Designing your own Calisthenics Program: A Step-by-Step Guide!

Designing an effective workout program isn’t rocket science, but still, there are a few important things you need to know!

Step 1: Goal setting

When designing a calisthenics program, it’s essential to tailor the plan to your specific goals, knowing your goals will guide exercise selection, intensity, and much more. Therefore the first step is to set clear and precise goals

Start by identifying your primary calisthenics goals, determining whether your primary focus is building strength, developing specific skills (such as handstands or muscle-ups), hypertrophy (muscle growth), or a combination of these.

The next step is to set more specific goals you can use the SMART framework which stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound for that.
Aim for 2-4 goals so you don’t spread yourself too thin and divide your goals evenly between pushing and pulling exercises to maintain structural balance in your training (you can read more about goal setting here)

Examples of training goals using the SMART framework Goal 1: Achieve a freestanding handstand for 30 seconds (specific & measurable) within the next three months (time bound) by practicing handstand progressions for 15 minutes daily.
Goal 2: Achieve a full Front Lever, holding it for 10 seconds, by progressing from a 5-second straddle front lever to the full position over the next year, following a structured progression program three times per week.

Step 2: Choosing A Workout Split

Choosing a workout split depends on various factors, including your fitness goals, training experience, schedule, and personal preferences. Each workout split has its advantages, and the most effective one for you is the one you can commit to long-term. Here are some of the most popular and best training splits:

Full body

The full body workout split offers efficiency by targeting all major muscle groups in a single session, making it time-efficient. This approach allows for frequent stimulation of muscle groups throughout the week, which can be advantageous, especially for beginners but also for intermediates. However, performing high-intensity exercises for all muscle groups in a single session might be challenging, and longer recovery times may be needed, especially for compound movements.

Upper/Lower

The Upper/Lower workout split provides a more focused approach by dividing sessions between upper and lower body workouts. This split allows for increased emphasis on specific muscle groups in each session. While enabling better recovery for targeted muscle groups, it may not allow for as frequent stimulation of each muscle group compared to Full Body splits. Additionally, a commitment of at least four sessions per week is generally recommended for optimal results.

Push/Pull/Legs

The Push/Pull/Legs workout split categorizes exercises based on movement patterns, offering specific targeting for each session. While it provides clarity in exercise selection, it may be perceived as more complex, requiring a good understanding of different movement patterns. Additionally, it may not be as suitable for individuals with limited time for 4-5 weekly sessions.

While these are some of the best and most popular workout splits, other options do exist such as the Bent Arm/Straight Arm Split and daily full body training which are just as effective.

Step 3: Exercise Selection

Exercise selection is a critical aspect of designing an effective workout routine. There are serval factors you need to take into consideration when selecting exercises. Below I have listed the most important factors, but keep in mind the are other factors such as personal preferences, stimulus-to-fatigue, and risk-to-reward to keep in mind when selecting exercises.

Compound vs. Isolation exercises

Compound exercises involve multiple joints and muscle groups working together in a coordinated manner. These movements recruit various muscles simultaneously. Compound exercises should make up the bulk of your calisthenics workout, and should be prioritized early in the workout when you are most fresh.

Isolation exercises target a specific muscle or muscle group, involving movement at a single joint. These exercises are designed to isolate and emphasize the development of a particular muscle. Isolation exercises can be used to target “weak links” and should be seen as more of accessory work that is not strictly necessary, but very useful.

Movement Patterns: The key to choosing exercises

Exercise selection relies on understanding the different planes of motion of exercises. A well-rounded workout program should include exercises in all different movement patterns to ensure comprehensive muscle development and reduce the risk of imbalances.

Horizontal pulling movements involve pulling your body weight horizontally toward an object (such as a bar). These exercises primarily engage the muscles of the upper back, promoting strength and stability. This includes exercises such as bodyweight rows & front lever rows.

Vertical pulling exercises involve lifting your body weight vertically, targeting the muscles in the upper back and the arms. These movements are crucial for developing a strong and well-defined back. This include exercises such as pull up and chin-up variations.

Horizontal pushing exercises involve pushing your body weight away from an object horizontally. These movements primarily target the chest, shoulders, and triceps, promoting upper body strength and development. This includes exercises such as push ups and ring flyes.

Vertical pushing exercises focus on pushing your bodyweight vertically (such as in pike push ups or dips). These movements target the muscles in the shoulders, triceps, and upper chest, contributing to upper body strength and stability.

Squatting quat is a fundamental movement pattern that engages multiple muscle groups and is commonly included in various strength training exercises.

Hinging is a fundamental and functional motion that involves flexion and extension primarily at the hip joint, such as in nordic curls and deadlifts.

Example of A Calisthenics Workout Plan

I have made an example of a full body program program, where I apply the different lessons regarding exercise selection we have learned, the program focuses on basic strength and hypertrophy.
Before beginning any routine it is wise to do a quick warm-up, and some light sets to get the blood flowing. If you want to get better at handstanding you can pratice that as part of the warmup as well.

SupersetMovement
patterns
ExerciseSetsRepsIntensity
1✔ Vertical pullPull ups2-35-152,2,0 RIR
1✔ SquatPistol/barbell squat2-35-152,1,0 RIR
2✔ Horizontal pullRow2-35-152,2,1 RIR
2✔ Horizontal pushPush up2-35-152,2,1 RIR
3✔ Vertical pushDips2-35-152,2,0 RIR
3✔ HingeNordic curls2-35-152,1,0 RIR
RIR = reps in reserve (because you shouldn’t train to failure on each set)

You can add some isometric holds or isolation exercises at the end of the workout, but that is optional. If you want to work on your flexibility this is also a great time to do that, since your muscles are nice and warm after the workout.

Pro tips for success:

  • Changing exercises too often is a bad idea since you won’t build the neural connections and improve the efficiency of the exercises because you don’t do them long enough. With that said changing exercises up once in a while is a good idea to provide a novel stimulus.
  • Remember to apply important principles such as progressive overload, proper nutrition, and rest, otherwise, your results will be mediocre at best.

Example of Weekly Workout Schedule

Mon: Full body
Tue: Rest + Active recovery
Wed: Full body
Thur: Rest + Cardio
Fri: Rest + Active recovery
Sat: Full body
Sun: Rest + Cardio

If you are less experienced training 2 times per week, is sufficient to make progress.

Final thoughts

While designing your own workout program can be great, using a tried and tested program might be even better. A good free workout program is the recommended routine on reddit or the primer if you are brand new to calisthenics.
You might also consider investing in a paid program such as Calimoves complete calisthenics program which is one of the best paid calisthenics programs.

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