How to Progress Effectively in Bodyweight Exercises

Roadside Handstand by Alex Zinchenko

So you are serious about this calisthenics thing. You’ve seen lots of videos on YouTube. You’ve read some articles. Maybe you even read some books (!). But nothing helps. YouTube guys mostly lightweight, articles are rarely well-written and books often lack proper guidance (programming is bad or progression steps are too wide from each other). Most importantly they don’t teach you how to progress in bodyweight exercises effectively. Why? Majority doesn’t have the proper knowledge (we can see this often in street workout and crossfit movements). Others have the knowledge, but not willing to give it away for free. I understand those guys. You spend lots of time studying and experimenting on yourself and your clients. You put literally tons of effort and hard work in. It’s tempting not to give away the knowledge. But although strength training and nutrition are not rocket science (as everybody loves to say), they require individual approach. So there is no point in hiding the data. There’s simply no recipe that works for all. Everybody is different. My current program and diet probably won’t work for you. As well as something that guy in a gym does might not give you the same results as he got (of course, unless it’s steroids (and even if yes, same results are not guaranteed)). Everybody has different goals. For somebody it’s important to have less fat, for somebody – more muscle, for somebody – rough strength. Everybody needs different programming, but the principles remain the same. So it all comes to greed of particular so-called “guru” regarding not sharing these principles. But I digress. Let’s take a look at some common methods of progressing in bodyweight exercises.

Principles of Progression

There are several principles of progression you need to understand. Basically, any skill can be learned knowing these principles, but I want to emphasize all the attention on calisthenics. So what are those principles?

Different people will put different categories here, but I would like to go with these three. Recently I watched several interviews (this one made huge impact on me, in particular) with Tim Ferriss (I was introduced to his work for the first time through the book “The 4-Hour Body”). He’s quite interesting man. So he also puts “Stakes” to these principles. And this would be a right thing to do for the majority of people. Regular person that doesn’t know why he/she needs to learn, for example, Planche will most likely fail. But if you read my articles, then you not majority. You are a smart person who is determined to get results. So let’s take a closer look at each of these principles.

Deconstruction

Deconstruction is one of the most important principles of progression. I’d say it’s essential to use this principle if your goal is to learn any skill. It’s all about taking a skill and exploring it from the end result to beginning. So if you take Planche as example, how deconstruction can help you?

Planche

Let’s explore this classic picture of planche. What can you tell from one basic picture (of course, if you are attentive enough (and have some experience in bodyweight strength training)) using deconstruction analysis? Let’s go from toes to head.

1. Feet are pointing away with toes. Will it help with holding planche? Probably not much. But it will make your planche more aesthetically pleasing.

2. Body is in a perfectly straight line. This is big. You definitely saw all those crappy NOT-planches on YouTube or elsewhere where performer arches his lower back like mad to compensate the lack of strength in his girly weak body. It’s wrong and can’t be compared to the true planche you see on the picture above. So what will you need to keep your body in proper position? You will need to practice hollow body position (just Google it) and to strengthen your core muscles. A quick note on strengthening core muscles: I have no problem in holding my body straight like in the picture above (my weak link is always shoulders). What I did for this? I did lots of heavy squatting, deadlifting, kettlebell swings and snatches, sandbag squats and shoulderings, and no stupid crunches, sit-ups and hyperextentions. If you don’t want to add weights to your training regimen, you might lose some awesome lower back development. In this case, concentrate on hollow body position practice, handstands and bridges. These would probably be the best options.

3. Shoulders are pushed all the way to the front. This should feel like you are trying flex your trap muscles. Here are two photos from Gymnastic Bodies forum to explain what I mean:

Planche Lean Side ViewPlanche Lean Front View

This is proper way to do the planche, and it will help with your progress big time.

4. Arms are straight. No bend elbows allowed. If you do not lock your elbows, it’s not planche. Holding this position with fully straight arms is much harder, thus much more beneficial.

