Strength Cycling for Continuous Improvement

by Juan De Jesus on April 7, 2015

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Though progressive calisthenics training brings plenty of benefits, ranging from increased flexibility, control, and of course, strength, your body perceives it as a stress. As such, the body builds resistance toward it, which manifests in you getting stronger. Twenty push-ups today might force an adaptation, but twenty push-ups a month later might not.

One way to continue getting stronger on a consistent basis is to pick harder exercises as time goes by (you could begin with band-assisted pull-ups, then full pull-ups, then clapping pull-ups, etc), or by adding reps to your sets (do 3 sets of 30 squats today, 3 sets of 32 next time, etc). Most calisthenics trainers will recommend these two main variables in order to make their workouts harder and induce an adaptation.

At some point, however, our recovery cannot keep up with our want for reps or added difficulty. We’ve all been there: you were supposed to do 15 hanging leg raises today (couple more than last time), but you just could not go past 12. So what do you do?

If you can’t make the reps in one set, I propose simply adding more sets. Look at this cycle:

Juan De Jesus Calisthenics Chart

This is actually a personal example of a 7-week cycle I did with one-arm push-ups. I was only able to manage 3 reps in one set before week 1. Clearly, with such a hard exercise, doing 3 sets and adding reps on a weekly basis would burn me out incredibly fast. So instead, I chose sets of one less rep (sets of 2 reps), and did more and more sets each session! By the time week 3 rolls, doing sets of 3 is actually quite easy (you’ve gotten very strong after a 9 sets of 2!), so you cut the sets down, and begin doing sets of 3. Then add more sets. Repeat as necessary. Deload when you’re feeling fatigued.

I’ve actually started using this template for many of my exercises, and with amazing results! In 6 weeks, I was able to move my handstand push-ups from 4 rep-max (RM) to a 7 RM. For those math geeks out there (like myself), consider a 4RM is about 90% of a 1RM while a 7 RM is close to 82% of a 1RM. So the ratio of your new 1RM to your old 1 RM is of 0.9/0.82 = 1.10. You could say this is akin to boosting your 1RM in a barbell lift by 10% in a measly 6 weeks!

Juan De Jesus Handstand

I obtained a similar result by making my 3RM with one-arm pushups into a 6 RM in 7 weeks. I attribute these exceptional improvements to two main things. First, every session is somehow a bit harder than the one before. (As I mentioned before, your body sees training as a stress. In order to cause strength gains on a weekly basis, you need to train hard, rest well, and make the next session a bit harder somehow.)

Second, because I expect to build up to high volume with many sets, my choice of reps-per-set is conservative at the beginning. So for the first four weeks or so of these cycles, I stay away from failure and really get to concentrate on tension, technique and form. When the cycle gets tough and your sets are much closer to failure, you’ll find strength coming out of nowhere because you built up this foundation at the beginning of the cycle.

Once you’re satisfied with your max, switch to a harder exercise. This is a vital part of progressive calisthenics!

Juan De Jesus One Arm Chin

Note that the idea of adding sets instead of reps in order to get stronger is incredibly flexible. It is more suited towards max-strength exercises (one where you could perform 3-8 RMs) since adding reps on a weekly basis to the sets can be quite difficult when the exercise is so tough. But it certainly does not have to be twice a week as I’ve chosen to do. A routine that works an exercise 3-4 times a week would also work well. Here, you might prefer to just do 1 more set than the session before until you feel confident enough to increase the amount of reps on each set. Then you’d decrease the sets, do sets of more reps, and build back up.

To the beginner student of calisthenics, it is certainly advisable to stick to a few sets, concentrate on form, add reps, and switch to a harder exercise once you’ve squeezed all the strength gains possible from your previous exercise. However, the more seasoned calisthenics enthusiast might need one more tool in order to burst through plateaus. I’ve certainly needed it myself when I find my reps just won’t climb no matter how hard I push. At that point, manipulating the amount of sets might be exactly what you need to bring about continuous strength improvements.

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Juan De Jesus is a Sophomore at MIT studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. His enthusiasm for bodyweight and minimalist training was born in high school with his workout club Body Strength by Calisthenics (BSC) and has stayed with him ever since.

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  • Mohammed

    Thank you for this article, Jesus. It’ll be useful for me very soon.

    • Mohammed

      Sorry, meant to say Juan but your last name stuck in my mind, haha.

      • Juan De Jesus

        Absolutely! I hope it serves you well!

  • Steve

    Well, finally the first time we speak about serious programming in calisthenics. Not the simple progressive overload ala muscle & fitness, but how to manage intensity and volume for long term progress. Very good. One day we’ll talk about cycling, Sheiko, etc. on calisthenics.

