How to Build Strength and Muscle with Progressive Calisthenics

Inline_Pic 1Today’s guest post is offered up by some long-time friends of MDA, Al Kavadlo and Danny Kavadlo. I’m excited to share their expertise with the Primal community here. This year I wrote the foreword for their new book, Get Strong, which was just released. 

If you’re into Primal living, chances are you’re a minimalist when it comes to exercise. In our busy world, we all want to make good use of the time we allot to our training. Additionally, we Primal devotees know that many of the fancy machines we may encounter at the local globo-gym are not needed for building real-world strength.

As Mark Sisson accurately says, you need to “lift heavy things” in order to get strong, but there is no need to overcomplicate the issue. Barbells, kettlebells and dumbbells are viable options, but you can keep it even simpler than that and still get very strong. Yes, you need to push your muscles with resistance training in order to affect growth in them, but your own body weight provides all the resistance you’ll ever need. You don’t have to rely on external weights in order to build strength and muscle. Calisthenics exercises generally require nothing more than the floor beneath your feet, a wall, a bench or a bar. Sometimes it seems too simple to be true, but I assure you that one can get extremely strong with nothing but bodyweight training.

Many believe that once you hit double-digit numbers on exercises like push-ups and pull-ups, an external load must be added in order to continue building strength and muscle. This is simply not true. If you know how to manipulate leverage, there is no need to ever add weights to your workouts. Once you understand the underlying principles behind progressive calisthenics, you can build a lifetime of strength with nothing more than your own body weight.

Here are three simple ways you can vary the intensity of any calisthenics exercise without adding weight or requiring the use of a gym.

1. Change the Weight-to-Limb Ratio

By adjusting the distribution of your bodyweight, you can increase or decrease the resistance on many calisthenics exercises. To illustrate this, compare a push-up with your feet on an elevated surface to a push-up with all your limbs on the ground. Due to the change in leverage, there is much more weight in the chest, arms and shoulders in the former than in the latter, rendering it more difficult. Conversely, a push-up with the hands elevated (instead of the feet) will place less demand on the muscles of the upper body, making the exercise better suited to beginners.

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Furthermore, you can take this principle to the next level when you remove a contact point entirely: A one-legged squat will always require more strength than a squat performed on both legs. By completely eliminating one point of contact, you’ve doubled the weight loaded onto the individual leg. Fortunately, there are many steps in between the two, such as split squats and other asymmetrical squat variations.

2. Alter the Range of Motion

Another way to progress bodyweight exercises is to alter the range of motion. One example of this is to progress from a hanging leg raise where your legs end up parallel to the ground, to a hanging leg raise where your toes go all the way to the bar. The increased distance makes it harder.

Additionally, you can regress a movement pattern by using only part of the standard range of motion. For example, practicing the negative phase of a pull-up as a progression toward full pull-ups, or doing half-squats until you are able to perform the entire range of motion.

3. Give Yourself an Assist

There are several ways that you can use the principle of self-assistance as a gateway toward more advanced bodyweight exercises. In the case of the one-legged squat, this is often done by sitting back onto a bench, as doing so provides balance and stability in the bottom position, which is one of the most difficult aspects of the exercise.

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A self-assist can also be provided from the legs when working certain upper-body movements. If you aren’t strong enough to do a pull-up yet, you can keep one foot on a chair or platform to assist your arms. Put as much of your weight as possible in your arms and use your foot to make up the difference.

Here are a few additional exercises that employ these three principles, which you can begin implementing in your training today—if you’re ready for them!

1. Drinking Bird

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This is like a straight-leg deadlift performed on only one leg. It’s a great example of altering the weight-to-limb ratio by removing a contact point. Like the single-leg squat, taking one of your legs out of the equation doubles the amount of work performed on the primary leg. Furthermore, a major balance and stability component is added to what would otherwise be only a pure strength exercise. That’s why the drinking bird is surprisingly difficult even with just your bodyweight.

Begin by standing on one foot with your opposite leg hovering just above the ground behind you. From here, lean your upper body forward, bending from your hips and reaching your opposite leg out behind your body. This will not only help you balance, it will also further engage your lower back as well as the leg that’s in the air.

Watch out that you don’t bend your spine on the way down, but rather take the stretch in your hamstrings. The idea is to keep your back flat and pivot from the hips.

2. Archer Push-up

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This advanced push-up variation is an excellent example of how you can change the weight-to-limb ratio in order to progress an exercise. Begin in a push-up position with a very wide hand placement. From there, keep one arm straight while you bend the other, so your body slides toward the side of the arm that bends. Most of your weight will wind up in the bent arm, making the move substantially harder than a standard push-up.

If you’re unable to perform a full archer push-up, you can start with your hands a bit closer and allow your straight arm to have a small bend in the elbow in order to make the move more manageable. In time, aim to eliminate that bend. Play around with gradually moving your arms farther out to allow for a full range of motion.