5. Hand placement. As you can see, the performer points his fingers forward and due to his lack of flexibility (which is the issue for the majority of the Earth population) he stands more on his fingers rather than on the full palm. The dude can afford to perform planche like this due to his “lightweightness”. But for the heavier guys this would be too close to wrist injury. The simple trick to avoid this is to put your hands pointing a bit to the side. Left hand will point to 10 o’clock and right to 2 o’clock.

Also, notice that hands are just under the center of gravity of the performer. So this defines planche as handbalancing skill. It is similar to handstand in terms of finding the spot of equilibrium. The most efficient planche position is the one where hands are placed right under the center of gravity.

6. He looks forward. I think that this position of the head is more beneficial than neutral.

So it was simple and effective deconstruction analysis of planche. You can (and should) do this with any skill you’d like to learn. Be as attentive as possible. Even the smallest detail can make a big difference.

Progressive Resistance

This is the old one. Seems that I write about this principle in every article. Why? Because I can’t emphasize enough on how this principle is important in strength training, as well as in any area of life. What is progressive resistance (or progressive overload, or whatever you call it)? It’s that magic tool that helps you do the impossible. It’s that missing part of the puzzle. Progressive resistance is the principle of breakdown of the hard task into several manageable parts (progression steps) and sequencing them in the right order (from easiest to the hardest).

So after deconstruction analysis you take the skill and break it down into progression steps. It may be not so simple. But with practice you will become more proficient in this. Let’s get back to our planche example. What is important in mastering a planche skill? Just looking at the picture you can say that it’s important to have necessary specific strength in shoulders and core. That’s pretty close to the truth. Also (again, if you are attentive enough) you may notice that proper planche is like an arc:

Planche Arc

It should feel like this. Like a bow. Also, you should notice the lean forward. Planche is all about leaning forward. And, of course, I need to mention that planche involves to great degree your biceps, lats and upper chest. So what’s next? Everything else is common knowledge and sense. You should probably know by now that the more leverage we have the easier the position or the exercise. So what’s the solution? Increase the leverage and decrease the difficulty.

Here are pretty decent progression steps to planche:

As you can see, you need to start with the easiest of variations (Planche Lean) and progress through steps to the hardest (Full Planche). Basically, I would recommend such steps:

  1. Planche Lean (Feet on the floor, lean forward into pseudo-planche)
  2. L-Sit (You need to strengthen your arms to hold your bodyweight, and also you need to strengthen your core)
  3. Tuck Planche (Legs are close under you, lean forward into a planche)
  4. Advanced Tuck Planche (The same as above, but straighten your lower back)
  5. Advanced Tuck Planche with knees outside the elbows (The same as above, except the legs position)
  6. Straddle Planche (Lean more forward, keep your body straight, spread your legs apart)
  7. Full Planche (Same as above, feet together)

Here you have the basic plan for getting that planche. Of course, everything may vary from individual to individual. Some people prefer to include One-Leg Planche, Frog Stand etc and I’m ok with that. What you need to understand that this progression is not written in stone. If you find it difficult to progress from one step to the next, the best advice I can give you is to break it further down into several steps. For example, if you find it difficult to progress from Advanced Tuck to Straddle, take as many steps as needed. Advanced Tuck Planche with knees outside the elbows is what helped me. Try One-Leg or try to extend your knees a little more from Advanced Tuck. Again, break it down as many times as needed and, of course, pay attention to your weak areas.

Another way to use progressive resistance principle in learning particularly planche would be weighted practice. If you can’t progress from one step to the next, you can add weight for resistance. I wrote in-depth article on this theme here. In one sentence: never forget the good old backpack.

