Try to finally nail a OAPU!
One arm pullup training
Essentially, the Convict Conditioning pullup progression is still very solid, but for most
trainees, will require extra steps between Steps 7 and 8 in the progression, as well as between
Steps 8 and 9. Below I list a potential progression, with tougheners for some of the exercises. I
am not dogmatic about this approach. You're encouraged to add other steps as needed, and
you don't have to use all of the steps below, or work with only one at a time. Explore and
experiment! It may even be a good idea to split horizontal pullups into their own progression,
leading to one arm Australian pullups or even harder variations (such as torquers). Such a
progression could include archer Australian pullups, close grip Australian pullups, and more.
1. Vertical / straight pullups
2. Angled pullups
3. Table pullups
4. Australian pullups
5. Jackknife pullups (feet elevated; lower base makes it easier)
6. Pullups
7. Close grip pullups (over time, bringing the hands closer together)
8. Commando pullups (over time, putting assisting arm further from working arm)
9. Uneven pullups (over time, putting assisting hand lower on working arm)
10. Around the worlds
11. Archer pullups
12. Jackknife one arm pullups
*Feet elevated. To make the exercise easier: bend the knees during the exercise, and/or use a
lower base. Tougheners: keep the legs straight during the exercise, and or use a higher base
for your feet to push down on (up to having the legs to form a right angle to your torso).
13. Partner assisted one arm pullups
*To make the exercise easier: your partner can push harder. Toughener: Instruct your partner
to only push through the concentric sticking point or when your movement starts to slow
down. Make sure you have good communication with your partner to insure safety. However,
if you feel you need too much assistance with this exercise, go back to jackknife OAPUs.
14. Self-assisted one arm pullups
*Hold on to a vertical base with your free hand (such as the vertical pole of a pullup unit).
Keeping the assisting hand closer to you makes it easier to push downwards, as does keeping
it higher. Tougheners: Lowering the assisting arm and/or keeping it further from you; only
push through the concentric sticking point with the assisting arm; use a towel or rope for selfassistance, since either would be an unstable “base” to push downwards on; keeping an L-hold
position with the legs during the exercise.
15. One arm pullups
*Kicking up with the legs makes this easier, but using little to no momentum (keeping the
knees locked and legs immobile) will make it harder.
Gymnastics backbend tips
Using a wall for support was the most helpful to me as I was teaching my body how to
get deeper and deeper into the backbend. Essentially, I practiced the "wall walking" exercise
from Convict Conditioning (step 7 of the bridge progression). Of course, you will ultimately
want to teach your body to not rely on support from the wall, but it is still helpful at first as
you are learning the mechanics and building flexibility. As I got better at both, I slowly
depended on the wall less and less. Finally I was almost nailing it without the wall. Once I got
to where I could keep my back arched throughout the motion and stay balanced as I followed
my hands, it just took a little more practice to nail it without a wall. A spotter will ideally put
one hand under your shoulders and another hand under the small of your back and force you
to keep your back arched, if needed.
If necessary, spend some extra time in the bridge and deepening it. Basically just
working on the mechanics of the bridge posture. Ideally you will want to get to where you have
your feet a lot closer to your shoulders. Also try doing bridge pushups - very slowly with a
focus on squeezing out a deep bridge every time in the top position. If you do this with your
shoulders facing a wall, you can do a bridge pushup and then walk your way up the wall.
(Essentially step 8 from the Convict Conditioning bridge progression - wall walking up). This
is just another way to get a feeling for the backbend.
Below is a short link to a YouTube tutorial on step 7 (wall walking down).
Mobility work – tension-flexibility training
A lot of these are "tension flexibility" exercises that train strength, balance, and
flexibility. Of course, like any bodyweight only movement, those particular exercises can be
modified to emphasize one quality more than the others while emphasizing the others less.
Exercises marked with an asterisk aren't strictly "tension flexibility" exercises, but can be used
or modified for that. Lastly, this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. The exercises on this
list can be ignored or modified as needed, or substituted with others. I have put together a
YouTube playlist with videos of a number of these exercises. Visit the site below, click on
“stretching videos”, near the top, and then click the play button to watch the playlist –
Strength-led stretches not only help to open up and “oil” the joints, but also train the
muscles and connective tissues. Passive, especially forced, stretching – while useful in certain
contexts, such as gymnastics, dance, and martial arts – can potentially lead to injury. It also
doesn't train the muscles and connective tissues to move the joints throughout their range of
motion. On the other hand, strength-led / “tension-flexibility” stretches train mobility – the
ability of the muscles to control the joints throughout their range of motion. Flexibility by
itself is defined as "the absolute range of movement in a joint or series of joints that is
attainable in a momentary effort with the help of a partner or a piece of equipment." (Mobility
Training for the Martial Arts, by Tony Gummerson.) All in all, mobility work improves joint
The exercise list starts on the next page.
Mobility work – tension-flexibility training
1. Cossack stretches – called spider stretch, by many gymnasts
2. Progression for pistol squat* (basically one leg squat)
a. Partner assisted one leg squats throughout a full or partial range of motion - go back
to doing deep, slow split squats if you're not able to do partials yet
b. Self assistance i.) Use a sturdy object to sit on in the bottom position of partial squats. Less range of
motion is easier; more R.O.M. is harder - and remember to keep tension throughout the
ii.) Stand on a sturdy object with the working leg and let the non-working leg hang. Be
prepared to "catch yourself" on the non-working leg if you're still working on the balance
requirement. Push through the object you're standing on with your working leg and aim to
straighten the knee, but a partial movement is fine at first with this exercise as well. Steadily
tighten up on form as you improve your strength with these. Once you feel comfortable with
these, try to bring the non-working leg to where it is parallel to the ground, during the
eccentric movement of the squat.
iii) Self assisted pistol squats on the ground - using a sturdy object under your foot or
pressing off of it with the hand that is on the same side as the non-working leg. Higher objects
are easier, lower objects are harder. Unstable objects also make it harder (basketball, etc.).
Remember to take it slow and hold very tight tension on the non-working leg. As you improve,
the hamstrings of the non-working leg and the quadriceps of the working leg get a better and
better stretch.
c. Wushu squat
d. Transition to wushu squat from Cossack stretch
Mobility work – tension-flexibility training
3. Bridge hold progression.
a. Pulling feet in while in short bridge
b. Tabletop, straight bridge, head bridge, angled bridge
c. Wall bridging, one arm and/or one leg bridge, stand to stand bridge, etc.
4. Cat stretch
5. Twist work
6. Midsection holds (L-sit etc.)
7. Full ROM hanging leg raises
8. Standing partner stretches against a wall.* These are technically passive forced stretching,
so be careful not to go too far – I kept these on the list since the person being stretched can
hold tension in the top position of the stretch. The key to not going too far, though, is to only
stretch as far as feeling mild to moderate discomfort. One can also try a modified version,
where one leans against flat against the wall and lifts a leg as high as possible in a slow and
controlled manner, with the goal of locking the knee out.
9. Calf stretches off elevation
10. Lever work on bars
Methods of progression in calisthenics
This is not intended to be a comprehensive article. It was originally written as a “quick
start guide” for the gymnastics coaches I work with.
Linear progressions - single, double, triple, or multiple progression.
Most beginner trainees will notice some improvements (higher reps, improved form,
what have you) every workout. A double progression consists of only two “intensity variables”:
first, build up to a target number of reps in an exercise, then move to a harder exercise or
variation of the previous one, and repeat. This is often called “milking strength”, “banking
strength”, “paying your dues”, or “building training momentum”. The idea is that you will get
as much benefit from an exercise as you can by staying with it long enough to build up to
performing the target number of reps.
A triple or multiple progression consists of having three or more variables. For
instance, after hitting the target number of reps, you could tighten up form (which makes an
exercise harder) or change a hand / foot position such that the exercise becomes harder. Aim
for a target number of reps again, and once you can achieve your goal you will move to the
next exercise. It’s best to focus on only a few variables at once, though, to make progress
easier to track.
Stepped and waved progressions; periodization.
Most trainees who have at least an intermediate level of strength are likely to discover
that the law of diminishing returns is kicking in, and overall progress is no longer linear.
Progress will not come every workout for all of their exercises - maybe every other workout or
maybe a little progress every week. This is a “stepped progression” instead of a linear
progression. Tighten up form a little here, add a rep there - the main thing is to stay with an
exercise but introduce slight changes as needed to keep the training momentum going, even
when progress slows.
There will be times, of course, that athletes getting into the higher end of the
intermediate level of strength and the lower end of the advanced level of strength will start
having trouble adding reps week after week to a moderately intense exercise. This will be the
time to start looking into wave progression or other methods of planning training cycles. For
more about different types of periodization, point your browser to the short url below. The
concepts can easily be modified for use in progressive calisthenics by thinking in terms of
“intensity techniques” rather than external resistance. Short url -
What follows is based on my personal experience with methods of progress. When an
athlete hits a plateau on a difficult exercise, explore a few options to see what will help them
tighten up form, or make the exercise slightly easier so that they can focus on form, reps, or
another variable of the exercise more easily. At the advanced stage of strength, add
specialization exercises to strengthen any areas that need attention, to assist progress in an
exercise or overall training program / progression.
Methods of progression in calisthenics
A few bullet points to keep in mind.
-There are general guidelines for practicing each type of movement and static hold.
These form guiding principles rather than a dogmatic approach to strength, as it is good to be
open to new ideas and willing to tailor programs to each trainee.
-Due to individual differences in trainees, we should try to get as much experience and
knowledge as we can about the movement chains (pullups, pushups etc.) and static chains
(levers, bridges etc.), intensity variables, and long term progression. This will help gauge an
athlete’s progress, tweak lesson plans “on the fly” during a workout, and so forth.
-No matter what strength level an athlete is at, working towards high reps is still one of
the most important ways to develop proficiency and strength in a style of movement.
Repetition builds muscle memory, strength, and endurance. Basically, every exercise should
be treated like a skill.
-Safety is an integral part of all physical activity, and especially when performing
exercises or skills where you leave the ground. As such, safety is a part of the design of
progressive calisthenics movements and program design. Holding full body tension in all
exercises, keeping an eye on form, and performing all repetitions with a slow to moderate
cadence in the beginning stages of training not only help train strength, but also help to build
joint health as well as prevent injury. Athletes should be reminded to not over-train or train to
injury. Not only does venturing into over training do very little good for strength, it can be an
obstacle to building strength, since it often just eats into precious recovery time and can lead
to injury, making recovery take even longer.
-Minimalism is an essential aspect of progressive calisthenics. This is why I did not
bring up any specific equipment or apparatus. All you really need in order to train for high
levels of strength is enough room to spread out your arms, something to hang from, and
knowledge of the principles of progression. Of course, using creativity, one can also use
everyday objects as makeshift equipment. Athletes should keep in mind, though, that safety is
especially important to keep in mind when selecting and using such equipment.
-Strength training provides so many benefits to the human body and mind – including
joint health, improved metabolism, beating stress, improved power and speed, help regulating
emotions and sleep cycles, etc. - that strength should be the primary goal of exercise and
considered the foundation of (almost) all athletic activity. Naturally, this is not the only
priority, especially for athletes (whether competitive or not).
-Brief, intense workouts build strength. The longer a training session is, the more it will
venture into muscular endurance training. In gymnastics, having a high level of muscular
endurance is necessary, but so is building a high level of muscular strength, for reasons
mentioned above.
-The technical guidelines for the movement and static chains fall outside the scope of
this article. However, I usually go over them in classes and clinics. I do have other articles that
detail the performance of calisthenics exercises, though, linked here -
Strength Stations Workout for Gymnastics
Choose exercises from the primary progressions to suit individual levels of skill and
conditioning. When athletes are working on a partner exercise, they should pair up by size if
possible. Rotate partners each set if possible, with 3 to 5 rotations normally being the
maximum if the intensity of resistance is kept high. Water breaks every 10 to 15 minutes.
“Work sets” on non partner exercises will normally be 3 to 5 at most. This also assumes a high
difficulty in the chosen exercises.
Warmups – add in other mobility work and stretches as needed or desired; 10-15 minutes but
not so intense that it takes away from the core of the workout.
Choose from jumping jacks, burpees, mountain climbers, jump rope
Shoulder circles, wrist stretches, bridges, twists, L-sits, and dips from chair, cheese, or block
Stations – choose solo (non-partner) exercises from the primary strength training
progressions, as well as partner exercises for push, pull, core, legs, plus basic bridging and
hand balance work.
