The Joy of Troubleshooting Progressive Calisthenics

by Adrienne Harvey on September 2, 2014

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Adrienne NYC Push-Up

One of the many things I enjoy about teaching at PCC workshops as a Senior PCC Instructor is helping people get past where they’ve been “stuck” on a given progression. This is also very rewarding with my own clients at home, but since I know them so well, it’s a bit easier to predict where they are having trouble. With a room full of new people—most if not all of who are very physically accomplished—the task of helping them troubleshoot their progress takes on a new level of difficulty. And since I don’t know them very well, what I like to do is to help them determine where the “sticking point” really is, and why the problem is occurring.

From there it’s much easier to figure out what needs work. The bigger hope is that by going through this process, the attendee will learn how to evaluate their own future issues and be able to do the same thing for their clients!

Some of the most enjoyable moments at a PCC workshop surround the privilege of watching the “light bulb” come on for someone. While most of the time people assume that someone can’t do a move just for a lack of strength, this isn’t always the case. Other sticking points can be related to coordination, mobility, an unfamiliar movement pattern, a lack of proprioception in a new position (upside down!), fear, or any number of very mental reasons.

The following are a few examples of successful troubleshooting, and the train of thought in each. The first and last are from my own struggles, the middle two are from a recent PCC Workshop. Hopefully these examples will give you ideas to try in your own practice, and if you’re an instructor, with your clients or students.

To Me, There Was a UNIVERSE of Difficulty Between These 2-3 Steps

I am still very much in pursuit of a feet together, straight-leg, full on, no excuses, held for time, press flag. Mainly because you just don’t see women do them, or if you do, it’s in the context of an extreme straddle position, which while it is still very impressive, is not nearly the feat of strength I want to demonstrate. Watching Al and Danny pop up into the human flags at will, and at length at any PCC workshop inspires an incredible amount of very motivating envy.

kickup to chamber press

This is more difficult than it looks…

Having conquered the clutch flag, which I can do on any given day, for time, reliably, and have now coached tons of other men and women to do, I originally approached the press flag with a false sense of security. I took to the first step of “support press” rapidly, and the same with the press hang. Though it took a whole lot of practice to feel comfortable with that unusual grip. I studied the photos in Convict Conditioning Vol 2 a bit obsessively, I watched videos. I found video of a woman in Russia who does not seem to be affected by gravity, but by watching her, gained a LOT of knowledge. I even went so far as to attend a couple “pole fitness” classes (stop laughing) and quizzed some of their most advanced teachers and students about that unusual and at first very not-secure-feeling grip.

While I could do the press hang, and was even able to lift my feet (legs straight and together) reasonably high off the ground after a while, when I tried to kick up into that overhead vertical position to come DOWN to the press flag, some part of my body was putting on the brakes. Suddenly, my grip seemed unsure, just thinking about kicking up with that much force was making my palms sweat right through my trusted “secret weapon” known as “liquid dry hands”. What was going on?

“Just kick up really hard,” the guys said. Then I realized something very significant. While I don’t like to make training very “gender specific” this is one area that’s of obvious concern—center of gravity! Guys typically will have their center of gravity within the upper body (and closer to the pole on a flag) than women who typically will have a lower center of gravity around the hips. That’s certainly the case with me. This explained why kicking hard enough to get my hips high enough to be over my head was causing a little mental distress.

Here’s what I did over the period of several weeks:

  • Increased my confidence in the necessary grip by practicing it more and more, even just hanging there!
  • Practiced the kick-up with and without the grip being in question. I found some bars that were parallel (think gymnastic stall bars, or a welded-in-place ladder) and allowed me to wrap my hands fully around this neutral grip. With increased confidence in this practice grip, I felt ok enough about really LAUNCHING myself into the air at nearly full force! From there I was able to dial back and learn exactly how hard I’d need to kick up.
  • I put it all together and was finally able to kick up while gripping a pole, and stay up there with my feet pointed towards the ceiling. Eventually I became comfortable enough with this that I could find the places where the leverage was and was not so favorable, and found the next areas of STRENGTH I’d need to build up to keep progressing towards the full flag.

