One of the biggest problems with body weight exercises is that its difficult to make the exercise more challenging. When you use weights you can simply grab a heavier weight. When you use your own body weight most people just do more reps. Yet in order to get bigger muscles we need to do low reps. So how do we stay in low rep ranges without “adding weight”?
Answer: Do Harder Exercises
When you choose an exercise that is challenging you’ll automatically stay in a low rep range. As you get stronger the number of reps increase.
In order to build size and strength you must progressively overload the muscle with more and more resistance. If you lift weights its easy, right? Just grab heavier and heavier weights as your muscle gets stronger.
Yet when you use body weight exercises this presents a problem. You can’t make a push up harder in the same way you can make a bench press harder, ie- adding weight. However, you can make it harder in other ways by doing more challenging exercises.
The below Calisthenics Progression Guide is designed to help you build mass and strength by progressing from one exercise to the next.
Step 1: Find out your exercise level (see levels below). Try the exercises from each category and award yourself the corresponding points of you can do that exercise 12 reps (30 seconds if its a static hold). Don’t award yourself points for exercises below that difficulty just the exercise where you can complete 12 reps in good form. The goal here is to simply find your level of ability.
For example, in the Chest Category I can do 12 reps of Uneven Push Ups. That means I would award myself 7 points and move on to the next category, NOT points for each exercise below the Uneven Push Up.
Step 2: Once you have a point value for each category add them up together. Locate your category below:
Bodyweight Grasshopper: 0-13
Bodyweight Ambassador: 14-27
Bodyweight Warrior: 28-38
Bodyweight Jedi: 38-51 (This is where I am at with a score of 44.)
Bodyweight Sensei: 51-67
Step 3: Make a list of the exercise from each category that are just above the level of difficulty that you are currently at and start working on it. There are a lot of tutorials that are designed to help you so follow them and continue to build up strength and size by staying a low rep range.
The Calisthenics Progression Guide For Every Major Body Part
The progressions are laid out in order of easiest to hardest. Remember that the goal is to work out in the rep range of 8-12. Once you can get to 12 reps of a certain exercise its time to try the next exercise.
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- Incline Push Ups (1 Point) – This is a beginner chest exercise that works mostly the lower part of the chest muscle. If you are just starting out on your fitness journey this is the perfect option. You can use a wall or bench or whatever elevated surface you can find. What’s up Tommy Clifford (He’s the guy in the video… one of my childhood friends who now does Iron Man Tri’s).
- Push Ups on Knees (2 Points) – Ah, the traditional “girly push up”. Although with some of the girls that follow SOA I’d be careful who you say this to. When you put your knees on the ground it takes a lot of the strain off of your chest muscles. So if you are a beginner than start here.
- Standard Push Ups (3 Points) – I think everyone knows the classic push up. Make sure your back is straight and you go through a full range of motion.
- Wide Push Ups (4 Points) – This exercise is similar to the standard push up but you’ll be positioning your arms out wider at about 1 1/2 times the width of your shoulders.
- Decline Push Ups (5 Points) – Now we are really starting to step up our game. Find something to put your feet on like a chair or couch. Then crank out your push ups. The exercise shifts the focus to the upper portion of your chest. If you are looking for that extra lift in your pecs than this is the perfect exercise.
- Dips w/Elbows Out (6 Points)– Dips are one of my favorite chest exercises. Find some parallel bars at the local park or get some chairs and do them off of the back rests or the seat (if it’s high enough). Make sure your elbows are pointed out. This will shift the focus from your triceps to your chest.
- Uneven Push Up (7 Points) – Get in the same position as the normal push up but shift your weight over to one side. You can either put your hand on an object like how you see in the video or you can simply shift your weight to on side.
- One Arm Push Ups (8 Points) – If you have successfully made it through the 70/30 – 90/10 splits than its time to work on the one arm push up. If you still can’t quite do a single rep of the one arm push ups try holding it in certain positions as a static exercise. For example, hold the top position as long as you can. This isometric will engage the same muscles as the normal one arm push up and get you prepared for the full exercise.
- Tuck Planche (9 Points) – I love this exercise. It’s more of a strength exercise and less of a muscle mass exercise but I had to throw it in because it is still challenging. You can either do these on the p bars or on the ground. Make sure that you lean far enough forward for your weight to be balanced. Also make sure to keep your arms straight.
- Tuck Planche Push Ups (10 Points) – This exercise is just like the Tuck Planche but you’ll be doing Push Ups. Try to not let your body swing forward too much otherwise you’ll just be doing the standard dip exercise.
- Planche (11 Points) – This is a super hard exercise that relies on whole body strength as well as the chest muscles. There are moves that seem to defy the laws of gravity and this is certainly one of them.
- Planche Push Ups (12 Points) – If you get to the point where the planche starts to get easy go for planche push ups. It will take it up several notches.