Primary progressions – Pushups, Pullups, Leg raises, Squats
Handstands and hand balances, Bridges
Additional stations – Toning band pullovers
Hold bridges, deep squats, or hand balances for time
Other safe training methods
Partner resisted exercises – Rowing, Overhead presses, Squats and lunges (slow and deep on
Partner assisted stretches – pike, straddle, and so forth
Sandbag training for functional, real world strength
Sandbag training is incredible for building functional, real world strength. It is also
relatively inexpensive. Sandbags commonly cost no more than $6 each at hardware stores. An
army duffel bag can usually be found at army surpluses for $15-20 on average. I love training
with these because you can do almost any type of lift with them, and the fact that the sand
shifts around forces you to stabilize the bags, giving you a harder workout. Sandbag training is
very useful for firefighters and combat athletes, such as cage fighters and wrestlers
Try tossing two sandbags into one and try a few lifts – fireman’s carry, clean and press,
curls, squats, swings. Or, put one sandbag each in two sturdy backpacks and hold them
anyway you like while walking. I recommend holding one in each hand and building up to
walking a quarter mile with them. It works the legs, back, and especially the arms. Eventually
try bear hugging a duffel bag with two sandbags in it while walking. Build up to 3, 4, or even 5
sandbags in your duffel.
For more ideas, read “Dinosaur Training” by Brooks Kubik, as well as articles on
awkward object lifting (which I will link below). Below are two of my favorite online articles
on the subject. The first one concisely details the benefits of such training, various odd
objects, where to get them, and how to use them. The second article talks about developing
“real world strength” through this style of training. My own article on the subject is included
later in this book.
I have put together my own blog dedicated to odd object training, so please check it out
for videos and articles, if you want to know more -
Dinosaur Training is essentially a philosophy of "weight training / physical culture
promoting a return to traditional strongman types of exercises and training…” Visit the
Wikipedia entry for full information
Or, feel free to visit the author’s website at
If you are experienced in progressive calisthenics or gymnastics, try wearing a sandbag
while performing chin ups, dips, and other exercises. This is one of many methods that can
help you progress towards much harder movements such as one arm chinups. There are
plenty of other great ideas on using odd objects in conjunction with progressive calisthenics
over at this article
Sandbag training continued
The blog that the article is hosted on is the official blog of the Progressive Calisthenics
Certification community. The certification workshops are organized by Dragon Door, an
industry leader in fitness certifications. The certification was developed by Paul “Coach” Wade
(author of Convict Conditioning), the Kavadlo brothers (both well known personal trainers,
amazing body weight athletes, and authors), and more. If you want to know more about the
workshops, or even sign up to attend one, visit below
If you would like to get a headstart on progressive calisthenics, read the full article on
the subject that is included in this guide. It also includes recommended books, some YouTube
playlists, and more. Lastly, I provide sandbag training as one of my class offerings. If you
would like to know more, or contact me for a free consultation, visit my class page
Caveman Conditioning: Uncivilized, Minimalist Training Methods
Caveman conditioning revolves around rather uncivilized and minimalist, but very
rewarding, strength training methods out in nature, whether it be the woods, the mountains,
wherever. Why bother with a gym or expensive equipment when you can get your strength
training for little to no money? Even if the closest thing to nature you have available to you is
a public park, you can still get a free but difficult workout by trying some of the ideas from
“caveman conditioning”! No matter where you go, you just need some creativity and
knowledge of proper exercise technique.
Please note – this article is not related in any way to the “Caveman Conditioning” of
Bodyforce. This is my own take on “primitive” training methods, and no copyright
infringement is intended in any way. Check out Bodyforce’s awesome Caveman Conditioning
page by visiting the blog below and clicking on “Caveman Conditioning”
Dress for safety and for the weather. Always have permission to use the land. (Unless
you, a close friend, or a family member owns it – in which case, knock yourself out. If you get
yourself in trouble though, “I told you so.”) Take all proper precautions before you go into the
woods, including hydration, sunblock, any needed equipment, hiking shoes, thick socks, and
bug repellent spray. Read this article on Lyme disease, which can be contracted from ticks
(often picked up in the woods during warmer months) -
Caveman Conditioning – Strength Training Methods
Drag away dead trees by hand. Chop down a tree for firewood. Shovel some dirt. You’d
be surprised how great these are for training both strength AND endurance, until you’ve done
one of them steadily for an hour. Especially in hot weather.
You can use a relatively low but very sturdy tree branch for pullups, leg raises, various
gymnastics exercises, and so forth. You could also perform a burpee, jump up to the branch
explosively, do a pullup, drop, and repeat, for a full set.
Run through and navigate the natural obstacle course that the woods provide – this
includes jumping ditches. Climb trees for grip work and overall agility. Hang a rope from a
tree and learn some rope climbing exercises to train your grip and overall body strength even
more. Ropes are also useful in pullup variations and mud run style obstacles. Look into army
training and drills for ideas. Look online for the Army Field Manual 21-20 and read it
Clear any straw and or leaves in a particularly shady and grassy area that could be used
for various calisthenics – just remember to wear long shirts and pants for this. Also make sure
that if you’re going to use the area and regularly, spray it for ticks using Permethrin or another
recommended pesticide. Anyway, some excellent calisthenics in such an area include using a
tree for support when practicing gymnastics backbends or various handstand exercises. You
could also wrap a length of heavy rope around a tree to use for striking practice. Just make
Caveman Conditioning continued
sure you get instruction from a qualified martial arts instructor before trying this and wear
hand protection, such as wrist wraps. I recommend using rice bucket exercises to strengthen
your wrists, and using other such exercises to toughen the hands. Here is a writeup I did on
this topic -
Picture of a “tree makiwara” -
For plenty of great calisthenics tutorials, including some on exercises listed in this post, head
over to my body weight training playlist page. Simply point your web browser to the blog
below and click on “Body Weight Training” near the top.
Sprint through an abandoned field – but make absolutely sure you clear a straight path
of anything that you could trip over or that could pierce shoes or skin, as well as wear
sweatpants and running shoes with excellent heel support. If the woods are in a particularly
hilly area, you can go for hill sprints, which are great for explosiveness!
Repurpose materials from abandoned properties out in the woods. This includes using
cinder blocks for biceps curls and other lifts. You could also use any old beams, chairs, heavy
duty rope, and bricks that are available. Old beams or planks of wood could be laid across a
ditch, or used as a calf raise step (put it next to a tree or wall that you can use to assist in
balance). Bricks can be used in some hand balancing exercises, and as support in one leg
squats. Old chairs can be used for an incredible variety of calisthenics. These include decline
pushups, chair dips, gymnastics L-sits, uneven or “lever” pushups (as they are called in the
first Convict Conditioning book, but using a chair instead of a basketball), and so forth. You
could push your car down a path through the woods, along a mountain path that is not highly
trafficked, and so forth. It is amazing for both cardio and giving you a whole body workout!
Check out the below video for some ideas.
Did you like these “Caveman Conditioning” strength training ideas? Do you have any of your
own that you want to share or brag about? Drop me a line in the comments on this article’s
blog post -
View the next article, All About Progressive Calisthenics, for much more about body weight
training, including articles and videos.
Great blog post on the official Progressive Calisthenics certification blog, about a similar
approach to “hybrid” training methods -
For more ideas on improvised training equipment, and plenty of tutorial videos, head to my
related blog -
All about Progressive Calisthenics
Body weight training exercises may be trained progressively by adjusting leverage,
range of motion, and positioning. With these in mind, body mechanics, and movement, one
may use progressive calisthenics to achieve very high levels of functional, full body strength
and coordination. This is primarily because calisthenics use natural movements that act on
multiple joints, and force many stabilizer muscles to be used. Lastly, calisthenics help to
improve posture, as well as build supple strength and tension in the tendons, ligaments, and
My articles about progressive calisthenics – included in this guide
Program Design for Beginners
Program Design for Advanced Athletes
Calisthenics Exercises using Benches
One arm pullup training
Mobility work – tension flexibility exercises
Methods of progress in calisthenics
Progressive Calisthenics Lifestyle
Progressive Calisthenics for Strength
Ultimate Leg Training
Calf Training
Street Workouts
“Cheat sheets” section
Exercises are also techniques that should be practiced many times and mastered! Short URL
to a great article -
Progressive calisthenics classes, workshops, and tutorials
Do you want to get started and learn cool new skills, as well as how to build strength using
natural body weight techniques? If so, head to my classes page and click on “Calisthenics
Classes” at the top.
If you want to check out my training videos for some tutorials on progressive calisthenics,
visit my playlist site and click on “Owen's Training Videos” near the top. I also have another
post with plenty of tutorial videos uploaded by other fitness professionals. To check these out,
simply click on the link near the top of the page that says “Body Weight Training”.
All about Progressive Calisthenics continued
Progressive Calisthenics Workshops
Dragon Door, the company who published the Convict Conditioning books, also puts on
regularly held progressive calisthenics instructor certification workshops. You can find out
more about the workshops at the official Progressive Calisthenics blog that Dragon Door
hosts. The blog also has plenty of free articles written by certified Progressive Calisthenics
instructors. There is an extensive products section that is linked to at the top of the blog.
There are quite a few incredible training books, e-books, DVD’s, and more available! The
Convict Conditioning books, DVD’s, and Ultimate Bodyweight Training Log are among the
varied selection.
Official blog -
My blog post about the workshops -
Also check out my training resources page by visiting the site below and clicking on “Training
Resources” near the top –
Progressive Calisthenics Lifestyle
Below are my thoughts about the variables and factors that need to be taken into
account for progressive calisthenics.
1. Leverage – increase or decrease
2. Range of motion – increase or decrease
3. Positioning – hand or foot (such as basketball pushups or putting hands closer together in
pushups or pullups)
4. Unilateral or bilateral (one hand or both, one foot or both)
5. Correct form!!! It is an art. Be creative, but also have the discipline to go with it. Keep the
correct body alignment for the exercise at all times.
6. Other tougheners – seek and find! Inter-set rest, volume, frequency, partner resistance,
locked knees while doing calf raises, towel work for pullups, infinite possibilities in hand
balancing arts, as well as the use of equipment in public parks.
7. Set S.M.A.R.T. goals – PLAN AHEAD! This also means you should log your workouts.
8. Lifestyle factors – nutrition, sleep, emotional health, recovery days, live clean, but also
allow the occasional cheat day.
9. Specializations – only after competency in progressions for the basics. Specializations
include neck, forearms, wrists, knuckles, feet and calves, gymnastics holds, odd objects for
more full body strength, etc.
10. “Journey, not a destination.” LOVE TRAINING! Consistency, motivation, and creativity in
training will fall into place when you relish every rep. Milk each exercise for all of the lessons
it can teach you. Savor the gains and let nature take its course.
Summary, and the name of the game – PROGRESSION
Burn that sole word into your mind and keep it there.
We all have hard days – but take time to “improve the moment”! No matter what, keep
moving forward as best you can, no matter what life throws at you. When you go to train,
leave your problems at the door and get the work done. Don’t worry, your problems will still
be there to keep you company when you get back. But you can get stronger RIGHT NOW.
Mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. “Just do it!!”
Progressive Calisthenics for Strength
Calisthenics are a system of exercise movements which generally do not use equipment.
The goal of these exercises is to build strength, flexibility, and physical grace with movements
that use only your own body weight for resistance. Calisthenics can boost both muscular and
cardiovascular fitness when practiced with enough effort and variety in the exercises. Balance,
agility, and coordination also gain a lot of benefit. Popular examples of calisthenics exercises
include pushups and pullups.
The approach to body weight training that I teach is known as progressive calisthenics
for strength. Body weight training exercises may be trained progressively by adjusting
leverage, range of motion, and positioning. With these in mind, body mechanics, and
movement, one may use progressive calisthenics to achieve very high levels of functional, full
body strength and coordination. This is primarily because calisthenics use natural movements
that act on multiple joints, and force many stabilizer muscles to be used. Lastly, calisthenics
help to improve posture, as well as build supple strength and tension in the tendons,
ligaments, and joints.
