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Programming for strength and it's application to calisthenics

Updated: Mar 23, 2021

This article is the second in a series on strength training for calisthenics skills. Some of the concepts referenced below have been discussed in detail in my previous post in the series. I’d recommend reading that post first CLICK HERE TO READ.

In the last post we discussed how you can calculate one rep max (1RM) percentages of bodyweight movements/exercises and their different progressions. For example, if a pike push-up (PPU) with your feet elevated by 10 inches is your 1RM and we also know a PPU with 6-inch feet elevation is your 3RM, then we can say with confidence that a PPU with feet elevation somewhere between 6 and 10 inches will be your 2RM. We can also say that a PPU with feet elevation of a something less than 6 inches will be the area where your 4RM lies etc. In this manner we can assign percentages to as many progressions of an exercise as we want, using the rep max chart shown in my PREVIOUS POST. Once we’ve made these calculations about the different progressions of our chosen exercise, we have a selection of intensity percentages to work with and start programming. We can use these different intensities at different times during a program of exercise to help elicit specific adaptations in our strength capabilities. So how could we do this?

One of the most basic forms of periodization is called linear periodization (LP). In mathematics linear means a trend that can be represented by a straight line on a graph, so LP in training refers to a program that progresses a variable up in a generally straight line, if that variable was plotted on a graph. In a basic LP program for strength the variable progressing up will be %1RM (also referred to as intensity). The program will start at higher volumes, with lower intensities. As training progresses volume will decrease as intensity increases. This logically leads to an end point where the intensity is at maximum (100% of your previous 1RM or more if you've become stronger) and volume is at its lowest possible point, i.e. just a single rep per set (or failing a rep that is beyond your current strength level). The most basic form of LP will implement 1 day per week on a muscle group or exercise. As an easy initial example, here's a basic LP strength program for powerlifting:

Monday – Squat

Wednesday – Bench Press

Saturday – Deadlift

You could also program a basic LP using a push/pull/legs split, rather than the powerlifts, for a more general gym goer as follows:

Monday – Push day (bench presses, shoulder presses, dips etc.)

Wednesday – Pull day (pull-ups, Lat pull-downs, barbell rows etc.)

Saturday – Leg day (squats, deadlifts, lunges etc.)

As we see in both example programs each week increases the %1RM used by 5% and the total volume decreases week to week.

These kind of LP programs are good for beginners, or people who are less experienced with new exercises in their program. The concept is easily understandable and does not confuse newer trainees with a complex structure, one thing goes up, the other thing comes down, simple. Also, a basic LP allows you to make progress with lower relative volumes when you’re a newer trainee. At this earlier stage in training career, you don’t need much stimulus to progress, high volume at this point is needlessly fatiguing with little added benefit.

As we see, an LP has ultimately run its course once we’ve maxed all our lifts to 100%+ of what they were when we started the program. It is possible at this stage to re-test our 1RM (we can also use a formula to estimate 1RM if we prefer to test, say, your 5RM instead and then start a new LP program using percentages of this new 1RM.

However, at a certain point an LP becomes unviable for continued strength gain. Remember we touched on the issue of not needing high volume as a beginner, well once you’ve completed your first LP or two, you’re not a true beginner anymore, and the volume you require to make progress goes up. At some stage, if you are training consistently, an LP program will likely stunt your progress (or halt it altogether). Another drawback of the higher intensity end of an LP is that you can start to dread your sessions. Every session is very heavy, and therefore mentally taxing. It becomes harder to get excited for your sessions when you know for a fact it’s going to be a struggle to get all the programmed sets completed successfully.

So, we see at some point it would be best to use another style of program, but what other tools do we have at our disposal for periodizing our training? We could move to a form of programming called undulating periodization (UP). Undulating simply means something that goes up and down. In UP for strength the variables that go up and down are intensity and volume. So rather than intensity rising in a Linear way over time like in LP, in UP the overall long-term trend for intensity is up but it will go down as well as up during the program. Think 2 steps forward, 1 step back, 2 steps forward, 1 step back etc. For example:

We can see that the program above alternates between a week of 2 heavy days and 1 light day, then a week with 2 light days and one heavy day and repeats this alternation for 6 weeks. The fact that there is either 1 or 2 ‘light’ days each week means you mitigate some of the stress associated with your sessions described previously when you get to the latter stages of the program with high intensities. This is good for adherence to the program, but aside, wouldn’t we all like a little less stress in our lives in general 😊. In this 6-week UP program the prescribed %1RM for each session undulates up, and sometimes down, with an overall trend upward from week 1 to 6, as per the ‘Avg %1RM’ column. The volume also undulates so that on a heavy day its lower and on a light day its higher, with the overall trend being down as per the ‘Avg Vol’ column. We can see these trends on the graph below, with the horizontal axis showing weeks of the program:

Taking UP a stage further, we could also use daily undulating periodization (DUP), which utilises more than 1 day per week frequency for a movement pattern or exercise. DUP gives us the ability to undulate intensity for this exercise in the same week on 2 or more sessions. This is useful because it gives us the opportunity to get more total volume in a week than the 1 day a week frequency from a basic LP or UP program. The fact that one of the sessions is lower in intensity makes this increased frequency manageable, we're not just packing another equally as heavy session for the same exercise into the week. With this approach rather than having 1 day dedicated to 1 exercise, you could place your ‘heavy’ work for the day at the start of your session for 1 of your exercises and your ‘light’ work for higher volume at the end of the session for a different exercise. DUP could also utilize 3 days – heavy, medium and light for more advanced trainees that need even more volume.

