2015: My First Year of Progressive Calisthenics

2015 (the year of the sheep) will not only be remembered as the year I discovered calisthenics, it will also be remembered as the year where I finally began to realise my potential as a human being.

This post is long and quite irrelevant to anyone other than myself... but if you choose to read it, enjoy!

As previously written about on this blog page, I started the year in quite a negative place. I hadn't trained for two months and was really making myself suffer through poor choices and an equally poor philosophy. My weight had also started creeping back up towards 16st after ending the year at 15st6.

Thankfully I sussed that my negativity stemmed from a lack of activity and I slowly began to return to circuit training DVDs, using my bodyweight and a few dumbells I had acquired the year before. My weight dropped as a result to a new record low of 14st9. After reading about Terroll Lewis (of Block Workout, London) in Men's Health I was drawn to this visually impressive and mysterious style of bodyweight training - calisthenics.

After a few weeks of exploring my local area I realised that there wasn't a calisthenics 'scene' up here, unlike in the bigger cities down south. If I was going to start learning about calisthenics I was going to have to do it by myself.

In May I discovered the outdoor gym at Barshaw Park in Paisley and attempted my first pull-up's; I managed four. I later discovered through social media that these first pull-up's were actually chin-up's! I had a lot to learn.

I will have worked out at Barshaw at least once a week since May and have made the most of out of what is available, which is predominantly used by children playing.

I soon realised that my local area could really benefit from some purpose-built calisthenics equipment and this whole project was born; inspired by the likes of Terroll Lewis and Neil Timms of Incite Fitness.

By June I was starting to practice the L-Seat hold and the variations of pull-up's and chin-up's that could be combined with it.

Through this blog page I also began to meet a few people from the local area who would sometimes use Barshaw Park to participate in calisthenics. These new acquaintances furthered my commitment to this project and further cemented my belief in its relevance to making a positive impact on the people of Renfrewshire.

Midway through that month I decided to join up to a training programme operated by two guys known on social media as the Bar Brothers. This 12-week workout programme was extremely progressive and opened my eyes to wide range of exercises that would help me focus my training on supporting my desire to perform three specific movements; muscle-up, front lever and handstand.

To be honest, paying £39 (approx.) to have access to a workout system wasn't exactly necessary, as all the answers were available on the internet, or through reading books devoted to progressive calisthenics; such as Complete Calisthenics, by Ashley Kalym, which I purchased around the same time as the Bar Brothers workout system. Mild laziness on my part, but I certainly benefited from it.

After only two months of focusing solely on calisthenics I felt significantly stronger and could visibly see signs of hypertrophy in my upper body. These noted side effects only encouraged me further.

As well as learning about new exercises, the Bar Brothers system also demanded that I trained five/six days a week, as opposed to the two/three days I had been doing. This was a change that led me to become a lot more creative in terms of where and what I used to workout - no more using rain as an excuse to not train!

As the Bar Brothers system progressed in to the latter half of the 12-weeks, it became harder and harder to keep up with the suggested repetitions and sets, so I had to scale it back a bit to what I could handle, whilst still demanding progression each and every workout.

A work colleague was able to quickly weld together a couple of paralettes using a few pieces of scrap metal we found lying around. This enabled me to continue developing my L-seat hold and start playing around with some of the beginner progressions for the gravity-defying planche hold in my tiny back garden.

Indoors too I started to get creative, using dining room chairs and kitchen worktops to allow me to perform dips at my leisure!

It was hard going, but I made it to week 11, in September, before I decided I was ready to create my own progressive system, based on the knowledge I had gained thus far. Obviously, I started things easier at first, as I was really keen to not overstretch myself, with football coaching in full flow, long working hours and my wedding around the corner in mid-October.

I decided on a six-day schedule, operating Monday-Saturday, designed to progress towards performing a muscle-up, front lever and handstand. My typical week's workout looked something like this:
  • Monday - pull-ups, diamond push-ups, close pull-ups, dips
  • Tuesday - squats, lunges, jumping squats, jumping lunges
  • Wednesday - wall-climbing handstand, pike pushups, frog stand, pseudo push-ups
  • Thursday - tucked front lever hold, hanging leg raises, L-seat hold, window wipers
  • Friday - push-ups, pull-ups, pull-up hold, wide pull-ups
  • Saturday - 5/10km run
  • Sunday - REST
As far as sets and reps were concerned I was pretty loose with the numbers, as my attentions turned to recovering from my stag-do (bachelor party) and completing my first 'official' half-marathon in Glasgow's Great Scottish Run...and the wedding!

