Al Kavadlo on Progressive Calisthenics

by Al Kavadlo on January 21, 2013

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(includes excerpts from Pushing The Limits)

All types of strength training operate under the same principle of progressive overload. Regardless of modality, the way one grows stronger is to begin learning a movement pattern with a relatively low amount of resistance and gradually add more as the body adapts.

In barbell or kettlebell training, exercises can be learned with a light weight to get a feel for proper technique before progressing to heavier poundages. This allows the lifter to learn the form without having to overcome much resistance. Due to the nature of bodyweight training, however, progress must be approached a bit differently.

A key principle of progressive calisthenics is manipulating leverage to vary the intensity of bodyweight exercises. Since there is no way to do a one arm push-up, pistol squat or one arm pull-up without a significant amount of resistance, we instead must practice variations in which the body is positioned in such a way as to create less resistance. As you grow stronger, harder variations can gradually be introduced.

In the videos below, you’ll see me demonstrating progressive calisthenics chains that can be used to increase one’s strength over time. I’ve done one video for each of what I consider to be the three most essential movement patterns: push-ups, squats and pull-ups. Though these clips go by quickly, a beginner should expect to put in a few solid years of training to advance from the variations at the start of each clip to the master steps shown at the end.

A veteran of the fitness industry, Al Kavadlo has recently been appointed as the lead instructor for the Progressive Calisthenics Certification. Recognized worldwide for his amazing bodyweight feats of strength as well as his unique coaching style, Al is also the author of three books, including Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics and the soon-to-be-released Pushing The Limits! Total Body Strength With No Equipment.
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  • Rose Widell

    I love this video and article. They’re both fun and informative, without being preachy.

  • Paul John Wade

    What I love about Al’s progressions is the fact that there’s more than one way to “skin a cat”. Here, he mixes in plyo as a progressive variable–which makes for some real valuable training.

    I have seen Al use multiple progression chains, and they are all equally awesome. I wish I could have added his kind of flexibility and creativity to Convict Conditioning. Book woulda been twice as good.

  • Al Kavadlo

    Paul and Rose – You two are too kind! Thanks!

  • Romi

    Big well done Al Kavadlo…I love your progression with warmups included. I learnt alot from Paul Wade’s books and now seeing your video, I will keep on learning…thanks for both of you for sharing your knowledge with us and showing us that everything is possible with dedication and patience 🙂

  • Thanks for the breakdown of all the progressions! Very impressive and informative!

  • Linda

    I couldn’t agree with Rose more. Well done!

    Just a side note, you’re getting an error on the Products page. I didn’t see a webmaster e-mail addy to send it to.


    • Rose Widell

      Lin – You’ve got great taste – LOL!

      Can I ask what product page?

  • John Walsh

    Excellent videos and progressions.

    Paul John Wade is John Du Canes’s pseudonym. Paul John Wade does not exist.

    • Paul John Wade

      I wish I had his money!

      John, email Dragon Door support and they will pass it on to me. I’m me, and I’ll prove it to ya.

      • Adrienne Harvey

        As I keep saying! 🙂 Paul Wade is Paul Wade! 🙂

        • Rose Widell

          It’s really him. I work at Dragon Door and couldn’t believe I was talking with him. 😀

  • michael

    Dragon door you are true pioneers thank you for all you do and for keeping it real hard to imagine something this great can keep getting better love your work much respect

  • Gil F.

    Excellent post! How about a CC III? “On the outside” featuring both great authors? Perhaps the material could cover bodyweight training as it pertains specifically to the athlete (football, basketball, soccer)?

    • Paul John Wade

      Great idea, Gil–great idea. CC3 is already planned, but I’m not gonna finish it until the first PCC is wrapped and successful. But you bet I will try to involve Al fast, before he is too big to talk to my sorry ass.

  • It’s great that there are multiple people teaching this sort of stuff since so few people seem to understand the concepts of progression. It applies more than to bodyweight, but especially to bodyweight, since you can’t just add weight. I really liked the one arm clap pushup, don’t think I’ve ever tried that one.

  • nice !! love it, ….as a female, i want to utilize these fantastic approaches!
    I will be looking for your books 🙂

  • Very helpful progressions on the exercises. As I age, I find myself doing more body weight exercises and have found some helpful variations here. Also, I coach high school female athletes and am always looking for additional means to assist them in performing pull ups. We already use the Australian pull up (inverted rows) and am anxious to try the jacknife row with the stronger girls. Thanks for the tips.

  • Nice read and great videos. With the exception of one legged anything I do the same in my workout. One wouldn’t think by looking at me that Im 190 lbs but I am due to calisthenics. Please keep these videos coming maybe I will learn something new.