    • Juan De Jesus

      Certainly! Progressive Calisthenics has a lot of unexplored potential when it comes to more advanced programming.

      Thank you for reading it and I’m very glad you liked it.

  • martymonster

    Hi Juan,

    Do I detect a disciple of Dr. Squat? I know I was. No training effect until you lift 60-65% of 1RM was a mantra.

    With plate loaded barbells determining the 1RM is easy, after all the exercise itself doesn’t change, just the load on the bar. You don’t even have to bother lifting a 1RM there are plenty of tables (http://www.exrx.net/Calculators/OneRepMax.html) you can check out to see what your 3rep80k bench translates to as a 1RM.

    But in calisthenics where the exercises change it makes it harder to get an estimation of 1RM and setting up a 65% threshold and maybe a 80% training day. I would not go as far as to say the concept of a 1RM is unuseful, I would say its a useful gauge to monitor progress – while the exercise is held constant, but its probably not something that should be interpreted literally.

    Would I be right in thinking that you have gained your estimation of 1RM simply by saying I have lifted 4 reps and thus according to the tables I’m at 90%.

    • Juan De Jesus

      Hello Marty,
      I actually haven’t really read much about Dr. Squat. I’ll definitely read up on it though and see what you mean!

      You’re absolutely right that in Calisthenics, determining a 1RM is much less useful than in weight training. As you mentioned, I mainly use it to quantify progress. This way, I can not only tell whether I improve, but roughly by around how much.

      And yes, that’s exactly how I got those numbers.

      Thanks for reading!

      • martymonster

        I’d suggest looking at his ABC program. It used three training levels A, B and C each at a different proportion of 1RM and then after a few weeks ramped the perceived 1RM with subsequent resets of the ABC levels. It was very effective for the powerlifts.

  • Les Gross

    Useful info that I will put into practice in about an hour. Been really struggling with pullups over the last year, so I’ll give this a shot and see how it goes. Thanks for the article!

    • Juan De Jesus

      Hehe, I hope it helps you out. Using it with pullups would work very well too, as long as the main ideas are maintained. Starting conservative in your choice of reps per set, adding sets every time, deloading on the fourth week, etc etc.
      Thank you for the comment!

      • Les Gross

        It’s pretty much a mirror image of your one arm pushup cycle in your post. I struggled for months trying to get more than 5 pullups and it just woudn’t happen, so I decided to take a step back in October. My max is down to 4 (and that 4th one is a struggle), so I’ve been working sets of 2 for few weeks, and it’s slowly getting easier. I’m gonna try ramping the number of sets exactly how you described and see if I can finally get more than five in a set.

        Usually people just say “do more pullups”, but even doing them 4 days per week yielded zero results. Your method makes a ton of sense.

        • Juan De Jesus

          That’s great then. Please let me know how it goes!

  • Damn, this is a helluva article, man. Great work!

    Cycling intensity is something I’ve been real interesting for decades, but it really requires body wisdom and self-knowledge skills for bodyweight athletes. Back in the day, Joe told me you should be working “pretty hard” 50% of the time, max 25% and easy 25%. He said it didn’t matter if you made the split annually, monthly, or even on a weekly basis (easy, moderate and hard workouts each week were pretty big in the 70s).

    • Juan De Jesus

      Hey Paul,
      Thank you for your comment, I’m glad you liked it. Come to think of it, the week before the deload tends to be quite difficult (as I outlined above), and the deload quite easy. The rest of the weeks somewhere in between. So I definitely see what you mean. Working hard and then deloading is incredibly useful for strength gains in Calisthenics.

      Cheers!

    • martymonster

      Hi Paul,
      Totally agree on cycling the intensity. I have a regular ‘ease-off’ week at 80% of prior levels and a ‘go-light’ week at 50%. I just use my logs to determine what the current rep marks are on each exercise I feel the need to ease. In the end its about self-coaching as you’ve often said.

    • Steve

      Ciao Coach, always a pleasure to listen you…I have two very BIg question for you:
      1) VOLUME. Most think that volume is important when you want mass. Lots of sets we know are everywhere, bodybuilding but also powerlifting/weightlifting. But like you said in your Convict conditioning 1 and FAQ, more volume doesn’t result in more gains (strenght and mass), and for my experience that is true, i never seen more results between 1/2 sets and more sets. What do you think, “scientifically”, about this dogma “more sets = more mass”?
      2) Intensity dosage (cycling): what do you think about it, have you studied or tried some sort of cycling?

  • Claudio

    Hello Juan,

    Very nice article! Is that a knuckle handstand push-up in your second picture? If yes I assume it’s to avoid wrist pain?

    I’m asking because people suffering from painful wrists could benefit from your advice.

    Thanks for your time!