I say first 'official' half-marathon as I had previously ran 13.5 miles on a run which I only set out to do 10 miles in September the previous year. I completed that unofficial half-marathon in approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes.

It's fair to say I was slightly nervous ahead of this task, as prior to creating my workout plan above, I had only run two formal 10km's in Glasgow (setting a new PB, 52:36) and Paisley respectively since June. My only training leading up to the Great Scottish Run involved a Pollok Park 5km the weekend before and a 9 mile run the following Tuesday.

As can be seen in these pictures I ran the half-marathon in support of Cancer Research UK. I had never raised money for a charity before and was delighted to be able to raise £115 through family and friends on Facebook.

Thankfully on the day of the race I felt quite loose and did not have any niggles caused by a lack of running in the previous few weeks. The Great Scottish Run organisers did a great job of breaking up the course with music and drinks stations and I really enjoyed the whole experience.

As ever I managed to whip up a strong sprinting finish. I always seem to have something left to finish strong, especially in front of a big crowd! My future wife was there at the front cheering me on which was great to see on the last corner as my lungs reached breaking point. 

Amazingly I finished with a time of 2:06:49! I was delighted with that and definitely want to run it again next year.

The following week I was visiting my sister in Barrow-in-Furness and went along to the local ParkRun to complete one last 5km before the big day the Saturday after. Again I ran well and managed to set a new PB (24:05), taking 10 seconds off my previous time.

A few days later I completed my last workout before the wedding madness and well deserved honeymoon came my way - I wouldn't train properly again for another two weeks!

On the day of my wedding I felt I was in the best shape of my life. I had worked incredibly hard for nearly nine months without any rest period longer than two days and I felt all the better for it.

My weight had been pretty consistent (between 15st0 and 15st5) since I first benefited from the aforementioned hypertrophy after my first few months of calisthenics.

This was soon to change... with all the fun of the wedding followed by a week all-inclusive in Mauritius and a few days in Dubai to finish the honeymoon!

It's fair to say I went bananas.

As previously written about, I still have a problem with compulsive over-eating and when amazing food and alcohol is readily available, I can lose all control for extended periods.

By the time I came back from the honeymoon my weight had shot up to 16st5! The heaviest I had been for two years. I felt huge. This feeling was made worse by the fact that all my clothes were fitting horribly again. This is always dangerous territory, especially when combined with a period of inactivity.

Thankfully, I was able to play around with a pull-up bar in the hotel gym on a couple of occasions, and I used this time to work on what I was calling a jumping muscle-up - with both feet on the ground, jumping up and allowing the upper body to focus on the transition phase of the muscle-up, which I had never experienced before. More on this later.

I also found time to hold the occasional L-seat whilst admiring the Indian Ocean from the north of Mauritius.

Other than that, I had been inactive throughout. Upon my return I knew I had to jump straight back in to my six sessions a week if I had any hope of undoing the damage before Christmas (another guaranteed binge) and avoiding another period of self-inflicted negativity.

Thankfully I managed to do that, despite spending two weeks eating huge slices of wedding cake twice a day until it was all gone! I did manage to get back below 16st pretty quickly but this was halted by another case of hypertrophy thanks to my muscle-up progression.

As I mentioned before I had begun a jumping muscle-up in Mauritius and this continued when I got back. Each week I would choose a higher section of bar to reduce the power I could produce from the legs until eventually, after an eventful seven months of training, I managed my first (terribly sloppy) muscle-up!

The following week I managed to go one step further and completed my first full set! I was absolutely buzzing and can't wait to keep tidying up my muscle-up technique.

As far as the front lever and handstand were concerned, these also were starting to progress faster than before. I realised that I had reached a bit of a plateau before the wedding and it could be suggested that my body needed a break from activity in order to keep progressing.

My tucked front lever has now been held for 25 seconds and I am sure I'll hit 30 seconds in January, prompting me to try and stick out one leg!

The handstand wallclimb has now been left behind as I have moved to a wall-assisted handstand. It took a lot of courage to start kicking my legs up to handstand position, but through practice I am starting to make slow progress here.

By the time Christmas came my weight had gone back down to 15st8 and I felt somewhere close to being in the same shape as before the wedding. But it was Christmas, and I've gone too far as ever. I did do lots of extra running in the week before and in the days after. It's not enough to stop me feeling like a whale, but I am sure it made a difference.

So that was 2015. I attempted. I learned. I achieved. I progressed. I can't wait to build on all of that in 2016. 

Enough words, it's time for me to get outside, build muscle and have fun on this New Years Day. You should too!


  1. Keep going, James. You have the will power and drive to succeed


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