She Had All the Strength She Needed…

At a recent PCC, an attendee was obviously more than strong enough to nail an elbow lever, but somehow didn’t know that quite yet. Similar to my own experience with the flag above, we just needed to mentally put two and two together.

First of all, having seen the other moves that this particular attendee could already do, I knew that her abdominal strength was more than sufficient for a great elbow lever from the ground. But, she was struggling on the ground, and having a hard time finding that “floating feeling” balance that’s often a combination of body position and leverage. Fortunately there was a box nearby of nearly the perfect height.

She was able to experiment on this raised platform in two crucial ways that led to two PRs in a row:

  • Standing next to the box, she was able to pay close attention to the position of her arms/elbows and her trunk. She was also able to now see how to “push forward” to balance her body on elbows that were not as bent as they might look when others perform the elbow lever.
  • Once the arms/elbows/chest were in the right place, she slowly but steadily was able to bring her legs up from the ground higher and higher. In the time it took to blink, I saw her absolutely nail a perfect elbow lever then hold it—legs perfectly straight. Then, when John Du Cane came by with his camera, she tried it again and held it for so long that no one could believe that this was her second-ever elbow lever!
A virtuoso performance of the elbow lever by Al Kavadlo

A virtuoso performance of the elbow lever by Al Kavadlo

Just be Nearby So I Don’t Feel Like I’ll Fall on My Head

Sometimes all we need is a little confidence or reassurance, and that’s when a training partner, or empathetic instructor can really make a world of difference. This PCC attendee had longed to do a handstand but had a significant amount of fear of falling over—even while using the wall for support. This is very common since we are all much more accustomed to being “right-side up”.

We talked about headstands, crow stands and all those things she was doing very well, then moved towards the wall. What was the issue? Part of it was similar to my own with the progressions towards the human flag. She was afraid of kicking up too hard and falling over. So I got very close to spot (while also being sure not to be kicked), and made her promise to keep her elbows straight.

At first she didn’t kick hard enough, but that first push towards the wall was in itself confidence-building. The next kick was too hard, but no biggie, while staying in communication I helped her steady her feet until she was ready to come down. The next kick up was closer to ideal, and she didn’t need my help at all. She did it again with me nearby once more, then felt confident enough to start practicing them on her own. From that point I saw her do TONS of handstands with the wall during the rest of the breaks that day!

That Elusive Clutch-Lever…

Adrienne Clutch Lever Danny

In this magic show, Danny gets to wear the cool hat, but I’m doing the hard work…

Diamond Cut Abs by Danny Kavadlo coming soon

I was very excited to be asked to appear in some photos for Danny Kavadlo’s upcoming book Diamond Cut Abs, and of course wanted to be in as many cool photos as possible. When they first described the photo seen above, I wanted to make sure it happened no matter what.  Of course it involves the clutch lever and holding it for a bit, so that the synchronized “acting” Danny is doing in the photo would have the desired effect in the photo.

Al and Danny Clutch Lever

NOW it makes sense…

There was just one problem, for some reason I just couldn’t get the clutch lever move that day. I’d done it at home several times, I’d done it after a PCC workshop ages ago when we were all just hanging around, playing with moves and socializing. Today was NOT my day. I was frustrated with myself, and was doing a mediocre job of hiding it. So as we stood there troubleshooting it, I kept applying my secret weapon “Liquid Dry Hands” while listening intently to Al and Danny.

Then Al popped up and did one. Sure enough, right after seeing him DO a clutch lever, the move mentally clicked into place for me. BOOM. I had it. At least that time, but the timing of the photo was off, so we had to do it again, and again, and I started to stop being able to do it. I said, “Al!!! Do it again!” I needed another dose of “monkey see, monkey do” and sure enough, I could do it again. And we got the shot. It’s one of many very cool photos in Diamond Cut Abs which is a really fantastic book.  Can’t wait to see it all in print!

