Bodyweight training, gymnastics, calisthenics, whatever you want to call it, has been around since the dawn of training and is currently back in fashion.
Many are currently pursuing goals towards a freestanding handstand or a ring muscle up, and for good reason. Adding in bodyweight skill work to your training not only keeps training interesting longer term, it has also got people working on other qualities of fitness such as mobility, coordination, and balance which are generally neglected when most think about going to the gym.
Both as a coach and also someone who loves to train, keeping training varied and interesting long term is essential for long term health and longevity.
Bodyweight training and calisthenics is usually synonymous with 65kg-75kg guys, not those hovering around the 100kg mark and for good reason too. It’s incredibly hard, requires a huge amount of strength and mobility.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to master your bodyweight if you have a large frame and a serious set of legs to shift.
Ever seen a 100kg straight arm handstand press or freestanding handstand press ups!?
It is possible, I promise you.
There are, however, certain things that you need to appreciate being a larger build and pursuing bodyweight mastery.
1. Regressions need to be very specific and methodical.
Having a decent set of legs on you may slow your progress but doesn’t need to halt you in your tracks. The majority of books on calisthenics training are quite general and have large jumps from one progression to the next, which seems to increase in difficulty exponentially with more bodyweight.
When training a specific movement like a front lever, even a very slight change in position or leverage may increase the difficulty quite significantly. You are never going to be able to jump from a tuck position to a straddle position over the course of one session.
Choose 1-2 skills at any one time. Any more than this and you will likely struggle to dedicate enough time to each.
There is not one way to programme for this and will vary depending on the skill you are working on. Programming in a linear fashion by simply adding in 5-10 mins of skill will work well for some, particularly if the skill is new to you. For those who are at a slightly more advanced level, using a more undulated approach might work better. The goal here is still to create progressive overload over time.
Tuck lever Linear programming example:
Week 1 – Tuck lever 4x10s
Week 2 – Tuck lever 5x10s
Week 3 – Tuck lever 5x12s
Tuck lever Undulated programming example:
Session 1 – Skill block at the start of a session – Single leg Lever 4x10s
Session 2 – Strength work after a skill block – Ice cream maker chin ups 4×3 reps
Session 3 – Core/grip work at the end of a session – 3 sets of Tuck lever hold 5s, Scapular pull ups 3 reps, hanging knee tucks 10 reps.
2. Build a MASSIVE foundation.
You need mobility.
You need strength.
You need control.
If you are lacking in one of these area, you will not be able to progress effectively. There is no way to skip steps without it catching up with you later on, either by hitting a plateau, or getting injured.
Particularly with more bodyweight to move and control, if you are throwing yourself into positions your body isn’t ready for or you don’t have the mobility for, you will likely end up injured.
The bigger you build your foundation of mobility and relative strength, the greater your capacity for progress will be, no matter what weight you are. Spend time slowly increasing range of movement and building active control through greater range.
Soft tissues such as ligaments and tendons actually take several months to build strength and capacity to handle increased loads required for some bodyweight skills. This is a warning to take things slow as healing soft tissue injuries can also take months.
- Daily Mobility work (10-15mins)
- Daily skill work (5-10 mins)
- Training with the bodyweight fundamentals such as press ups, rows, chin ups and dips 2-3 times per week to help build relative strength.
- Focus on increasing range of movement as a progression rather than simply adding load or reps.
Two relative strength tests to see how you match up:
- Max rep chin ups (perform 1 rep every 3s)
- Max rep press ups (perform 1 rep every 3s)
3. Intention: It’s not just what you do, but how you do it that will determine the end result.
With bodyweight training as with any kind of skill work, the quality of the reps you complete is going to have direct impact on how well they transfer to the next level or key skill.
“Muscling through” won’t cut it here, particularly with the extra weight.
You need to take the time to build control through a full range of movement.
Practical application example:
If you aren’t working through full range on chin ups and dips, don’t expect to be able to master a muscle up as you will need that end range control.
Make your strength work and accessory work specific to the skills you are working on.
For example, if you have a muscle up skill focus, your strength work might consist of false grip chin ups and ring dips.
4. Progress will be slow at points.
Don’t get disheartened if you feel like you don’t make progress from one session to the next. Start this journey with this expectation and you will succeed long term.
Building up to a perfectly aligned handstand, or smooth and flawless control through a ring complex won’t happen overnight.
Some sessions will feel great, some sessions will feel awful, the majority of sessions will be average. Don’t always compare one session to the next, but compare over the weeks as you train consistently.
Assess and review progress on a monthly basis. Make note of weaknesses or areas holding you back with the skills you are working on, whether that is mobility, strength, or a particular aspect of a skill etc. Set goals and plan for the next month and go again.
If you don’t feel like there is much progress over this time or aren’t sure where you are going wrong, consider hiring a coach.
5. Start where you are, and progress from there.
Where you start your journey from depends on, your ability to move, your strength levels, depends entirely on your background and your current lifestyle.
Some people will progress much quicker than others; That unfortunately is a fact of life and depends on your current start point, but also your background, your training history, your current lifestyle etc.
Assess and test often. Highlight weakness and areas for improvement and try not to get too frustrated when things aren’t going your way. The only way you will succeed with this long term is if you are consistent.
Practise, play and enjoy the process.
Tom Morgan is one of the Head coaches within the Combined Strength Group, specialising in Bodyweight training.
Check his website: www.bodyweight-strength.co.uk
Follow him on instagram:
Based in Starks Fitness, Bristol, Cathedral Walk.