Calisthenics Movements for Beginners
A guide to your first pullup, pushup, and dip.
By David Hallen
Calisthenics, or bodyweight workouts, are a great way for climbers to build functional strength without having to invest in a gym membership or home gym equipment. Through calisthenics training, a climber can develop their strength, power, and power endurance. One can also mitigate injury through push-strength workouts and by strengthening muscles not heavily used in climbing.
What Equipment do I need for Calisthenics Training?
Luckily, Calisthenics training requires a fairly minimal amount of equipment. All you really need is something to do pullups from, something to do dips on, and some form of weight to add to yourself once you reach a higher level of strength. The standard options for each of these categories are the pullup bar, dip bar, and a weight vest, but one can lower their overall spending by utilizing other options. In place of a pullup bar, one can use rings, a hangboard, or any ledge that can hold bodyweight. Instead of a dip bar, try using ring, two (sturdy) chairs, or a table. A weight-vest can easily be replaced with dumbells or a backpack filled with textbooks or rocks. Personally, my home gym expanded over time. There’s no reason why you can’t upgrade gear as you go along!
How to Build up to Key Calisthenic Movements
The key to getting your first pullup is the concept of pullup progressions1. These include partial range of motion activities, targeted muscle-group exercises, and assisted pullup exercises. Partial range of motion activities focus on the athlete completing part of the pullup motion in order to strengthen the muscles involved. The most common of these variations is the “negative”, where the athlete uses assisted means to reach the top of a pullup motion and then, as slowly as possible, lowers themselves down to a hanging position. Another partial range of motion activity that comes in handy when training for your first pullup is to pull as high as possible from a full hanging position. Doing so helps to train the lowest part of the pullup. Targeted muscle group exercises train specific muscles that are essential to successful pullup completion. Examples of targeted muscle group exercises include hanging in a “deadhang” (the lowest part of a pullup), hanging leg raises, and moving from an unflexed to a flexed position from a deadhang. Assisted pullup exercises allow an athlete to complete the entire motion of a pullup without having to pull one’s entire bodyweight. While pullup machines in the gym are one of the more common methods of completing assisted pullups, one can also use a resistance band looped around the bar and attached to a climbing harness or have a friend “power-spot” (push with minimally needed force) you up to the bar!
Between these three forms of activities, you’ll achieve your first pullup in no time at all! Depending on your capabilities and other training, it’s generally best-practice to practice these variations approximately every other day. Do 3-5 sets of maximum repetitions for 3 of the exercises listed above (preferably one from each of the three categories). Make sure to mix the exercises up as you go along! Some people are able to train more frequently, some less, so remember to listen to your body and give yourself appropriate time to recover.
The pushup is one of the best ways to train your chest, triceps, and shoulders. As a welcome antagonist to climbing (which mostly trains “pull”), actively scheduling pushups into your training is one of the best ways to mitigate injury and build general “body” strength. As with the pullup, there are a series of progressions one can use to build up strength for your first pushup. When doing these progressions, it’s essential to focus on form. With your arms straight, tighten up your core. Focus on keeping your lower back straight and avoid any bend. As you lower yourself, keep your elbows tight to your side. If you are unable to keep your back from bending, step back and practice more using an easier progression. Continue moving down until your chest lightly touches the ground. At this point, press through your palms to move your body back to the starting position.
The first progression leading into the pushup is the standing pushup. Find a wall or column, place your hands on it, walk your feet back a few steps, and do the pushup motion. This will begin to strengthen the stabilizers and muscles involved.
Once you feel comfortable completing multiple repetitions of the standing pushup, it’s time to start two new progressions: knee pushups and vertical pushups. Knee pushups are just like a normal pushup.. Except done from the knees! Start in a kneeling position and lower yourself forward till your arms, fully outstretched, are holding you up. Complete a full pushup from this position. Vertical pushups are a more advanced version of the standing pushup. To complete this exercise, you’ll need a bed, bench, staircase, or another object to put your hands on. Position yourself as if you were about to do a pushup (body straight, core tight, and arms fully extended at a 90 degree angle from your body) with your hands upon the bench or other object. Lower yourself down from this position, remembering to keep your elbows tucked by your side, until your chest touches the bench. Push yourself back up. As you progress, lower the height of the object used for vertical pushups. This will keep you
As with pullups, pushups can be trained approximately every other day. Aim to do 3-5 sets of (ideally) 8-12 reps. At first, do all the sets using the standing pushup progression. Once you are able to do 3-5 pushups in one of the two more advanced progressions, start adding the advanced progressions into your program.
Do you want to turn mantle-style problems from difficult to easy and make top-outs feel (at least slightly) less sketchy? If so, learning how to do a dip will help you beat that crux. Dip progressions can be divided up into 2 basic categories: key muscle strength exercises and partial/assisted dips. Key muscle strength exercises should be used to increase your strength in order to complete partial/assisted dips with good, safe form.
The most basic of muscle strength exercises, and the only one you’ll need in preparation for partial/assisted dips, is the bench dip. To do this exercise, place your hands flat on a bench behind you. With your body vertical, your arms forming an L-shape behind you, and your legs extended horizontally in front of you, press upwards through your palms to straighten your arms. Bring yourself back down till your butt nearly touches the floor. If this exercise is too difficult, try completing the exercise with your legs bent instead of straight. As you become more advanced, you can place your heels on a bench in order to put more weight on your arms.
There are 3 key partial/assisted dip exercises that will help you build into a full dip. These include leg-supported dips, jumping dips, and half-dips. To do a leg-supported dip, start in an upright position with your hands grasping the dip bar. With your arms outstretched, your feet should be barely touching the ground (or a box, if the dip bar is too high for standing). Lower yourself towards your hands, keeping your elbows tucked, until your chest nears the dip bar a few inches in front of your hands. From this point, push upwards, focusing on utilizing your pecs (chest muscles) until your arms are outstretched. Throughout the exercise, utilize your legs to provide as little support as needed in order to move through the motion. As you grow stronger, try using just one leg! Jumping dips are a fairly straightforward exercise. Holding the dip bar, jump upwards into the “top” position of a dip (arms outstretched, body vertical). From here, lower yourself as slowly as possible down to where your chest is nearly touching the bar. The third exercise, the half dip, is also fairly simple. Begin in the “top” position of a dip. From here, lower yourself down approximately halfway through the motion and then push yourself back up. This partial dip will help strengthen your muscles in order to slowly work towards the full dip.
Dips, similarly to the movements discussed above, can be trained approximately every other day. Aim to do 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps. Until you feel confident finishing sets of 3-5 reps utilizing the partial/assisted dip methods, focus exclusively on strengthening exercises to build up strength. Once you are capable of finishing partial/assisted dip sets, switch over to these three exercises.
Now that you’ve completed your first pullup, pushup, or dip, you’re probably wondering how to increase the number of reps you can complete in a set. The best way to do this is by doing the full motion (without sacrificing form) as often as you feel comfortable and continuing your training schedule with progression exercises. As an example, many individuals I know put a pullup bar on their bedroom door and do a pullup every time they enter or exit the bedroom. This leads to a good number of single-reps per day. If you find this method to be too exhausting, or lead to too many attempts at the exercise per day, one can add full repetitions (3 sets of 1) to the beginning of their progression workout. Doing this will ensure active training of the full movement without leading to overtraining or tiring out. Train hard, strive for perfect form, and I’ll see you at the crag!