Improve Your Upper Body Calisthenics!

by Erik Castiglione

Good evening Relentless Family! How many of your SMART Goals were to improve your upper body calisthenics? Maybe your goal is to get your first push-up, pull-up, handstand push-up, or ring dip. Or maybe it’s to increase the number of these movements that you’re already able to do. Either way, you’re in luck, because that’s the topic of today’s post!

Below is a tiered program that can help you increase upper body stamina. But first, a caveat. While consistency is the key to results, please use your best judgement and work around our regular programming. If we have a day (or week) that’s particularly heavy in one of these movements, maybe skip this additional work for that week. If some is good, more is not necessarily better. The body grows more fit not through training, but by recovering from training.

Now that that’s out of the way, on to the program description. There are 3 levels to this program, based on your current ability with each movement. Please note that you may be at a different level for different movements, and that’s absolutely okay. Each level has progressions associated with it. You may need to repeat Level 1 a number of times to progress through the assisted movement variations. For example, if you’re on a green pull-up band or doing A-frame push-ups, one time through the cycle will not move you up to an unassisted, full ROM variation of the movement. Stick with it and be patient; progress doesn’t happen overnight.

Below are videos showing the movement variations used in levels 1 and 2. Since level 3 is comprised of full movements, which should be self-explanatory, there are no associated videos.

The Movements:

Handstand Push-ups

Level 1



Level 2

Pull-ups

Level 1



Level 2

Ring Dips

Level 1



Level 2

Push-ups

Level 1



Level 2
Push-up + negative not shown (you should get the idea by now)

The Program

Level 1: Not Currently Able to Do the Movement
Frequency: 2 Days per week (WOD dependent!)

Day 1:

  • Assisted Movement Variation (see videos): 4 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Negatives: 4 sets of 2-3. Each negative should take 8-10 seconds. If you can’t do an unassisted negative, try to use the hardest possible assistance level you can.
  • Progression: For the Assisted Movement Variation, add reps until you can do 4×12, then move up to the next level of assistance. For the negatives, work on control through the entire ROM.

Day 2:

  • Assisted Movement Variation: 4 sets of 3-5 reps. Use a more challenging variation than day 1. Last set should be a struggle.
  • Holds: 4 sets. Try for 15 seconds
  • Progression: For the Assisted Movement Variation, add reps until you can do 4×5, then move up to the next level of assistance. For holds, try to increase duration by 5 seconds.

Level 2: Able to do 1-4 Reps
Frequency: 2 Days per week (WOD dependent!)

Day 1:

  • Movement + Negative (see videos): 4 sets of 1-4 reps
  • Assisted Movement Variation: 4 sets of 8-12 reps. Use a challenging variation.
  • Progression: Add reps until you can do 4×4 of the movement + negative combination.

Day 2:

  • Full Movement: 4 sets of 1-3 reps. Use assistance if necessary, should be challenging.
  • Holds: 4 sets – try for 30 seconds
  • Progression: Add reps and decrease assistance until you can do 4×3 unassisted. For holds, after you can do 4×30, try holding in different ranges of motion (e.g. halfway down a negative, bottom of a negative, etc.)

Level 3: Able to do 5+ Reps
Frequency: 3 Days per week

Day 1:

  • Full Movement: Note your current max number of reps, and add 1 to that number. Do this many in as few sets as possible.
  • Progression: Increase the number each week, retest your max repetitions every 4 weeks

Day 2:

  • Weighted Movement (or deficit for HSPU and push-ups): 5 sets of 2 reps
  • Progression: Add weight every third week (for deficit, increase reps).

Day 3:

  • Repeat Day 1.

Remember, be smart with these progressions. Work around the WODs, not always in addition to them.
Good luck, and I hope you see some good results!

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