“How do I do that?!”


One of the most common questions we hear when people come train with us is;

“How do I start?”

There isn’t a certain special, magical way to start doing these things. The simplest answer (which is also the right answer) is that you just have to start doing it. But in this post I’ll try and break that down into some more manageable steps.

1. What do you want to do?

This is probably the thing we ask people the most. Setting goals is extremely important – creating clear goals will help you train more efficiently, so you can get the most out of your time at the bar. Not everyone has hours to spend training every week! So work out smarter, not harder.

Majority of people simply want to do a muscle-up. I feel like that’s a pretty standard goal. But it isn’t easy, especially for those who haven’t done exercise like this before. Even for experienced gym goers, learning the technique that works for you takes time (that being said, there are a select few who get it on the first day).

My original goal was to use bar calisthenics to assist in my rock climbing. Over time, this changed to simply wanting to do a muscle-up. It’s still a long-term goal ( I go through periods of low motivation where I don’t train as hard as I should) but for now I’ve decided to step back a bit from it and work on other things. More on goal-setting later, but for now, think about what exactly makes you want to work out.

A small notation on this, though, is that I wouldn’t really recommend this branch of bar calisthenics for those solely looking to lose weight. There are better ways of achieving those kinds of goals. I supplement bar calisthenics with other exercise, such as aerials and sprint training, as well as my own cardio and kettlebells at home (inversely, I find that bar work helps with my aerials a lot). When I’m at the bars, I focus on maintaining/improving strength and technique.

 

2. What can I do right now?

This is probably the most involved step – but definitely the most important.

The more advanced moves – such as levers, muscle-ups, skin the cat – all stem from three basic (and by basic I mean, foundational, not easy) exercises. You may have heard other calisthenic athletes mention this as well.

 

The Basic 3

Difficulty
Push Ups
Pull ups
Dips

1
From knees
Inverted rows

(these are also called “Australian Pull-ups”)
Seated (knees bent)

2
From feet
Assisted
Elevated

3
Hand placement variations (Wide, Diamond, Narrow)

Tripod Push-ups (one foot raised)
Unassisted

 
Parallel Bar/Unassisted

4
Fingertips/Thumbs

Single Arm

Handstand
Explosive

Slow

Weighted

 
L-sit

Straight-bar

Slow

Weighted

Evaluate where you are with these three exercises. If you can easily do 10 reps of one row without breaking (i.e. needing to stop or let go of the bar), go to the next one. If that’s still too easy, keep going. Find where it starts to get challenging.

Some other exercises that I would consider to be foundational would be simple dead hangs, knee/leg raisers and L-sits.

Keep in mind that these “difficulties” and variations are based largely on my own opinion/experience. Every human is different – I know people who can bust out single-arm push-ups but struggle with diamond and wide push-ups. Though I couldn’t imagine someone being able to do explosive-pull ups and struggling with rows.

As an example, when I first started really taking bar workouts seriously (around the start of 2011), I could barely clear sets in the first row. I struggled to do knee push-ups. I couldn’t hang off a bar for more than 15 seconds, let alone try to pull myself up. As for the dips.. well.. let’s just say I had never done a seated dip in my life.

I’m now working on cleanly getting through 10 rep pull-up sets, I raised money for a charity by doing 287 strict-form push ups in an hour and regularly do at least 3 sets of 10 reps of unassisted dips in our sessions. That’s a bit of figjam right there but frankly, considering that it took 2.5 years to get here, I sometimes feel like it’s not nearly enough. But I digress.

 

3. What do I need to do to achieve what I want?

So by now you’ve figured out where you are and where you want to go. So how do you connect the two?

Well, that’s really up to you. There’s a few ways to approach it. (I’ll use a muscle-up as an example goal).

Keep attempting it until you get it. Like a river wearing down a rock, you can get to a muscle-up if you just keep throwing yourself at a bar until you get it. But it’ll take time. If you don’t mind that, and you feel like you’d get more satisfaction out of it that way, then by all means.

Break it down and work on the components. As a muscle-up is simply an explosive pull-up and a straight-bar dip (though we all know it’s much more than that), the idea is that if you can do an explosive pull-up and a straight-bar dip, you can do a muscle-up. Takes a little less time, but it can get frustrating if the technique isn’t there.

Get some critique. Try it, take a video, have a look and compare it to what other people do. There is a small portion of “everyone does it differently”, but most of the time you’ll be able to see where you’re going wrong. Better yet, coming to a session and sharing a chat with us (but maybe not me personally, if it’s muscle-ups that you want) would be a faster way of getting instant critique.

These are guys who have been where you are at some point. They look all skilled and intimidating, but I still remember watching them for months trying get their first muscle up. Bruises and sore muscles nearly every week (they kind of did a combination of those first two approaches). They weren’t pretty either. But now look at them! Doing 70s and Barbarian requirements and shiz.

There’s no reason why you can’t combine all of these approaches (or ignore them all completely and go your own way).

 

4. That’s pretty much it.

As with everything in life, it’s really important to remember that everyone’s journey and experiences are different – not everything you read here will apply to you. In fact, it’s statistically extremely unlikely that everything we write will be exactly as you need it.

But it’s also important to share experiences. Our sessions are really casual – I personally like talking to people about where they’re from and what they want to do. Even with critique from us, some people still struggle to get muscle-ups or levers or whatever. It just comes down to learning what technique naturally comes to your body, and in some cases it’s just drastically different to any of us.

It seems like a lot of work. And if you’re embarking on a lifestyle change, that’s exactly what it is – a whole lot of work. Which leads me to the only question that really matters..

How bad do you want it?