The Perfect Calisthenics Workout Routine

by Tim Ponticello on January 31, 2017

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Share on LinkedInPin on PinterestTweet about this on Twitter

Al Kavadlo Pistol Squats

As human beings, we have a tendency to look for the magic bullet that will solve all of our problems. In calisthenics, the often sought after “magic bullet” is the perfect calisthenics workout routine.

Have you ever caught yourself muttering things like…

  • “What’s the routine that will get me the same results as Al?”
  • “Just tell me exactly what to do!”
  • “Do you have a workout routine you recommend?”

Look, I get it… it’s easier to have a formula and just show up to do the work. It’s not as easy to craft your own personalized calisthenics workout routine based on your unique goals, needs, and abilities.

But unfortunately, the cold hard truth is that using a cookie-cutter routine will not only be unspecific to your goals, it can be downright dangerous. Just imagine if you have a leg injury and the workout routine has you performing pistol squats.

Ouch!

As Al mentions in his Make Your Own Workout blog post, “While many fitness guides spoon-feed the reader with rigid specific regimens to follow, I’ve chosen to empower my followers by leaving the suggested program design open-ended.”

I 100% agree with this approach. Every calisthenics trainee is a unique individual with unique needs and goals. For example, if you want to master the front lever – your training routine will likely look much different than someone who wants to master the one-arm chin-up.

The same thing goes for injuries. If you’re working through a shoulder injury for instance, your training routine will look vastly different than someone who has healthy shoulders.

There are simply too many variables at play to follow cookie-cutter routines.

For me personally, I like to use other routines as inspiration to create my own, and I highly encourage you to do the same. If you see someone post a calisthenics routine, take a look and see if you can morph it to fit your unique needs, abilities, and lifestyle.

“Dang-it Tim! You’re not helping me much here! Can’t you give me something?”

Okay, okay. I hear you. How does a “skeleton outline” of a great calisthenics workout routine sound? In other words, an overarching structure you can start with to eventually customize and build your own routines?

Kavadlo Bros Raised Push-ups

Depending on who you talk to and which calisthenics circles you run in, this structure may vary slightly. But in general, the structure is as follows:

  1. Warm-up / Mobility
  2. Skill Or Technique Work
  3. Strength Work
  4. Endurance / Cardio
  5. Cool-down / Flexibility / Pre & Rehabilitation Work

Warm-up / Mobility
I think most everyone would agree that the warm-up should go at the very beginning of a workout. As Paul “Coach” Wade mentions in Convict Conditioning, imagine your muscles as a thick slice of mozzarella cheese. What happens when you pull it out of the frig and give it a tug? It crumbles to bits, right?

But what if you took that same slice of cheese and microwaved it for a few seconds before pulling on it. It would be all soft and stretchy.

Soft and stretchy muscles are what you want before you get into the core of your workout.

The warm-up is important for several reasons, but it can be boiled down to two major factors:

  1. Helps prevent injury
  2. Improves performance

There are several warm-up techniques you can implement into your calisthenics workout routines. One is to just use a generalized warm-up routine like the You Are Your Own Gym Warm-up Video. Another technique is to do easier variations of the exercises you plan to do in your workout.

For example, if you plan to do pistol squats in your workout, you might want to warm-up with normal bodyweight squats. Or if you plan to do one-arm push-ups, you could warm-up with a few sets of regular pushups.

If you have specific mobility weaknesses, you’ll want to address them in the warm-up. For example, I suffered a shoulder injury from back in my weightlifting days that still haunts me to this day. Although minor at this point, I always add lots of shoulder mobility exercises (such as shoulder dislocates) into my warm-up to ensure my shoulders are good to go for the workout. If you plan to work handstands in the skill portion of your routine, I highly recommend warming-up your wrists with a few mobility and stretching exercises.

You’ve successfully warmed up once you’ve got the blood flowing, raised your heart rate, and broken a light sweat (typically 5-10 minutes).

Skill Or Technique Work

Skill or technique work is the bridge between your warm-up and the main strength portion of the workout. In this part of the routine you are focused on developing your bodyweight skill & technique goals. For example, handstands, elbow levers, and L-sits are common skill goals. Any exercise that requires more balance/technique than strength can be considered skill work.

Tim Pontecello Handstand

Handstands are a classic example of “skill work”

As you progress in strength, it is common for a bodyweight exercise to previously be categorized as strength work, but then re-categorized to skill work as strength improves. For example, if you’re just starting out the L-sit progressions might be too difficult to put in the skill portion of the workout. You could first include them in the strength portion, and then after a few weeks or months move them to the skill section once they become easier.

While some strength is required for skill work, it should mostly be balance/technique. Front levers, for example, are not skill work for most of us. The end of the skill phase should leave you feeling fired up and ready to go for your strength training exercises, not drained.

