Calisthenics Regressions for Strength Progress

by Matt Schifferle on June 23, 2015

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Al and Danny Kavadlo demonstrate regressed push ups

I once attended a very high level Taekwon-Do seminar taught by an Olympian ranked 3rd in the world. I was looking forward to learning a lot of advanced techniques–yet here we were, all of us black belts, simply learning how to stand still.

The instructor spent the rest of the day drilling us on how to improve the techniques we all learned years ago. Even though we never strayed beyond the “easy” kicks and punches, we all became much better by the end of the weekend. Since that seminar, I’ve taken that lesson to heart not only with Taekwon-Do but also calisthenics.

It’s always important to train your foundation no matter how advanced you become.

It’s always important to train your foundation no matter how advanced you become.

When I first discovered Convict Conditioning, I made the mistake of rushing into the more advanced steps. This was despite ample instruction not to do that in chapter 11! Even though I could (barely) meet a regression standard, I figured I had passed that level and no longer had any need for that technique. After all, I could do loads of close push-ups, so why would I ever need to practice push-ups on my knees?

But, just like my Taekwon-Do, I’ve learned that I’m never above the earlier steps. There are always a few nuggets to discover with the earlier steps no matter how many reps I can do of the more advanced techniques. Here are a few examples of how the earlier steps can still hold some value to your training.

1: Warming Up

It would be considered foolish to load a bar with your maximum working weight for your first set, yet that’s exactly what I used to do. I would go from 0-100 mph as I cranked out reps of the the hardest step I could muster. Is there any wonder why I was plagued with muscle control issues, balance issues, and sore joints after a few weeks?

These days I always start my workouts with some of the first level steps of each exercise. If I’m practicing bridges I still start with step 1 (short bridges) to wake up my posterior chain and loosen up my hips. As a bonus, this approach to my practice also allows me to fully dial in my mind-muscle connection. My body and mind will both be warmed up for the next steps. It also helps me get a feel for the state of my body, so I know if I can push hard or if I should take it easy that day.

2: Muscle Building High Fatigue Drop Sets

In Paul Wade’s article, “the Diesel 20”, he mentions using easier techniques to highly fatigue a muscle group towards the end of a workout.

On of my favorite methods is to start with archer push-ups, then drop down to the narrow push-ups, then normal push-ups, and finally push-ups on the knees.

Like all drop sets it can be sort of funny to shake and struggle with an “easier” step. Watching myself struggle to get 6 knee push-ups is always a great way to keep myself humble.

Like all drop sets, it can be sort of funny to shake and struggle with an “easier” step. Watching myself struggle to get 6 knee push-ups is always a great way to keep myself humble.

3: Filling in Tension Gaps

For the longest time I’ve always noticed my back and biceps muscles would fully contract at the top of a pull-up but they tend to relax a bit towards the bottom of each rep.

Mark Shifferle Keep Tension on Back Muscles

I refer to these points as tension “gaps”. These gaps can be detrimental to muscle development, strength, power and can place more stress on the joints.

One of the best ways to fill in these gaps is to use an easier technique and practice proactively tensing the muscles at these weaker points in the range of motion. By going to the Jackknife pull-up, I was able to work on maintaining the tension in my back while keeping my shoulders and arms tight at the bottom of each rep. This is much easier on the earlier steps because my muscles are not overridden by a much higher level of resistance.

4: Learn What’s Missing

Many times I’ve struggled to advance because I was missing a critical technical detail.

The worst example was my journey into single leg squats. Again, I was foolish and just breezed through some of the earlier steps thinking I was above them. Within a couple of months, I was doing 10 single leg squats on each leg. The catch was I was tilting and moving all over the place and sometimes had to slightly bounce out of the squat. I also had to do them on an elevated surface so my front leg could extend below the level of my supporting foot.

After a year, I developed tendonitis in my right knee and it got so bad I had trouble walking up stairs. I struggled to figure out what was wrong for months, and was sometimes on the verge of tears with frustration. As a mountain athlete I need strong and healthy legs to hike, ski and pedal and here I was hobbling around like an old man.

I finally swallowed my pride and started all the way back at step 1 in the squat progressions. By the time I had made it to narrow squats, I had learned that my legs had exceptionally unbalanced development in the hips and hamstrings.

I still make close squats a staple of my training to keep my muscles balanced

I still make close squats a staple of my training to keep my muscles balanced

It’s been over a year now and I’m back to doing single leg squats. Now there is no bounce, no tipping or wobble and I don’t need an elevated surface. Even though my numbers are far lower than before, my legs have never been stronger or healthier. I would never have figured out where my technique shortcomings were unless I went back and explored the earlier steps to a deeper level.

5: Learning to Use the Body Better

I believe Progressive Calisthenics is more than just a system for building strength and muscle. To me it’s a vehicle towards understanding my own body and learning how to use it better. Using the earlier steps has always been exceedingly helpful towards doing this. I can always control myself and dial in cleaner technique with an earlier step than I can with an advanced step. My mission is to learn why the earlier steps are so much cleaner and more stable. Once I know why, I work on bringing those qualities up to the more advanced moves. Of course, as my advanced moves become better so do my earlier steps and the whole process starts over again. In this way the quality of the earlier techniques feeds into the more advanced moves and the advanced moves make it possible to learn even more from the earlier moves. It’s a cycle that’s infinitely progressive.