The progressive calisthenics for strength approach centers around several styles of
movement, which include – but are not limited to – pushups, squats, pullups, leg raises,
bridges, handstands, calf raises, lateral chain training (clutch holds, human flag), hanging grip
work, neck training, and "active flexibility" (such as L Holds). Of course, any type of body
weight exercise may be made progressively harder by adjusting leverage, range of motion, foot
and/or hand positioning, and other such variables. Naturally, it is also possible to make
exercises easier – which is especially important if you are working around an old injury and
want to build up your strength again in particular joints.
The key thing to remember is that progressive calisthenics for strength – like with
weight training - boils down to a double progression. The first progression is building up your
sets and reps in an exercise that you can work with comfortably. The second progression is
moving up to a harder variation of that exercise, but only once you have built up enough
strength in your muscles and joints. When you start on a harder variation, you will generally
not be able to perform as many to repetitions, and as such you will return to the first type of
Progressive calisthenics for strength is more about an approach than a set routine.
Everyone is different – you have your own unique body type, goals, needs, metabolism, and so
forth. As such, feel free to use the progressive approach to calisthenics to help you develop
your own personalized routines. Remember the key concepts to the approach – using the
double progression method to build strength and skill in various types of movement, while
also collecting knowledge of body mechanics, kinesiology, and "intensity variables" or
"tougheners" to adjust leverage, range of motion, and positioning to make the movements
progressively harder or easier. There is a seemingly infinite number of ways to adjust your
techniques, and continue gaining strength from them for years and years to come.
With all of this in mind, keep experimenting with every possible variable of the
exercises you are working on. This way, you will be able to squeeze as much benefit out of each
type of exercise. Just remember to keep banking strength and skill in your movements by
putting in your sets and reps.
As you practice your exercises, keep in mind that body weight training techniques can
Progressive Calisthenics continued
be treated like martial arts techniques. At first, when you learn a new movement, it is
important to take it slowly while getting an understanding of the body mechanics behind the
exercise. Then, practice it repetitively to gain skill, strength, coordination, improved posture,
and balance in the required positions. From there, you can learn new variations of the body
weight exercise – just as in martial arts, when learning variations of different strikes or blocks.
Also, improved balance, coordination, and strength in postures help martial arts training. All
in all, progressive calisthenics for strength are very useful for everyone into not just martial
arts, but athletic sports in general.
Below, I recommend some calisthenics exercises. I list the muscles worked by the
exercises, how to basically perform them, and how to adjust different variables to work them
progressively. I want to emphasize firstly, however, that to achieve total fitness, calisthenics
alone are not enough. Keep in mind that you will want to make needed lifestyle changes in
diet, nutrition, rest, recovery, and so forth to help improving overall health in body, mind, and
spirit. Scientific research has helped to develop many useful therapeutic modalities. However,
we should not entirely discount or deny age old wisdom and practices. This includes yoga,
meditation, prayer, solitary hiking – anything that helps you to cope with day to day stress
and strengthen your spirit.
These work primarily the pectorals, triceps, and deltoids. To perform a full pushup, get
into the correct start position. Get into a kneeling position, then bring your open hands up to
about shoulder height as you carefully lean forward and get into a hands and knees position.
From there, straighten your knees out slowly - one by one if needed. You will want to end up
holding your body weight up on your palms and toes. Lower your body carefully to the floor,
with the palms still against the floor, and under the shoulders. The toes should be curled
upwards. That is the starting position.
To perform a repetition, simply push up with your arms while keeping your body
straight, from head to heels. Your elbows should go from being almost fully flexed in the
bottom position, to almost completely locked out in the top position. Take a one second pause
at the top, then slowly bend at the elbows to allow your body back down to the bottom
position. Do not rest on the floor when you come back down to the bottom - you will maintain
light tension with the chest and triceps. However, still take a one second pause at the bottom
position before beginning the next repetition. As your form and your strength in this exercise
improves, do feel free to change the speed of the repetition. I recommend performing reps
with a slow cadence - such as a 1, 2 count, a 1 second pause between reps. This way, you force
your muscles to hold tension and fight against gravity, instead of using momentum to make
the reps easier.
If you're just starting out, working around an old injury, or just want some other ideas
on how to build up strength in your joints and ligaments, here are some easier pushup
exercises. I recommend starting with wall pushups. Place your palms on the wall, keeping
your hands at chest level. Keep your arms straight, and shoulder width apart. Keep your feet
together and your body aligned. Bend your shoulders and elbow slowly until you can softly
touch your forehead to the wall. Push away from the wall, back to the start position. Do this at
Progressive Calisthenics continued
least 9 more times with good form.
To make this exercise progressively harder, use a chair, bench, bed, solid fencing, work
surface, or any other safe object or furniture that will allow you a deeper range of motion.
Preferably, it will be an object about half your height and solid enough to hold you up, as you
lower and push back up. As with wall pushups, start with your feet together and your body
kept in a straight line as you practice this exercise. To get into the start position, lean over and
get a hold of the object, with your arms kept straight, shoulder width apart. Bend at your
elbows and shoulders until your torso makes contact with the top of the object. Push away
from the object, back to the start position. This is one repetition. This type of pushup is known
as incline pushups.
Once you feel comfortable working with incline pushups, but do not feel quite ready to
master full pushups, try kneeling pushups and half pushups. If you can't complete a full range
of motion in kneeling pushups, simply shorten the movement. As you get stronger in this
position, you will gradually build up your range of motion. In this way, kneeling pushups help
to begin mastering the full range of motion required in a full pushup.
Once you feel comfortable with kneeling pushups, move on to half pushups. Start in the
kneeling pushup start position, then straighten your legs out behind you. Make sure that you
start with your arms straight, then lower your body until your elbows form a right angle. From
there, push yourself back up to the start position. This is one repetition. If you like, you can
place a basketball, soccer ball, or medicine ball under your hips to help determine how far
down to go. The key is to keep your supporting muscles tight so that your back, hips, and legs
will stay aligned. Half pushups help you start building strength in the correct posture for full
pushups. Keep trying to increase your range of motion by at least 1 inch each week. Eventually
you will be able to perform full pushups for at least 10 repetitions. Remember to always
practice perfect form in these!
To make full pushups progressively harder, experiment with various hand and foot
positions. For foot positioning, try posting up your feet on a chair to work on decline pushups.
Instead of using a chair or other solid object, you could ask a training partner to hold your feet
so that you can practice progressively steeper angles. Ultimately, you could build up to
handstand pushups with your partner, or using a wall to help support you. The Convict
Conditioning approach, discussed briefly near the end of this article, includes a training
progression dedicated strictly to handstand pushups.
For hand positioning, try getting into standard full pushup position, then place your
hands closer together for close pushups. Because of the increase in elbow flexion in close
pushups, practicing them helps to build more strength in your triceps, as well as in the
ligaments and tendons of your elbows and wrists. This will prepare you for training towards
one armed pushups – widely considered one of the greatest feats of upper body strength.
Once you feel comfortable with close pushups, it's time to start building up to unilateral
(one side) work. Get into the top position of full pushups - resting on your palms and toes,
with elbows straight, and body aligned. Support yourself on one arm as you put your other
hand on a basketball. Stabilizing the ball makes you use your rotator cuff muscles, and
strengthen them for later exercises. This kind of pushup – known as lever pushup - will help
you to get used to putting more of the burden on one arm at a time.
Progressive Calisthenics continued
Now, before you perform a repetition, make sure you have both arms directly below
your shoulders so that you are stable. Keep your weight evenly distributed between both
hands, and bend the elbows and shoulders until your chest touches the top of the hand
holding on to the basketball. Pause for a second, then push back up. This is one repetition. Be
sure to also practice this exercise with the ball under the other hand, to make sure both arms
get worked.
If you have trouble using a basketball, try using something solid like a brick for this
exercise. As you build strength in this exercise, you can add another brick and start over. Once
you feel strong enough in uneven pushups, go back to using the basketball. Try to build up to
2 sets of 20 before moving on to harder exercises, such as half way down one-arm pushups
and lever pushups.
Pullups are a compound exercise that primarily work the biceps, and latissimus dorsi
(or "lats" for short). The lats are the largest muscles on the torso, and run from your armpits
to down beyond the ribs. Most of the other muscles in the back also get worked by doing
pullups. Not only that, your fingers, palms, and forearms are given a great workout by holding
up and pulling your body weight as you grip the bar. This translates to building grip strength.
Lastly, pullups give your abs and hips a great isometric workout. Because of these benefits,
pullups help train the body for hanging leg raises.
To do a pullup, start by getting a good grip on a horizontal bar or anything sturdy you
can hang from. Keep your shoulder girdle tight and your elbows slightly kinked in the starting
position, to help prevent injury. Generally, with full pullups, you will try to pull your body
weight up until the chin clears the bar, and you then lower the body until your arms and
shoulders are almost fully extended. If you don't have the strength yet to complete the full
range of motion, start with easier variations of the pullup. Also, to work strictly on grip
strength, try working on hanging grip work (again using a horizontal bar or anything you can
hang from). A simple, natural way to perform hanging grip work is to use one or two towels
draped over your horizontal bar.
There are many ways to train pullups progressively, based on a few simple adjustments.
To heavily work the lats, try wide pullups. Get a strong overhand grip on the horizontal bar,
with your hands separated by about twice the width of your shoulders. Keep in mind that, like
any variation of pullups, you will want to hang with your arms mostly straight, and to keep
your shoulder blades retracted. You can also bring your hands in close on the horizontal bar
for a close grip pullup. Using an overhand grip in a close grip pullup will help train the lower
lats, and using an underhand grip will work the biceps harder than a normal shoulder-width
"Uneven pullups" are a variation in which one hand grasps the bar, with the other hand
grasping tightly around the wrist of the pulling hand. The elbow of the arm holding the bar
should be slightly bent – about 10 to 15 degrees – with the other arm bent at a larger angle.
The thumb of the hand grasping on to the wrist of your hanging hand will be just below the
opposite palm, with the fingers below the back of the hanging hand. Both elbows will be out in
front of your torso. From this starting position, bend your elbows and shoulders, as you pull
Progressive Calisthenics continued
yourself up smoothly, until you clear your chin over the bar. Take a short pause at this top
position, then lower yourself slowly back down to the starting position, where you will pause
again before beginning the next repetition. Because you are supporting your body weight from
one hand during uneven pullups, practicing them help you to begin banking the kind of
strength you need for one arm pullups. If you find it hard to keep hold of the horizontal bar,
go back to close pullups, to build up your sets and reps. I also recommend practicing some
hanging grip work.
Squats train primarily your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and gluteals. The legs are
designed to work naturally as holistic, coordinated units. Body weight squats are among the
best exercises to train the legs, because they are a natural, functional motion that trains most
of the muscles in the legs in synergy. Even the hamstrings, shin muscles, hip flexors, and
calves get trained by squats. If you look at the body mechanics of running, jumping, sitting
down, standing up, pushing a heavy object, pulling such as in tug of war, you will see they all
use bending at the legs and hips – just like squats! Unlike exercises that isolate certain
muscles, squats will make your legs work the way they were made to – and not cheat you of
the functional strength your legs were designed for!
To train squats progressively, experiment with the positioning of the upper body or the
feet, or how close together your feet are when you squat. Let us start with the standard full
squat. Simply stand with your feet at shoulder width apart, and squat down as far as possible,
then return to standing position.
If you are new to squats or are working around an old injury, start with this simple
variation. It will help you condition the tendons and ligaments of the knees, as well as help
you to start working on your squatting form. Stand in front of a chair, table, or something
similar that comes up to about your knee level. Keep your legs straight and at least shoulder
width apart. Bend over at the hips so you can lightly rest your palms onto your object of
choice. This will put some of the load onto your upper body, thus making the squats a bit
easier on your legs. It also helps maintain balance. As you perform squats from this starting
position, try to keep your torso parallel to the floor or ground. Bend your knees and hips until
you cannot go any further down. Your hamstrings and calves should reach each other. Your
arms will necessarily bend as well on the way down. From this finish position, use combined
leg and arm strength to push back up to the start position.
Do not raise your heels at any point, so that you don't bounce during the squats (to
prevent injury), and to make sure that the squat stretches out the Achilles' tendon. Having
flexibility in that area will help you to master the lowest position of a full squat. If you're
having trouble making it out of the bottom position, don't worry! Just try to increase your
range of motion a little each workout. Another way is to use a little more arm strength to take
some of the load off your legs as you come out of the bottom position. As you build leg
strength, you will rely less on your arms.