Skill work comes before strength work because you have not yet exhausted your muscles in the main strength training portion of the workout.

 
Strength Work
Strength work is the meat & potatoes of the workout. This is where you’ll perform your bodyweight exercise progressions. For example, if your goal is the front lever, you would include front lever progression exercises here.

Structuring this part of the workout routine is another post in and of itself. For example, should you do full body or split workouts? How many exercises should you do? How long should you rest between sets?

Again, the answer is there is no right answer. It is 100% dependent on your own unique goals and abilities. For example, someone interested in hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) would likely want to train in a different rep range than someone who is primarily interested in gaining strength.

Similarly, a beginner would train differently than an advanced trainee.

You might hate me because I’m not going to give you a cookie-cutter formula that you can go and apply right away. However, since the majority of trainees are in the beginner to intermediate training phases, I’ll throw out a few rules of thumb that you can use as inspiration to get started:

  • Choose approximately 3-6 exercises total (1-2 push, 1-2 pull, 1-2 leg)
  • For strength, rest 2-3 (and up to 5 if necessary) minutes between sets
  • The 3-8 rep range gives you a nice blend of strength and hypertrophy
  • Beginners will likely benefit more from full-body routines as opposed to split routines
  • Order the exercises such that the ones you want to progress in most are completed first

Endurance / Cardio

This section is entirely optional. If you have cardio goals, this is where to include them in your workout routine. Alternatively, you could do cardio on your off days. The take-away here is that cardio should be included after strength work, not before it.

Why is that?

Most forms of cardio are less taxing on the central nervous compared to strength work. You also haven’t really tapped into the endurance capacity of your muscles too much yet (unless you’re specifically training endurance with your rep scheme). So you can still get a fairly decent cardio session in after strength training. But doing the reverse (cardio before strength training) would most likely negatively affect your strength work.

Again, if your primary goal is endurance / cardio, then it might make sense to put it before your strength work. But in general, if you’re someone who wants to progress in calisthenics (and I’m guessing you are) then you should do cardio either on your off days or after strength work.

Cool-down / Flexibility / Pre & Rehabilitation Work

The cool-down is the place to include static flexibility stretching, additional mobility work, and pre/rehabilitation exercises.

If you have a specific injury that you’ve worked around in the core of your workout, the cool-down is the best place to include rehabilitation exercises for that specific injury. Or if you have an area of tightness, hone in on that particular area during the cool-down. Again, the structure of this section is entirely dependent on your particular goals or problem areas.

What does your calisthenics workout routine look like? Do you use an overarching structure similar to the one outlined in this post? Let me know in the comments below!

***

Tim Ponticello is a calisthenics enthusiast who is on a mission to help others master their body weight and learn a few cool-looking skills in the process. When Tim isn’t hanging upside-down on his rings, he loves to snowboard, cook, read a great book, and visit new restaurants with his girlfriend. You can learn more about Tim at timothyponticello.com.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
  • Wade Race

    Great points! I think that’s a sensible approach to any kind of training, weights and/or calisthenics. After a light warmup, I’ll do my strength work, follow with some higher rep hypertrophy work, stretch (muscle/ cooldown stretching) and hit the heavy bag for some cardio. While I don’t necessarily practice skill work, I can see the logic: skill work requires max strength for limited reps (1-3), strength work slightly less max strength and higher reps(1-5) hypertrophy work requires a combo of strength and endurance (6-15) and cardio /conditioning is more for endurance /aerobic work. It’s like a reverse pyramid of muscular and neurological effort, and the basis for any sensible training program.

    • Tim

      Wade – this absolutely applies to weights as well. I still often do weighted deads/squats and will warm-up with the bar, then continue adding weight in 25-50 lb increments until I reach my “working weight.” Also, I never thought about it like that but you are absolutely right… you are basically doing max strength/min cardio work first while working your way toward min strength/max cardio. As I mentioned above sometimes I will shake things up and move my skill work to off days, especially if I am pressed with time. That’s the beauty of not being glued to a program – you can shape and morph it to fit your unique schedule /abilities / needs.

  • Matt Schifferle

    I just love articles and advice that encourages people to be their own master in their fitness journey. This post deserves a ton of attention! Thanks Tim!

    • Tim

      Matt, I couldn’t agree more. The same goes for diet… we have a ton of experts out there touting a particular diet when each person has to find what works good and feels good for them and their needs. Appreciate your kind words!

  • Good thinking Tim. I reread Coach Wade’s article from the New Year (2016) yesterday & found that I’d done a lot of the things he’d suggested over the year. We all squat, push & pull, but the variations, numbers & programming patterns can vary so much & thoughtful articles like these sink in & become part of our journeys.