The take-home conclusion from this odd “monkey see, monkey do” situation was simply that I needed to spend more time on this move, to really fit into it and understand—mentally and physically—where I am in space, and how to reliably replicate that feeling on the spot. The prescription = more practice.

How did you move past a sticking point? Have you discovered a special “micro step” of your own? Please share it with us in the comments below!


About Adrienne Harvey, Senior PCC Instructor, RKC-II, CK-FMS, Primal Move Nat’l Instructor: Originally RKC Certified in 2010, and RKC Level 2 certified in 2011, kettlebell and bodyweight training have been crucial in Adrienne’s personal quest for fitness. A core member of the PCC team, Adrienne loves sharing her knowledge with small groups and individuals. She also loves to develop recipes and workout programs to further support performance, body composition, and of course—FUN.  Go to for more information about Adrienne!

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  • When I was working towards the planche I had a lot of trouble progressing past the ‘half planche’. One day I decided to try it with one leg extended,one leg tucked (usually not used as a planche progression) and I was able to hold it for a short time. Within a few weeks that step had given me the necessary back strength to hold a respectable full planche.

    • AWESOME! That’s a fantastic example of a micro step!!! Good work, Carter! 🙂

  • Great article Adrienne! Love that you touched on the Clutch Lever which is a move I almost never practice myself! It looks so dope when it chica does it! I am inspired to practice it, now, too!! Can’t wait to read Danny’s book and see all the fabulous photos!!

    • Thanks! 🙂 It’s a weird move to say the least – I think that’s why the “monkey see, monkey do” was so important for it — each arm is doing something different and then… aagghh!!!! 🙂

  • Matt Schifferle

    I can’t thank you enough for acknowledging the fact that there can be a universe of difficulty between 2-3 steps when it comes to Progressive Calisthenics. Many calisthenics programs lay out programs as if doing top level calisthenics is as easy as 1-2-3. Thankfully Paul even mentions that many of the steps in CC can be broken down into mini steps, but it’s still refreshing to hear someone of your level reassure us that there can be a wealth of learning and growth in between each of those steps.

    Thanks again Adrienne!

    • I remember thinking waaaaaay back when “oh yeah, I can do a clutch flag for time, I’ll get a press flag in a couple months, right?” LOL. Many of these moves take YEARS as you know. 🙂 Glad you liked the post!

  • Andy Cohen

    Yes, it is nice to read about difficulties you advanced practitioners have and how you have to overcome them, just like the rest of us. Inspiring!

  • Adrienne, great stuff! The “Magic” lies in hard work and sound progressions, as you point out.

  • Aldridge

    Xcellent A-train. Good stuff as always

  • Logan Christopher

    Very nice article Adrienne. Being able to coach people into things their completely capable of doing, but they don’t personally know yet, is lots of fun and quite rewarding. I also have to say Danny looks a bit like Slash in that pic…

    • Thanks Logan, and agreed, that’s the best, “See! I thought you could do it!” And then all the ways that carries over to life… LOL Danny is one long curly black wig away from Slash in that photo – you’re right! 🙂

  • Benjamin Evans

    Hi Adrienne, awesome post! I found an intermediate step between close pull ups and assisted one arm….whereby i placed one hand on top the other and then over a number of weeks moved my hands down till i could hold my wrist. One question what is “liquid dry” hands? Is it that slightly clammy feeling that makes it easier to grip shiny surfaces? Good luck on your path to the press flag! No easy feat. 🙂

    • That’s a great middle step!!!!! Thanks for sharing it! “Liquid dry hands” is basically a liquid chalk alternative — I have to use it when doing a move that makes me more than a little nervous, or if we’re talking about a slick or shiny surface like a chrome pole. Climber’s liquid chalk also works great, they had some of that when we were in Sweden and it worked really well 🙂

  • Simeon Reigle

    These last few articles got me thinkin; where is the documentary on PCC?