- Planche on Rings (Maltese) (13 Points) – And the kingpin of all chest body weight exercises…? The Maltese. Few people on the planet have the patience and determination to master this move. It is very much a “gymnastic” move but if you have a set of rings you’ll be to practice this move too.
Your Score For Chest: ___
- Plank with Knees On Ground (1 Point) – When you are first starting to strengthen your shoulders this is a great exercise to start you off. Hold it for as long as you can. Once you can hold it for 30 seconds try the standard plank.
- Plank (2 Points) – The plank is a great exercise for strengthening not just your shoulders but your entire body. Make sure you keep your back straight so you don’t put undue strain on your low back.
- Frog Push Up (3 Points)-We’re going to quickly ramp up here. 😉 Frog Push Ups are no easy body weight move. You’ll feel it quickly in your shoulders.
- Supported Handstands Holds (4 Points)– Doing handstands against a wall is a great method of learning the unsupported handstand. Prop yourself up against a wall and hold the position as long as you can.
- Supported Handstand Push Ups (5 Points) – If you have shoulder problems than I would stop with the Supported Handstand Holds. This exercise will really challenge the strength of your shoulders. Try to go as low as you can.
- Handstand Holds (6 Points) – The exercise is as much about balance as it is about strength. It may take several months before you can hold yourself without the wall. But don’t worry. The time will pass quickly if you focus on your goal.
- Handstand Push Ups (7 Points) – This exercise will take your game even higher. As you lower yourself down to the ground you’ll notice that it becomes even harder to stay upright.
- Handstand Push Ups on Parallettes (8 Points)– Most people see this type of handstand push up as harder than handstand push ups on the ground. Yet I actually find them easier. However, I put them here because most people find them more difficult.
- One Arm Handstand (9 Points) – This is the ultimate shoulder exercise. Just like the handstand it also requires extreme balance.
- Iron Cross (10 Points)– The Iron Cross is not only a brutally hard exercise but also an aesthetically pleasing move. I can’t do it yet but some day I will!
Your Score For Shoulders: ___
- Supported Chin Ups (1 Point)– If you can’t do an unsupported chin up than this is a great option for you. Place your feet on a stool or chair as you do your chin ups. Some of your weight will transfer to the chair which will make the exercise easier.
- Chin Ups (2 Points) – Once you can do 12 supported chin ups its time to work on the normal chin up. Make sure you go through a full range of motion with this one.
- Wide Grip Chin Ups (3 Points)– This chin up will be a little harder than the normal chin up. Try to keep your hands out at least 1 1/2 times shoulder width. (Note: Ideally the hands in the video should be a full underhand grip.)
- Uneven Chin Ups (4 Points) – This is my favorite way of making sure that you fatigue your muscle group within a low rep range. Adjust the amount of weight in your arms so that they are uneven and more difficult for the arm that has more weight in it.
- Front Lever Chin Ups (5 Points) – This exercise is going to be engaging your core and lats way more than any other chin up. (Note: In the video he shows a modified version of what I am talking about. My definition of front lever chin ups is where you actually hold the front lever continuously and still do chin ups.)
- One Arm Chin Ups (6 Points) – These chin ups are very difficult. I have yet to master them.
Your Score For Biceps: ___
- Tricep Dips (1 Point) -This is the classic tricep exercise. Make sure you keep your elbows in tight to your body.
- Side Tricep Raises (2 Points)– I first learned this exercise from Tony Horton of P90X. Its a great bodyweight isolation exercise for the triceps that isn’t too hard. Lay on your left side. Place your right hand on the ground by your left chest muscle. Keep your elbow tight to your body and push your upper body upwards. Repeat on the other side.
- Close Grip Push Ups (3 Points)– This is basically a normal push up but your hands will be close in. Make sure your elbows are brushing your sides as you go up and down. That’s the key to making it a tricep exercise and not as much a chest exercise.
- Dips w/ Elbows Tucked In (4 Points)– Most people know the dip but few remember to keep their elbows tucked in. This is so important to make sure that this exercise is kept as a tricep exercise instead of shifting the focus to your chest.
- Uneven Dips (5 Points) – You know that I am a huge fan of body weight distribution, right? Well I am. Almost any exercise can be adapted to make it harder by shifting your weight. And Uneven Dips are a perfect example. Start off in the normal dip position (shown in the picture) but shift your weight over to one side. This will put more of the strain on that tricep muscle. (Note: the video does not show what I am talking about but shows a normal dip.)
Your Score For Triceps: ___
- Incline Pull Up (1 Point) – Get in the normal pull up position but instead of dangling your legs, place them on a chair or stool. Some of your weight will be distributed to the chair and make the exercise easier.
- Kipping Pull Up (2 Points) – “You’re using momentum! Your cheating!” Not with Kipping Pull Ups. You’re supposed to use momentum with this exercise. 😉 This is a fun pull up exercise that requires your to swing up the bar.