Here’s a basic example of a heavy/light DUP program using our powerlifter from the earlier examples:

As you see they now have both a heavy day AND a light day for all 3 lifts in 1 week. We can also see in the far right column titled 'Avg. %1RM', that even though from one session to the next intensity may go down for a lift (as per column '%1RM'), the overall trend for %1RM is up. Notice that I’ve included an RI% column. This allows you to compare the theoretical difference in ‘difficulty’ of a heavy day versus a light day. In essence giving us a way to compare apples to oranges, if you catch my drift. If we look at week 1’s prescribed %1RMs of 80% and 70%, these numbers might lead us to believe they are closer in difficulty than they actually are given the 10% variance. When we factor in the volume per set we see ‘heavy’ sets in this week mean a 72% RI and ‘light’ sets mean a 56% RI, a variance of 26%, so a wider gap between difficulty than we may have thought if we weren’t tracking RI%. The graph below shows the undulation of volume and intensity from workout to workout, with the dotted line showing the average trends for both:

N.B. For simplicity of understanding, both the LP and UP in the above examples show programming for the trainee’s main lifts of each session only. A real program will usually contain some accessory exercises after the main movements, to varying degrees, dependant on the trainees needs. More on this later.

As we’ve already discussed, there are several logically observable reasons why a UP style program might be superior to an LP program, and there is indeed evidence to support this observation. A 2003 study carried out by Rhea et al (LINK TO STUDY), compared the difference in average strength gain test subjects experienced when using a 12-week LP program compared to a 12-week DUP program. The LP and DUP protocols used are shown in the table below:

The subject’s strength increases were measured for leg press and bench press. The average gain for the subjects using DUP on bench press was 28.78% compare to 14.37% for the group using LP. The average gain for the subjects using DUP on leg press was 55.78% compared to 25.61% for the group using LP. So, we can see that the data from this study shows DUP to be superior when the goal is strength gain.

Now let’s look at a practical application of DUP for calisthenics skills. See below a recent week of training I programmed for myself. Some of the references to exercise progressions in the right-most column will make sense after reading my PREVIOUS ARTICLE.

The context of the above week of programming in the wider context of my current block of training is as follows:

- Primary goals:

1. Improve HSPU technique – reduce back extension during concentric (less banana backing on the upward part of the movement).

2. Increase HSPU strength to facilitate more ‘productive’ technique training.

3. Gain basic strength for future one arm chin-up (OAC) training - achieve a full OAC negative this block.

- Secondary goals:

1. Leg hypertrophy (no specific strength goals)

2. Chest Hypertrophy

If we look at the 2 left most columns, we can see the days of the week and which workout is programmed that day. In this program a ‘Heavy’ exercise is anything 91% 1RM and above, a ‘Medium’ exercise is anything from 81-90% and a light exercise is 81% 1RM and below. If the exercise is a bodyweight exercise these percentages correspond to a progression of that exercise, which is shown in the furthest right column in blue. The loads of non-bodyweight exercises are also shown in this column (+ or – kg, height of partial, band resistance etc.)

If we look firstly on Monday I have ‘Heavy Pull’ as the focus of the session with ‘Light Pull’ the secondary focus. The ‘Heavy’, ‘Light’ and ‘Med’ terms used to name the workouts are always referring to the 1st 2nd exercises written, any subsequent exercises are supporting or injury prevention exercise (placement in the week is of lesser concern for these exercises). If you scan down the column titled ‘Workout’ you see I never have 2 ‘Heavy’ exercises programmed within the same session. This is because I want my important heavy work to be when I’m freshest, not after multiple sets of other heavy work that will lower my performance. I also have a ‘Med Pull Med Push’ (medium) day in which neither push or pull is taking ‘priority’, this day is to increase volume and get practice in the relevant movement patterns for my primary goals, at an intensity that will support strength gain without being an all-out, ‘Heavy’ day and overly fatiguing.

The ‘Skill’ column shows what technique work I have that day for HSPU (cells coloured bright green). The suffix shows the height of the partial to be worked that session, which undulates [MH1] across the week. The harder skill work (4” reduction in range of motion in this example) is always after a full day off for as much recovery and mental focus as possible. I have also not programmed HSPU ‘Skill’ work the day immediately after my ‘Heavy Push’ session to allow for recovery in that movement pattern.

My leg days are aiming for hypertrophy and are volume focussed rather than the rest of the program that aims to increase strength. The leg day has a day off programmed after as the volume and higher absolute loads used compared to the upper body days generates more systemic fatigue, which may reduce mental focus needed for skill and strength work.

The accessory day is to add volume (at lower intensities) where desired for secondary goals (chest and legs) and for anything I feel isn’t addressed in the previous day’s workouts i.e., horizontal pulling using the barbell row, and pronated pulling from bodyweight pull-ups.

I hope this article has shed some light on the basics of programming for strength and, along with my previous post, shows how we as calisthenics athletes can utilize these programming methods in our own training. As always feel free to reach out via the CONTACT page with any questions, or to arrange a CALL BACK to discuss coaching options.

My next blog takes a step back to look at phase potentiation - splitting several months of training, or a 'macrocycle', into smaller phases, or 'mesocycles', that each focus on a different specific set adaptations to support the goal of the macrocycle.

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Happy Training!


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