Once you feel comfortable working with this type of squat – called jackknife squats start using a sturdy object that is higher than your thighs – such as a desk, back of a chair, or
similar. Again, your legs should be straight and about shoulder width apart, with your arms
Progressive Calisthenics continued
out straight, holding on to your object of choice. Keep your back straight as you squat down
for the deepest range of motion that you are comfortable with. Gradually increase the depth of
your squats as you build strength. Remember to keep your heels flat on the floor.
Once you have built up your leg strength, you will be ready for full squats. If you find
that you cannot quite squat all the way down without an object to support you, squat half way
down instead – your thighs should be parallel to the floor in the bottom position. Gradually
build depth in your squatting. Always keep your back straight when squatting, keep your
knees pointing the same way as your feet, and never bounce.Once you have worked up to 2
sets of 30 or more with full squats, you are ready to notch up the difficulty. The squat
progression in Convict Conditioning recommends working on close squats and uneven squats
after full squats. I have used those exercises personally and taught them to my students – they
are very useful in building up to one leg squats. I highly recommend picking up a copy of the
book for the progressions alone!
I also recommend having a training partner 'spot' you as you start working on halfway
down one leg squats. Keep the body aligned, with your arms straight out. Your partner will
stand beside you and place his or her palms under the arm on that side. Put one foot out in
front of you, at about the height of your other thigh. The raised leg should remain locked, and
held off the ground, throughout the exercise. Slowly bend at the hip and knee of your standing
leg, until the knee is at about a 90 degree angle. Pause briefly and push back up. Your partner
should help you maintain your balance, as well as give some assistance in coming back up, by
pulling up slightly with her or her hands.
If you do not have a partner, you can stand beside a chair or wall if necessary to help
you correct your balance. You can also use hand rails, or the type of rails you see on
playground equipment, for support. However, do not rely too much on an external object for
this exercise, so that you can still practice the required balance and skill needed to try full oneleg squats. Holding a leg out during work sets helps to further develop your hip flexors. If you
have trouble performing half one-leg squats, do not squat down quite as far at first, and
gradually add depth each workout. Remember to follow half one-leg squats with full, close, or
uneven squats. This will help you keep up your leg strength in a full range of motion.
Once you are ready to start working down to full one leg squats, stand beside
something sturdy. The hand on the same side as the working leg will be placed palm down, on
the object of choice. I recommend a chair or bench. As you squat down, use the object to help
correct your balance. As you come back up, use the hand to help push. As you increase depth
in one leg squats, use progressively shorter objects. Work up to using a basketball for support.
Pushing off the ball will help you come out of the bottom position. Doing supported one leg
squats this way will still give your legs a lot of work, while helping you to build the strength in
your ligaments in tendons.
You will want to build up to at least 2 sets of smooth, supported one leg squats off the
basketball. Remember to keep them strength-led – no momentum or bouncing! Once you get
to this point, you will be ready for unsupported one leg squats.
Don't forget other leg training ideas, such as lunges, bunny hops, duck walking, and hill
sprints. For some ideas, refer to my Ultimate Leg Training article in this guide.
Progressive Calisthenics continued
Leg raises
This type of exercise works all the muscles in the abs, as well as your rectus femoris. It
also gives a good stretch to your hamstrings. You will ultimately want to build up to hanging
leg raises, which are superior to situps for 3 reasons – they require less equipment, are more
functional, and work more muscles than situps. If you want to build sixpack abs, you don't
need lots of high repetition sets or fancy equipment – you only need a good program of leg
raises. Simply work them progressively to build thick, strong abdominal muscles. Also,
carefully control your diet as needed to trim off any excess weight to start revealing muscle
Now, let us think about leg raises progressively. The easiest way to build up to straight
leg raises is to start with knee tucks and flat knee raises. Knee tucks are performed while
sitting in a chair and holding on to the sides with your hands. Straighten out your legs,
keeping your feet together and raised a few inches off the floor. Bring your knees up smoothly
until they are several inches from your chest. Make sure to breath out as you bring up your
knees. By the end of the drawing in motion, you should have completely exhaled, and your abs
should be very contracted. This is the ending position of the exercise. Pause briefly and then
reverse the motion, ending back in the starting position (feet out in front). Don't let your feet
touch the floor until you've completed your set, and always keep your stomach tucked in. This
exercise builds good spinal posture, as well as build strength in your abs and hip flexors. It
also helps to drill the kind of motion that you will need for later variations.
For flat knee raises, simply lie back flat on the floor, put your legs together, and your
arms down by your side. Bend your knees at about 90 degrees, and keep the feet a few inches
of the ground. Press hard on the floor using your hands if needed, to keep your body stable.
From there, bring your knees up smoothly until they are over your hips, and exhale as you do
this. Your thighs will end up perpendicular to the floor, and your calves will be parallel to the
floor. Pause briefly, slowly lower your feet to the start position, and make sure to inhale as you
do this. Keep your stomach muscles tight, and keep your knees at a 90 degree angle
throughout the exercise. You can gradually build the difficulty by straightening your legs out a
little each workout. Eventually you will be able to perform full straight leg raises.
At this point, you should be ready to work on vertical knee raises. The goal is to slowly
build up to doing hanging straight leg raises. When practicing the latter, your latissimus dorsi
muscles get worked along with your abdominals. You also get some benefits to your forearms
and shoulders, since they are used to hold your weight from the bar.
When you first grab onto the bar, do nothing else until your momentum has
disappeared. Your body should be still and your legs straight before you start the first
repetition of the exercise. Slowly raise your legs as far as you can. As your abs get stronger you
can increase your range of motion in this exercise. If this exercise is too hard at first, try
hanging knee raises or flat bent knee raises.
Calf raises
These primarily work the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles of the calf. The anterior
tibialis also gets some ancillary benefit, even more so if calf raises are practiced off a step or
curb to add depth. The basic calf raise is to stand normally on both feet, in a relaxed position,
Progressive Calisthenics continued
with knees bent. Simply raise your heels such that you will be standing on your toes, and then
lower your heels down to the floor again. That is one repetition. Three "intensity variables" or
"tougheners" include 1) Standing on one foot, 2) locking out the knees, and 3) using a step /
curb to allow greater range of motion.
While progressive calisthenics are still the most effective way to train your calves, a lot
of people like to supplement them with weights. I personally prefer to use dumb bells when I
want to add some resistance to calf raises. Seated calf raises are also commonly recommended
to give excellent work to the soleus muscles. Other ideas for calf training include skipping
rope, as well as box jumps. The calves are very important in many athletic sports, and as such,
I find that there is no shortage of calf training ideas!
These primarily work the pectorals (chest), triceps, and deltoids. Dip are generally
practiced between parallel bars, or two sturdy objects. The feet are crossed, and the body is
lowered until your elbows are lined up with your shoulders. From there, push yourself up until
your elbows are almost completely locked out. If you do not have the strength to perform full
dips yet, let's think progressively! I recommend starting with chair dips or bench dips. Any
sturdy object at about your 'sitting' height should work. Keep practicing until you can build up
to doing full dips. Visit the below blog and click on the link that says 'Body Weight Training'
for video tutorials on chair dips, as well as other exercises, and ideas on progressing
My references for this article
Wikipedia article on calisthenics
Convict Conditioning, and Convict Conditioning II,
written by Paul "Coach" Wade
Be sure to check out these books for various training progressions that I haven't
covered here. These books inspired my approach to progressive calisthenics for strength. The
first book provides training progressions for pushups, squats, pullups, leg raises, bridges, and
handstand pushups. It provides a solid foundation for the second book, which details
progressive calisthenics for the extremities (neck, forearms, calves), as well as lateral chain
training, and active flexibility. It also has useful chapters on diet and nutrition, recovery, and
good mental habits.
View my review page of the Convict Conditioning books, which also contains a Convict
Conditioning video playlist as well as Amazon ordering links
Progressive Calisthenics continued
The book Overcoming Gravity, by Steven Low, details many very useful body weight
training progressions based on gymnastics. The progressions have given me a lot of useful
ideas on mastering the harder strength exercises in Convict Conditioning! The book also has a
lot of useful information on anatomy, how to structure your own workouts, and much more.
The PDF edition of the book is available here
In the article “Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Body Weight Training
Methods”, I detail some ideas on integrating basic gymnastics skills and training with other
types of old school calisthenics, as well as martial arts training methods.
Another must-read is Brooks D. Kubik's 'Dinosaur Body Weight Training'. I would have
summarized some of his ideas in this article, but the book contains SO much useful
information, I simply can't do it justice in such a short article. Like Paul 'Coach' Wade, Mr.
Kubik pays a lot of respect to the old time strongmen and physical culturists. His Dinosaur
Training philosophy promotes a return to the types of training that they engaged in, including
progressive body weight training. View my related writeup below
Visit the author's website for more information about his books, and ordering links
Be sure to also read my In Pursuit of Perfection series of articles, which detail an
outline of my formulation of martial arts and fitness. The articles are included in my karate
student guide book –
Paul 'Coach' Wade has teamed with Dragon Door (who published his books), and the
Kavadlo brothers to create the Progressive Calisthenics Certification Workshop and the
official Progressive Calisthenics blog. Dragon Door is considered to be an industry leader in
fitness certifications. The new blog has many free resources, as well as details on the
workshop. Visit my related blog post for links to the relevant pages on the Progressive
Calisthenics blog
I teach progressive calisthenics classes. Visit this page for more information
Ultimate Leg Training
Make sure you have a safe, clear practice area that is at least several feet in length,
although at least 40 feet is preferable. Warm up and stretch for at least 10 minutes before any
leg training session. Also, do not attempt unless you are already in good physical condition
and want to improve your leg strength, stamina, and tone.
The exercises listed are functional exercises that do not require equipment. These
exercises build explosive power and stamina in the legs, as well as help drill qualities needed
for good footwork in martial arts. Of course, most or all of these exercises should also benefit
most athletes. The 3 exercises listed below may be done each day that you work out - unlike
heavy weight lifting, which requires at least one day between workouts to recover. Remember
to not sacrifice proper form to complete the exercises more quickly or easily.
Start with performing normal squats continuously for one 2 minute round. The goal is
to be able to perform squats continuously for three 3 minute rounds, with one minute rest
after each round. An alternative to using rounds is to build up to doing 3 sets of 100 squats for
each day you work out. Do not sacrifice proper form to complete squats more quickly / easily you want to feel the burn! For added difficulty, do at least one set of 10 one legged squats, per
Horse stance training
The first goal is to hold the stance with proper form for 10 minutes. Once this is
achieved, practice sitting in a very wide and deep horse stance (you should be able to balance
cups of water on your knees in this stance). Perform at least one set of 10 calf raises in this
stance. For added difficulty, add a pair of hand weights to the stance.
Duck walks
Completely bend at the knees while keeping the back straight, and the hands up. Step
one foot in front of the other without coming up at all. Move swiftly without dragging the feet,
or losing balance. The first goal I recommend for this exercise is to be able to duck walk for 3
or 4 minutes at once. A sidewalk may be used for this exercise, but high quality, comfortable
running shoes are highly recommended.
High Difficulty
Once you are proficient at duck walks, try the following - which should not be done
more than 3 times a week. Perform duck walks until failure - again, preferably at least 3 to 4
minutes. Rest for at least 1 or 2 minutes. Perform duck walks until failure again. The first goal
is a 20 minute session (with rests included). A very high goal is to duck walk half a mile. For
additional difficulty, add a weight vest.
Calf Training
Following my usual line of “little equipment, high rewards” style of training, I’ll be
using two planks of wood (which are sanded down and glued together) for calf raises. The
calves come into play in most activities that involve the legs, and especially so in martial arts.
If you are heavily into martial arts or strength training, your calves may already be in great
shape, but at least a bit of calf specialization can provide an extra edge. Doing so also does
help strengthen the associated connective tissues (Achilles tendon etc) as well as provide a
great way to rehab the ankles.
The gastrocnemius and soleus make up the bulk of the muscles of the lower leg. The
former acts on two joints (knee and ankle). If you really want to work a two joint muscle a lot
harder, lock out one joint while working the muscle from the other joint. For instance, doing
calf raises with locked knees makes them tougher. Increasing the range of motion also
toughens an exercise. Thus the use of a step to do calf raises off of. There are many more
potential tougheners, such as rep / set schemes, cadence, changing the positioning of the feet,
using one foot at a time, adding weight, and so forth.