- Pull Up (3 Points) – Yep, the classic. Need I say more? Yes, I must. The only thing I want to say hear is that you should be focusing on your lats as you pull up. Visualize bringing your elbows down into your back. This will help you take the focus off of your biceps and put it into your back.
- Eccentric Pull Up (4 Points) – Eccentrics are the Ace-Up-The-Sleeve exercise for building hypertrophy. Use this exercise to develop a nice wide v shape in your back.
- Around the World Pull Up (5 Points) – These are a super fun way of spicing up your pull ups. Make sure that you get as high and as low as you can. This increased ROM will help tear more muscle tissue.
- Archer Pull Up (6 Points) – The Archer Pull Up is a challenging pull up because you are essentially staying in the up position. Try your best to do as many reps as you can.
- Uneven Pull Up (7 Points) – If you have read up to this point you should not be surprised at all that this exercise is in the mix.
- Assisted One Arm Pull Up (8 Points) – With this pull up you are using mostly one arm to get up. You grab the bar with one hand than grab your wrist/forearm with the other. You then pull yourself all the way up.
- One Arm Pull Up (9 Points) – This is just like the one arm chin up except you will have an overhand grip and not an underhand grip.
Your Score For Back: ___
- Crunches (1 Point) – I think most people know the crunch. Make sure your shoulders don’t touch the ground and try to curl just your abs. Don’t engage your hip flexors by coming all the way up like a sit up.
- Sit Ups (2 Points) – Sit Ups are only slightly harder than a crunch because you are coming all the way up. Make sure to not let your shoulders touch the ground.
- Leg Lifts (3 Points) – Our old grade school football coach made us do these until we were blue in the face. Try to get at least 5 and move on.
- Flutter Kicks (4 Points) – This exercise will work both your abdominal region and hip flexors.
- V Ups (5 Points) – Start off by laying on the ground with your arms extended above you. Lift your arms and legs simultaneously. Then come back down.
- Hanging Sit Ups (6 Points) – It will probably be hard to find a “non-gym” place to do these. Yet my friend and I used to do them off the back of bleachers.
- Windshield Wipers (7 Points) – This exercise is just like hanging leg raise however you will be bringing them down on each side like the windshield wipers of your car.
- Hanging Leg Raises (8 Points) – Hang from a bar and lift your legs up as high as you can. My buddy Pavil will show you how in the video.
- L Sit (9 Points) – I do these on the p bars all the time. You can do them on the ground though too. Make sure your arms are locked and your legs are as straight as you can get them.
- Dragon Flag (10 Points) – Remember Rocky cranking out dragon flags? This move is a KILLER for the abs! Gotta try these.
- Front Lever (11 Points) – I’m still working on holding my front lever but can do about 10 reps of moving in and out of them. This exercise works the core a ton but also works the lats.
- Human Flag (13 Points) – The Human Flag works the core and shoulders a ton. I can’t do them yet but it is certainly on my list! Honestly, I could have just as easily added this exercise to the shoulder section but decided to put them here.
Your Score For Core: ___
- Bear Squats (2 Points) – I made this exercise up awhile ago. It will really start to burn your legs quickly if you do them right.
- Wall Sit (3 Points) – Do you remember your gym teacher telling you to do these? I remember being tortured by ours’ because he would make us do wall sits for what seemed like forever.
- Single Leg Wall Sit (6 Points)– If your gym teacher was really a jerk he would make you lift one leg up in the air. Oh the pain!!
- Harop Curl (7 Points) – Most people don’t know this one. If you can do it even for 5 reps going all the way down… I am very impressed. 🙂
- Duck Walks (8 Points) – My buddy and I used to do these around the track. I would start off doing duck walks for 100 yards and then he would take over and do duck walks for 100 yards. We would keep alternating until we fell to the ground. It really is a blaster.
- Shrimp Squat (9 Points)– Al Kavadlo made this one famous. Its similar to the pistol squat but your leg is behind you.
- Pistol Squat (10 Points)– My absolute FAVORITE leg exercise of all time. It takes balance, flexibility and strength. The ultimate combination.
Your Score For Legs: ___
Now add up your total score from each category (Chest Score + Shoulder Score + Bicep Score + Tricep Score + Back Score + Core Score + Leg Score = Total Score) and check your level!
Here are the levels again…
Bodyweight Grasshopper: 0-13
Bodyweight Ambassador: 14-27
Bodyweight Warrior: 28-38
Bodyweight Jedi: 38-51
Bodyweight Sensei: 51-67
So how did you do? Once you find out your level share it in the comments below…
Remember that the cool thing about body weight exercises is that there are so many ways of positioning the body to make things harder. Just try to put your body in different positions and you’ll soon find your own unique ways of making the exercises harder.
Photo credit: Push up