Training Calisthenics For Strength
The best way to train for strength involves low rep sets with high resistance. Hitting around 2-6 tough reps per set causes the highest strength gains. If you do a bodyweight squat right now, you’ll quickly realize that those won’t cut it for strength work, since 6 reps doesn’t even feel like exercise.
The key to Calisthenics being effective for building strength is exercise selection and progressions. Progressive overload is consistently adding more weight and/or reps per set to your training to increase your strength levels further. If you never increase the resistance, eventually the movement will become to easy to help increase your strength levels beyond what they are currently. That is why you need a good progression system for each movement. With bodyweight exercises, the only way to increase the external resistance is to gain weight. Since that isn’t a good way to overload your muscles, you need ways to increase time under tension, and the overall difficulty of the movements themselves.
Instead of finding new progressions for bodyweight movements, most people just move onto typical weight training, dismissing Calisthenics as an endurance tool. Well, we are going to change that. If you follow my layout, you are going to build some great strength!
Lets take a look at some of my favorite movements and their progressions!
Lower Body Push Movements
Your legs have the biggest muscles in your body, meaning that strengthening them with bodyweight movements is usually the toughest task. Like I said earlier, regular bodyweight squats aren’t useful here. What you need is unilateral movements where only one of your legs will move your entire bodyweight, effectively doubling the resistance of a typical air squat.
My two favorite movements for strengthening your Lower Push muscles are Pistol Squats and Shrimp Squats. Lets look at each individually, along with their proper progressions as you get stronger.
Pistol Squat Progressions
Assisted Pistol Squats: Most people are going to start with Assisted Pistols. In addition to the challenge to your balance, Pistol Squats are usually too hard to nail down on your first few sessions. This regression involves holding onto something sturdy throughout the movement to keep you steady and allow you to “cheat” by pulling your body up as much as you need to to support your legs’ effort. The stronger you get with these, the less you should be using your arms to pull. The last step for these is to only have your arms touching something to keep your balance but not be able to pull any of your bodyweight up.
Pistol Squats: Moving from Assisted Pistols to Pistols can be a challenge for some people. The best thing that I can recommend is to start with your heel elevated on a stable surface and to place your off foot on the ground after every rep to maintain your balance. Once you have the balance aspect down, you can remove the elevated surface from your heel and avoid touching your off foot on the ground for an entire set.
Advanced Pistols: After Pistol Squats get easy for sets of 6, your next best thing would be Paused Pistols. Pause for a two count at the bottom of each squat. This will reduce the elastic rebound in the bottom of the squat, making you rely more on your concentric strength alone. The last progression is Plyometric Pistols, which you can add in with a pause as well. Jump at the top of every squat to improve your explosive strength. After you get to this point and they begin to get easy, Pistols will be less of a strength tool and you’ll need some external resistance to continue improving strength with this movement. That is down the road, however.
Shrimp Squat Progressions
Assisted Shrimp Squats: An Assisted Shrimp Squat is very similar to an Assisted Pistol. Your hands are helping you balance and pull yourself out of the hole when leg strength is not enough. You can also place your back foot on the ground earlier in the ROM of the movement to take some of your bodyweight. You’ll want to build up to only using your arms to balance yourself and not touching your back foot to the ground at all.
Shrimp Squats: Think of a Shrimp Squat as a Split Squat without any support from the rear leg. Instead of placing the back foot on the ground, you are actually going to hold it with one hand. The other arm can extend to improve your balance. Lower your back knee to the ground and explode back up.
Advanced Shrimp Squats: Paused Shrimp Squats are great but the most effective version of a Shrimp Squat is an Elevated Paused Shrimp Squat. Find a sturdy surface to place your front foot on. Start with something that is only an inch or two tall. The stronger you get, the higher the surface can be, flexibility permitting. You still get the back knee to the ground and pause before ascending. However, the elevated surface increase the ROM of the movement, making it tougher than a traditional Shrimp Squat.
Lower Body Pull Movements
This includes your hamstrings and glutes for the sake of this article. I know your glutes are activated during Lower Push movements as well. My favorite Hamstring movements are Hip Bridges and Towel Drags. For Glutes, nothing beats Frog Pumps.
Hip Bridge Progressions
One Leg Hip Bridge: One foot is on the ground and the other foot is not. You can cross that leg, or leave it straight in the air. Bridge up and focus on digging with your heel to activate the hamstrings as well as possible. Make sure you have a nice two count pause at the top of each rep. The mind muscle connection plays a big role in how effective these are.
Elevated One Leg Hip Bridge: Elevating your foot increasing the ROM of the movement. The mechanics are all the same. The Hip Bridge is a great movement, but it is limited when strength is the ultimate goal.
Towel Drag Progressions
Two Legged Towel Drags: I supposed this technically requires equipment (a towel). But, everybody has a towel so it’s still a Calisthenic movement in my opinion. Similar to a Hip Bridge in that you are digging with your heels. However, you will start with your legs strength and a towel under your heels, preferably on a slick surface like hardwood or linoleum. Dig your heels into the towel until your feet begin to slide towards your butt and your hips raise off the ground.
One Legged Towel Drags: The mechanics are all the same as the Two Legged Towel Drag, but you are only using one leg. The rougher your surface, the harder this movement is. If you don’t have a slick surface, you can use something like cardboard on carpet for the same effect.
