Lower Body Calisthenics

by Corey Howard on September 9, 2014

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Corey Howard One Arm Plank With Cast

One of the best things that happened to my training was rupturing my triceps in late May. It was devastating! Right after the injury happened, on the way to the ER my 10 year old son said, “Dad now you won’t be able to do push-ups for a long time!” He was right. After surgery it was 3 full months before I could do anything upper body related and even then that would only be light pulling movements. That being said, it was the best thing to happen to my training. I couldn’t do any upper body training, I couldn’t touch any weights, and the only thing left to train was calisthenics only for legs and abs. To most people that sounds like Hell, but to me it sounded like fun!

When you look at some of the calisthenic practitioners online, you notice they have a lean muscular athletic look, yet typically don’t carry a ton of thick lower body muscle. The week of my surgery, Dragon Door published Paul Wade’s book, C-Mass, where he shows how to add size using calisthenics. This ignited my plan. For 12 weeks I would train legs and abs twice a week using only bodyweight movements. My goal was to gain two full inches on my thighs and glutes, and at least an inch on my calves. I emailed Al Kavadlo, told him about my injury and to expect an article about my journey. Here are some things I learned over the last 12 weeks…

First, know your progressions! Paul Wade gave us all an excellent training guide in Convict Conditioning. For success, you need to know what level you’re at in the pistol squat progression, and how many reps you can do. This way, if you can only do three reps, you know to work on adding reps. Or if you’re proficient with a movement, you can pair it with an “easier” exercise to thoroughly exhaust the muscle. An example of how this worked for me was pairing sissy squats with shrimp squats, or pistol squats with split squat jumps. Over time I developed some proficiency with shrimp squats, so I did sissy squats first to make them more difficult. This exhausted my quads and cut the total number of shrimp squats I could do in half.

Corey Howard Shrimp Squat

Adding a plyo movement immediately after a high skill movement like pistols also pushed the limits of my ability. Remember, your body has no idea if you’re holding a dumbbell or simply tweaking a calisthenic movement, it just knows you’re asking it to work harder and generate more force. By pairing various squat or bridge progressions, you can really push the limits of your lower body.

Second, don’t be afraid of reps. It frustrates me when someone says, “Any more than 5 reps is cardio.” Really!!! If you want to add size, anywhere from 1-20 reps should be performed. Embrace reps. Think about bodybuilders, typically they perform 4 sets of 12 with a shorter rest period between sets. Basically they are increasing the amount of time the muscle is under tension.

Corey Howard Single Leg Bridges

So if you do 20 single leg bridges per leg, then immediately follow it up with 15 glute-ham raises you’re increasing the time under tension for your posterior chain. Things like this will create muscle growth as well as a deep soreness the next day! Don’t be afraid to push a set to failure, especially with lower body calisthenics. What’s the worst that can happen? Maybe you fall on your butt while doing pistols? If you’ve been doing your bridges it will only cushion the blow! This simple philosophy reminded me what it’s like to step off a curb and have my legs collapse!

Third, two sets will work. Why on earth do we need 4 sets of anything? For the last 12 weeks I never took a movement past 2 sets. Once you’re warmed up and locked in, fire up the grueling sets. After pushing the reps to as many as possible and doing it twice, the muscle gets the message that you need it bigger and stronger. Two working sets also gives you time for other movements, and that means you can play with some variety.

So what happened at the end of 4 weeks? I added an additional 2 inches on my thighs and glutes, and an inch on my calves. Twenty-four ab and lower body calisthenic workouts later and I have a meatier, stronger, more powerful lower body than I ever have. Keep in mind, I’m not a newbie to strength training. I’ve been working out for 22 years! After all that time, even I can add size using only calisthenics!

A side benefit from this has been the carry over. As I start with some upper body work I’m noticing that I really haven’t lost much strength, despite surgery, a cast, and upper body inactivity. If your foundation is strong, you will be strong. If anyone is interested in what I did or would like to see some of my workouts, just message me or comment below. I’d love to help. I will warn you though, none of it was easy! Fire it up!

Corey Howard added 2" to his legs after 12 weeks calisthenics only leg training

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About Corey Howard, PCC, RKC, CK-FMS: Corey Howard strives to constantly become stronger, and to help others to achieve their fitness goals. He is the owner of Results Personal Training, and can be reached at www.resultsptonline.com or www.coreyhoward.com.

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  • Darlene Ellenburg

    Great lead-in picture with the cast and thumbs up. Made me read. Well written.

    • Corey Howard

      Thank you Darlene!

  • Slimane Kennouche

    Hi,
    Always loved to read new article about PC. I understand the need to get bigger legs and your way of using calisthenics is really cool and didn’t involve sprinting uphill (which works really great but you don’t always want to put your running shoes).

