When starting calisthenics as a beginner, or any kind of strength training for that matter, the array of information available can be bewildering. This can lead to a lot of confusion and the adage, paralysis by analysis can set in… This blog is designed to give some basic guidance on what your main priorities should be as a person newer to resistance training of any kind, with some specifics towards calisthenics also…
1. Do skills and hard exercises first!
Often when training in the park or at the gym, you might see someone do something along the lines of… a big set of dips, kinda rest for 30 seconds or so, then try and kick up to handstand for 5 mins without much success. Another example: a set of pull-ups to failure, then a minute or so later try and hit a muscle-up for multiple attempts. This is not an attempt to belittle this person because they are a beginner, far from it. Better to be trying than not at all right? But there is a better way to approach this. In most cases if you’re trying to get better at a complex skill that requires you to be mentally and physically fresh, do not do it when fatigued. As a rule of thumb it is usually best to start a workout with the most complex movements, exercises and/or skill. This concept follows through to strength movements as well as the skills mentioned above. To use an easily understandable example if you were planning to train legs with barbell back squats and leg press in a training session, the squat would in almost all cases (maybe aside from injury rehab situations) be the exercise to start with. To move the barbell efficiently by changing the joint angles of the hip, knee and ankle in such a way that moves the barbell in straight vertical path is a far more mentally and physically challenging task than moving the fixed path of the leg press.
2. To begin with focus on using compound exercises, with good form, that train the basic movement patterns…
As a beginner in your first few months of training, you are so sensitive to the stimulus that will come from resistance training that you really don’t need to spend time in your workouts hammering lots of isolation exercises (exercises that use 1 joint and focus on a single muscle) like biceps curls, triceps extensions, seated leg extensions etc. to see good muscle and strength gain. Compound exercises are exercises that use 2 or more joints and spread load over several muscles e.g. squatting that incorporates knee, hip and ankle joints, or pull-ups that incorporate shoulder and elbow joints.
Here is a list of the main basic human movement patterns and examples of exercises that will train them with calisthenics or free-weight or machines.
a. Push – Uses the muscles of the chest, triceps and anterior shoulder as the prime movers. Pushing exercises can be split into vertical push e.g. pike push-ups or overhead barbell press and horizontal push e.g. push-ups or flat bench press.
b. Pull – Uses muscles of the mid and upper back, biceps and posterior shoulder as the prime movers. Can be split into horizontal pull e.g. bodyweight rows a.k.a. Australian pull-ups or bent over barbell row and vertical pull e.g. pull-ups or Lat pull-downs.
c. Squat – Uses the quads, hamstrings and glutes as the prime movers (predominantly quads). Pistol or shrimp squats are examples of calisthenics squats and barbell squats or leg press could be gym based examples.
d. Hip Hinge – Uses the hamstrings and glutes as prime movers. There aren’t any purely bodyweight exercises that provide enough load on the prime movers to create a good stimulus (single legged glute bridges will however train similar muscles) which is a good argument for calisthenics focussed athletes to incorporate one of the following gym based exercises like barbell deadlifts or single legged dumbbell Romanian deadlifts.
e. Lunge – Similar prime movers as the squat but reduced emphasis on the quads due to less knee flexion, lunges also require more stabilization due to the split stance. Bodyweight Bulgarian split squats can be used in calisthenics, walking dumbbell lunges are a gym based example.
f. Rotation – Prime movers are the obliques and core. Russian twists and cable wood chops are examples of calisthenics and gym based exercises respectively.
3. Ramp up volume over time don’t go crazy straight away.
Volume is simply the amount of work done in a given period (one workouts, a week of workouts etc. and can be measured in a few different ways but the easiest to understand total number of reps). When you start training you’ll be very responsive to the stimulus from training so overdoing the amount of volume you do in a workout for a muscle group can be time in-efficient. That is to say the progress gained from volume at a certain point in a workout diminishes and at certain point the negatives from doing that volume outweigh the positives. Equally if you jump straight in on day 1 with 20 sets purely on a single muscle group the DOMs (delayed on-set muscle soreness) will likely be horrendous! Your body only needs a little to grow at first, as it adapts it will need a little more to grow, and so on. Think of the amount of volume required for you to grow as a range, not a finite amount, so a gradual progression overtime from somewhere near the bottom of that range to somewhere near the top makes sense. If you start at the maximum amount of volume (or even higher!) that a muscle group can recover from before you come back to train, where can you go from there to progress?
Also, Contrary to a once widely held belief, you do not need to constantly go to failure to build muscle. In fact if you’re newer to training your technique just won’t be optimal (which is fine!) so going to failure too early can be dangerous with some exercises. The main thing to focus on to make good consistent gains is that what you’re doing is challenging and safe. An easy way to start is to ramp up the amount of reps you do slowly over several weeks gradually. As you progress, naturally you will come closer to failure as the weeks go on and eventually get to failure after a lot of practice with the movement. Going to failure is fine here and there (and can be a useful stimulus), but doing it too often is very fatiguing for your body and psychologically taxing.
4. Do the basics well, keep it simple and consistent…complex programming and progression is unnecessary.
Following on from my point number 2, as someone new to training you really don’t need to complicate things in terms of exercise selection and the reps and set schemes you use. In a gym there are often a lot of ways to do basically the same thing…a push up, barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, machine chest press all do basically the same thing when it comes to stimulating growth so don’t stress too much at the start which one to pick if your main goal is to build muscle. In the future there maybe good reason to pick one of these rather than the other but for now go with the one that’s convenient and enjoyable for you.
You may also see others using certain techniques such as drop sets (dropping the weight of an exercise at, or close to failure to extend a set), agonist super-sets (performing 2 exercises for the same muscle group back-to-back with minimal to no rest between) etc. These things can be useful but are generally better used for more advanced trainees whose response to the stimulus of training is lessened compared to that of newer trainees. As a newer trainee your muscles will be very responsive to the new stimulus from training and as long as you are consistent and keep showing up, you’ll continue to make these ‘newbie gains’ for many months. So, keep it simple and pick 2-3 exercises for a muscle group/movement pattern (see point 2) and stick to those for at least 8-12 weeks getting more proficient with them as you go. To progress just try and do a rep or two more than you did last time, or maybe add a set or add a small amount of weight. Even just improve your technique and keep all else the same as this is also a form of progress!
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