The archer push-up is also an example of a self-assist, as it can be used as a progression toward a one-arm push-up. In this case, you can think of it as a regressed one-arm push-up with the secondary arm acting as a kickstand to help provide stability to the rest of the body.

3. Muscle-up

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The muscle-up begins like a pull-up, but keeps going until your entire torso winds up above the bar. Grip the bar slightly narrower than you would for a pull-up, then lean back and pull the bar down your body as low as possible. At the top of your pull, reach your chest over the bar and extend your arms.

Though you can think of the muscle-up like a pull-up with a much bigger range of motion, the two movement patterns are subtly different. When you do a muscle-up, you’ll be driving your elbows behind your body, rather than toward your sides as you would in a standard pull-up. This is why a narrower grip tends to work better for the muscle-up. It’s also helpful to think about leaning away from the bar during the pulling phase before pitching forward at the top. This creates a movement pattern that’s more of an “S” shape than a straight line, allowing you to better maneuver your body around the bar. When starting out, we encourage you to use momentum and be explosive. It may take a lot of practice to get a feel for the timing, though if you are solid on your pull-ups, and diligent in your pursuit, the muscle-up will eventually be yours.

Pic 7For more information on building strength and muscle with bodyweight training, pick up a copy of Al and Danny Kavadlo’s newly released book, Get Strong

I want to thank Al and Danny Kavadlo for their guest post and the great suggestions today. And thanks to everyone for stopping by the blog. Have questions or thoughts on using progressive calisthenics for your Primal fitness routine? Share them on the comment board. Have a great week.

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27 thoughts on “How to Build Strength and Muscle with Progressive Calisthenics”

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  1. This is a helpful reminder that I can save time driving to the gym and money in gym memberships.

  2. Awesome post. I’m a huge fan of calisthenics, in fact brisk walking and calisthenics are my two top exercises. I don’t even have a gym membership anymore. I have a pretty heavy tree trunk in my backyard that’s about 145lbs. and I do squats with that but other then that I don’t lift many weights, besides my own!

  3. Totally love this! I am big on body weight exercise because I’m all about making things easily fit into my day to day life. So I take my dog on long walks (total win-win) and do things like planks, bridges, chair squats, etc. I do like to incorporate the bosu ball sometimes for the instability (plus it makes some things more comfortable) I decided at the end of April that May was going to be #assandabsmonth for me and I’ve been finding ways to fit in a little bit every day. I’ve been posting a lot of the stuff on Instagram which has been fun because friends are joining in with me. Total I did sets of a 60 second plank and a 60 second bridge. Did several this am and will do more tonight. Only takes two minutes!

  4. The Kavadlo brothers be ripped fo’ sho! Neat stuff, of all of these I think maybe I can do the drinking bird LOL. Kidding aside even for an older guy like me rehabbing from injuries some good principles to keep in mind.

  5. Yes, our early ancestors lifted heavy things, and yes, they also did plenty of calisthenics. In a single hunt, they probably threw things… jumped over streams and through space… climbed rocks and trees… they navigated the terrain in a way that most of us can’t begin to imagine… the heavy lifting probably came in the form of carrying carcass meats and organs back to the tribe.

    I’m a big fan of crossfit… actually, I love crossfit. I love it because it blends heavy lifting with calisthenics and metabolic conditioning. I am strong, mobile and metabolically fit. I see too many people that are strong but not mobile… or mobile but not strong… or metabolically fit but weak. As I always say, it is strength that makes all other values possible.

    I think this post is a great reminder that in addition to lifting heaving things and performing the occasional primal sprints, we need to regain control over body weight movements. Seriously, how many of us can do a single pull up (or) a full depth squat… could you climb a rope if your life depended on it?

    Enjoyed the read… thanks!

  6. I LOVE these ideas. A few years ago I was slogging away at the gym but always secretly hated going. I just didn’t think I could get in a good strength building workout at home. This site teaches me otherwise, and the suggestions today have given me awesome ideas to try.

  7. Really enjoy the fitness post, especially when they show you how to perform the moves in photos. I’ve focused my resistance training on body weight exercises for about 10 years, and it’s ideas like these that mean I can always continue to progress.

  8. I really enjoy the Kavadlo’s. Great attitudes and flat out animals. Learned a lot from them. One arm push up monsters. Playground masters.

    However, at 61, I’m not trying to outdo my past workouts. I look good naked if you cover my face. I’m completely happy doing my 3 sets of 13 pull-ups (differt angles), 55 pushups and 50 squats. 2 minute stomach and side planks and 60 tricep dips, twice a week. Sprinting once a week? No problem. I’m completely physically functional and can hang with most 20 year olds. Now…

    I have zero desire to improve on that. I guess it took me 6 years to progressively get to this point so I’m all for progressing, but the desire to do more wouldn’t fit my lifestyle.

    1. At 61 you are doing this?! Sounds great! (from 58…) Pullups are on my list to master… Once upon a time, I could do them…

      1. Marge, it’s true, but believe me that 6 years ago I could barely do 2 pullups and 12 pushups and 15 second planks. If you just keep at it, the years go by and all that work pays off. Now it’s a quick 20 minutes and I can go out and still enjoy my day. I love pullups but I dread the pushups. Don’t know why. Good luck!

  9. Forgot the most import one. Be under 30, exceptionally flexible, and with no history of tendonitis or joint pain. That will really help build muscle and strength!

  10. Amazing Workout. No need to pay for gym equipment. This workout is really hard also. Found it really effective. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Superb!!!! in my point of view, everyone should try this workout at home or at the gym or anywhere which you feel comfortable to do and these are some basic and important way to build your strength and muscles.Thanking you for this article surely gonna share with my gym buddies.

  12. Muscle-ups are much harder than they look! I can vouch for their advantages too as I’ve been doing them religiously for the last three months. Such a great exercise. Great post too guys!

  13. I’ve been a huge fan of the Kavadlos since I started reading MDA and saw some of their posts.

    I don’t think I could have made my health transformation without calisthenics. To me, exercise was (as I’m sure it is for many) a hard component due to the sheer time that can seem necessary! But I realized – how much time would it take for me to do a few pushups a day? Not very much! This was the blossoming of something very beautiful.

    Now I maintain great strength and body composition on no more than 40 minutes of exercise a day (split up into two sessions). In the time it takes people to pack, change and drive to the gym, I’ve already finished my workout!

    For over two years I’ve worked out every day. I don’t think this would have been possible without calisthenics.

  14. I have always said that the average person does not need a gym to get ripped these exercises are the ones I recommend to my friends though if you really wanna go for body building extremity I’m talking about those people that there aim is to compete in olympics not your average guy I think than a gym would be necessary great article really loved this 😀

  15. “You need to push your muscles with resistance training in order to affect growth in them, but your own body weight provides all the resistance you’ll ever need.”

    The only thing that keeps this statement from being 100% is the vague nature of the word “need.” What I personally “need” strength for is to increase tissue density and resilience, and increase my ability to move an external weight. For both of these, barbell training is far superior. I would argue barbell training is superior for most everybody.

    The only lower body calisthenic exercise that actually challenges the muscles is a full single leg squat – something that is less functional and more complicated than a barbell squat. Everybody has hips and legs that allow for barbell squatting. Not everybody is set up to pistol squat.

    1. Agree 100%. With a barbell squat it’s easy to hide muscle imbalances. A pistol squat will expose the body for what it really is.

      1. Exactly, and even though I didn’t make that point, it’s a big reason why I load my squats. Only by challenging all your muscles and tissues do you force your joints into their proper alignment and range of motion. I’ve had a lot of issues with uneven hips and misaligned knees, and the more weight I push with my lower body the more these things correct themselves – far more than anything a physical therapist has ever prescribed.

  16. I love this post! I am already a big fan of bodyweight (and isometric) exercises (you can do them anywhere, since you don’t need equipment), and have used several of these principles already in my daily routine as well as occasional routines. I would like to point out that as your weight increases, bodyweight exercises get harder, so there is a natural pressure to return to a lower weight!
    As a woman who had a hard time getting to the point where pushups were a real, do-able part of my exercise regimen (I am now up to 2 sets of 40 each morning!), I would like to pass on a tip. Yes, use an incline, or knees, to start. But also, pushups can be hard on wimpy hands. Use a yoga mat or similar foam cushion under the heels of your hands to enhance your ability to take the weight on your hands.
    A point that was missed – one-legged or one-armed versions of an exercise tend to require balancing, which exercises your core.

  17. I find my time in Gym consuming with tight schedule, spending money too much, schoolwork, and in which I travel far away from my house is a hassle, I decide to switch to calisthenics again. Besides I don’t feel welcome at the gym. In calisthenics I can always go to the local park breathe fresh air and enjoy every moment doing what I need to do.

  18. I am all for body weight exercises, gave up the weights a long tike ago. I can do plenty of pistol squats and archer push ups, but I am yet to master a pull-up. I definitely have the strength required, but my technique is the last piece of the puzzle. Just need to keep at it and like everything else, I will eventually own it!

  19. Nice tips to build muscles. But i think building muscle mass and strength in the arms through arm workouts is not just for show. It’s very essential for daily life activities, such as lifting grandchildren, carrying groceries, and even driving.

  20. Wow, this article is the one, which i am really looking for, yes me the same, who is don’t want to lift heavy weight, but still want to build the fitness, this article is really great, thanks for sharing.