Training Splits For Calisthenics Athletes – What’s BEST?
I’ve been asked about how I program for myself and for clients both in person and through Instagram recently, and although I’ve touched on this question in next month’s ‘Questions From Instagram’ feature, I figured it would help you guys out quite a bit if I dedicated a post to going into more detail on this topic.
I’ll break down all the pros and cons of the various popular approaches out there, many of which you’ll know regardless of whether you’re a ‘cali guy/girl’ or not. Some you may not know, so hopefully this serves up a double whammy of education and valuable info for you!
The Full Body Approach?
Like the name implies, you train the whole body at each session. Most commonly this is on a 3 day split with a day’s rest in between and 2 days’ rest over the weekend. It’s your classic Monday/Wednesday/Friday training schedule.
It will encompass all general movement patterns: pull, push, squat, hip hinge and sometimes there’s core work involved too.
This was popularised thanks to the 5×5 and Starting Strength programs in which you trained 3 times a week with all compound lifts, using linear progression and taking advantage of the high frequency nature of the program.
This approach works well for people brand new to training and can work for quite some time. But past a certain level it just becomes very difficult to have to train so many compound elements in one session. You will generally find whatever you tackle first improves the most and whatever you tackle last improves the least.
If we talk specifically calisthenics and bodyweight training, it becomes tougher too as the stabilisation demand is generally higher where you’re moving your body through space by the very nature of the activity. This in turn makes the lower body work harder and more taxing. And as mentioned above, many of the highly sought after calisthenics moves take lots of frequent repetition and ‘grooving’ (the handstand, for example), and having a day off after every session just blunts momentum and progress.
Full body training has also been used by the minimalists twice per week, where you space the training days by 3 days or so and in turn, can go heavier/harder on the days you do train. This allows more recovery than the 3 day option and suits the ultra busy, generally gym hating person.
Bottom line: A decent choice for beginners within calisthenics but past a certain level you’ll be best served with some of the options I’m about to touch on.
This split generally involves 4 training days per week, two for the upper body and two for the lower body. At a basic level the volume and workload for both is equal. The days are usually set out as follows:
Monday = Upper Body
Tuesday = Lower Body
Wednesday = Rest
Thursday = Upper Body
Friday = Lower Body
Saturday/Sunday = Rest
There’s nothing to say you can’t modify the layout somewhat and make it more upper body dominant in terms of volume, though. This approach would suit calisthenics more although it does force you to train the legs twice per week as opposed to the supposed zero of the typical calisthenics athlete.
It’s a relatively balanced approach on paper and can easily be adapted to individual needs. You could bias the upper sessions towards either pull or push, as necessary. You can also go heavy on the basic leg exercises on one lower day and then attack the mobility of the lower body more on the other. You could do a bi-lateral loaded leg day and a uni-lateral, mostly bodyweight lower body day all in the same week.
Lots of ways to ‘skin the cat’ here!
Bottom line: A very attractive training split with lots of modification options if you have decent programming knowledge. Good for the intermediate but perhaps not enough frequency for the beginner to make progress as fast as with a full body split?
Push & Pull/Push, Pull, Legs?
Notice this isn’t just a push-pull-legs? This is push and pull and then push, pull, legs! You can combine upper and lower into fundamental movement patterns.
-Squats and lunges/quad dominant lower body exercises along with upper body push on push day
-Deadlift/hip hinge/posterior chain lower body exercises along with upper body pull exercises on pull day.
Whereas, like the name implies, the classic push, pull, legs involves a separate day for lower body, thus bringing the total training day tally to at least 5 or even 6!
In the case of the push/pull, you only train 4 times per week, max. BUT, as you’ve probably astutely worked out, you would indeed hit the lower body 4 times per week……..
Although what’s neat about this approach is you can do just one lower body exercise on each day.
- Squat on first push day
- RDL on first pull day
- Lunge/split squat on second push day
- Leg curl/posterior chain/hip thrust on second pull day
The idea is you divide an entire classic leg day into 4 days and just keep topping up the lower body stimulation. I’ve actually used this template a few years ago and really liked it. You don’t have to dread leg days as much as it’s only one exercise and the leg work on each day boosts blood flow and caloric output which can help with staying lean/losing fat, should that be your goal.
In my example above, I’ve essentially placed the more taxing exercises for legs earlier in the week and the lesser ones later in the week. You can do the same for upper body too, subject to your level.
Bottom line: Commonly unused and rather underrated, push/pull split works well within the realms of calisthenics and overall athletic development. Worth a try for 4-8 weeks at least!
For push, pull AND LEGS the main criticism of this system is the ultra high frequency of training involved and how this flirts with the monster that is over-training.
In order to make this work, I’d honestly only do ONE leg day per week instead of two and use the extra day you’ve freed up as a recovery day – even an active one; not a sit-on-the-couch-looking-at-hot-chicks-on-Instagram day. You can walk, stretch, play a sport and just live life instead of thinking about training or watching your arms deflate.
I’d also be careful of the intensity on the upper body days especially if you’re stronger/more advanced. It’s easy to be ‘mentally fine’ to go at it all the time but there’s a difference between being mentally fine and stimulating physical adaption. In other words: is all this extra work even making you better? I’ve been there all too often, thinking more is better when in actuality, less done better was better.
This is the split I’m currently using and have used with great success before. A pull and push day, a lower body day and a mixed upper body day. So we’re still at 4 training days total. Everything in the upper body gets hit at a twice weekly frequency and depending on your priorities between pushing and pulling, you can place the push day or pull day earlier in the week to give it precedence.
The biggest thing I like about this split in regards to bodyweight training is you have an extra day free to use for skill work and/or mobility etc.
Doing 4 sessions per week for push and pull I found it very challenging to want to work on the handstand or other elements that aren’t necessarily strength demanding or intense, but require repetition. Whereas this way I can easily get a good handstand/weak point day in every week without really struggling.
Now depending on your goals, you could also sub the skills day for an extra leg day but you’d need to be sure the intensity & volume is adjusted correctly if you opt for this. I’ve done the double leg day version of this split in the past but that was because I was in real need of proper leg training at the time, thanks to neglecting the poor twigs for quite some time.
Bottom line: Another underused split that works better for recovery than those with 4 upper body days. More freedom to add in a light skill/mobility day where it suits, also. Good choice for the intermediate – advanced trainee.
The take home
Ultimately, like with nutrition, the best split is the one you follow. And by follow, I mean stick to as it’s laid out for at least 4 weeks but really, even longer than that. Remember, you can hypothesize the greatest routine all you like but if it doesn’t fit your lifestyle, it’s useless.
Also, any routine will work if the usual factors are respected; recovery, progressive overload, consistency, sensible exercise choice etc…..
They’re all there to be experimented with! Try them and see what works best for you.
Thanks for reading as always and if you have any coaching inquiries or need help, let me help you.
Calisthenics, Experiments, Overlooked movements, Performance, Tips, Wisdom
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.
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