    My question is this: How can I achieve the exact opposite? I already have huge legs for my size (>25 inches after knee injury for 5ft 7 inches) after years of soccer, football and sprints?

    Yes, I’m the only moron asking to lose muscle mass on the internet!

    Hope someone could help.

    • Corey Howard

      Slimane, thanks for the kind words. Unfortunately I’m not the guy to help when it comes to shedding muscle mass. I’ve been told long distance running will help you. Maybe there’s someone else on the blog that can give you a bit more guidance. Sorry.

      • Jonathan F.V.

        I’ve never done it, but technically, if you broke down your muscle fibres but didn’t have enough protein and/or calories to build them back, they should get smaller. Otherwise, just training elsewhere and not using the muscles you want to get smaller should do the trick safely.

    • Aaqib

      Slimane, No worries brother. I deliberately lost muscle mass from my leg too. Yeah, I’m the moron who’d surprise you by saying that 24-inch legs was too much for me, at 5ft 10 inches. But it was. I walk a lot, and when I was regularly doing advanced bodyweight pistols, my inner thighs were so big, that they chafed. And after an hour-long walk, large, angry-red, blistery patches developed on them.

      Then, I had a knee injury. I left pistols, and rested for a week. Then I started two-leg squats and cossacks, 2 days per week, low volume. I must say here, that only a little of my quad meat was lost due to the injury, but most of it was gone during the period of two-legs and cossacks, possibly due to the lack of lots of time under tension on one leg. Eventually, I got back my strength and I was finally able to do pistols after 2 months, but I only did 5 singles, 1-2 days per week. Low volume proved to be excellent for keeping strength without the mass.

      And I must mention the Warrior-III pose from Yoga, or the single leg deadlift. Has been very effective for building stronger, leaner and longer legs for me. Since I’ve found this, it has been my only lower body movement.

      Cheers 🙂

  • Ivana

    Can you describe your whole program in detail, please? Thank you!

    • Corey Howard

      Ivana, thanks for the question. It’s hard for me to post specific details since almost every session was slightly different, but I did follow a basic outline. First I always started with ab work. I felt like this gave me the stability I needed for the unilateral leg work. Then I went to the posterior chain, glutes and hamstrings. Typically this was a bridge variation paired with a hyperextension or glute ham raises. Then I’d move on to front thigh dominant movements such as pistols, shrimp squats, sissy squats, squat jumps and stuff like that. Finally I’d end with calf work. Once my arm started to feel a bit better I added 5 short sprints at the end. It’s hard to sprint with your arm locked into place. I hope this helps.

      • Corey what kind of sets and reps did you for the exercises you used?

  • Matt Schifferle

    Damn! The Quad-father is in the house!

    There’s nothing more satisfying than a solid set of legs and calisthenics delivers. Thanks for sharing your story Corey. It’s always great to hear a come back story, especially when you come back stronger than ever. Very inspiring!

    • Corey Howard

      Thanks Matt. It’s been a fun journey!

  • Burn-E

    Excellent and impressive work! Your quads are definitely mighty but it’s even more unusual to see calf definition from the FRONT on anybody. How did you work the calves?

    • Corey Howard

      Burn-E, thanks for the positive feedback! My calf work was always at the end of my session. I basically used the CC2 calf progressions, ie; work up to 100 total reps standing on the floor, then move to blocks for a deeper range of motion and work toward 100 reps again. Once that’s achieved move to single leg calf raises. Once a week I followed my calf raises with toe hops. This really fired up the calves.

  • Mohammed

    Corey,
    You say you been training 22 years and have a 10 year old kid; you don’t look that old! Great stuff.

    Questions:
    1) How many times a week did you do each exercise in this mass-building scheme?
    2) What did you eat? Could you give us a sample of a typical day’s meals? I assume (hope) you did not have to use supplements?

    • Corey Howard

      Thanks Mohammed. Actually I turned 40 the day right before my elbow surgery!
      1) Due to my arm injury I was only able to train 2x/week. This meant I was able to really get after it with my workouts and I had 5 days per week of rest. The rest helped me recover and heal.
      2) As for diet or food, I generally eat fairly clean, ie- protein at every meal, green veggies and fruit 3x/day.

      • Mohammed

        Excellent! Thanks, Corey

  • Tinus Vd Merwe

    Hi Corey,
    This was a very informative and excellent eye opener , would you be so kind as to post your workout routine to our Convict condition Facebook page! I’m sure the guys will absolutely love it, I will in the meantime share it on our wall! Many thanks, good article.
    Tinus ((

    • Corey Howard

      Tinus, thanks for sharing the article on FB. I just posted a basic outline of what I did. Feel free to message me with any questions you may have. Fire it up!!!

