You know what, I get it. No really, I get it. You think of calisthenics as a back-up plan when you don’t have any iron handy, rather than a discipline to be practiced and mastered.
To be honest, I don’t blame you. YouTube and Facebook are replete with matchstick-legged Eastern European street workout urchins posting party-trick calisthenics moves and blood-and-guts high-rep sets in tragically dub step-laden compilation videos, and if that’s all you see, who can blame you for thinking calisthenics is best suited for teenage hoodlums with a probable criminal record and a propensity for skipping leg day?
The reality is far more intriguing, and holds the potential for demolishing your previous strength and conditioning personal records in your barbell and kettlebell practice and replacing them with all new levels of iron domination. Interested yet?
Good, because this article is going to be on how to employ calisthenics into your current training to enhance your kettlebell and/or barbell practice.
But First: Why Calisthenics?
To put it simply, calisthenics—when stripped down to its most fundamental elements—is the ability to control and master your body in free space. The better you can do that, the easier it is to control external objects in free space as well as defy gravity.
In fact, this is the first thing we learn to do as we’re developing. We don’t build our strength by bench pressing our Legos. We do it by learning to make gravity bend to the will of our bodies by first learning to lift and control our heads, roll around on the ground, rock back and forth, crawl on all fours, and eventually walk upright. These humble beginnings—known as the developmental sequence—set the stage for all the rest of your strength and athleticism, and it starts with defying gravity. When you can make gravity bend to your will, you can make iron do the same.
You need only take a look at any of the old school iron legends and you’ll notice one big thing in common: in addition to hoisting preposterous poundages, they always had incredible calisthenics feats to their name.
- “Marvelous” Marvin Eder could reportedly do a mind-bending eight one-arm chin-ups per arm, and John Grimek was said to do six or seven per arm. Moreover, both Eder and proto-powerlifter Pat Casey performed incredibly heavy dips on a regular basis (Eder could do a dip with two 200lb men clinging to his legs), with Casey even occasionally going so far as to do eight-hour dipping sessions (you read that right). Pat Casey was the first man to bench press 600lbs and Marvin Eder was the first man under 200lbs to bench 500. Wonder why.
- British berserker, pro-wrestler, and all-around tough guy Bert Assirati was an iron nut famous for squatting 800lbs before squatting had even become fashionable and curls were still socially acceptable (so long as you didn’t do them in a squat rack). He could easily bust out such next-level calisthenics feats as multiple one-arm chins per arm, stand-to-stand bridges, one-arm handstands, and even the coveted and rarely seen iron cross–all at a not-so-svelte 240lbs.
- The Father of Modern Bodybuilding (and the guy who still appears on Mr. Universe trophies) Eugen Sandow was said to be able to do one-finger chin-ups on any finger of either hand (including his thumb).
- Weightlifter and world record holder Paul “The Wonder of Nature” Anderson routinely performed handstand push-ups and one-legged squats. He also once outran an Olympic gold medalist in sprinting in a twenty-yard dash, which is not bad for anyone, let alone a 350+lb slab of beef.
- Fred Hatfield—more affectionately known as “Dr. Squat”—was the first man to squat 1,000lbs in competition. He started off his athletic career as a gymnast.
So now are you convinced that calisthenics is good for more than just over-produced YouTube videos from behind the former Iron Curtain? Good. Now it’s time to get to work.
How to Incorporate Calisthenics Into Your Strength Training
Due to the incomparable versatility of bodyweight training, you have multiple choices:
- Drop your iron completely, spend one to three months doing bodyweight training only, and then re-test yourself on your favorite lifts to see how you fare. An extreme approach—and one that can work wonders—but not necessary.
- Save calisthenics for your variety day. A great option that will fit into just about any three-day strength program and allow you to get in some high-quality, low-rep work without feeling rushed.
- Pair a few low-rep sets of calisthenics with an iron drill of your choice.
- A mix of all of the above options.