  • Dave Valdez

    Wish I had Al leading PT at my command. It really seems as though he’s having fun and wants to encourage that ideal in other people. In my experience, it seems as though some fitness leaders want to punish people for not being in good shape. Al doesn’t seem like he would do that.

  • Julie

    Love it! Thanks so much for sharing. Just a quick question to throw out there. I am doing the convict conditioning program and I am stuck on full pushups and can’t seem to build up enough strength to progress to the next step, any suggestions? I have doing them for over 2 months.

    • Al Kavadlo

      Hey Julie – When it comes to upper body strength, women are generally slower to progress than men – it’s just biology. Keep getting as much as you can out of the earlier push-up progressions and stay consistent in your training. In time, you will be ready to move forward.

      • Paul John Wade

        Al is totally right on, Julie. Also, don’t forget that you can break steps up into tiny more manageable steps. Can’t move from full pushups to close pushups? No worries, miss. Just use a measuring tape (we used to chalk the floor!) and progress one inch at a time.

        You can move your hands in an inch and meet the beginner standard, right…? You can do it, girl.

        • Adrienne Harvey

          I love the absolute infinite levels of micro-steps in bodyweight training – might have to get some chalk 🙂

      • Julie

        Thanks guys! I will keep at it and when I am doing one arm pushups I will e-mail you some pics!

        • Rose Widell

          Julie, I’m in a similar spot. And I can’t start with full push-ups yet – It’s embarrassing, but I have to do about 20 ‘girly’ pushups before I can do my sets of the full ones. I have no idea why. You’re doing much better than me with the full push-ups right off the bat! I think I’m going to try the micro-steps too. I’m just so impatient with myself!

          • Julie

            Thanks Rose! You give me too much credit. I have been working on the convict conditioning program for about six months and stuck on the full pushup for the last 2 months ,progress seems slow. However I realize this isn’t a speed trial and I want strength for the rest my life!

          • Rose Widell

            Right on!

  • Richard Giambrone

    Crazy. I really like how you show the progression to a one-arm push up and to the pistol squat. Without seeing that, I’d try a one-arm push up or a pistol squat., fail, and say, Nope, can’t do it.

    If I start practicing now, when I visit NYC this summer, I just might be able to do them in the same park:)


  • Mark Walker

    Excellent videos. Short and sweet. Worth about 2 hours of reading about it, and better.

  • jim perry

    Paul & Al… really enjoying your work.. am doing the CC, purchased the book in Oct/12 ..and have enrolled in the PPC for this June in MN. Looking forward to it!! I’m on the ‘older’ side.. (65), and I see a vast potential for working with seniors and assisting a progression from inactivity/limited activity towards renewed physical abilities so that as we age… we continue to enjoy movement. Looking forward to learning with each of you.

    • Rose Widell

      Wow, that’s so cool!

      • jim perry

        thnks rose… appreciate saludos !!

    • Al Kavadlo

      Right on, Jim! See you in June!

  • These are fantastic, I’ve had them bookmarked since Al posted them the other week. Good stuff!!

  • Mick

    Gday Al

    I love this stuff. How often do you suggest bodyweight exercises should be done eg the progressions in CC

    Cheers again

    • Al Kavadlo

      Hey Mick – Thanks for the comment! As for your question, there is a lot of room for personal experimentation. As a general guideline, 3x a week is a great amount to train. I get into a bit more detail about this in my books.

  • Al Kavadlo

    Thanks for all the wonderful comments, everybody! I am very happy to see that the PCC blog is off to such a great start! Keep checking back for new articles and videos in the weeks and months to come.

  • Matteo

    Al, fantastic video and interesting variations. I’ve always loved bodyweight work and thanks to Coach Wade’s efforts and your example I’m on full bodyweight training, convict conditioning style since 2010.

    Convict conditioning helped me to sort out a big number of injuries (I’m a grappler and a long time martial artist), including a bilateral epycondilitis and bilateral epitrocleitis that almost paralyzed me for two years, from 2008 until I started the program. Doctors, therapies and money couldn’t help, but Convict conditioning was truly second birth!

    I know that this comment is not strictly video – related, but I saw the replies from Coach Wade himself and just wanted him to know how grateful I am for his work.
    I am, alongside with my brother (another convict conditioning enthusiast), trying to follow the steps of the Kavadlo brothers, so I can say that we are working out too! 😉

    I’ll be sure to check this blog more often. Thanks again for everything, Coach and Al.

    • Paul John Wade

      You know, Matteo–you the man. It is comments like yours and the ones above that really make everything worthwhile for me. Thank you my friend.

      You and your brother keep doing those pushups!

    • Al Kavadlo

      Right on, Matteo! We’re Working Out!

  • Tee

    Love your Video’s and blog. What type of shoes you got there in the push up video?
    Thank you

    • Al Kavadlo

      Thanks, Tee!

      Those are Converse All-Stars I’m rocking in the push-up clip.

      • Tee

        Thanks Al. My I ask where you bought them? Can’t seem to find them on the web. I think I would be able to do better push ups with them. 🙂

        • Al Kavadlo

          Converse All Stars are readily available from many retailers. This particular color may have been a limited edition though.

          • Tee

            Thanks Al, found them and they’re on thier way.

  • Jerry

    I want to get my mom doing strength work but squats are tricky. She has pain in her knees and the inverted position of the first CC squats is bad for her upper back. Any suggestions on an easier progression than jackknife squats?


    • Al Kavadlo

      Hey Jerry – What about the bench squat variant? It’s the first one I do in the squats video posted above. Basically just involves sitting down and standing up off a bench. Have her start with something fairly high up if she needs to.

      • Pat

        Thanks, Al. My cousin, who is interested in strength training, pointed me at this video. I am a chubby old lady and I have noticed that it is harder for me to get up at times. I can’t do a regular squat any more as it hurts. This bench squat thing is something I am going to do every day now until I rebuild some of what I have lost with age.

      • Jerry

        Sure I could try that with her. It now occurs to me that if it’s done near a table, pushing down the table can also be used to add support and make the exercise less stressful too.

        I find it interesting that you don’t do the full squat down to the ankles, as CC does. Do you see full depth as something to wait on?

        • Al Kavadlo

          I could have gotten a bit lower but I was hoping to demonstrate a range of motion that was realistic for most people who were at that stage in their progress. In my next book, I go into a lot of detail regarding my opinions of squat depth and other such details. Gonna keep you in suspense til then. 🙂

    • Adam

      Another option is to have her lay on her back with her heels up on a gym ball. She can cycle through the squat pattern in a non-weight bearing posture which should be pain-free. Then progress to weight bearing variants such as the bench squat.

      • Jerry

        Cool, that sounds like another good idea. Thanks Al, thanks Adam.

  • Jerry

    I also want to add my thumbs-up to the great videos.

  • Aaqib

    Hey, Coach and Al 🙂
    I’m a 19 year old in a not-so-well-known South Asian country. Convict Conditioning was a rebirth for me, as it inspired me to leave pure endurance cals and focus on the awesome progressions by El-Entrenador. I am truly inspired by Coach Wade’s no B.S., straight to the point writing. Thanks to you, I’ve reached 3 of the master steps, and stand just a step away from mastering stand to stand bridges ( all intermediate standard, because i work with low reps).
    And obviously, Al and your brother, you have been my role models ever since CC2 came out. You guys are very helpful, possess some awesome knowledge, and never cease to surprise! 😀 Especially Al’s website- easily the best site I’ve ever come across 🙂
    Love to all of you… I’ll always be grateful to the three of you. 🙂

  • Paul John Wade

    Jim, Aaquib, Romi, Michael…and all you guys kind enough to post your words here. You are all beyond AWESOME. Thank you.

    Stay with us, my beloved students. The best is yet to come!

  • Jordan Oakman

    Boy, I can remember just finding out about dragon door products. A few years ago I decided to join the military and apply for special forces (I will within the next year). I started going to my cousins house to learn hand to hand combat to prepare for military life. He had kettlebells there. He showed me how to work them and soon I became very enthuiastic. After a while of using them I decided to get my own 60lb KB. I was already rocking my cousins 60KB at the age of 16? I think. Anyway, I was looking at around that time and saw the Convict Conditioning ad. I read EVERYTHING available on it and was ACHING to buy it. I was thrilled with the idea of being able to become immensely strong just by using myself as resistence. I got the book and have read it several times and I have to say I am truly enlighted now about everything exercise. Hell, the book even gave me good base knowledge for my High School Anatomy and Physiology class. Since I’ve gotten the book I can do one arm pushups (with snake bend, still working on perfect technique), one legged squats, and can almost do half one arm pullups. I have to say, because of this book, exercise has become so fun to me I could work out forever and never get bored. I don’t even use KBs anymore. Paul Wade, you are a freaking monster in my eyes, a legend. Thankyou for going to hell and coming back with this badass knowledge.

  • Prahlad

    I was recently comparing pictures of Hannibal for King and Kohei Uchimura. For some reason HFK is way more ripped than the world champion gymnast. Why is that? Is he stronger? I would think that Kohei would be stronger being the olympic champion. I know that guys that do weights might be a bit bigger than guys that do calisthenics but both these guys do calisthenics. Any ideas?

    • Size and strength are not directly correlated. Genetics are another major factor.

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