Training with High Volume Calisthenics Workouts. Why and How?

Hi! I am the author and founder of Old School Calisthenic

July 15, 2017

High volume calisthenics is an old training mechanism used by classic bodyweight bodybuilders to enhance strength and muscularity. It mostly consists of the very basic and big movements such as pull-ups, pushups, dips, squats, leg raises, and their variants. Nowadays, many professional athletes and even the army does high-volume calisthenics training.

They utilize high-volume calisthenics for conditioning and strength purposes mostly, but I also discovered how effective it is in muscle growth too. Yet, the results are related to the amount of work put over a long period of consistent training.

This training method continuously stresses and fatigues the muscles until they burn out, and it’s done by accruing higher and higher total work volume or with high-reps.

While for many, this approach is known to increase only muscular endurance or stamina, for athletes like me, it has been a useful training mechanism to develop a strong physique that is muscular and athletic as well.

The Truth About High Volume Calisthenics

The key to successfully train with high volume calisthenics lies in simplicity. You only utilize compound and fundamental bodyweight exercises, plus a few variants (different grips and body positioning), but nothing fancy and too complicated. That’s why the training mechanism fits any fitness level, being effective even to beginners. It will just take time to build the fitness to endure this increased workload. By workload, I mean the sets and reps interval. So it’s progressive calisthenics, but you don’t necessarily build the progression by modifying the exercises and making them harder. You build a total work volume instead. You do more with less.

This strenuous workload comes naturally from the extended physical effort, intensity, and frequency. It is what makes your muscles burn, scream for mercy, and hurt the days after. So yes, the muscle soreness that follows as a byproduct of volume-training is a sign I move towards a good direction.

Your muscles and nervous system can’t endure hundreds of reps unless you do simple, light, and compound exercises. Also, you can’t do only high-volume workouts, either.
Thus, it relies more on exercises like dips, pushups, pull-ups, squats, and some other full-body movements such as burpees, plyometrics, sprints, and uphill sprints. And as I said, you’ll also be forced or need to train in the green zone, lighter, by including de-load periods with less volume or different and more relaxing training.

Volume Calisthenics Training

The idea of high volume training is to squizz the muscles out of energy by working up to failure or fatigue. To achieve that, you need a high amount of sets and repetitions and minimum break time. How high? It all depends on fitness. For you, 50 pull-ups in a workout may feel the same and provide similar results in terms of progress as for me 150 pull-ups. It’s not something fixed and nailed, but rather a definition of what hard work and training mean.

As easy as pushups might be considered by far too many, doing hundreds of them, they automatically become tough. Do they provide results in terms of hypertrophy and strength? It surely did for me and many others.

By developing that required muscular endurance or stamina, you also grow in strength and size if nutrition is on point. The muscles can become brutally strong due to repetitive workload and because you utilize compound exercises.

A compound exercise doesn’t isolate other essential muscle groups. Instead, they work together as a system. The focus once you know that high-reps train the muscles effectively should be on mastering these exercises, rather than constant stress and pressure on looking in the mirror and analyzing the aesthetics. The aesthetic part is a byproduct of high-volume calisthenics, and it comes as you master the basics.

The beautiful part is that you don’t need any other exercises than what’s basic and simple. Hence, the weekly training structure will look simple and clean.
And trust me when I say that complicated does not mean advanced nor does simply mean easy. After several years of training in this method, I can say that it never gets easier no matter how advanced I am. Thus, I stick with simplicity and progress or maintain what I’ve built upon the same training method. I also blend calisthenics with a lot of cardio, more specifically, road and trail running. I go back and forth, depending on my goals and how my body feels.

The hardest part is tracking progress. Continually draining the muscles of energy, leaves you with soreness. On some days, you will feel incapable of performing as usual. There is a higher demand for sleep and food when you keep overloading and overusing. But it is a normal and natural response. That only means that your body will evolve if you learn how to adapt. That’s why I include de-load periods or focus on different training sessions like cardio, to allow time and space for my muscles to recover.

To train high volume calisthenics, you need:

  1. Uncomplicated, and rather simple, compound, but essential exercise and their variants. For instance, the regular pull-up is the main exercise. Changing the grip wider or closer modifies the regular pull-ups and makes them essential variants or variations. You need them to activate and engage the same pulling muscle but in different ways and angles.
  2. Total work volume, meaning more sets and reps than you usually do or used to do.
  3. Shorter rest times between sets or cycles than the typical rest time needed for maximal strength training (1-2 minutes from a set to another).
  4. A higher frequency. Train the same muscle groups multiple times. Once they recover, hit them again. Train 4-5 times a week!

The Single Required Exercises

Pull-Ups Family: Wide, Regular, Close Grip, Chinups, Close Grip Chinups, Commando, Body Rows, L-Sit Pull-Ups, Towel Pull-Ups, Lever, Uneven, Weighted.