  • Great article, maybe too great as everyone wants your program now!

    So much I love about this article, specially the fact that it PROVES you can build lower body beef with bodyweight. I’m also totally down with your philosophy of reps. When did it become so goddam uncool to have a little stamina?!

    • Corey Howard

      Paul, huge thanks for the nice comments! Your C-Mass book was a reference guide for me on my 12 week journey. You can accomplish a lot with simple bodyweight progressions, keep adding reps, keep rest periods short, and constantly challenge yourself… your body doesn’t know the difference, it just knows you’re asking it to get bigger and stronger!

    • Kishore

      Hey Coach. Long time no see. How are you? My training is going good. I wanted to ask a couple of things
      1. When is CC3 coming? Am very excited and anxious.. 🙂
      2. I read a lot about gymnastics in the past few weeks. I wanted to know. How do you consider the principles of progressive calisthenics(PC) in comparison with gymnastic training? I mean, cut the part of skill training away from gymnastics. For the strength part, does PC and gymnastics follow the same principles of progressive overload? Both are bodyweight strength training. Is there any difference in the strength training part? Or is it just the same with PC and gymnastics?
      3. I see you have expressed a lot on bent arm strength. What are your views in straight arm strength? How can one train for it from the basics?

      Love you coach
      Kishore

  • Jonathan F.V.

    Good article! And of course, lots of reps short rest periods build muscle! Ever heard of “Méthode Lafay”? It’s a French training method based on simple bodyweight exercises (by simple, I mean there’s pretty much no technical skill involved), and based on similar principles, it got a lot of people much bigger than they were. 🙂 I haven’t read coach Wade’s C-Mass, but I bet it’s a great book!

    • Corey Howard

      Jonathan, thanks for the positive feedback… and great profile pic!! I’m sorry, I’m unfamiliar with “Methode Lafay”, I’ll have to check it out. I’d strongly encourage grabbing a copy of C-Mass! Get the new paperback edition that DragonDoor just came out with, that way you can mark it up and use it as a point of reference.

      • Jonathan F.V.

        I’ll place it on my list then! At some point, I’ll have a place and there’s going to be a library in it!

    • Halil Mutlu

      Jonathan bro can you tell me what is Methode Lafay? ı googled it but ı wasnt able to find anything english

      • Jonathan F.V.

        Hey, I just searched for English information too, but it didn’t show much. Basically, it’s a training method that uses many different bodyweight exercises with specific execution in a programming that includes several sets done in a certain way with pretty short resting times. I’ve seen there’s translations for many different languages, but no translation to English. It’s not a method I’ve ever practised as I’m more into gymnastics strength and strength in general than I’m into bodybuilding or endurance/stamina stuff (I prefer to train general strength a lot and then build stamina for specific jobs I have to do when the time comes, it seems more effective that way to me), but many people seem to have decent results with it, and a few freaks got very impressive results. I’d personally like to see Coach Wade’s C-Mass, I’m curious about it.

        • Guest

          if you want ı can send it to your youtube channel

  • Nick297

    Hey there.

    Really impressive quads man! Didn’t see people who don’t use barbells with quads like these before.

    So you suggest shorter rest between sets for mass? For how much? 30 secs or maybe 60? Would it work for upper body too?

    Thanks.

    • Corey Howard

      Thank you. Yes, shorter rest periods seem to work well. This increases the time the muscle spends under tension, and really that’s the key to adding size. As for timing your rest periods- I didn’t watch a clock. I began my next set as soon as I caught my breath but before my legs had fully recovered from the previous set. Yes, based off of my experience and my clients experience this works for upper body too. I hope this helps Nick297. Best of luck to you, my friend.

      • Nick297

        I appreciate your advice. Thanks again 😉

  • Philip Ng

    Thanks for awesome article Corey!

    I have surgery to remove left meniscus and that left me unable to progress to a full pistol on the said leg.For the record, I am unable to perform full pistol even on my good i.e. RIGHT leg.

    In this regard, what is your advice on training my quad for mass?

    A sample routine workout would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!!!

    • Corey Howard

      Thanks for the feedback Philip. Honestly I would strongly suggest you go after your posterior chain. By strengthening your hammys and glutes you’re adding strength and stability to your hip and knee joints. This will help a ton when you begin to add simple squats and lunges. For example if you were to take a look at my lower body training, I spend more time on the posterior chain then I do on my front thighs. Single leg bridges, hyperextensions, and glute ham raises are a main stay in my program. I’m willing to bet if you work your hamstrings and glutes first your knee will be more receptive to squat progressions next. Fire it up! Let me know what happens… best of luck to you!