    I believe that putting one on Netflix or Hulu would really help teach people why bodyweight should take over the modern fitness junk. Their are many people out there who believe the lies because they have not had it contradicted in a way they can access easily. I can’t change the world without the right tools. 😉

    • There sure is a lot of crazy stuff out there in the fitness world…. A docu would be super cool, hmmmm

  • FattyWhale

    I’ve come to learn that it’s not so much the “what” as it is the “how”.

    Instead of more “micro-steps” (you can always add more steps, but they may not get you to your goals any faster–and a lot of the time, they end up hindering progress), I use basic progressions, then I break down the progression within the exercise. This allows me to have the most functional movement-pattern carryover, between the exercises within the progression.

    This also allows me to fix any weaknesses before they ever appear. So I no longer plateau, because I’m always making progress.

    I’m actually working on an article for Mr. Wade, but I’m still in the process of refining my method. But I’m getting closer to having a complete and functioning system. So hopefully it won’t be too long before I’m done with it. 🙂

    • One of the greatest things about the approaches as presented at the PCC workshops is that everyone is free to try their own way, to come up with their own approach to the steps or progressions and that there is no “One Right Way”. Glad you are planning on sharing your approach — it’s great to hear how others have managed to reach their goals as it only serves to make all of us stronger — and to give us more to think about. Thanks for chiming in, and I remember you saying something on here some months ago something about writing a post — curious to see what you want to share with us! 🙂

      • FattyWhale

        Like with most things, the “what” is easier to explain than the “why”.

        Basically, it’s a combination of two different techniques. By utilizing these techniques, it allows you to focus on the two most important aspects of strength training: Technique (form+speed), and Intensity.

        Volume is given way too much emphasis IMO, because strength is not accumulative. Yes, improving neurological efficiency with repeated performance of a movement-pattern, can give the impression of increases in strength — although in reality it only unlocks what you already have.

        Another disadvantage with regards to volume, is that it can actually have the opposite effect than the one intended. As you do more and more, you’re ability to maintain both perfect form, and consistent repetition speed are greatly tested, and slight drop-offs in either can be extremely hard to detect. When this happens, bad habits can form, actually causing you to de-train a movement-pattern. The biggest problem with this is, the greater the intensity, the harder this is to avoid–and since the best way to get stronger is by increasing the intensity of an exercise, it forces people to hold themselves back.

        Now, GTG is something closer to what I’m talking about, but its biggest flaw is that it relies on peoples ability to determine whether they’re “fresh” or not; when in reality, you’re going to lose the ability to maintain proper technique, before you feel it — which leads back into the aforementioned issues.

        All the details of the “why” would take to long to get into to much depth right now. But here’s a quick look at the “what”.

        The two techniques I’ve come up with (as far as I know) I’m calling: ‘Variable Repetitions’ and ‘Progressive-Range’.

        ‘Variable Repetitions’ is taking an exercise that uses repetitions (unlike static holds, which I also use extensively), and only performing two repetitions — using a different method for each repetition.

        I have three different levels for it, but the main goal is to perform the first repetition with zero momentum, throughout both the eccentric and concentric phases, and the second with as much muscular-generated momentum as you can, while maintaining complete control throughout the repetition.

        ‘Progressive-Range’ is breaking down the progression, within the exercise, within the progression.

        This basically allows you to gradually work on an exercise progression, that you’re not able to do yet. It allows you to work on different components of the exercise, until you’re able to perform the entire thing.

        By utilizing all three phases (eccentric, concentric, and static) within an exercise, it allows you to focus on fewer exercise progressions, and concentrate on the ones with the most movement-pattern carryover. So with less variation between progressions, you’ll adapt much faster — leading to accelerated results.