In the martial arts, the student is always encouraged to retain the lessons they learned at the previous ranks. There’s a reason why students are encouraged to have a “white belt mindset.” The color black is made up of all of the rank colors that come before it so when you wear a black belt you’re still wearing a white belt, a green belt and so on. The earlier belts, and the exercises they represent are never discarded. They simply remain in the mix. The same thing is true for calisthenics, the earliest steps are never discarded but are recycled and re-purposed.

Discard nothing and gain everything!

 

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Matt Schifferle a.k.a. The Fit Rebel made a switch to calisthenics training 5 years ago in an effort to rehab his weight lifting injuries. Since then he’s been on a personal quest to discover and teach the immense benefits of advanced body weight training. You can find some of his unique bodyweight training methods at RedDeltaProject.com and on his YouTube channel: RedDeltaProject.

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  • Aleks Salkin

    Great article, Matt! I am always gobsmacked at how much better and more controlled I can do any given movement after spending a time working on the absolute basics, only to find myself asking: Why the F didn’t I just keep doing this in the first place?!

    Keep up the good work, my friend.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Preach it man! You’re so dead on right. Just this morning I was voicing that same sentiment to a buddy.
      Kind of makes ya wonder what sorts of things are you passing by now that you’ll wish you hadn’t in the future eh?

      • ken

        A quote from a shaolin master:Shaolin martial arts begins with basics and ends with basics,at the start you will only do basics because they are the foundations on which you will build all else and at the end you will only do basics because you realize that all else is within them,however your basics will no longer be basic they will show skill of the highest level

        • Matt Schifferle

          That’s the deal right there. Those Shaolin guys know their stuff!

    • Mohammed

      “Why the F didn’t I just keep doing this in the first place?!” This is kinda what I have been telling myself recently after being forced to regress.

  • martymonster

    Hi Matt,
    I think you pretty well nailed a lot of the ‘Coach yourself’ stuff that Paul Wade talked about in CC!
    I always find the hardest thing to do is drop the ego and drop to a lower step. But as you’ve pointed out here there are real benefits that far outweigh the perceived downside.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks much Marty! There’s so much value to relying on one’s self for progress but it often get’s swept under the rug these days.
      That ego thing is always a hard nut to crack, especially for a guy like myself. That’s why I use the regressive steps in this way.

  • Mohammed

    Recently, I was forced to regress to lower steps after pushing myself too hard on higher steps. This article makes me feel better. Thanks, Matt.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks so much for reading Mohammed! Always remember, progressing the earlier steps is never a regression. It’s all up up UP!

  • Mohammed

    To those who are thinking of pushing too hard, don’t. You end up lower than where you were in the first place!

  • Skip the Kip 😉

    • Matt Schifferle

      Damn straight there Andy! I love that shirt, it’s so comfortable to train in!

  • David

    Oh Man ! I’m now one and a half years into CC and regression has just begun, a healthy lesson for my ego and this article couldn’t have come on a more apropriate timing! 🙂 A very good and insightful read!

    Note to self: progressive calisthenics is for life and there’s no rush ’cause I do it for my own wellbeing.

    • Matt Schifferle

      For sure David, no need to rush it at all. Funny thing is, that’s the fastest route to the master steps.

  • I am all over this article like white on f-ing rice, boys.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thank again coach! It’s crazy how that self coaching chapter in CC1 echoed so many of my Taekwon-Din instructors instructions. You two are both masters to the tenth degree.

    • JuggernautCKT

      Coach Wade, I recently started the CC approach with the New Blood 2.0 Program. And I have had trouble making progress on Shoulderstand Squat for the past one month. Standing at a height of 180cm, and having a rather long torso, my neck gets sore stretched and pain while doing, and after doing Shoulderstand squats. I have been very active from childbirth, can relax in the bottom of a squat with ease, and have been practicing Taekwondo (which uses a lot of legs) for the past 4 years. Would you recommend I move on to the next step?
      Thank you, Coach

  • Awesome stuff yet again, Matt — I’m a huge fan of the drop sets concept, for myself and for my clients — and as you said… all the progressions/regressions are always still VERY useful! 🙂

    • Matt Schifferle

      Always enjoy your approach Adrienne, it’s always refreshing.

      BTW I did finally get those pull overs you wrote about a while back. You were right, it just took a little extra oomph and patience.

      • 🙂 glad to hear of your success!!!!!

        • Darren Yassen

          struggling with pull ups, any suggestions?

          • Is there a particular part of the pull that’s proving more troublesome? If so, let me know and I’ll hopefully have a couple things for you to try! 🙂

  • Matt Schifferle I’m a BIG fan of yours and this is another great article!

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks for the props Mario!

  • Roy Johnson

    Yep! Wing Chun is very similar in that respect. The first form, Siu Lim Tao, really does contain almost the entire art, but it takes training, patience, experience and progression through the art for that to become clear. There’s nothing like body wisdom, and there’s no royal road in training…least not from what I’ve learned from the Convict Conditioning or Wing Chun. You guys are awesome!

    • Matt Schifferle

      That’s a very beautiful art. I love the way you put it about the “royal road.” Such a simple way to put it!

  • Les Gross

    Great article! I rediscovered some of the easier movements recently as well and found out that I’m NEVER too strong to put my hands on the edge of my countertop and crank out a few sets of incline pushups. It really does help tighten up the harder steps.

    • Matt Schifferle

      I know what ya mean there Les, Incline push ups are a great way to keep the tension in the upper back in check and keep everything in it’s place.

  • Hombre Musculoso

    This is a awesome site amigo’s! A great article too! I’ve never understood why people try to skip, rush and cheat their way forward, take you training slow and enjoy it and you’ll get where you want to go every time!

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