Pushups Family: Regular, Incline, Decline, Wide Grip, Diamonds, Uneven, One-Arm Pushups, Lever, Triceps Extensions, Plank-to-Pushups, Handstand, Pike, Skull-Crushers.

Dips Family: Bench Dips, the regular dips, Front-Bar Dips.

Leg Raises Family: Regular Leg Raises, V-Raises, Toes-to-Bar (Full Leg Raises), L-sits, Flutter Kicks, Knee-Raises, Mountain Climbers, etc.

Squats Family: Burpees, Full Burpees, Squats, Sumo, Close, One-Leg, Pistols, Jump Squats, Frog Jumps, Crouch Walk, Lunges, Bulgarian Splits, etc.

Other Variations: Jumping Jacks, Jump Rope, Sprints, Running, Hill Sprints, Bridges, Planks, etc.

I didn’t train with anything else in the past years, and I am more than happy with the results achieved, not only from an aesthetical point of view but performance-wise also.

Frequency

How frequent you train tells a lot about your dedication, work ethic, and perseverance. I know that many train 3 times a week and are satisfied with their results. Unless you are too, then I suggest 4 to 5 workouts per week. For many genetically gifted, training at a bare minimum is enough. For everyone else, it requires not only more time, but also more work.

In the past 5 years, I trained with an average of 4-5 workouts per week, month after month, having a few weeks off in a full year. Also, mind that I own a vast sports background from childhood. In the absence of that, you need a serious training regimen, my friend.

You should also train your big muscle groups twice a week if they look undeveloped. That’s achievable only if you include more workouts, as suggested above. By training the same muscles more frequently, and adding more workouts, you accumulate total work volume at the end of the week. And this is especially important for one whose fitness level is low. If you can’t do hundreds of reps yet, you can compensate by training more frequently.

What matters is to work hard, daily, and track the volume in a training log. I used to count how many pull-ups, pushups, dips, sprints, miles, and squats I did every week. It was the only way I could measure progress over time. I gradually achieved my body transformation from skinny to muscular, slowly and with steady steps, but because I followed a routine consistently. I kept modify it, shifting from high-volume to low-volume, and back to cardio and running, depending on the recovery needs. However, my muscles started to grow once with performance and because I was consistent with my training, eating, and sleeping routine.

Volume and Intensity

There isn’t a specific volume or benchmark that defines the required number of reps and sets for hypertrophy, endurance, or strength gains.
That “know-how” comes with experience. However, many suggest including difficult variations and progressive calisthenics as the main training method. On the other hand, I really believe that volume-calisthenics training is, in the end, a sort of progressive training method. One centers on exercise variations and upon their intensity or difficulty to grow strength and muscles, and the other builds the intensity through reps and sets. For my method of training, you don’t need a lot of variants and complexity.

However, I also do difficult exercises and progressive training. But more often, I like to focus on exercises of light and moderate-intensity so I can do more reps.

Watch this video below, a full uncut workout where I did 100 pull-ups as fast as possible:

For instance, lever pull-ups are still compound and basic. Still, it’s more challenging to do 100 Lever Pull-Ups instead of 100 Regular Pull-Ups. Lever Pull-Ups or any other similar variations generate more tension in the muscles. They feel harder and more intense. Therefore, if you plan on doing a workout based on Lever Pull-Ups only, it won’t be long until your strength drops.
Yet, in reality, there is still energy left in the tank, but only if you continue with lighter variations like body rows or regular pull-ups.

lever pullups and regular pullups

If you train intensively, rest briefly, and use only hard variations, then the volume drops. The key is to balance the intensity. Do those tough variations, and drain your muscles with them (progressive training is effective as well) as long as you focus on volume too.

In your quest to train more, I suggest you find ways to regulate the intensity and tension generated by all these exercises.

Nonetheless, I do have suggestions in terms of volume and how many exercises you need in your routine:

  1. Four-five workouts per week, and train twice the big muscle groups. Do 2 pull-up sessions, 2 pushup sessions, 2 leg workouts, and so on.
  2. Choose at least 4 to 5 basic variations: wide pull-ups, chinups, horizontal pull-ups, commando pull-ups, and Aussie pull-ups. Do the same with other groups of exercises: sumo squats, regular squats, crouch walk, lunges, jump squats. You got the idea!
  3. I always suggest doing at least 4 sets per each variation. But that also depends on how many variations you want to include in a workout. I often do 100 pull-ups, of which 50 are chinups, and 50 are wide grip pull-ups. Or I may do more variations and fewer sets, but the total volume remains!