        This is just a “quick” explanation of what I’m working on. So you see, it’s not something I can rush. 😉

        • No rush, save it for your project!

          • FattyWhale

            What I meant was, I’m still working out the finer details with the ‘Progressive-Range’ technique. And it’s something that’s just going to take time, as I constantly refine it. So, I can’t finish the article/blog post, until I have it completed.

            The ‘Variable Repetitions’ technique, however, I’ve already finished. That was what the post was going to be about originally. But as I was writing it, I came up with the other technique, and since I use them in conjunction with each other, I’m holding off until I have the entire concept perfected.

            But I’m happy to explain anything about it, I just don’t have all the information in one place yet. Which is one of the biggest challenges I have — trying to take massive quantities of information, and digest it into a linear easy to understand format.

            We (or at least I) learn in fragmented chunks, and then when we have enough pieces to the puzzle, we have to put it all together without knowing what it’s supposed to look like.

            So I’m better at explaining it one piece at a time, because the more I try to explain, the more information is needed to understand. 😛

  • Really good read. My own story for one of my guys happened this Tuesday, Yury had been stuck on his muscle-up for a few weeks, being able to get very high with a kip but not quite get over the bar.

    The problem was he gave himself 2 sets of 5 to try and do it, by the 5th rep he was too tired to get anywhere near, so wasn’t getting enough practice. This Tuesday I decided we should do a mini grease the groove session, so he did one rep, had 30 seconds rest, did a different exercise for a few reps, then came back to the muscle-up; this way he was fresh for most of his practice attempts (incidentally this worked wonders for my own progress with my arm pull-up).

    As for his sticking point, I watched him a few times and could see he was getting high enough, just wasn’t going over the bar. My advice, do the fastest sit-up you can when you get to the top point of your kip; as soon as he tried that he got over the bar and got his first muscle-up. If you could see his ability when he started calisthenics you’d understand why I was very proud of him 🙂

    • Dave that’s a really inspiring example! Big congrats to Yury (and you for figuring out that idea). It’s easy to get carried away with “too much too soon” and miss the opportunity to try it “fresh”.

      Hope people see this and give it a try, I know I will!

      • Thanks Adrienne, yeah the mini grease the groove session works great. One of my other guys can do 4 pull-ups in a row, 2nd set only 1 or 2. By doing this he managed way over 20 in a hour.

  • Annie Vo

    Nice article, Adrienne! I always enjoy reading what’s on your mind.

  • Paul John Wade

    Incredible article from an incredible Senior PCC! I call the “micro-steps” “hidden steps”, but the concept is identical…

    Nobody “gets” progressive calisthenics quite like you, Adrienne!

    • Hmm “hidden steps” sounds cooler…. might have to start saying that instead! Thanks so much for all the kind words, Coach! 🙂 🙂

    • Vasily K.

      Hey Coach and Adrienne! Sorry for interrupting you, but Coach, I’m still waiting *all this long days* for you answer to my response on your answer to my question:D Thank you.

      And for one of the moderators – it would be nice if some of you will delete this message when Coach see it. Thank you.

      Adrienne – you make my joyful when I see girls doing some hardcore calisthenics:) wish you only success on your path of becoming best version of yourself


      • Paul John Wade

        Sorry bud–my bad. I rarely go back and read blog comments more than once. Will go and answer you now. I DO always answer questions, but only if I see em!

  • Nico

    Ive found when I started doing uneven squats my knee is tracking inwards anyone any advice how to solve this?


    • What happened with your knees on the previous step, “close squats” ? It may be a strength issue, but it also may be an issue with compensating for the new balance required of the “uneven squat”. If you haven’t already, try one close to a wall that you can reach for for balance/support as an experiment. Let us know what happens!

      • Nico

        thanks for the response. I actually spend quit some time on close squats till the point where I got the feeling that I was just gaining stamina and my muscles didnt really have to work anymore, but I cant remember if something different happened with my knees. I damaged my left quadriceps recently so I couldnt try it out.