    • Juan De Jesus

      About a year ago, I developed a cyst in my left wrist. It isn’t workout related, and they sort of go away by themselves but it makes wrist extension quite painful. So I try all my handstand work on parallettes, or if I’m in the park, on grass and knuckles (albeit I wouldn’t advice that… parallettes are certainly better) with zero pain.

      If you were to suffer from wrist pain from the actual workout, you probably should make the switch and add in a fair bit of wrist conditioning. Wrist strengthening is usually very neglected in Calisthenics, and it happens to be very important!

      Thank you for your comments!

      • Claudio

        Thanks for answering! I agree with your statement that wrist conditioning is neglected in calisthenics. At the same time a lot of people seem to experience wrist pain caused by push-ups, bridges, handstand push-ups, and so on. I wish there were more good articles covering this gap…

  • Great article mate, this is similar to how I train my students to get stronger at a particular exercise, low reps with lots of sets, leading to increased reps and decreased sets. Works brilliantly!

    • Juan De Jesus

      Thank you for the praise. I’m very excited that you’ve also found great success with it!

  • Americanadian Badass

    Tried and tested. Before calisthenics became my path to enlightenment, i’d use the same system to break through plateaus. I’m still using it on the harder body weight progressions.

    Great article. Very useful stuff.

    • Juan De Jesus

      I’m glad to hear this sort of cycle works well with weight training. It really has proven itself to me with calisthenics time and time again. I would say it’s even more useful for calisthenics as the difficulty jumps in the exercises are much bigger than just “adding 5 pounds to the bar”.

      Thank you for reading!

  • Matt Schifferle

    Thank you very much for writing this Juan. It’s always good to know we don’t have to go 100% all of the time. I should write that down 100 times, maybe then it will sink in lol. You’e a wiser man than I for it.

    • Juan De Jesus

      Hahaha, starting conservative really is useful when it comes to getting stronger in the long run. It also took me a few years to realize this!

      Thank you very much for your comment!

  • Gray Tan

    Thank you for this plan Juan. What would you recommend for a 7RM plan? Is it as easy as replacing the 2 3 and 4 rep days with 6 7 and 8?

    • Juan De Jesus

      I would follow something similar, but not exactly. For one thing, you might want to start with sets of 5 reps. Doing sets of 2 with a 3RM is like doing sets at a 66% intensity. Pretty good, easy start. Doing sets of 6 with a 7RM is like doing sets at an 85% intensity. That’s pretty tough. So you want to start a bit more conservative with sets of 5 reps (roughly 70% intensity). This way, you’ll be able to concentrate well on form and tension, and adding sets won’t be that difficult on the first few weeks. This is key.

      The second change is that you might not have to work up to such high number of sets. Higher reps are tougher to recover from. So, say, when you get to 7×5, you could cut back and begin doing 3×6. And if you get to 6×6, you could cut back to 2-3×7. Something like 9×5 seems rather excessive volume for just one workout day. Doable with sets of 2, but way too many with sets of 5. Note that I also only worked up to 7×3 before I moved on to sets of 4.

      The final change to keep in mind is that you don’t have to add 2 sets each session. Some workout sessions, you might just add 1 set based on how difficult it was. It’s easy to add 2 sets of 2 reps. It’s much harder to add, say, 2 sets of 6 reps. So there’s no shame in adding less sets at a time. What matters is that you add at least one.

      So, as a rough estimate, you could work with sets of 5 on the first 2 weeks, sets of 6 on the third and fourth week, deload on the fifth, and begin doing sets of 7 on the sixth week. If all goes well, you’d start week six with 3×7, which already has shown an amazing improvement if your previous max was 7 reps. Keep milking the cycle, deloading when you feel the need, until you hit your goal on the exercise!

      As you can see, the template is rather flexible and very individual-dependent. However, the idea of adding sets as a way to working up to higher reps is still present.

      Hope that’s a bit clearer. Let me know if you have any questions. And thanks for reading!

      • Gray Tan

        Cool. Even though it was a 6-7 week cycle in the example it could really go on as many weeks as needed to the end goal. Or at least until the deload weeks are needed too often. Then it could just a signal to start a fresh new cycle. Easy!

  • Dan Earthquake

    This all makes sound sense & I enjoyed following your reasoning. I’ve found that the length of time a movement takes can be made progressive as well. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

    • Juan De Jesus

      Thank you very much for reading! I’m very glad you enjoyed it.

  • Bill

    What is the suggested rest between sets for this program? Does it differ by day/volume?

    • Juan De Jesus

      I kept it at roughly 4 minutes. That seemed to work pretty well. I wouldn’t rest anymore than that, or else the workouts will start to take too long

      • Bill

        Thanks. I just completed a seven week cycle working on chin-ups. Hit the target of 7 reps in this weekends test. Going to up all the reps by one and keep progressing.

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