How I Got Started with Calisthenics

by Justin Skycak on

My training has been scattered and fuzzy until recently. Here's the whole story.

I recently received a question about what routines and progressions I used going from beginner to advanced calisthenics. Here’s my answer to that. My training has been scattered and fuzzy until recently, so I’ll give the whole story with all the context.

2010-13: Weightlifting

I came into calisthenics with a high baseline level of strength from having lifted weights from 2010-13. I took weightlifting pretty seriously, lifting for an hour 5x/week and eventually working up to something like 5 reps of 190lb bench / 260lb squat / 300lb deadlift at a bodyweight of 140-150lbs.

This is important context because it meant I was able to progress extremely rapidly, or skip entirely, the early parts of the calisthenics skill tree. For instance, I did not have to train up to one-arm pushups – I could do these right out of the gate.

If you don’t know this context, then you might be tempted to chalk up my calisthenics progress entirely to innate ability. In reality, while it’s true that genetics can impact people’s baseline levels of strength / muscle and the rate at which they can increase strength / muscle through training, the primary reason for my accelerated starting point in the calisthenics journey was the years of intense weightlifting that preceded it.

2014: Transitioning to Calisthenics

I switched over to calisthenics in 2014 because I wanted to transition to a routine that was easy to do anywhere and wouldn’t require a bunch of weights / equipment. I had plenty of weights at home during high school but I knew it would be infeasible to take them with me when I graduated and moved around to pursue various opportunities.

Early on, my calisthenics routines were mainly just

  • pushups (several variations including clap pushups and one-hand pushups)
  • dips
  • pullups
  • one-arm rows (under a sturdy table), and
  • handstand pushups (against a wall).

For the dips and pullups, I would typically put on a backpack filled with heavy stuff (books, water gallons, whatever). And for the pullups I would typically try to shift most of my weight over to one arm at a time.

Sometime that year, I realized that I could hold myself in a halfway pushup position with my legs off the ground if I balanced my legs on my elbows (I guess this would be a bent-arm frog stand). This felt really cool and after practicing that a bit I managed to do a partial pushup (going up until my elbows were at a 120-ish degree angle) with my legs off the ground at a 45-degree angle.

I also got a pair of gymnastic rings. I initially used them just for dips and pullups, but once I could do multiple no-legged partial pushups on the ground I started doing them on the rings.

2015-20: Falling Off the Workout Wagon

From 2015-20 I fell off the workout wagon and stopped exercising pretty much entirely. It was my late teens / early 20s, life had become super busy and hectic, and I wasn’t in a great mental state (just your standard 20-something-year-old issues, feeling lost while trying to find one’s way in life).

I figured I’d come back to exercising eventually, but I was having a hard time maintaining focus and committment to exercise when it felt like the rest of my life was in pieces. For some people, exercise can be a solid foundation upon which they build the rest of their life, but for me, it’s the other way around.

During these years I occasionally tried to get back on the workout wagon, but I would always fall off again after a week or two.

2021 - Summer 2023: Back On the Workout Wagon

By 2021 I felt like I had a solid life direction again, which made it easier to stay on the workout wagon the next time I tried to jump back on.

In 2021-22 I picked things back up again with the basic calisthenics I mentioned earlier, plus some of the easier holds on the gymnastic rings like back lever and bent-arm planche (more info here).

In 2022-23 I added some other stuff like front lever and iron cross (more info here). (I couldn’t do a full front lever or iron cross, but I just did the closest approximation that I was able to do.)

In summer 2023 I started adding more stuff like one-arm partial chinups (going down to where my elbow makes a 90-degree angle) and taking things more seriously, tracking my performance progress in a spreadsheet.

Fall 2023 - present: Video Recording Analysis

In fall 2023 I started recording videos of my calisthenics attempts and posting personal records to YouTube. My progress increased drastically as I started critically analyzing these videos to identify specific areas for improvement.

Since then I’ve been adding a variety of exercises that feel like they’re at the edge of my ability. I generally start off with some rough approximation of whatever exercise I’m trying to do (I just do the best I can). If that approximation is sort of, kind of, somewhere near the ballpark of something close to the real thing, then I add the exercise to my routine and refine it incrementally during each workout.

I don’t intentionally follow any routines or progressions that people suggest online – I just push myself towards whatever improvement looks like the lowest hanging fruit based on my video recording. (That said, if I plateau on an exercise for more than a few weeks without making progress, then I might look up some progressions online to get some ideas for different things to try to break out of the plateau.)

On my channel I make a playlist for each type of exercise that I’m working on, so if you want to see how I’ve progressed on any particular exercise, you can flip through the videos in the corresponding playlist. For instance, in the one-arm pushup playlist you can see that I started with wide-leg one-arm pushups, then narrowed my legs, then took one leg off the ground, then repeated that process doing one-arm clap pushups.