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.
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.
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!
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.