Saturday, April 25, 2015

My Current Calisthenics Routine Part 3 | Handstand and Strength Routines

In previous posts I presented my daily limbering routine and my hip and squat mobility and stretch therapy routine.  In this post I present my handstand preparatory routine and my calisthenics training principles, format and current routines.

Handstand Preparatory Routine

Through 2013 and 2014 I worked on handstands primarily by doing wall handstands.  I progressed to the point where I could hold a brief handstand with one leg tucked, but when I started trying to do some single arm support work, I found that my shoulder girdle was not adequately prepared.  I already knew that I had shoulder issues due to previous injuries.  The mobility was improving in my left shoulder, but one day I tried some handstand wall walks and shoulder taps.  I found that I literally could not support myself on my right hand, but my left was capable.  When I tried to transfer my weight to my right, I felt as though my shoulder would collapse if I lifted my left hand.  

I decided I needed some expert guidance so I purchased Handstand 1 from  I was not able to adequately perform some of the shoulder girdle preparatory elements prescribed in the course, so I decided I needed to master those elements before going forward with handstands.  I am currently working on the shoulder strength and mobility elements prescribed in that course as prerequisites for doing wall handstands, and won't be doing wall handstands until I master them.

Combining this training with Fascial Stretch Therapy has greatly improved my shoulder mobility and stability, but according to the progressions in Handstand 1 from I have some other elements to master before I will qualify for practicing wall handstands.

Antranik has put together a comprehensive handstand tutorial that includes a section on shoulder mobility and strength.

If you want a gymnastics quality handstand while avoiding shoulder girdle, waist and wrist injuries, I highly recommend that you follow the progressions typical for gymnasts.  I think that many adults attempting to learn handstand need to develop shoulder girdle mobility and strength using preparatory elements before getting up on their hands (even against the wall) or else risk serious shoulder girdle injury.  

I do my handstand preparatory training thrice weekly, Monday and Friday before my full body strength routine, and Wednesday before my hip and squat mobility routine.  Currently this training consists of the following:
1. Wrist flexor stretch with shoulder in external rotation 1 x 20 sec
2. Wrist extensor stretch with shoulder in internal rotation 1 x 20 sec
3. Wrist flexor stretch in planche position 1 x 20 sec
4. Wrist flexor stretch with shoulders in internal rotation 1 x 20 sec

After these warmups I proceed to the following in four tri-sets, 

5. Prone shoulder flexion static holds with weight x 30 sec
6. Shoulder circumduction with weight  x 5 repetitions
7. Standing weighted shoulder extensions x 5 repetitions

So, I do one set of the flexion holds, followed immediately by the circumductions, followed immediately by the extensions.  I then go back to the flexions, and repeat the cycle 4 times. I rest as little as possible between the cycles.   The following videos I demonstrate the elements of this handstand preparatory routine.

As you will see in the prone shoulder flexion static holds video, my greatest challenge lies in achieving full shoulder flexion without arching my lower back i.e. while maintaining a posterior pelvic tilt.

Precision Calisthenics

On Mondays and Fridays I do my full body strength training.

I use so called high intensity training methods, as follows:

1.  Only one set of each movement
2.  Slow, controlled movement speed
3.  Full range of motion, emphasizing slow movement in the most difficult ranges of motion
4.  Move as quickly as practical (without resting) from one movement to the next
5.  Progress in small, manageable increments (either resistance/difficulty, hold time, or repetitions) as often as possible, preferably every training session

I call this Precision Calisthenics.  I use precise form, the precise amount of stimulation required to produce an improvement (i.e. one set), and a precise progression scheme that uses as precise increments of progression as I can manage to define.  

The following table shows the layout of my current routine with regard to end goals. 

Each routine is performed in the order listed from top to bottom of each column.  Each cell of the table names an end goal, e.g. 1-arm pull up, front lever, side lever, single-leg squat, etc. Elsewhere I have laid out precise progressive steps for each goal.  In any given routine, on any given training day, I will be performing the progression or step that I need to master to make another step toward the goal.

At time of this post, my routine contains these specific movements:

For example, I currently perform tuck L-sit pull ups as a step in progression to the 1-arm pull up.  When I master those – signified by correctly performing 5-6 repetitions in approximately 60-70 seconds – I will go to the next step in the progressions I have laid out.  