        After the close squats I first did assisted uneven squats where I used a pole to help myself up out of the bottom position. Worked up to two sets of fifteen.
        then tried the “normal” step again and found that I can descend without assistance though my knee turns inwards but I cant ascend out of the bottom posistion.

        Maybe need another micro step to build more strenght?


        • Maybe give it a try with a training partner gently pressing on the knee that’s turning in, so that you have to actively press OUT with it… let me know what happens then! 🙂

          • nico

            usually not a big fan of partner training, but I’ll give it a try. thanks

        • FattyWhale

          Hi Nico, let me see if I can help you out.

          A problem with ‘One-leg Squats’ is that it’s one of the few movement-patterns that are actually more difficult in the eccentric (negative/lowering) phase, than it is in the concentric (positive/lifting) phase.

          The reason for this is because of the instability of trying to balance on one leg, while also keeping your body stable as you move through the range-of-motion (ROM). But one of the biggest reasons why this is so challenging is because your center-of-gravity is so high above your point-of-contact (your foot on the ground).

          So because of this, I’ve found that it initially requires more strength to lower under control, than it does to press yourself up.

          But you still have to build up enough strength to do that in the first place. So how do you go about doing that?

          There are many different progressions that people use, with a lot of them having you use various objects (or body parts) to help keep you balanced.

          The problem is, because you’re relying on external help, you still aren’t working on the main obstacle you’re going to be facing — which is stability.

          So how are you going to gradually build up the strength to stand up from the bottom of a one-leg squat, while simultaneously working on your stability?

          One thing that some people do, is use objects of varying heights, sitting on them, and then standing up on one leg — gradually decreasing the height of the object, until they are able to perform the entire ROM.

          This can work, however, there are a couple of issues with this method.

          First, because you’re getting on and off a “box”, your weight-transfer is unnatural, compared to the way it is during a freestanding one-leg squat.

          The other reason is, you load/de-load your leg in a partial lengthened/contracted state, which one again doesn’t carryover to a one-leg squat.

          So what I would recommend is this: Starting out in a “pike push-up” position, move your working leg underneath your body. Now squeeze your chest against you upper leg, and let your back leg stretch out behind you. While keeping your chest against your thigh, try to straighten your pressing leg as much as you can (this will be limited by your flexibility) — all the way to start, then as you get stronger, you can progressively increase the ROM.

          Now you should be balanced enough between both legs, that you can remove your hands from the ground. Engage the pressing leg, and then start pulling your back leg in towards you on the ground, until you’re on one leg. Now stand up.

          Gradually start lower and lower, until you’re starting at the bottom. Then start gradually lifting your chest from your upper leg, until you’re starting in an upright position. Now you have the strength to start from the bottom of a one-leg squat. 🙂

          • nico

            wow thats a lot of advice, thanks. I’ll definitely give it a try.

  • g.i.f.d

    with a horizontal pull i could start at the top one handed and come down and only come half way back up with my right and a few inches with my left on my first attempt, so i slayed my legs apart and did it again, viola, the next work out i got cheeky and decided to give it a go with my lgs closed i completed the rep with my right and was 2 inches of the top of the bar with my left all under control, my problem was the groove and not strength, i have also changed my whole training to strength training because i work as a builders labourer working with 50kg sandbags, wheelbarrows that can hold 60kg that i will wrestle with rubble to fill said wheelbarrow and knocking down walls with a sledgehammer over a few hours, but not much to really exert myself in a max strength kind of way, i was stuck on a certain amount of reps on each exersise but now have blown past cc steps i was on previously, for me when i try half one ar press up with feet closed its easy on the arms, the same with the lever push up and when i hold step 10 and move with step 8 i have come to realise this is going to be an isometric feat of strength for me if that makes sense? my arms arent worried.

    • g.i.f.d

      i also do gtg with pistols throught out he day and focus on my technique

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