And the third way would be practicing planche position with dumbbells. It’s not so fun and much harder to do right, but the potential of smaller weight increments and smaller jumps through progression is worth mentioning. So what you do is take two dumbbells, lie on the bench, press them up, then lower them on straight hands until they reach your center of gravity and pretend you are in planche position. Something like this:

Of course, like in any other skill practicing actual planche would be the most beneficial way to train for it. Nevertheless, other two ways would be nice accessory means of development. You’ll need to explore the position some more to find out your weak areas that will need improvement through accessory work.

There are two more points I need to explain in progressive resistance principle section. The first one is when to progress? The good rule of thumb is to progress further when you’ve mastered the current skill and it feels easy. I know, that it’s a bit blurry. But in reality everybody will have different numbers. Some people will be able to hold the position for 10 seconds and progress further, while others may need 30 seconds hold. Remember that you must not be in hurry or you will fail.

The second one is mixed with deconstruction stage a bit and it’s what will be effective? If you feel and data proves that what you are doing brings no results, then search for other way. If you do 5 planche exercises for 5 sets and not progressing maybe you need to do less volume and more intensity. If you do some accessory exercises and they don’t give you the boost in performance maybe you are concentrating on wrong areas.

Make the resistance progressive and you will be pretty damn close to your goal.

Consistency

And, of course, consistency. Good old hard work. They say that to get good at something you need 10,000 hours of practice. And they are right. You’ll need not just some practice, but reasonable and effective one. Patience and consistency – that is what will bring you results. Many people overlook this principle, but in reality that’s where the most of them fail. You can have pretty good understanding of the skill, you can have the best progression, but without the hours of practice that’s all just theory. What will you do when your workout will be bad? What will you do when you hit plateau? Will you quit? If yes then you will probably fail at anything in life. Be prepared for hard and long work in learning any skill.

Methods of Progressing in Bodyweight Exercises

So now you know the main principles of learning. Let’s get back to calisthenics. Aside from decreasing leverage (which was discussed earlier on example of planche) there are several other methods of progressing.

Increasing range of motion is another effective strategy in learning calisthenics. What is it? Let’s take Handstand Push-Ups [HSPU] for example. If you can’t do full range HSPU at the moment you can decrease range of motion of the exercise. You can do this with several not interesting books. Just stack them under your head. Once you hit the desired number of reps, you can just take away one book, work your reps up again and repeat. When you achieve the skill, you can add difficulty with the same increased range of motion. In case of HSPU, once you can do desired number of reps in regular version, you can put books or blocks under your hands increasing the range of motion and difficulty at the same time. This method works well with pushing exercises but is pretty hard to be normally applied to pulling exercises.

Adding weight was discussed earlier and is another legitimate way to progress from one progression step to the next. How does it work? Again, let’s take planche for example. Let’s assume that you can hold an Advanced Tuck version for 15 seconds, but you really struggle to add time because it feels more like training endurance rather than strength. Simultaneously you can’t move to Straddle version due to lack of strength. No big deal. Try to add weight and stay in this 15 seconds range until you can perform bodyweight Straddle Planche.

Changing position of body in space is also very effective way to progress in bodyweight exercises. For example, let’s take One-Arm Push-Up [OAPU]. Let’s assume you can’t do single rep in OAPU on the floor. Try to do it off the couch or a curtain pad, or the wall, or anything that works for you. Again, once you hit your desired number of repetitions, progress to lower surfaces until you do it on the floor. The perfect surface for this is power rack with lots of pins. It allows more gradual progression, which is extremely important in OAPU training. And, of course, I mean real OAPU: feet close, body almost straight, shoulders parallel to the ground.

Combining difficult and easier exercises. I used this method with lots of success lately for Planche Push-Ups. Just like Ido Portal shows here:

How to use this? Negative and bent-arm parts of the movement will always be stronger than positive and straight-arm parts. So while leaving positive and straight-arm portions of the movement as is, you can easily make negative and bent-arm portions harder. Just like in the video above. Or if you train with partner, you can try additionally increase difficulty of the negative part with added weight, while removing it from the positive part.