Frog Pumps: There are no progressions for this movement. It is basically a Hip Bridge with a different foot placements. Instead of the bottom of your feet being on the ground, they are going to be pressed together, meaning the outside of the foot is what is making contact with the ground. Make sure you keep your knees pushed out and bridge up, making sure to squeeze your glutes at the top of each rep. These become easy for sets of 6 relatively quickly. However, your glutes are already being strengthening with all of the other leg movements that you’ll be doing, so no worries about under-training.
Upper Body Push Movements
To strengthen your chest, triceps, and shoulders, you need some creativity beyond normal pushups! My favorite movements for chest training are Wide Paused Pushups and Crucifix Pushups. My favorite shoulder movement is Handstand Pushups and it’s progressions. My favorite Triceps movements are Body Ups and Diamond Pushups.
Wide Paused Pushup Progressions
Wide Paused Pushups: The simplest of pushup progressions, taking a wide grip and pausing at the bottom of each rep will help activate your chest muscles more than a regular pushup can. This is a movement that can get easy pretty quickly, however.
Wide Paused Plyometric Pushups: To add more difficulty and build some explosive strength, adding a plyometric jump at the top of each pushup is the way to go. You can add a clap, or find some solid surfaces to land on with your hands. The more explosive you get, the higher you will be able to land. If you opt for clapping, you can do double and triple claps.
Crucifix Pushups: Crucifix Pushups don’t really have a progression system. You will start to use these when you chest gets strong enough to work them into your training. Think of these as a super-wide pushup. Your fingers should point out to the side and you should start each rep on the floor. Your hands should be so wide that when on the ground, your elbows are only a few inches off the ground. The ROM for this movement is very small, but this movement can be very effective for chest isolation.
Handstand Pushup Progressions
Pike Press: Pike Press with your feet flat on the ground is the easiest way to work direct shoulder work into your training regime. Just make sure that your hands are as close to your feet as possible and make sure your head goes down directly between your arms for each rep.
Elevated Pike Press: The Elevated Pike Press take some of the weight off your feet and adds more to your arms, causing more overload on your delts. Start with your feet elevated on a small platform and work your way to higher platforms as you get stronger. Keep working these until your feet are at least as high as your hips. Once you accomplish that, you can work your way into Handstand Pushups!
Handstand Pushups: Handstand Pushups are a dangerous move if you aren’t strong enough to rep them out. For that reason,you should linger on Elevated Pike Press until they become easy. That way, you know you are strong enough to support your bodyweight in a handstand, with your feet against a wall for balance.
Advanced Handstand Pushups: Once sets of 6 get easy enough on Handstand Pushups, it’s time to elevate your hands so your head can go further, which increases the ROM. Eventually, you want to get to a point where your shoulders can lower all the way to your hands at the bottom of the ROM.
Body Ups: Body Ups start in a Plank position. From that position, with your palms flat on the ground, you extend your elbows until your arms are fully upright. This is a fantastic Triceps isolation movement. It mimics Skull Crushers very well, which is one of the best Triceps movements with a barbell. If you can’t do these on your feet, you can always try these on your knees first. If you get too strong, you can attempt these with one arm too!
Diamond Pushups: Diamond Pushups are a basic pushup with your index fingers and thumbs touching, creating a diamond shape. Lower your chest to your hands, pause for a two count, and explode up. Again, if these are too tough on your feet, do these on your knees. You don’t need a more advanced Triceps movement, as your Triceps are hit effectively on your Chest and Shoulder training as well, just like your Glutes are with your other leg training.
Upper Body Pull Movements
If you want to really strengthen your lats, upper back, and biceps, you need a pull up bar. Since this article is all about equipment-free strength training, I’m not going to address this much. If you have a pull up bar, you need to focus on pull ups and chin ups and their progressions. If you aren’t strong enough for normal pull ups and chin ups, do slow negatives until you get stronger. If normal pull ups and chin ups are easy, you need to add in slower reps and maybe even one arm movements if you get strong enough.
I didn’t address Calf training but if you want to build strength with your bodyweight, doing elevated one leg calf raises is your best bet. There are a ton of articles out there about core training with your bodyweight alone so take your pick of the hundreds of movements that you’d like to perform. Your forearms don’t need direct training if you are doing Upper Pull movements on a pull up bar.
Pistol Squat Variation – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Hip Bridge Variation – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Frog Pumps – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Wide Pushup Variation – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Handstand Pushup Variation – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Body Ups – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Shrimp Squat Variation – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Towel Drag Variation – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Frog Pumps – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Crucifix Pushups, or Wide Pushup Variation if you can’t do Crucifix Pushups yet – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Handstand Pushup Variation – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Diamond Pushups – 5 sets of 2-6 Reps
Once you can do a variation of a movement for 6 reps on all 5 sets, it’s time to move onto the next progression of the movement.
You can add in additional endurance work to each of these days, if you’d like. Easier variations of each of the movements can be great for endurance when you get strong enough!
Get To Work!
This won’t make you a world champion powerlifter. However, you will definitely build a solid foundation of strength and make your future endeavors in fitness much easier. Try out the program and work through the progressions as you get stronger. Let me know how the program works for you in the comments!
About The Author
Milo Martinovich is a Personal Trainer and co-owner of MM Fitness, a private personal training studio.
He trains people in his region, as well as around the world with online coaching services!
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