Why You Aren’t Getting Better at Calisthenics Skills?

Are you training for a particular bodyweight skill (handstand, muscle up, levers, etc) but aren’t making any significant progress with it? Read on to find out why this may be the case.

I’ve written this post assuming that none of the more obvious reasons below apply to you:

  • Not exercising hard enough

Example: You tried back lever twice and gave up.

  • Being impatient

Example: You gave up training for the front lever after a week, instead of persevering for 6-12 months.

  •  Haven’t reached the minimum level of strength required for skills training

Example: You need to be able to do a decent number of pull-ups (10-15), push-ups (15-30) and dips (10-20) before attempting a skill such as the muscle-up or back lever.

Assuming that none of the above points apply to you, here are my top three reasons why you can’t achieve the skill you are training for.

1. Skipping progressions

Before you can run, you must learn to walk. Every single skill in gymnastics and calisthenics has progressions that lead to it. When you skip progressions, you prevent your body from efficiently developing the strength required for a particular skill. The body responds best to manageable stress, i.e., an exercise that isn’t too hard but also not too easy.

For example, a friend of mine is working towards the straddle planche but he hasn’t got the press handstand or advanced tuck planche yet. He can do a straight handstand for 30+ seconds but by moving directly onto training for straddle planche, he’s skipping essential progressions, e.g., the straddle press handstand and tucked planche. As a result, my friend has not made any significant progress for months and is unlikely to achieve his goal anytime soon. And I’ve told him that a couple of times.

Remember, getting better at calisthenics is like climbing a ladder. You cannot reach the top by skipping steps. It’s the same with weight lifting, you cannot start with a 200kg deadlift.

2. Lack of consistency

Practice makes perfect. You must train consistently if you want to make progress sooner. You need to have a minimum of 3 sessions a week, ideally 4 or 5. Your sessions should be of similar length too. Nothing short of 45 minutes. All that will be optimal for your performance. Your body should be able to handle the stress too. 1 or 2 sessions a week is ok, it will give your muscles plenty of time to recover but it might be insufficient time for your nervous system to build and sustain new connections. Long periods of inactivity (2-3 weeks off) will not make you lose a skill unless you get fat but the body will need a few sessions to re-adapt to the stress and re-establish the connections it had previously built.

3. Lack of specificity

I cannot stress enough the importance of being specific with your training. This has been a huge factor in my success with certain skills. A lot of my friends don’t seem to understand this, unfortunately.

The idea is to focus on training only one or two skills in a given session for a few months. You can still warm up with a variety of exercises (push-ups, pull-ups, dips, etc.) but do not exert yourself during the warp up and acclimation sets. The majority of your energy should be channelled into one or two main exercises (ideally one pull, one push), and you will divide your session into two halves dedicated to each exercise.

Suppose your goal is to learn to hold a back lever and a handstand for longer than 5 seconds. You can warm up with basic exercises like push-ups and pull-ups before moving on the back lever and attempting the exercise until failure, with sufficient rest in between of course. To reiterate, you should attempt the back lever until failure (possibly 5 to 8 sets) until you run out of strength and can’t hold it for longer than a second. This may take 30 minutes but do not distract yourself with other previously learnt skills. Save your energy for the skill you haven’t achieved yet.

When you are done with the front lever, proceed to your second goal, the handstand in this case. In contrast to the back lever which is a pull exercise, the handstand is a push exercise. Therefore, although similar muscles are used in both exercise, you should still have some energy left for doing handstands. So spend the second half of your session working entirely on holding the handstand for as long as possible. Rest well between sets and don’t get distracted by doing skills you can already do.

Please note, there’s nothing wrong with diversifying your training, i.e., training multiple skills in one session. However, do this when your aim is to execute multiple previously acquired skills in a sequence. If your aim is to learn something new, you better give it all the focus and consistency it requires from you.

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