      • Philip Ng

        Corey can you post a sample of your routine for my reference.

        • Corey Howard

          No problem Philip. Here you go; It’s hard for me to post specific details since almost every session
          was slightly different, but I did follow a basic outline. First I
          always started with ab work. I felt like this gave me the stability I
          needed for the unilateral leg work. Then I went to the posterior chain,
          glutes and hamstrings. Typically this was a bridge variation paired
          with a hyperextension or glute ham raises. Then I’d move on to front
          thigh dominant movements such as pistols, shrimp squats, sissy squats,
          squat jumps and stuff like that. Finally I’d end with calf work. Once
          my arm started to feel a bit better I added 5 short sprints at the end.
          It’s hard to sprint with your arm locked into place. I hope this
          helps.

  • Great article, Corey!

    Just as a side note for the other readers, this Sunday is World Pull Up Day. Google it for details.

    • Corey Howard

      Thank you.

  • Jim

    Corey, awesome article! And it happens to be just what I needed to read. I recently dislocated my right shoulder ant tore my rotator cuff(yay) so I have been in training limbo…sort of. I decided to focus on my legs and I would love to get some ideas on program structure for the next few months. Thanks again for the great article =)

    • Corey Howard

      Thanks for the feedback Jim! Sorry to hear about your shoulder! Don’t let it get you down… that’s the reason you need to focus your lower body! Strengthen your foundation and your upper body will skyrocket!! My program was simple; abs first, then posterior chain, followed by front thigh work and finish with calves. I just stuck with the basic CC progressions and kept my rest periods short. Best of luck to you!

  • pixelzombie

    What did you do for ab work? My trigger finger is acting up again so I have to lay off any bar work for now which is a damn shame, I was making good progress in my leg raises and my towel hangs.

    • Corey Howard

      Pizelzombie, great question! I used a dowel rod and mimicked hanging leg raises while lying on the floor. These are pretty simple but insanely effective! Just lay on the floor with a dowel rod held over head, then get into the hallow position and perform a leg raise bringing your shins to the dowel rod. Twenty of these are insanely effective! I learned this one from a friend of mine, Aleks Salkin. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

  • Dan Söderberg

    Good work good article i kind of use a mix between these tactics and lowerbody workout with heavy stones as i live close to the forest

    • Corey Howard

      Thanks Dan. I like the stone idea, way to use your surroundings!

      • Dan Söderberg

        you can also apply the ways of c-mass to some of the more advanced compound workouts in other bodyweight excesize books for me usually Bret contreras Bodyweight strenght anathomy and Mark Laurens you are your own gym

        • Dan Söderberg

          infact lowerbody trainings just like upperbody the only limit is ones imagination (though is good to master the basics first)

  • Strongility.com

    Excellent information. I struggle to increase my rep count with pistols, but have noticed during the last two weeks of focusing on them that my glutes have filled out. This article has motivated me to keep at it!

    • Corey Howard

      Thanks Strongility! Keep at it with the pistols. I found that pausing at the bottom of my pistols or sitting on a small cement block helped learn to grind out more reps. Fire it up!!

  • Perez Massimo

    I’d love to see you what your training sessions looked like and your progressions. Even your rest periods.

    • Corey Howard

      Perez, It’s hard for me to post specific details since almost every session was slightly different, but I did follow a basic outline. First I always started with ab work. I felt like this gave me the stability I needed for the unilateral leg work. Then I went to the posterior chain, glutes and hamstrings. Typically this was a bridge variation paired with a hyperextension or glute ham raises. Then I’d move on to front thigh dominant movements such as pistols, shrimp squats, sissy squats, squat jumps and stuff like that. Finally I’d end with calf work. Once my arm started to feel a bit better I added 5 short sprints at the end. It’s hard to sprint with your arm locked into place. As for rest periods, I never timed any of them but I did wait until I had caught my breath, but not long enough for the muscles to fully recover. I hope this helps.

  • João Antunes Costa

    Great article, have you considered also writing about how you got that injury and what you could have done to avoid it ?

    • Corey Howard

      Thank you Joao. Unfortunately that would make for an insanely boring article. I was in great shape when I suffered my injury… it wasn’t anything glamorous or training related. I was biking with my 10 yr old son and crashed. When my elbow hit the ground to break my fall the triceps ruptured and rolled up my arm. Just a freak accident. Five years ago I ruptured the other tricep while prepping for a powerlifting meet. At age 40, I’ve now had both triceps stitched back together. Take home point- Life happens… it’s how we react and where we go from there. Fire it up!!

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