I always look for ways to make an exercise harder without adding weight. Using your
own body weight as the resistance, and adjusting the leverage of an exercise, as well as other
tougheners, can yield many years worth of strength and athletic gains. Progressive
calisthenics use this sort of approach to build functional, athletic strength! In the words of Al
Kavadlo, progressive calisthenics is “an open-ended, individualized fitness modality centered
around the concept that one’s own body weight (and the proper manipulation of leverage) can
provide ample resistance for strength training, regardless of one’s current fitness level.”
For more, read his full article here -
For plenty of free videos –
Poetry in motion
I suppose I could say that I’m almost religious about body weight training in general,
especially progressive calisthenics and gymnastics. It’s very Zen when you focus on the bar,
become one with it, and your body is just smoothly transforming into the technique you’re
practicing – whether a gymnastics pullover or whatever! Definitely an art, and poetry in
motion, like skating or surfing!
I can understand why skaters and surfers are often almost religious about what they do.
I’m always looking for that “transcendent rep” near the end of the set, that I pour my heart
and soul into, all of my focus, like finding my way down the rabbit hole and through the other
side, only to find myself transformed. Sweating and squeezing out all of my emotions, pouring
them onto the bar, floor, mat, wall, or pavement! That is living and definitely a spiritual
experience :)
Kettlebell Training Tutorial
If you are new to fitness, find a local fitness instructor to advise you about the best
workout routines and training equipment for your situation. Kettlebell training can be
dangerous if you are new to fitness and do not learn how to use proper form. For females a 16
pound kettlebell is recommended to start with. For males, 30 or 35 pounds is recommended.
The kettlebell is an incredibly useful piece of equipment, especially for martial artists.
Because of the full body nature of a good kettlebell workout, it accelerates fat loss, packs on
lean muscle, and builds explosiveness. The functional training as well as the ballistic and
grinding exercises it provides help drill qualities needed for martial arts. This includes helping
with power, speed, muscle endurance, stance training, mental toughness, efficiency in
movement, and strengthening your core. Also, the ballistic nature of exercises like swings,
cleans, and snatches emulate the explosive whole body integration used in performing strikes,
kicks, and throws. Overall, the kettlebell is great for training cardio, strength, and flexibility.
Strength and stamina in the lower back, legs, shoulders, and grip get quite a lot of benefit
from kettlebell training.
Kettlebell workouts include 3 types of exercises. Ballistic exercises are fast, and teach
you to generate power in a dynamic fashion. Ballistics normally have a wide range of motion
and use a large number of muscles. Ballistics train the muscles as well as the heart and lungs.
Grinds are slow and keep tension on the muscle while performing the exercise. Grinds include
controlled pressing, pulling, and squatting. These exercises will help you locate anything
lacking in your structure and alignment. Hybrids are, of course, hybrids of ballistics and
grinds, and as such combine the best of both. Hybrids train you to move between speed and
strength, or contraction and expansion.
On the next page, I recommend some of the staple exercises, from which you can
design a good kettlebell workout. I included some unilateral exercises, as well as compound
and dynamic core rotation exercises. Unilateral exercises are those done on one side only.
These exercises improve strength imbalances in the body, as well as train aspects that are
often neglected, such as balance. When doing unilateral exercises, you would perform a set
with one side, then perform a set with the other side.
Compound exercises drill movements that depend upon on coordinating multiple
muscle groups in order to move two or more joints through the range of motion of the
exercise. By using compound exercises, you can get a whole body workout that quickly builds
muscle, general fitness, and overall body strength.
Some recommended exercises:
1) Figure 8 - grind; grip training. At first try performing this for upwards of a minute.
2) One leg deadlift - grind; compound exercise; unilateral.
3) Sumo squat upright row - grind; compound exercise; uses pulling movement.
4) Bridge pullover - great for wrestlers and grapplers; works the core.
5) V crunch with kettlebell rotation - dynamic core rotation. Try to perform this for a minute
at first.
6) Clean / Squat / Press combo. Unilateral. The clean is a ballistic exercise that develops
explosive power, tendon strength, and the posterior chain. The squat is a grind and compound
exercise that uses multiple muscle groups. The press is a grind that works multiple muscle
Kettlebell Training Tutorial continued
7) Goblet Squat - grind.
8) Overhead Lunge - hybrid. Perform a set of lunges with the kettlebell in one hand, and then
switch hands.
9) Wood Chops - dynamic core rotation. Perform on both sides.
10) Swing - ballistic pull
11) Snatch - ballistic / hybrid pull
Please Note
Feel free to research other exercises as needed to help train for your own personal
performance goals. Please talk to your martial arts or fitness instructor for ideas on how to
tweak your routine. Also, don't forget to visit the kettlebell store if you are interested in
purchasing your own. The store also recommends some excellent kettlebell tutorial videos and
For some excellent video tutorials on kettlebells, visit the site below and click on
'Kettlebell Tutorial Videos'
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Body Weight Training Methods
In this article, I detail some ideas on integrating basic gymnastics skills and training
with other types of old school calisthenics, as well as martial arts training methods. Unlike
modern calisthenics, which commonly treats such exercises as endurance building activities
or warmups, the old school body weight training methods offer progressive training for high
levels of full body functional strength and athletic skill. Such training commonly requires little
to no special equipment except your own body weight.
I will describe my own personal method of instruction very shortly so that you will get
an idea of how I approach body weight training. My methodology primarily consists of a
streamlined, integrated system of karate and boxing training and skills, aerobic endurance
training, body weight training for strength, and athletic skill work. Integrating basic
gymnastics skills and training methods helps to improve and build upon the latter two areas,
as well as improve physical ability for martial arts. All in all, gymnastics training assists my
goal of creating a complete methodology for freedom of movement and personal self
My integrated system is called Mizuumi ryu Karate. The style is dedicated to the
development of body, mind, and spirit, in a holistic manner. Read more about the style and its
approach to training below.
The approach I take to old school calisthenics is primarily based upon my experience in
martial arts training, as well as the Convict Conditioning approach. The books available on the
subject, written by Paul "Coach" Wade, argue that the human body is its own gym. The books
lay out training progressions, detailed explanations and diagrams of the exercises, and
information on "old school" calisthenics / body weight conditioning for insane strength. The
books also contain history about exercise and old school strongmen, as well as details on
warming up, supplementary exercises, workout routines from beginner to very advanced,
healing from injuries, and more. After working through the approach and integrating it into
my system, I developed my own approach to old school calisthenics. To read my full tutorial
on the subject, view the article “Progressive Calisthenics for Strength” that is also included in
this guide.
I also highly recommend purchasing the Convict Conditioning books to get access all of
the information and training progressions that the author lays out. The books are available in
print and for Kindle, and there are some DVD tutorials also available. Visit the page below for
previews of the books and DVDs or to purchase them.
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Methods continued
The approach I take to basic gymnastics exercises is based primarily upon ideas from
the book Overcoming Gravity, and experience in serving as a strength and conditioning coach
at a gymnastics studio. Overcoming Gravity includes tutorials for higher level gymnastics
exercises that can be chosen from. Weighing in a 500+ pages, this book has plenty of solid
information in it. It includes chapters on the basics and mechanics of body weight training,
constructing your own routines, planning ahead for training cycles (periodization), dealing
with injuries, and more. The book also contains descriptions and illustrations of the exercises,
details on how to progress in your strength work and skill work. Most importantly,
progression charts and summaries are included in the book, which are useful for making
photocopies of for quick reference. In the 3rd chapter, the author gives good advice on getting
started on setting goals.
All in all, the book is very useful for people who are new to gymnastics style training,
but aren't sure where to start or feel intimidated by it! I highly recommend purchasing the
book to get access to all of the useful information in it. There are many years' worth of
strength gains to be had from working through the exercises and training progressions in the
Warm up before doing any skill work, by skipping rope and going through a few
minutes of various stretches, or any other suitable warmup work. Warming up raises your
body's core temperature, which helps improve muscle contraction and activation of your
central nervous system. Also, proper warmups raise your heart rate and blood flow, to
improve the transport of oxygen and nutrients into your muscles, and transport wastes out.
Just remember that your warmup should be only that – a warmup to get ready for the skill
Skill Work
Since this phase of your workout comes directly after warmups, it is the best time to
work on new things and correct existing techniques. Also, skill work helps to warm up the
muscles more and reinforce proper technique for the strength phase. If you're feeling fatigued,
take a rest, since you need to have the stamina to practice correctly. Refer to the Overcoming
Gravity and Convict Conditioning books, and the resources below for help with the exercises,
and progressing to higher levels.
Skill Standards PDF -
I have various body weight training video playlists at the blog below
Now, onto the skill work. Use variations of the exercises below, and different set / rep /
time schemes as needed, depending on your daily / weekly goals.
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Methods continued
Handstands with chest facing wall and toes against the wall. See page 276 in
Overcoming Gravity for an introduction for handstand work and how to train them properly.
Keep working on your posture and balance, and strength in holding the position. Open up the
joints a bit if needed by doing a few pike headstand pushups. I recommend not holding the
full headstand position against the wall for too long during skill work, so as to save strength
for the actual strength work. Come back to handstands for isometric training later in the
workout if so desired, however.
Once proficient in wall handstands (posture, balance, shoulder strength-endurance),
start working on moving the toes away from the wall for at least 1 second at a time. The top
priorities at first are developing the strength and coordination needed to smoothly get into the
position, and cleaning up your posture while in the position. The proprioception, isometric,
and joint training benefits of handstand work carry over to martial arts training.
Frog stand. This is the first step in the planche progression. It will also help develop
balance and shoulder strength, which has some benefit for handstand work.
Tuck planche. I recommend feeling it out on parallel bars, such as a dip station or
pushup station on a power tower, or parallettes. At first, press the body off the ground as in
the upwards phase of a dip, with the knees tucked in. Start setting the body weight forward
and try to bring the hips up to shoulder level. Ideally, the elbows will be mostly or completely
locked out.
L-sits. Build up to the progression standard listed in Overcoming Gravity. Use the
pushup or dip station on a power tower, pushup handles, or parallettes at first. Then, progress
to practicing L-sits without equipment – such as on an exercise mat or grass. Practice L-sit
tucks (or, 'N Holds' as described in Convict Conditioning) and practice stretching out one leg
at a time – 'uneven N-hold'. Practicing the holds this way helps train your legs, core, and
coordination for kicking skills in martial arts.
Strength Work.
As the harder exercises are mastered and enough strength is put 'in the bank', those
exercises could eventually be considered 'skill work'. The top priorities, of course, are building
up joint integrity and learning correct form for each new exercise or variation. Keep trying to
add repetitions each week and take active rest as needed.
I recommend 'daily undulating periodization' (light and heavy days), once you build up
to an intermediate level of conditioning. Of course, I also recommend using a push / pull split
instead – say, push on Monday, pull on Tuesday, etc. – if that works better for your goals. Play
around with rep / set schemes for at least two pull and two push exercises. Needless to say,
getting stronger at push and pull exercises helps with many athletic activities.
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Methods continued
Pulling exercises.
Horizontal pulls – 'rowing'. In the Convict Conditioning approach, horizontal pulls are
considered a remedial exercise that help train the joints, biceps, grip strength, and back.
Overcoming Gravity details more exercises for horizontal pullup work.
Vertical pullups – using both hands. The pullup progression in Convict Conditioning is
a good starting point. Once you have worked up to the intermediate standard on Uneven
Pullups (step 7 in the progression), I recommend working on the next exercise as well.
One arm pullup eccentrics. See Overcoming Gravity page 382 for an excellent tutorial.
It details a few methods for assisting one arm pullup eccentrics, including the use of a towel
looped over your bar of choice. I personally recommend using this training method, in
conjunction with Step 9 of the Convict Conditioning pullup series – Assisted One Arm
Pullups. There are potentially many years' worth of strength gains to be gotten out of all of the
ideas on one arm pullups alone, in the two books. Keep experimenting with the many different
ideas as you progress.
Pushing exercises.
Pushups on both hands. The Convict Conditioning pushup series is an excellent place
to start for remedial exercises for horizontal pushing. Of course, as you work through the
steps, there are some exercises that require a great level of strength to perform – starting with
one arm pushups, which – of course - I highly recommend building up to.