For upper body movements, leg curls, and bridges, I aim for about 60 seconds time under load, whether dynamic or static.  For squats and rise-on-toes I aim for 90 to 120 seconds of time under load, depending on the continuity of tension. 

In late 2014 I injured my right distal bicep tendon and broke or sprained my large right toe.  In 2014 I also re-injured my left knee (which I first damaged more than 40 years ago).  This set of injuries set me back a bit.  My right arm lost a good bit of strength and size because I was unable to pull my weight in pull ups until just this past week.  The large toe injury made push up and planche training difficult because I could not put weight on the toe in a plank position until about 2 weeks ago.  

In the two videos below I demonstrate the two routines.  Each video shows the whole training session, each of which takes about 15 to 20 minutes of actual exercise time.  I excluded transitions involving changing equipment or station, which adds 5-10 minutes.  When I add the handstand prep routine the whole training session takes 35-40 minutes on any training day.  


Unknown said...

Hey Don, been following you for a few weeks, you were one to inspire me to go plant-based from a ketogenic diet. So thanks for that. :)

I just wanna say, after a while, one set won't be enough for most strength moves.

When you get to straddle FL or adv. tuck planche progressions, for example, you will definately feel the need to increase the volume to progress.

I remember I used to do like 3 sets of tuck planches when I started (3x4-5s), but when I had them down to 20s holds, and I had to go to adv. tuck, I had to SERIOUSLY increase volume, for example 8x4s of adv. tuck planche, just so that I could progress from my max hold of 10seconds to 20 seconds.

(Source - my and A LOT of other experiences).

Don Matesz said...

Hey Unknown,

We'll see. I know that is the common programming. I know that most people believe that is the way it works. But I am not convinced by my own experience, nor by scientific literature.

I measure volume in time under load, not sets. So 2 sets of 10 s is the same precise volume as 1 set of 20 s.

Increasing TUL within one set is increasing volume, i.e. 20 s to 30 s. So if I go from 20 s to 21 s, I have increased volume...

Sounds to me like you trained planche with 3 sets x 5 sec, even though your hold was 10-20 s. With high intensity protocol, you would just do one set of 10 s or whatever is your max hold time, then shoot for 11 s, then 12 s, etc. Each second is a progression of volume and an overload.

Of course this is very slow if you are training with a position you can only hold for 10s, because 1 sec more is a 10% increase. At typical rates of strength gain for intermediate or advanced trainees, one would probably have to practice 10s hold for 4-10 weeks before actualizing an extra second increase in hold time. Until you get the extra second, it will look like no progress is happening, and it would be very easy to conclude that training only one set is having no effect. But how could it have no effect?

I don't see much difference between training sub maximally e.g. in adv tuck planche (e.g. your 8 x 4s) and training maximally for longer holds on the tuck version. For example, instead of training adv tuck planche at 8 x 4s, I am going to try extending tuck planche to 30s, 45s, perhaps even 60s before trying adv. tuck planche. I want to start my adv. tuck planche training with a hold of about 30 s, if possible.

Some will say that isn't possible. I'm not sure about that. Take someone who can hold a straddle planche for 10s - how long can he hold an advanced tuck planche? I would guess more than 30s. Thus, in reverse, training to hold adv. tuck planche for more than 30s IS going to transfer to straddle (at least for the shoulder girdle aspect), just as squatting 250 x 15 reps IS building strength for a higher max squat.

I have been using static holds in the 45-60 second range. So far I tend to progress by 5-10 seconds every training session or every other training for that move, which is once weekly or every other week.

In contrast, for a period I was following the GB protocol for training holds: basically, 5 sets of varying short durations, in an undulating periodization. I didn't find it more effective, and in some moves I found it counterproductive i.e. I failed to progress, I think from training too frequently (I think excess frequency is more detrimental to progress than excess time under load, but the latter can play a role as well).

Berger's 1972 classic study of isometrics found no significant difference in strength gains between 1, 2, and 3 sets of 6-8 seconds static bench press.

I have a plan for keeping the volume adequate (45-60 s) within one set, but if it doesn't work, I will still do only the precise amount of TUL required to progress, whether 1 or more sets.

So in sum, I'm not opposed to doing more than 1 set if it truly proves to be necessary, but I am not convinced it is necessary yet. So, as I said, we'll see.