Combining exercises into more complex moves. Adding weight or increasing range of motion are not the only methods in your arsenal. Try combining exercises. For example, if you became proficient in Muscle-Ups and Front Levers, you can combine them into Muscle-Up to Front Lever sequence and perform them like one exercise. Here’s the freedom. No boundaries.

Closing Thoughts

So now you have the basic knowledge on attaining any skill and progressing in bodyweight exercises. Use this knowledge wisely. Apply it and let me know the results. That will be it for now. If you like this article, do me a favor and share it with your friends. As always thanks for reading.

Play rough!

AZ

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I’m always ready to help you.

P.S. What are your favorite methods of learning and progressing in bodyweight exercises?


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27 thoughts on “How to Progress Effectively in Bodyweight Exercises

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  2. Armando V. Porter

    But I’m an odd ball. The step-by-step progression never worked for me with bodyweight exercises. I want to say it’s because I didn’t know much about programming back when I first started training these exercises, but a recent handstand incident tells me otherwise.

    Reply
      1. joe

        What about regular push-ups? I guess I’m looking for that magic number before I progress to less reps for strength gain. Right now my goal is 10 sets of 20 but from what I’ve read that seems a bit high- what is a reasonable number for progressive strength training with push-ups? 5 sets of 10 or somthing similar? If so when should I increase my intensity to keep my reps low? Thanks

        Reply
          1. joe

            Forgive my mental retardation, but does the 5-8 rep principle apply to push-ups as well? I’ve read those articles and they are excellent as always. Ipresume I must do push-ups in such a manner that I my max rep is between 6-9 (one in the tank). Could be weighted, diamond, or handstand.

          2. Alex Zinchenko Post author

            Joe,

            Yes, you got it right. However, sometimes you won’t be able to progress in such tight rep range with calisthenics due to huge intensity jumps. Do your best to cut these jumps into smaller ones. For example, lots of people struggle with transition from Advanced Tuck Planche to Straddle. I found out that it can be done with much less pain in the ass through Advanced Tuck with Knees Out version. You should apply the same principle.

            – Alex

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  8. jikwang

    Nice site, good info, but I have a question about calisthenics. They say, even though its a good work out for arms and core, its not very effective to build strength for the lower body. Is there any way to counter act this? The only thing I can think of it filling a backpack with a lot of weight and then do squats with it on.

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Jikwang, if you don’t want to use other training implements than your bodyweight, the best thing you can do is to train Single-Leg Squats with additional weight (for example, a back pack).

      – Alex

      Reply
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  10. Brock

    Loving this website man, heaps of helpful info.
    Any tips on working towards muscle-ups? Only started training a few months ago, so I’m pretty fresh….just hit 10 rep max for pull-ups, but making progress weekly. What other exercises are good if muscle-ups are one of my goals?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Hey Brock,

      If we are talking about Explosive Muscle-Ups, then Explosive Pull-Ups for sets of 3 once or twice a week with the goal of pulling yourself higher and higher + Muscle-Up Negatives on the low pull-up bar should do the trick.

      If you mean slow, controlled Muscle-Ups, then False-Grip Pull-Ups, Russian Dips and Muscle-Up Negatives once or twice a week for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps will do.

      – Alex

      Reply
  11. Matteo

    Hi great article!! How about core training for the splits? Do you suggest something in particular?

    Reply
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  15. Timothy

    Awesome article you have here, extremely informative. I’ve been trying to get into calisthenics for a couple months now and I feel like I’ve been in a stagnant state recently. I feel like it might be because I don’t have any legitimate programs and just try improving on foundational movements like pull ups, push ups, dips, etc. But some people have said that I shouldn’t be trying to make my own routines or what not. But I can hardly afford their $100+ 12 week programs. What do you think on this matter? Do you really need to pay for some great programming or can you achieve greatness in calisthenics by yourself?

    Reply

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