5 SERIOUSLY challenging calisthenic movements – can you do any of these?
Let’s separate the men from the boys and the women from the girls.
This is a post with multi purposes. First, to present you with 5 calisthenic (no external resistance) exercises that each target differing areas of the body. Second, to reiterate that this blog is pro bodyweight training and weight training alike.
Where people commonly trip up with bodyweight training is being oblivious to genuine progression routes and options. As long as you have a progression route in every physical endeavour you partake in, you’ll be golden.
Some of the movements coming up will feature gymnastics rings/suspension straps. Using these completely changes the game and is a serious progression in itself. If you can do 20 strict form straight bar dips, I assure you with confidence, on rings or suspension straps, that number will be halved – at best!
The joint freedom the rings/straps offer is unparalleled by no other. There’s an unmatched amount of neuromuscular demand and activation. You’ll also find they are more joint friendly in conjunction. Dips are commonly tarred with the ‘shoulder destroyer’ brush, but this is often due to people using a grip too wide and/or lowering themselves to a depth which their flexibility doesn’t allow. Using rings/straps will allow you to hit depth with much less pain and issues. I can’t recommend them enough!
(Related – Overlooked movements: Dips)
Develop your entire body with these advanced exercises, many of which make cool party tricks too!
#1 – L-Sit on rings
I’m a huge fan of isometric based abdominal exercises. The abs stabilize our trunk and typically work in isometric fashion. The L-sit gives us the isometric component, not only that, but it targets primarily the lower abs. Most people have a glaring imbalance in terms of strength between their upper abs and lower abs.
Add in the ring element and we force the core to work harder still.
The easiest variation of the L-sit is the hands on straight bars (dip bars) version. Using push up handles on the floor would be the next step up in difficulty as you have less leeway for the legs to sag as you tire. They’ll hit the floor and it’s game over. Stepping it up again, the floor L-sit without the push up handles (bare hands on the floor) would be almost on par with the ring variant, as you have to use a substantial amount of upper body strength to keep your butt off the ground.
A 30 second ring or floor L-sit hold with pure picturesque form is one of five ticked off your list.
#2 – Deficit handstand push ups
You avid crossfitters will know this one very well. There’s few better upper body builders than the mighty handstand push up. That and the standing overhead barbell press are the two ‘go to’ exercises for an upper body that commands respect.
A traditional handstand push up with the wall for support is already fairly advanced. When we subtract the wall for support and we take the hands off the floor and place them on bars or blocks to create a deficit, this movement becomes exclusively for the elite.
The deficit forces more shoulder extension which makes the deltoids work harder. A simple progression order would be:
1) practice holding handstands against a wall.
2) Incorporate push ups until you can get 10 reps with GOOD form.
3) Practice free standing handstands, build up your time to at least 30 seconds.
4) Incorporate push ups and build your rep count to 10 again.
5) Use a deficit and repeat the process.
At least 5 deficit handstand push ups with picture perfect technique and we’ll cross this one off your list!
(Related – Overlooked movements: Push up variations & progressions)
#3 – Pistol squats for reps (with a couple of caveats)
The pistol squat is my new favourite exercise. It demands admiration wherever you do it, and no matter who you do it in front of. Like the two movements previous, it requires a tremendous amount of neuromuscular activation, co-ordination and flexibility. In addition, it’s a great uni-lateral strength assessor. You’ll discover how much of a discrepancy there is between each of your legs strength-wise.
While doing these conventionally (with the arms extended out in front of you to counterbalance the load) is challenging alone, if you master the art of keeping your hands against your chest, you’re notching up the difficulty once more. The load on the quads and glutes is greater now we don’t have our arms out in front of us. Our core will have to work harder too to keep us upright. Not to mention the mobility demand. This very upright position asks very good ankle mobility which leads me to the next point………..
Doing pistols barefoot instead of in shoes.
Those of you familiar with pistols will know it’s many times easier to execute a pistol squat in footwear versus without. Reason being, you don’t have the extra heel from the shoe to aid in dorsi-flexion, furthermore, without shoes there’s more energy transfer into the ground which calls more muscles into play; a higher neuromuscular demand.
10 fluent, shoeless pistol squats with your hands pinned against your chest and you pass this test.
(Note: I may well post an in-depth breakdown of the pistol squat in it’s entirety in the near future. It will include progressions, technique and mobility drills to get you to the flexibility required. Let me know in the comments section if that’s something you’d like to see?)
# 4 – The Muscle-up
It was a toss up between this and the front lever for the number 4 spot. I only chose the muscle up as it involves more muscles. It isn’t necessarily harder than the front lever, it just targets a bigger area overall. Many consider this the holy grail of calisthenics. Essentially, it’s a hybrid between a dip and a pull-up – two of the best upper body exercises there is.
Proficiency in dips and pull ups is a must, but co-ordination is required too. It’s the transition phase that stops many people already strong at ordinary pull ups. The easiest progression method for the muscle up is practising slow and controlled eccentric muscle ups from the top down. You can also practice ‘straight bar dips’ where your hands are on a barbell in a power rack and you lower down, letting your legs glide forward and chest touch the bar, then power up to the start. This will help MASSIVELY with the transition phase.
Employing a big ‘kip’ will help catapult you through the sticky transition phase and you’ll now be able to do ‘ugly muscle ups’. Although, soon enough, with practice, you can start using less and less kipping and more and more upper body power.
5 Muscle ups with little to no kipping in consecutive fashion and you’re more than competent in the muscle up department.
#5 – The Human Flag
Best till last? This is one of the most advanced calisthenic exercises you can possibly do. We need shoulder strength, INSANE oblique strength/endurance and as always, a huge amount of muscular co-ordination. To have even the slightest chance at all at these, you need to be a capable handstand push up performer and you need to be able to hold side planks with ease. Windshield wipers with smooth, fluent control are also part of the ingredients.
A clean 15 second hold of these on each side (alternate which arm is at the bottom and top) and you’re well on your way to calisthenic mastery.
So, how many of those can you do?
Note: There are numerous other calisthenic exercises that are on par, or harder, than these featured. Take the planche, the front lever or even muscle-ups with spins incorporated. I only used these as together, they could potentially build your whole body.
If you would like to see specific posts on particular calisthenic movements, leave me a comment down below and we can sort it out!
I hope I inspired you to work towards mastering one of these. Thanks for reading.
One last thing………..for anyone looking to train some of the movements shown in this article, I HIGHLY recommend reading my review of Calisthenic Movement’s programs. They’ve helped me make loads of progress in calisthenics.
JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.
Ha! Not in my wildest dreams. I’ll stick to picking up and putting down heavy (for me) barbells, thank you very much.
I’m disappointed James. I had you down as a human flag kind of man! I think blending calisthenics and weight training is the golden ticket 🙂 But those movements take insane skill levels!
Being a human flag takes an insane amount of strength. I can’t do that, but I get by.
OMG the human flag. Fantastic!
I know right? Absolutely phenomenal party trick! Takes SO much skill, strength and patience.
I think I can do the pistol squat but I’d have to kick my own ass if I grew the beard on that dude!
Hahaha, yes! I didn’t really notice his facial ‘forest’ initially. I love the pistol squat, such an impressive looking move.
I’m over 45 years old and I love doing Calisthenics body weight training, such as the human flag, front lever, back lever and muscle ups – so age shouldn’t be a barrier to getting started.
I’ve just seen your site and love the stuff you’re doing! I just can’t see myself ever really getting back into weights; calisthenics is just more fun. I love being outside. How long have you been doing calisthenics??