One arm pushups. See page 452 in Overcoming Gravity for elevated one arm pushups,
which is a variation that helps you train for full horizontal one arm pushups. The tutorial in
Overcoming Gravity details correct form, and factors that can make it more difficult. I
recommend working on this exercise after you can perform at the progression standard for
Uneven Pushups, which is step 7 of the pushup series in Convict Conditioning. I recommend
using bricks, a step, folded over towels, a medicine ball, or a basketball under the non-working
hand for uneven pushups. Maintain strict form in these types of exercises to help prepare for
completely one handed pushups on the floor.
Dips. Use parallettes, parallel bars such as at a public park, a dip station on a power
tower, or any two sturdy objects that stand at least about hip height. Chair dips are an
alternative. I recommend using the 'grease the groove' method for improving on dips if you
are new to them. See page 82 of Overcoming Gravity. Working on dips using gymnastics rings
will help you progress and master higher level progressions of the planche and other pushing
exercises. See the dip progression in Overcoming Gravity.
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Methods continued
Handstand pushups – Refer to the progression starting on page 292 of Overcoming
Gravity, as well as the handstand pushups progression in Convict Conditioning. Handstand
pushup variations all work very well as the body weight equivalent of military presses. This
kind of training helps some to build up the upper trapezius muscles and helps to build a lot of
explosive strength in and around the shoulders, as well as in the triceps. This provides a lot of
benefits for wrestlers, especially, and to a great degree, any type of grappling or martial art
with punching techniques.
Other types of exercises for strength and toughening.
Below, I recommend exercises for core compression work, the lower body, and the
extremities. Feel free to choose from the exercises based upon your goals and the specific
activities you are training for. Some athletes use an upper body / lower body split instead of a
push / pull split. Also, the extremities exercises I list could be done at light intensity to warm
up the muscles to be worked during your work sets. The extremities exercises, at a higher
intensity, are – of course – still excellent for building joint integrity and strength in your
calves / feet, lower arms (forearms, wrists, hands / fingers), and neck. Lastly, I also make
recommendations on which exercises could (or should) be coupled.
Core compression exercises.
The core needs to be strong for high levels of ability in any athletic endeavor.
Overcoming Gravity does not include much in the way of progressions for core work. The
author believes that core exercises should be done as part of your flexibility and skill work
training to help improve active flexibility. Also, the author asks, 'Why do extra work on the
side and waste valuable training time?' This is because, in most of the upper body exercises,
the core is heavily involved in holding and maintaining correct technique. This is certainly
true – most body weight training consists of compound exercises. My personal
recommendation, however, is to practice dedicated core work on days you do not practice
heavy strength work for pushing and/or pulling exercises. This is because it is very beneficial
to martial artists, no matter the style you practice. Also, practicing dedicated core work can
still help you progress in many other types of upper body exercises. Of course, these are just
my personal recommendations. Feel free to choose from the below core exercises as you plan
your weekly training cycles, or to skip ahead to the next page for lower body exercises.
Ab wheel exercises. See the ab wheel progression starting on page 493 of Overcoming
Leg raises and variations. See the leg raise progression in Convict Conditioning. These
exercises, especially vertical knee raises, useful for martial artists. Use the grease the groove
method for the early steps, if new to leg raises. This will provide a lot of benefits for any
martial art, especially where kicking is involved.
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Methods continued
Lower body / Legs.
It is important to build up the joints, tendons, and muscles in the legs, as they are used
in many movements in athletic activities and in every day life.
Squats. See the squat progression in Convict Conditioning. These are useful for training
almost literally every muscle in the legs, in a synergistic way. As such, squats are a great
compound exercise. Also, when practiced with correct form – with your back straight,
squatting down until your glutes almost touch your calves, while keeping your heels touching
the ground – squats develop a lot of tension-strength in your stabilizer muscles.
I highly recommend building up to the one leg squat variations. Always be mindful of
your joints, though! You will want to be very, very careful of over-training with squats, so that
you do not injure your knees. On the other hand, using regular full squats or half squats –
practiced slowly – can help you build up the joint integrity and tendon strength and balance
needed for one leg squats. This is all important for injury prevention – 'prehab', or
prehabilitation. See Convict Conditioning 2 and Overcoming Gravity for lots of information on
dealing with as well as preventing injuries.
Lunges. I recommend practicing these slowly at first to get used to them, as well as to
stretch out the legs. As you progress with these, your legs will have the strength and flexibility
to deepen the range of motion. I also recommend practicing lunches as an isometric posture,
to help with stance training for martial arts.
Plyometrics. Once you have built sufficient strength and flexibility in your legs, you will
be ready for explosive work. Plyometrics are exercises intended to build explosiveness and
speed, and are commonly used for training for athletic activities. View the following article for
a lot of great details.
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Methods continued
Extremities – hands, wrists, forearms, neck, calves.
Fingertip pushups. These work the extensors of the hands. See Convict Conditioning 2
for the progression. This should be coupled with hang grip work. Warm up your hands as
recommended in the book. The hands are involved in some way in practically every method of
upper body training, and in many activities of every day life, so it is important to train them
and the lower arms in general.
Strengthening the hands, wrists, and forearms is necessary for higher levels of training
in martial arts such as Judo. Such strengthening is even very beneficial for punching
techniques, and especially various Karate or Kungfu style strikes.
Exercises for the wrist. Wrist pushups, knuckle pushups, wrist rotations, rope climbing
(where available), doing pullups while holding on to towels doubled over your pullup bar or a
tree branch. If you are into Judo or Jiujitsu, be sure to also look into Judo exercises for grip
training using your training uniform / 'gi'. Also, some baseball players use 'rice bucket'
exercises for wrist training.
If you are into striking oriented martial arts, it's definitely important to develop strong
wrists to make sure that your strikes are solid. This is especially important when you are not
using gloves to strike, so you can prevent injuries such as boxer's fractures. Of course, you
have a greater risk of injury when not using gloves to strike, but if you use correct technique
and have developed your wrists and striking tools well enough, you greatly reduce the risk.
Hang grip work. Strengthens the forearms. Also in Convict Conditioning 2. This may be
used as a supplement to pullup training. Obviously, a strong grip is needed for any kind of
grappling, and strong forearms are also very beneficial to blocking techniques.
Neck bridging. Again, see Convict Conditioning 2 for the progression. This should be
coupled with the bridging progression in the first Convict Conditioning book. This type of
work has benefits for wrestlers, including being able to hold and transition between positions
during a match, as well as having a strong enough neck and back to resist during clinching.
Bridge work also greatly benefits anyone involved in striking, as a strong neck helps to absorb
the shock of blows thrown to the head.
Calf raises. Once again, refer to Convict Conditioning 2 for the progression. This should
be coupled with the squat progression in the first Convict Conditioning book. Having well
trained calves is important in many athletic activities. The calves are involved in the push-off
in running, jumping, squatting, stepping forward to strike, many transitions in grappling, and
so on.
Integrating Basic Gymnastics with Other Methods continued
Thank you for reading! I recommend using the charts, exercise descriptions, advice on
routines and programming in the Convict Conditioning and Overcoming Gravity books. The
latter also includes a tutorial on sports periodization, which involves planning out various
training cycles. Be sure to also look into variations of push, pull, and other types of exercises
to help you meet your goals. View the resources below for ideas and other types of advice. I
recommend keeping printouts of these in your own training journal binder. This way you will
be able to refer to needed information quickly as you log your workouts, make study notes,
plan a training cycle, or arrange a routine, etc.
Skill Standards PDF -
My notes on the Overcoming Gravity charts -
Odd Object Training
Odd object training – generally - involves exercise using heavy 'found objects' or
implements that you can modify for strength training. Many odd objects such as Atlas stones
have been traditionally used as part of strongman training. This type of exercise is nothing
new, but it has been coming back into favor recently. An odd object is a non-rigid implement
with a center of mass that is not fixed. In conventional strength training, the pattern of
movement is fixed, whereas the load given by odd objects will cause adjustments during the
movement. Some label this style of training 'real world training', and odd objects certainly
have benefits, including versatility, portability, and simplicity. The only limit is your own
creativity, as well!
Odd object training used to be done because there were no other options – people
either had no access to special equipment, or it simply had not been invented yet. Many old
school strongmen also became very well known for using rather heavy odd or awkward
objects. Such objects include kegs, anvils, Atlas stones, medicine balls, and sandbags. In this
modern era, with all of the scientifically designed equipment and training routines that we can
get access to, we can still benefit from odd object training. An increasingly popular philosophy
of training – Dinosaur Training – promotes returning to the exercises and training of
I have personally found that working with odd objects and the exercises I have
discovered for them have helped with coordination, wrist and forearm strength, and more. I
ended up getting into this kind of training as a result of reading about the old school
strongmen in the Convict Conditioning books written by Paul 'Coach' Wade, as well as reading
about the ancient training methods of Okinawan karate in the book 'The Art of Hojo Undo:
Power Training for Traditional Karate' by Michael Clarke. The book Overcoming Gravity –
written by Steven Low - focuses on basic gymnastics progressions for building strength. Many
old school strongmen were capable of great feats of not only strength, but skill and balance.
Let's remember that it takes strength to hold many of the positions in gymnastics. As such, I
recommend these books very highly. Like with odd object training, the types of training these
books describe help a lot with neuromuscular strength and efficiency, musculoskeletal
strength, coordination, and more.
On the next page, I recommend some odd objects and other implements that I prefer to
use, as well as alternative methodologies. I realize that this is far from a comprehensive
treatment on the subject. As such, I do list my primary references at the end of the document
and highly recommend that you visit them for plenty more exercises and ideas on
constructing your own routines. Also, check out my blog regarding odd object training for
links to YouTube playlists about this kind of training and hojo undo
An Amazon store is also available, which recommends various implements and books
Odd Object Training continued
Equipment List
Don't forget to check out the video playlists linked at the top of this blog, for tutorials
Old car tires
Have a partner hold the tire so that you can practice body blows on it. Make sure to
wear MMA or boxing gloves (or similar hand protection). You can also practice front kicks and
roundhouse kicks. You can also modify a martial arts striking dummy or makiwara board by
adding a car tire to it. 'The Art of Hojo Undo' illustrates a few ideas. Alternative idea – if you
can acquire a used truck / tractor tire and a sledgehammer, there are many drills you can use.
Cinder blocks
Curls, presses, plank variations, wide squats, calf raises, lunges, shrugs, single arm
rows, swings, farmer's walk, step-ups, and more! For squats, you can also practice assisted
one leg squats – step 9 in the squat progression of Convict Conditioning. Instead of using a
basketball or similar object, you will use the cinder block for support as you squat down and
'find' the block with your hand. For calf raises, you can practice them standing on the cinder
block. You will stand with on the balls of the feet on the edge of the block and lower your heels
slowly, with control. Make sure you have a sturdy chair or other piece of furniture, a training
partner, or a wall nearby to maintain a safe level of balance. Check out the second Convict
Conditioning book for the calf raise progression.
Where to find used tires and cinder blocks?
Many times, auto repair shops will have plenty of old tires lying around they are happy
to get rid of. If you're looking for cinder blocks, try the Freecycle Network - or ask friends or local businesses. Abandoned buildings will often
have old materials lying around, but investigating such buildings can involve legal and safety
issues, so exercise discretion.
Rice Bucket
There are wrist strengthening exercises that you can work using a bucket full of rice.
Such exercises are common in baseball and physical therapy.
Heavy Bag
Any boxing, MMA, or similar heavy bag, or a heavy bag of your own construction. You
can use different materials to both make the bag and fill it to your desired weight. Keep in
mind that if you want your own constructed bag to be useful for martial arts practice, that the
contents of the bag are not so hard that they do not allow any 'give' or cushion when you strike
it. A heavy bag can be suspended by rope or chains. I would recommend visiting a sporting
goods store or asking a local boxing, karate or similar instructor for advice on how to hang up
bags. The book 'The Art of Hojo Undo' has a section titled 'Other Tools and Methods', which
lists small heavy bag.
Odd Object Training continued
The use that the book lists is as follows 'Swinging a bag or ball filled with cement and allowing it to land on various parts of the
body, conditions the mind and body to the effects of impact.'
There are many exercises you can practice with heavy bags. These include, but are not
limited to, slams, squats, and fireman's carry.