Just for fun, we’ll go with option four. Why? It will allow you to spread out a number of high-yield calisthenics exercises throughout your program and get the benefits not only of regular low-rep, high tension strength practice, but will do so without overwhelming you. What’s more, you’ll also fill in a lot of gaps in your strength and begin to acquire a variety of skills you’re less likely to get in your regular iron practice. Filling in these cracks will propel you forward in all of your athletic and iron goals.
Let’s say your regular practice is three days a week of the following:
- Double kettlebell clean + press
- Double kettlebell front squat
Here’s how we’re going to spice it up, fill in the gaps, and crush weakness even faster using a deadly blend of both iron and your own fair flesh. The following are my recommendations on how to maximize your training with a complementary assortment of classic calisthenics moves.
Double kettlebell military press: 3-5×5
+ 2-3 sets of 3-5 handstand push-ups
Double kettlebell front squat: 3-5×5
+ a set of 1-2 hanging leg raises between sets
Weighted pull-ups: 3-5×5 (these weren’t in your original program, so I did you a favor and added them in—you’re welcome).
Single kettlebell swing: 5-10×10
+ 2-3 sets of 2-5 reps of any easy pistol progression before you start swinging
Front lever progression: 5 sets of 5 second holds
L-sit progression: 5 sets of 5 second holds
One-arm one-leg push-up progression: 3×3
Back bridge progression: 3 sets of whatever your current flexibility levels will permit
You might have noticed this is anything but a beginner’s program. This will demand a lot of work from you, and as such will also demand a lot of recovery. I suggest starting your sessions off with some Original Strength resets to get the lifting juices flowing, and to do a cool down of more Original Strength or some of Pavel’s “fast and loose” drills along with Master SFG Jon Engum’s Flexible Steel drills to stretch what you’ve so powerfully tightened.
So what are the benefits of each choice and each pairing?
- Handstand push-ups: These allow you to work on your overhead pressing groove and get in more volume—crucial for overhead pressing success—with less overall fatigue, since simply doing more military presses will serve mostly to trash your legs and abs, which handstand push-ups will not. Moreover, your forearm flexors will get some repose since they’ll no longer be crushing handles during your presses.
- Hanging leg raises: To quote Pavel, “I have never known a single person who regularly practiced hanging leg raises and failed to develop a hard and useful set of abs. Ever.” If that’s not good enough for you (for shame!), hanging leg raises will also help connect your grip, your core, and even your lats into your front squatting efforts. Unless you’re one of those non-squatting chicken leg-types I mentioned earlier in the article, I shouldn’t have to explain why that will be useful for your squats.
- Weighted pull-ups: One of the best back builders around. Your grip and core will sit up and take notice, too.
- Pistols: Pistols are great for building what Pavel refers to as “steering strength,” while also teaching you how to root through your feet and engage your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and abs together at once. My friend Corey Howard of Sioux Falls, South Dakota—a former powerlifter—told me a few years ago he did only pistols for his lower body strength work. When he came back to swings, his heaviest bells suddenly floated with incredible ease.
- Front lever and L-sit progressions: Both of these are fundamental—and indispensable—straight-arm scapular strength moves. Straight arm scapular strength is the final frontier of upper body strength development. Overlooked and under-appreciated by the average strength enthusiast, these are a power tool against weakness in all its forms, and are the greatest way I know of to speed toward ever-increasing strength in all of your favorite feats—including kettlebell and barbell feats. Ignore them to your own detriment. The amount you’ll be doing won’t impress any gymnast (but then again, not much will) but it will set you on the right track, and a little dab will do ya.
- One-arm one-leg push-up: See my blog on this topic so I don’t have to repeat myself here.
- Bridge: We all spend too much time in forward flexion, and most bodyweight feats will only add to that. These will reverse that trend.
So there you have it. A demystified approach to combining iron and bodyweight training to get brutishly strong, defy gravity, and overturn all of your old records, replacing them with newer, more impressive ones. You already have all the tools you need: your iron of choice, your bodyweight, gravity, and time.
Now all you need to add is work. Give it two to three months and let me know how it worked for you. Get after it!