Ah, bodyweight training. It’s so simple and efficient that it’s hard to imagine there are ways to screw it up. What could go wrong with just moving through space?
As it turns out, there are plenty of opportunities to turn this classic discipline of beauty and strength into an ugly modern nightmare. I’ve made all of these mistakes (and more) over my calisthenics training career, but I’ve also learned from them and made amends as well.
Mistake #1 Rep chasing
Rep chasing is when your progression plan focuses on just doing more push-ups, pull-ups, or sit-ups until the end of time.
Performing more push-ups is a good way to build muscle and strength, but it has many limitations. The first is that you can’t endlessly add reps forever. Eventually, you hit a dead end and you’re doomed to a lifetime of exhausting workouts to maintain your progress without any hope of further progress.
Second, you always have to contend with the whole quality vs.. quantity thing. It’s very easy to cut corners in the technique to increase your numbers.
And last, there are many ways to make progress in bodyweight training. Focusing too much on doing more reps can cause you to leave a whole lot of your potential on the table.
The fix: The best way to avoid making this mistake is to thoroughly understand progressive calisthenics theory. I know of nine ways to progress any calisthenics exercise that doesn’t involve changing how many reps you do. Having so many progressive paths is the key to avoiding hitting the dead-end that comes with rep chasing.
Mistake #2 Program hopping
There are countless ways to program calisthenics training. Most approaches are fine, but it’s easy to get a sense of FOMO and you end up hopping from one program to the next, in an endless game of calisthenics whack-a-mole.
The fix: Your results don’t so much depend on your workout routine, but rather on how well you can progress your basic calisthenics exercises. It doesn’t really matter what sort of program you follow; if you get better at doing push-ups, you’ll build muscle and strength.
On the other hand, you can do every workout routine in existence, but if you always do your push-ups the same way nothing much will come of it. So focus on improving how well you do your exercises. All you need from a good program is something you can stick to for a while.
Mistake #3 Legs? What legs?
Many fitness enthusiasts believe bodyweight training is inadequate for the lower body. Even calisthenics practitioners will hit the leg press on leg day or skip training them altogether.
I was also super skeptical about getting much from progressive lower body training when I started my calisthenics career 15 years ago. Thankfully, I was surprised by the fact that my lower body was the area that had the largest notable improvement by far. There was also a drastic difference in how the calisthenics leg training carried over to my skiing and mountain bike racing. Since then, I’ve always regarded progressive bodyweight leg training as an essential element in any strength training program.
The fix: Don’t skip leg day! Lower body progressive calisthenics training offers a host of benefits that extend beyond just strength and muscle. There’s also mobility, stability, and power; all assets that often go amiss in lower body strength training.
One caveat; make sure your training focuses on building real strength. I see too many calisthenics athletes doing high-rep endurance training with hundreds of squats, or they tip and wobble like a drunk horse while struggling with single-leg squats. These are not effective approaches for building strength. You want your legs to feel like they are working very hard in a stable environment.
Mistake #4 Redundancy
Every calisthenics exercise can have countless variations, and some people try to cram lots of variations into their routine in an effort to cover all bases.
There’s a time and place for each variation, but most techniques aren’t that different from one another. You just end up spending a lot more time and effort training for trivial differences.
The fix: Most routines only need 1-2 basic variations of each fundamental movement pattern. You don’t need 5 different push-ups to fully work your arms and chest. Just pick one or two challenging techniques and stick with that.
If you do use variations, try to make them as different from one another as possible. Change your rep range, speed, or your angle to gravity. Making the technique really different helps to insure the extra investment in time and effort is going to pay off.
Mistake #5 Using Ineffective progressions
Not all progressions are created equal, and not all techniques are effective just because they are really challenging to do. In training, it’s not enough to jut work hard; you want to make sure you’re working hard in the right way. Otherwise, you run the risk of training the wrong aspects of your fitness.
The fix: In training, you gain that which you challenge. If you challenge your strength, you’ll get stronger. If you challenge your stamina, you’ll build endurance. If you challenge your balance, you’ll gain stability.
So be mindful of what feels like the limiting factor of the exercises you’re doing. If you struggle to maintain balance on that leg exercise, then it may not be an effective way to build strength. Use exercise variations that challenge the functional characteristics you want, so you don’t end up training for things you don’t want.