Rope Climbing and Towels for Hang Grip Work
These make great additions to any grip or pullup training. Rope climbing is common in
military style workouts. Like many odd object training methods, rope climbing and towel
hangs build strength in the hands, wrists, forearms, tendons, and ligaments. Overcoming
Gravity, a book I recommended earlier, recommends the use of a towel in its one arm pullup
training progression. Also, the second Convict Conditioning book has a progression for hang
grip work that includes the use of towels. The two progressions supplement one another very
Sandbag training
Sandbags can normally be purchased at a hardware store for a few dollars each, and
commonly weight 40 to 45 pounds – making them very cheap lifting implements! You can do
almost any type of lift with them, and the fact that the sand shifts around forces you to
stabilize the bags, giving you a harder workout. Sandbag training is very useful for firefighters
and combat athletes, such as cage fighters and wrestlers. I have personally put sandbags into a
duffel bag, which you can normally pick up for $15 or so at an army surplus. I have written a
full article on sandbag training, which is also included in this guide.
My approach to sandbag training is based on the information on the subject in
Dinosaur Training. I highly recommend the book for brutally tough, and very effective,
strength training!
For free ideas on how to construct your own sandbags for training, as well as the
reasoning behind “odd object training”, check out the below article
Some other ideas for strength training without special equipment
Car pushing, chopping wood, using monkey bars or rafters for pullups and various
gymnastics exercises, using chairs or picnic tables for 'chair dips' and decline pushups.
The “Strongman (strength athlete)” entry on Wikipedia lists various “odd objects” and
more in the “Events” section -
Odd Object Training continued
Hojo Undo / martial arts tools
This is hardly a comprehensive list of implements that martial artists use. I simply want
to recommend a few that I personally use when I teach. If you want more ideas on the old
school Hojo Undo methods, have a look at the below Wikipedia article on the subject
Now, I will list and shortly describe the Hojo Undo implements that I personally teach
and work with. If you would like to view a YouTube playlist that demonstrates this style of
training, visit the following blog and click on 'Hojo Undo Videos'
Lifting Tools of Hojo Undo that I personally use.
Chi ishi – weighted levers or 'strength stones'. A 'chi ishi' is basically a wooden pole
with a concrete weights attached.
Makiage kigu – wrist roller. Traditionally, a wooden handle is used, with a weight
hanging from it via a length of rope. I personally purchased a modern wrist roller, but the use
is the same.
Tan – it is like a modern barbell, and made from a wood post that has concrete weights
on each end. I use a steel barbell for the exercises recommended in 'The Art of Hojo Undo.' It
is also a good idea to train bojutsu (staff technique) movements with a barbell that is light
enough for you to use.
Impact Tools of Hojo Undo that I personally use.
Jari Bako - A bowl or bucket filled with sand, smooth stones, marbles, or even rice or
beans. It is used by striking your fingers into it, in order to condition your fingers and
Makiwara - a padded striking post traditionally used in some karate styles. I have
written up an article about training with the makiwara.
'Tapping sticks' – almost any piece of wood can be held and used to tap various parts of
your body to build a familiarity with getting hit. The point is not to hit yourself as hard as
possible, but to slowly build up a tolerance to light striking. I personally use a shinai – a
bamboo practice sword used for kendo practice. This kind of tool can be safely used to strike
yourself or your training partner moderately hard to the muscles of the legs, arms, and core,
but proper cautions must be used.
Odd Object Training continued
Alternatives - there are striking bags available for sale that can be filled with dried
beans or shot, which can help condition your striking tools. Wall punch pads can also be made
or purchased. You can also use thick phone books wrapped up with duct tape as an alternative
to makiwara boards. Also, there are plenty of 'ude tanren', or methods of forearm
conditioning. This generally consists of partner blocking drills that can be used to toughen up
the arms as well as help with reflexes.
My Primary References for this Article
Also be sure to check out these two pages to look at training equipment that you can order
Old Time Strongmen – Training and Resources
This article was originally posted on the author's Odd Object Training blog
The old time strongmen from the 1800s and early 1900s were known for many
legendary feats of strength. Many of these feats have not been replicated since! They used
many kinds of training that are not commonly known, much less used, in "modern" gyms.
Odd object training (such as anvils, sledgehammers, sandbags), progressive calisthenics, and
various types of strongman training are coming back into fashion, however. The old time
strongmen tended to not let any part of the body slip behind in strength, either - they trained
the neck, forearms, calves, every muscle of the body. The benefits of this kind of training
include coordination and agility, "all over strength" - power from head to toe, achieving a well
balanced physique and a healthy body, building up insane grip strength and bulletproof joints,
and well - learning how to do some awesome strength feats!
Some of the types of training that strongmen took up included kettlebell work,
sprinting and overall endurance training, the art of hand balancing and other gymnastics style
training, lifting barrels, kegs, and sandbags; there were even mental training methods used.
Compound lifts such as deadlifts, presses, snatches and other such "big movements", many of
which are still used today, were also trained. The old time strongmen were indeed into many
different types of training that would benefit them in some way. Of course, they also
understood the importance of recovery and proper nutrition. They also understood that you
don't necessarily have to go through super long, protracted workouts every single day to
become insanely strong, or machines, or a gym. The most important things are to understand
proper exercise techniques to work each part of the body, how to work at enough intensity to
force the body to adapt, with enough frequency to produce lasting gains.
Of course, dedication to the training and a long term outlook are also among the most
important factors. Never rush your training - milk each exercise for all the strength gains you
can possibly get out of it before moving up in intensity or load. As you progress in your
training, whatever type of training you are into, remember to plan ahead. The more advanced
you become, the more important it is to adjust frequency (how often you train, or how often
you perform particular workouts), volume, exercise selection, intensity, and other factors.
Here is a list of the many types of strength feats strongmen were known for, and
fortunately the knowledge of training methods for these is still around. The below webpage
links out to articles that describe these feats. YouTube videos, as well as books and DVDs are
available through this page.
Feats of strength -
See the next page for a quick list of useful resources on the old time strongmen and
their style of training. (Books, videos, and more.)
Old Time Strongmen – Training and Resources continued
Resource List
Useful PDF books on the art of hand balancing
I own an official print edition of Hand-Balancing for Muscular Development by Bill Hinbern,
and I highly recommend it
Some other very useful links
Be sure to also check out the YouTube playlists I put together for odd object training and hand
balancing. Simply point your web browser to my video blog's URL below, then click on “Full
List of YouTube Playlists” near the top, where you will find links to these playlists and more
Dinosaur Training - Lost Secrets of Strength and Development:
Street Workouts - minimalist training, anywhere!
My references for this article:
On Street Workout by Danny Kavadlo
Street workout – Wikipedia article
My street workout photo gallery on Google+
A “street workout” involves practicing minimalist calisthenics and athletics in outdoor
parks and public facilities. Street workouts can be very difficult and effective, without
requiring a single cent – your body is the only machine you need! Not only can it be healthy
and beneficial, it can also be done almost anywhere with some creativity and knowledge of the
principles of progression.
The modern fitness industry preaches isolated movements, useless gadgets, and
expensive machines, and ineffective training methodologies. Don’t fall into this trap! One does
not have to spend a cent on gadgets, machines, overpriced supplements, or gym
memberships. Also, instead of isolating muscles, such as leg extensions, learn to use them
together with compound movements that use the body as a cohesive unit, which is how it was
designed to work. By recruiting more muscles, you build greater overall strength and improve
neuromuscular efficiency, which is essential to athletics. Strength is a skill – just look at
The artistry and freedom of personal expression in street workouts is another great,
and very satisfying, benefit. It’s gratifying and impressive to be able to pull off a human flag,
gymnastics style pullover, or other high skill / high strength moves almost anywhere! Street
workouts, while often very difficult and rewarding, are also a lot of fun! What’s better than
going outside and having a sense of play about your workout? Lastly, there is also a great
sense of community and kinship amongst street workout enthusiasts. It’s amazing and
rewarding to be able to share the adventure and creativity with your “bar brothers and
Street Workouts continued
There is an endless variety of exercises one can practice in a street workout. It is only
limited by your imagination, knowledge of progression, and where you find yourself. There is
a lot in common with progressive calisthenics – many different dynamic movements (pullups,
dips, squats, etc.) and static holds (levers, bridges, etc.) are practiced.
I have put together a video playlist on YouTube that has great tutorials for many of the
exercises listed in this article!
Pulling exercises and other uses for bars
Hand rails, monkey bars, jungle gyms, parallel bars, and even overhead bars in batting
cages can be used for many, many exercises. These include grip training, various types of
pullups, pullovers, rollovers, dips on parallel bars or a horizontal bar, front lever and back
lever variations, variations of hanging leg raises, and other types of ab work.
Hand rails are great for horizontal pullups, aka Australian pullups, inverted rows, and
bodyweight rows. Hang grip holds can be practiced from any bar that you do pullups on.
Monkey bars are amazing for building a powerful, explosive grip as well as athletic skills,
especially for events like the Spartan Race. Check out the below video for some great
progressions. If you don’t have a ball like the one in the video, you can practice hanging leg
raise variations instead to strengthen the lateral chain.
Monkey bar work
Leg raise variations, including rollovers and skin the cat (a variation of back lever)
Muscle ups
Street Workouts continued
Pullup variations
I have also written up a quick start guide to minimalist calisthenics style grip training, which
is located here
Check out the group Barstarzz for inspiration on bar exercises.
One arm pullup progression playlist by Francesco Vaccaro
Various flags – clutch flag, human flag, dragon flag
Clutch flags and human flags can be practiced anywhere you can find a sturdy
horizontal base that you can wrap your arms or hands around, such as light poles, smaller
trees, playground equipment, and so forth. Dragon flags can be practiced anywhere you can
find a bench. Flags are amazing for building overall body strength, especially in the lateral
chain, shoulders, arms, and abs.
Al Kavadlo has some excellent tutorials on flags on his YouTube channel
Pushing exercises
Dips, pushups, handstand pushups
Dips can be practiced on parallel bars, between two sturdy objects – such as park tables
or chairs, or using a single chair or table. There is a seemingly infinite number of pushup
variations. Some of my favorites are deep pushups, decline pushups, weighted pushups, one
arm pushups, and partner resisted pushups. A variation of decline pushups is called Marion
pushups, where you get into a pushup position with your feet against a wall. To make the
exercise harder, move your feet a little further up the wall.
Street Workouts continued
Once you have built up strength in pushups, start exploring ways to move to unilateral
work (one arm pushups) and/or planches.
Work up to HSPUs (handstand pushups) by putting time into pushups and basic hand
balancing skills. Here is an example progression.
Close / diamond pushups – build up to 2 sets of 15-20 or 3 sets of 8-12
Frog stand – build up to 30 seconds
Tripod – build up to 30 seconds
Headstand against wall – build up to a minute
Pike handstand – build up to a minute
Pike handstand with feet elevated – build up to two minutes
Handstand against wall – build up to two minutes
One-half pike handstand pushups – build up to 2 sets of 15-20 or 3 sets of 8-12
Pike handstand pushups – same
Pike handstand pushups with feet elevated – build up to 2 sets of 12-15 or 3 sets of 8-12
One-half handstand pushups against wall – same as above
Perform HSPUs against the wall at first or with a spotter. Do them with hands at
shoulder width until you build up to at least 2 sets of 12 -15 or 3 sets of 8-12.
Hand balancing
I have a YouTube playlist specifically for hand balancing
Short list of ideas for hand balancing, which are covered in the playlist above:
Frog stand, headstand, handstand, handstand to bridge, wall walking to handstand, L-sit
Street Workouts continued
Elbow levers You hold yourself parallel to the ground in elbow levers. Unlike the planche, though,
you use your elbows as support points for your body, making it much easier then the planche.
Any sturdy horizontal base or even hand rails or other bars can be used for practicing
exercises in an elbow lever progression. There isn’t a direct carryover of strength between the
elbow lever and planche, but practicing elbow levers does help a lot with improving balance
for planches. Elbow levers could also be used to help learn how to hold tension for flags.
Planches These require a great deal of upper body strength and balance. The idea is that you try
to hold your body parallel to the ground. You can use parallettes, parallel bars, any sturdy
horizontal base, hand rails, or even the ground!
Planche progression page by Naka Athletics
Straight arm handstand presses and pseudo planche pushups are two exercises that are useful
in building strength for the planche.
There are many fun and impressive gymnastics skills beyond these, but they fall outside the
scope of this article. Check out the great YouTube channel below for ways to train, and
The Naka Athletics YouTube channel also has a lot of amazing videos. They are dedicated to
“all action sports athletes across all skill levels—from professional athletes to beginners trying
to learn a new sport.” Visit their channel for a lot of great tutorials on skills, strength training,
how to coach, and more!