Workout Example #1:

  1. Wide Pull-Ups: 5 sets x 7-10 reps
  2. Pull-Ups: 5 sets x 7-10 reps
  3. Close Grip Chinups: 5 sets x 7-10 reps
  4. Chinups: 5 sets x 7-10 reps
  5. Horizontal Pull-Ups: 4 sets x 5-10 reps
  6. Handstand Pushups: 4 sets x 5-10 reps
  7. Diamond Pushups: 5 sets x 20 reps
  8. Dips: 5 sets x 20 reps
  9. Pushups: 5 sets x 20 reps.

Workout Example #2:

  1. 10 Pull-Ups followed by 20 Dips, followed by 20 Pushups. Repeat the circuit for 7-10 times, and you got yourself a high-volume workout, using only 3 exercises, but a higher amount of sets than compared to the workout example 1.

Adapt the reps to fit your level of muscular endurance and strength. I always give my max effort and energy into each and every workout. Sometimes I can barely train, and on other days, I can destroy my workout.

In case you don’t know how much is enough, then palm callouses, clogged ears, yawns, muscle spasms, trembles, or even a glycemia breakdown -are all symptoms of demanding training. Muscle burnt too is a good sign or extreme fatigue. 

Recovery and Rest Times

Do not believe the myth that overtraining will compromise your final fitness goals. It is true however that your body will collapse, and hence you will need to do two things: sleep and eat for better gains.

You will often feel muscle soreness associated with deep pain, no matter how good your recovery is. It happens in the beginning because your body is still under adaptation. It took me more than two years to adapt and overcome pain. It’s only now after such a long time that I can train painless all the time, except the normal muscle soreness the days after the workouts.

You can also attend some sessions of deep tissue or sports massages. At home, I use a foam roller. Overtraining occurs because you don’t focus on the right things that fully heal your body. I have a lot of active rest days besides what I said above, and I also have deload weeks or alternate to cardio or HIIT.

Having a full recovery is crucial and as essential as training or dieting. Sleep is also paramount. For instance, a tired brain caused by poor sleep affects performance tremendously. I run the mountains in rough conditions, terrain, significant elevation, and extremely long distances. If I don’t focus on how to recover my legs, then for a couple of days, I can’t run the same mileage anymore. But with time, I became more adapted, and now I recover quicker.

Regarding the rest time during your workout, here it is:

  • 45 seconds to 90 seconds between sets
  • 1-2 minutes between exercises
  • 2 days recovery per week
  • 1-week off at every 2-3 months

This is the way I do it. For each individual, it may be slightly different; hence, you should adapt this to suit your goals and capabilities.

Don’t Be Afraid to Add Reps

For most of us, our childhood was mostly physically inactive. Therefore, you have more reasons to start working out than the forever fit and active guys.

The way high-volume calisthenics affects our behavior is interesting because our reaction to severe training is to sleep and eat more, meaning more intake of calories, nutrients. As a result, the body will start adapting to keep up. Readaptation means gaining more strength and creating more powerful neuro-muscle connections. In the end, your ability to train more will bring you to a higher rep range where the hypertrophy response will be triggered, so you can sequentially gain muscle mass.

After you have put a decent amount of beef on your frame, then your strength will reach new heights, like what happened to me, and it will surprise you completely. I achieved the one-arm pull-ups although I never specifically trained for them:

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The mighty One-Arm Pull-Up unquestionably stands amongst the hardest strength exercises . I never explicitly trained to achieve this magnificent strength feat and yet unlocked it as a byproduct of my basic bodyweight training. Boosting only one repetition required years of consistent training . I am thrilled with the result. It's proof that my training program works even though gaining a colossal level of strength isn't my general focus. Health and general athleticism is my primary goal, and ever will. I care more about complexity and variety rather than mastering impressive feats . I will continue to work the one-arm pull-ups indirectly, till it becomes smooth and easy . . . . . . . . #onearmpullup #onearmchinup #onearmchinups #onearmchinuptraining #onearmpulluptraining #onearmpullupprogression #strengthtraining #strengthandconditioning #strongman #strong #pullups #heavypull #strengthfeat #calisthenics #streetworkout #pullupsprogression

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I have only trained using volume with slight deviations ever since I came to realize its potential over advanced calisthenics too. I don’t do specific training for advanced elements. And every time I want to improve my form, or performance, let it be stamina, endurance, or power, I always go and work on my basics.

Progression and Plateaus

Plateaus exist, unfortunately. Progression isn’t a steady linear curve in fitness, regardless of the method of choosing. For this reason, I like mixing up things. I still do basic training, but I may swim or go on a trail run as a pause from my rigorous calisthenics session.

I also integrate some weighted calisthenics and a lot of running on the stairs. In this way, I can eliminate boredom, and I can give my muscles a reasonable period to aid in recovery.

I overcome plateaus by changing my mood, state of mind, and energy level. So, try to adopt a positive attitude, which helps to overcome obstacles. The rest is only patience and work ethic.

If you are convinced to try it out, then I inform you that I have a program called High-Volume Calisthenics Workouts. You can find it in the link below.

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