Building muscle with calisthenics can be a daunting idea. There are so many technical variables to consider like range of motion, weight shifting, leverage, speed and tempo just to name a few.
Lifting weights just seem so much simpler. You just add weight and you’re set, right? So that makes a pretty good case for weights and a strike against calisthenics, but is it really?
I propose this isn’t really the case, not because calisthenics progression doesn’t need to be that complicated, but because of a basic misunderstanding of progression in general. The misconception is that progress is made through adding to the workout. Adding weight. Adding reps. Adding sets or exercises. The reality is these are not the sources of progression but rather the outcomes of it. You can add and build onto your training after you make progress not before.
The bulk of your workout progression comes from proficiency or how well you can perform the given exercises. In other words, how well can you do your exercises? Trying to add onto a lack of proficiency is like trying to build a tower on a weak foundation. Build the technical foundation of your exercise and the extra reps, weight and exercises will come.
So the question is how do you do that? How do you know what to work on to make progress? Well, that’s a million dollar question. It’s why people invest in coaches and dedicate years of their life to learning the art and science of strength training to gain even a vague idea on how someone should progress their training. No, it’s not as simple as “just add weight to the bar” or “practice more” because that’s just building onto your current foundation in whatever condition it’s currently in. In that case you’re not so much as building strength as you’re building compensation.
Progression, in any discipline can be as much of an art as it is a science, but here’s a simple “hack” you can use.
Observe how your technique erodes under fatigue during a given set.
For example, let’s say you’re doing a set of 10 reps. Your mission is to find how that 10th rep is different than your first. Is your range of motion shorter? Is your body position changing? Are you shifting your weight? Changes like this are like a giant compass pointing you toward what you need to work on to make progress. So if you’re noticing your last couple of reps are short in the range of motion then strive to maintain that range for the full set. Is your speed or tempo changing? Then work on that.
Once you observe and address these technical erosions you’ll find the reps, weight or advanced technique come right along.