    I have a lazy streak in me which I have to fight. Over the years it’s reduced & I have achieved a lot. I exercise every day, never plan a rest day so when circumstances conspire to keep me busy I don’t worry too much, doing my toothbrush squats (10 on getting up & before bed & a wrestlers bridge hold before sleeping.) I never think I’m doing enough until the
    day after I’ve done it, when I’m overly fatigued & aching. Then I wonder if I did too much. An easier day makes for inner accusations of laziness & off I go again.

    Several injuries have shaped how I exercise. I used to love deadlifts, long distance running, long distance swimming, wrestling awkward shaped objects off the ground & carrying things around. Gradually I gave them all up as they became unsustainable. I’d always done some bodyweight exercises, now I don’t lift at all unless its for utility. For numbers, I avoided anything above sets of 5 for the best part of two decades, but have in the last few years got into doing sets of 101 of easier exercises which has gone a long way to repair some long term damage. Isometrics too have helped & I do both short bursts (ten breaths) & five minute durations. For strength I’ve got into sets of three or singles lately which I really enjoy.

    A standard routine for me would be 101 incline push ups, 101 squat pulls (knees & feet together with assistance from a waist high bar, stretch lats fully into bottom position), 3 x 3 pull ups, 3 x 3 one arm incline push ups or dips. Isometrics separately, sometimes in one lump (yesterday I did 7 different holds for 5 minutes each consecultively & later 5 different holds for 10 seconds each every 2 minutes for an hour.) I vary these by location – incline push ups on any sort of street furniture, pull ups on rings, trees, slides, fire escapes. All sorts of pulls on anything that can be grabbed if there is no high bar availabe. Nothing too complicated, low skill. It’s either too hard to do more than 5 or light enough to tire me by 75 so I have to push hard on the last 26.

    Some days I make a start on the 101’s & decide to do that several times. Once last year I woke up feeling enthusiastic & did 550 incline push ups straight off – this took about an hour & 1 set, never pausing for more than 8 breaths. Occasionally I’ll do 500 free squats in one session, but it takes about an hour & I don’t enjoy the days following so much.

    What I haven’t ever done is the hard work of the 3’s first & then put the 101’s in after. Your article has made me think that tomorrow I’ll do just ten or so easy movements, hit the 3’s & then see how I feel on the 101’s.

    I realise that there aren’t magic numbers, they’re all arbitrary choices & some suit for reasons of imagined aestetics rather than through any logical reasoning. That’s why I do 101. It reminds me that I chose that number & it could have been any more or less.

    Thanks,

    Dan

    • Tim

      Dan – Wow man thanks so much for sharing your story with us! I think it’s an incredible illustration of how our training evolves as we learn and grow. And as you mentioned you are never limited and how you can structure a workout routine. I am really curious to hear your experience with doing the 3’s before the 101’s. Please follow-up and let us know how it compares to what you were doing before. Keep killin’ it man!!

      • I’m writing with a different outcome than what I expected. I got sidetracked. On the day after your reply, I did 10 squat pulls, 10 incline push ups followed by 3 pull ups & 3 incline one arm push ups. I repeated this through the day intending to do the 101’s after the last set, but somehow didn’t. Rode this out for a week, with a weekend break for some rowing & cycling. Back on it with some isometrics thrown in & by last Friday I felt I was doing well. Had a go at a hands forward pull up (never done a good one) & managed to get the chin above the bar for the first time ever with the hands facing forward. I’m 43 & 228lbs. Did another two singles before having a weekend at the coast swimming. Today, I’m tired, so just did some isometrics (7 sets of 5 minute holds). Still haven’t put 101 behind the sets of 3’s, but I’ve bounced into a new variation & am rolling with it. After years of chin ups that started in 1992, I’ve never felt great at them & the forwards facing pull up was something I just couldn’t do. A wrist & bicep injury (opposite sides) suggested it might never come. Yet it has. I’ve been working more on the ring pull ups these last few weeks & layed off the bar dips in favour of the 1 arm incline push ups. Maybe leaving off the 101’s for a week or two has boosted my energy levels, or the work I’ve put in over the last few months has just come together. Whatever it is, I’m happy & it endorses your point that programmes evolve. Progress can come as a surprise sometimes. Thanks, Dan

  • Really like how you summed up those 5 parts – so important to include all of them in a fully rounded session 🙂 Awesome stuff, Tim!

    • Tim

      Thank you Adrienne! Absolutely. Sometimes if I am pressed for time I will move the skill work to my off days. I also sometimes do mobility/flexibility on my off days as well.

  • Nice article mate, very similar to the structure I use for myself and my students.

    • Tim

      Thanks Dave! Glad to hear I’m not the only one using this over-arching structure for my workouts!

Previous post:

Next post: