Mastering The Basics

Dustin Myers, CSCS

Before you get started with any advanced calisthenics, it’s imperative that you first master the most basic body weight movements.  Something to think about - just because you have been lifting weights and doing these exercises for years as a warm up or a burnout, does not necessarily mean you are doing them correctly.  In fact, most athletes that I train come to me initially with some type of movement or positional fault on these basic movements.  So whether you are a beginner or a seasoned vet, it’s time to brush up on the basics and make sure your calisthenic foundation is strong and sturdy.  For the ramp up routines, a good place to start is shooting for 5x your max reps in one workout in as few sets as possible.  For example, if your max is 10 perfect push ups, your goal is to complete 50 reps total over as many sets as necessary, resting 90-120 seconds between sets.  To make the math easy, we will use that number of max reps (MR) as the example for all of the ramp up routines, adjust accordingly based on your abilities.

Push Up

The Push Up is probably the first upper body exercise ever invented, and one that has an easy entry point strength wise.  Start by laying face down, feet together and hands right at chest level just outside of shoulder width.  Brace your abs and push up, keeping your elbows at roughly 45 degrees from your body (do not let them flare out).  Lower until your chest touches then push up again.

Prime Movers: Pectorals, Front deltoids, triceps

Breathing: In on the way down or at the bottom, breath out as you extend and push up

Bracing:  Abs flexed and body straight.

Keys to the Movement: Controlled descent and a rigid body are both key.

Common positional mistakes: hinging/hyper extending at the waist, not going low enough, flaring elbows out.

Ramp up routine: 

Day 1:  5x MR total (see example in section intro)

Day 2: rest

Day 3: 5 sets of 1/2MR, pausing for 3 seconds at the bottom of each rep (sets of 5 in this example)

Day 4: rest

Day 5: Goal total reps is 10x MR, but use a shortened range of motion (1/2 reps)

Day 6 and 7: rest

-repeat weekly until Max Rep set is 1.5-2 x higher than starting MR with perfect form

Pull Up

While the Push Up is the most basic upper body movement, the Pull Up is probably the best barometer of upper body strength, and one that translates well to real world activity.  The ability to not only hold your own bodyweight when hanging, but to also hoist yourself up is a valuable tool that denotes adequate grip and pulling strength.  There are countless variations based on hand placement, but we will concentrate on the most basic two - underhand (supinated) grip chin ups, and overhand (pronated) grip pull ups.

Prime Movers:  Lats, biceps, forearms

Breathing:  You can inhale at the bottom and exhale on the way up, or inhale, brace, and exhale once you reach the top.

Bracing:  Abdominals stretched slightly, glutes contracted and legs straight.

Keys to the Movement: Arch your back slightly and draw your elbows back slightly in the same angle as if doing a Lat Pull Down.  Pull towards your collar bone until your chin is over the bar.  Although golden era bodybuilders popularized super wide grip pull ups, I recommend going with a shoulder width grip (chin ups) or one just slightly wider than shoulder width (overhand pull ups).

Common positional mistakes: Where do we start? 

Kipping/kicking - although it may feel natural to extend your legs slightly at the top, avoid kipping except when striving to get that one last rep.

Not going high enough - Have you ever noticed how some people throw their head back violently at the top?  They do that to trick themselves into thinking they got higher than they actually did and their chin was over the bar.  Don’t do that.  Look straight ahead and keep your head stable, pulling until the bar is under your chin and close to your clavicle.

Not going low enough/going too low - Ideally you want to lower down pretty far, but not all the way into an “unpacked position”.  Go until your arms are almost completely straight but keep your lats tensed and flexed to avoid straining your shoulders.

Ramp up routine: 

Day 1:  5x MR total (see example in section intro)

Day 2: rest

Day 3: 6 sets of 1/2MR, pausing for 1 full second at the top of each rep (sets of 5 in this example).  Alternate each set between pronated and supinated grip.

Day 4: rest

Day 5: Goal total reps is 7x MR, but use a shortened range of motion (1/2 reps)

Day 6 and 7: rest

-repeat weekly until Max Rep set is 1.5-2 x higher than starting MR with perfect form

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