Street Workouts continued
My own hand balancing “cheat sheet” Included in the next section of this guide
The book Overcoming Gravity includes many more skills and progressions for gymnastics
style hand balancing! Check out the digital edition below
Ab work
L-sits, levers, leg raises (flat or hanging leg raises, knee tucks, partner resisted etc)
Leg work
Squats, lunges, plyometrics, sprints, hill sprints, car or truck pushing, partner resisted
exercises, park bench exercises, tire training, etc.
Bridge curls, partner assistance, weighted bridges
Backbends, wall bridges, back walkover – have at least one spotter
This isn’t a comprehensive list of minimalist calisthenics, but hopefully it gives you a lot of
great ideas! Keep it progressive, safe, and fun!
The Convict Conditioning books – authored by Paul Wade – have great body weight only
progressions, detailed explanations, plenty of pictures, and workout routines. The old school
Convict Conditioning approach and Al Kavadlo’s new school approach are what the PCC
curriculum is based on. Check out the detail page for the first book below
Street Workouts continued
Francesco Vaccaro’s YouTube channel has a lot of great tutorials on many of the exercises in
Convict Conditioning
“The Tao of PCC” by Paul Wade lists the progressions in PCC, which include various statics
(levers, bridges, etc) and dynamic moves (handstand pushups, dips, etc).
Athletics, lifting, and more
Sprints, hill sprints, sports / agility drills, partner work (wrestling style pummeling, partner
assisted or resisted exercises, etc.)
Found object / odd object lifting – park bench exercises, car or truck pushing, tire training,
hammer training, stone training, etc.
Zach Even Esh, founder of Underground Strength, teaches various odd object lifts, strongman
lifts, and exercises that can be done outdoors. His book, linked below, has some tough
beginner, intermediate, and advanced workout routines, as well as pictures and explanations.
I have a blog about odd object training, complete with PDF writeups and YouTube playlists.
Check out the “all about” post on the blog here -
I have also included some writings on odd object training, earlier in this guide.
One can also practice Parkour at a local park! Parkour is a holistic discipline that
inspired freerunning. Parkour can be practiced anywhere, but usually in urban areas, and
essentially treats the training area as an obstacle course. The goal is to go from point a to point
b in as efficient manner as possible. It requires all around strength, agility, technique, and
explosiveness. Fortunately, there are plenty of great training drills as well as facilities that one
can visit to receive competent instruction in this art.
Street Workouts continued
Reference: Wikipedia page
Check out Urban Evolution’s YouTube channel for some amazing videos about Parkour. I
trained at their Alexandria, VA location back in July, 2014, when the PCC workshop
(progressive calisthenics certification) was held there. The facility is simply amazing, with
more variety in their equipment than I’ve ever seen! Of course, most of it closely resembled
urban environments. The instructors are also compassionate, friendly, and very
“Where do I start?”
The first thing to do is set training goals. Do some research on the listed progressions and
select at least one goal each for pushing, pulling, legs, abs, and statics. Make sure that you are
consistent with your workouts, and that you have balance – at least one pushing exercise and
at least one pulling exercise, for instance. Beginners should keep workouts simple, and train 1
or 2 times per week until endurance has improved. Full body workouts are recommended.
Find a competent instructor, personal trainer, or coach with experience in calisthenics and/or
Great article on setting goals
My workout design and templates articles Included earlier in this guide
Here is a list of training goals that one can train for
Great article by the lead PCC instructor
Street Workouts continued
My own progressive calisthenics “cheat sheet” – only one page! It lists most of the “intensity
variables” you’ll ever need, and other factors that need to be considered in training. It is
included in the next section of this guide.
Caveman Conditioning: Uncivilized, Minimalist Training Methods Also earlier in this guide
Information on the female street workout world championships and much more
The technical guidelines that I teach for the dynamic movement and static progressions fall
outside the scope of this article. However, I usually go over them in classes and clinics. I do
have other articles that detail the performance of calisthenics exercises, though! Refer to the
article in this guide titled “All about progressive calisthenics”.
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to send me an e-mail [email protected]
Also check out my full list of training resources
Cheat Sheet section
Progressive calisthenics – page 103
Hand balancing for skill and strength – page 104
Calisthenics style grip work – 106
Progressive calisthenics cheat sheet
Mechanics of progression:
To understand the basic principles of progression, think of them in terms of intensity
Leverage, positioning (hands, feet), range of motion, speed, weight to limb ratio, vector,
tension, tightening up technique, tension, alignment, emphasis / isolation, symmetry (one
hand or two, one foot or two, or even using a transitional position), self assistance, partner
assistance, angle / vector, points of contact, wide or narrow base, inter-set rest, volume,
Types of progression include, but are not limited to:
Linear - double, triple, etc
Non-linear - stepped, waved, etc
Training protocols include, but are not limited to:
Circuit training
Interval training
Periodization (planning training cycles) includes, but is not limited to, these types:
Block periodization
Daily undulating periodization
Other areas and factors that need to be kept in mind for success in training:
Body mechanics
Proper nutrition
Lifestyle factors
Planning training goals
Brief, intense workouts
Hand balancing for skill and strength - “cheat sheets”
The importance of hand balancing and shoulder health
Hand balancing is very high priority in gymnastics, as well as strength on bars.
Carrying the entire body's weight through the arms and hands dictates a need for a high level
of upper body strength. This makes proper training in progressions absolutely essential.
Developing and maintaining shoulder health and integrity are also a top priority in
gymnastics. Virtually all body weight training for the upper body goes through the shoulders.
Gymnastics is also a very rigorous sport where many skills require a degree of joint health and
muscular strength to perform correctly without injury. Prehab and mobility work for the
shoulders should be practiced regularly.
Mechanics and Variables
View the progressive calisthenics cheat sheet for other variables to keep in mind.
Alignment / posture
Points of contact
Wide or narrow base
Back arched or flat
With or without wall
Use of equipment or found objects
Partner assistance
Hand walking (on floor or up stairs)
Improve awareness of how your body is moving in space and relative to your
Shifting your center of gravity as needed for variations of exercises
Ways to get into and out of a handstand
Skill progressions, partner cues, and spotting are necessary in the learning stages.
Kick up
Straddle up
Pike up
Tripod up
On rings, parallettes, parallel bars
Pirouette out
Kick out
Back or forward roll out
Hand balancing for skill and strength - “cheat sheets” continued
Strength and Skill Progressions
Other progressions may be developed and/or used as needed.
Frog stand
Elbow lever
Marion pushups
Pike handstand pushups
Handstand pushups
Partner cues
Use your own creativity, experience, and expertise to make up your own partner cues.
Imagine a straight line (placement of line will depend on variation)
Look at a certain point (wall, floor, toes, etc.)
Keep pushing through your hands
Keep your feet lined up with your hands (spot trainee and manually adjust technique)
Calisthenics style grip work – "cheat sheets”
Any athlete dependent on upper body strength needs to concern themselves with
strength, health, and joint integrity in the shoulders, elbows, and hands. Also, a chain is only
as strong as its weakest link, and in many modern athletes, this link is commonly grip
strength. I will list exercises for the wrists and forearms that athletes, especially gymnasts, can
focus on to help improve their performance and prevent injury. The approach used is
minimalist and calisthenics oriented. Special equipment, expensive but useless gadgets, and
complex training programs aren’t required.
Below is all that you need:
1. Your own bodyweight - With some creativity and just your own bodyweight, you can design
your own workout basically no matter where you are
2. Something to hang from - pullup bar, handrails at a public park, monkey bars, tree, etc.
3. Towels - may be used to increase the thickness of the bar, or looped over it and gripped, etc.
4. Thick bars - these really work the grip! As noted above, a towel may be used, or one may
find a thick bar in say, a public park or some gyms.
5. Simple, progressive techniques - no fancy, hard to learn exercises.
List of exercises on the next page
Calisthenics style grip work – "cheat sheets” continued
Exercise List
Warmups Joint circling
Aikido and gymnastics stretches for the wrists
Eagle claw - stretch out your fingers, ball them up into a fist, and repeat at least several more
times to help warm up the hands
Grip work exercises Make sure that trainees new to training the extremities (hands / forearms, neck, calves) only
practice these exercises once a week at first. Caution is strongly advised. The hands and wrists
contain many small joints that can easily be over-trained to injury. Progression should be slow
and steady compared to training the larger muscle groups.
Hang grip work progression - tougheners (intensity variables) specific to this progression
include adding hang time, using one or more towels in various ways, using less fingers, and
explosive grip work. Making use of tougheners helps you find “hidden steps” between
exercises in a designated progression. Here are a few uses of towels that make for some
intense tougheners:
1. Wrap a towel around the bar to make it an "improvised thick bar"
2. Loop a towel over the bar and:
a. Grip around the towel with one hand while the other hand holds onto the bar
b. Grip a side of the towel with one hand and the opposite side with the other hand
c. Grip around the towel with both hands (one hand above the other) - hold for time, switch
hand positions and repeat
3. Fold the towel once then loop it over the bar to double the towel’s thickness
4. Loop two towels over the bar and grip one in each hand
5. Build up to using one hand to hang from a single towel looped over the bar
Pullups using towels and/or thick bars - design your own progressions. Explore the previous
tougheners as well as tougheners for other pullup progressions.
Progressions for finger tip holds / pushups and wrist holds / pushups - for balanced strength
in the muscles and joints of the lower arms.
Calisthenics style grip work – "cheat sheets” continued
Just for the sake of completeness
Teens and adults may engage in these types of training if they want or need to take the
training of their extremities a step further. This list isn’t strictly calisthenics. The general idea
is old fashioned hard work!
Rope climbing
Rice bucket exercises
Wrist roller work
Sandbag training
Sled dragging
Farmer’s walk (using kettlebells, sandbags, barbells, etc.)
Strongman and/or karate style training with found objects (hammers, anvils, ceramic jars)
Improvised gear (make a barbell out of a pipe or bar with a cement filled can or bucket on
each end; make your own wrist roller out of a wooden dowel rod, swivel hook, chain, and
weight plates or sandbag; etc.)
Manual labor (farm work, carpentry, steel mill work, blacksmithing, etc.)
For a free one-page list of supplementary resources I highly recommend, visit the
Understanding Karate home page and click on the link near the top that says 'Supplementary
For free books and videos, plus the latest news, please view the Johnston Karate home
To learn more about my qualifications, or contact me for a free consultation, visit my
personal profile page
For quick links to class information, visit my class website and click on “quick links” at
the top
Fitness links for martial artists -
Full list of articles -
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About the Author
I am a native of Lake City, SC and teach karate as a way of life. I serve Jesus Christ as
my Lord and Savior. I have been actively training since June 10th, 2002, when I enrolled at
the Nippon Kokusai Karate Center (NKKC) dojo in Lake City, SC. I took over management of
the dojo in January 2004, and obtained the rank of 1st degree black belt in October of that
year. NKKC is affiliated with Japan International Karate Center (JIKC). View JIKC History
In late April 2005, I officially split from NKKC and founded Johnston Karate. Since
then, I have had the opportunity to train in various other styles. Besides having continued
teaching karate over the years, I have trained at various other JIKC dojo. I trained at a boxing
gym in Sumter, SC, for about 3 years. I also trained once a week for a year and a half in
Brazilian Jiujitsu, in Conway, SC.
If you would like to view full info on my qualifications, schedule a free trial class or
consultation, or contact me for any other reason, please visit the following webpage –
Mizuumi ryu Karate is the style that I created, and teach. The nucleus of the style is
formed by Heiwado Karate (the style of Japan International Karate Center) and Boxing, with
influences from grappling arts. The style is dedicated to the development of body, mind, and
spirit. The Mizuumi ryu main page on our website will include all of the latest details
regarding locations where the style is taught, and other news.
For a free one-page list of supplementary resources I highly recommend, visit the
Understanding Karate home page and click on the link near the top that says 'Supplementary
'For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.'
- Philippians 1:21
'It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man
stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the
man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who
strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort
without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great
enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best
knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least
fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who
neither know victory nor defeat.'
- Theodore Roosevelt
The Johnston Karate Guide to
Functional Strength
Owen Johnston
Thank you for reading the official Johnston Karate in-house fitness guide! Please consider
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