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    Articles | Training Science

    How to write a training programme

    By Tim Stevenson

    Knowing how to write a training programme is a science and an art.

    The science comes because there are agreed principles that will maximise the stimulation of a desired adaptation. This includes exercise selection, reps, sets, intensity, tempo and rest between sets.

    However it is equally important to be artistic because the programme needs to be designed for the subject. You.

    Reps and sets are one thing but ultimately, if you are going to write a training programme that maximises your progression, you need to make decisions based around what your reality looks like.

    How many times do you train each week, what are your weaknesses, what’s your training background, what other training do you do and what are those goals, what equipment do you have access to?

    In this blog I’m going to give you the theory behind programme design and show you examples of how you can design your own calisthenics training programme. Let’s start with some key principles:

    Reverse Engineering

    When I design programmes for elite athletes I start each season or cycle by identifying where the individual needs to be when it’s time to race at a major competition. I then work backwards by deciding what it’s going to take to be successful and what myself and the athlete need to do to ensure they will be  in peak physical condition on that day.

    This is called periodisation and can be defined as:

    ‘Periodisation: Pre-planned, systematic variations in training specificity, intensity and volume, organised in periods or cycles’.

    The problem with not periodising your training is that an unstructured plan often leads to distinctly average results. You need to know what you’re trying to achieve and then work out how you’re going to do it. This requires a plan and some structure otherwise you are guessing and leaving success to chance.

    Utilising variation to avoid stagnation

    There is one principle that is an unavoidable truth:

    Training stimuli needs to be varied.

    You can’t just do the same thing all year and expect to improve because your body will adapt to the stress you place upon it. Once it’s adapted to handle that stress, you won’t see further meaningful gains until you change the training programme.

    Varying the stimulus goes hand in hand with periodising your training. If you know what you are working towards and the physical attributes required to be successful, you can select the appropriate training programme variables and structure your phases.

    How to write a training programme overview

    Below is an overview of the stages you need to work through in order to design your own calisthenics training programme. If you want to understand more detail you’ll find additional information in the sections below.

    If you’re ready to start, grab a piece of paper or better still a School of Calisthenics training diary and work through the following exercises:

    Exercise 1: Write down your goal/s

    Exercise 2: Identify what physical attributes or abilities are stopping you from achieving it. Don’t worry about making it ‘sciencey’. Writing ‘I’m not very good at pull ups’ is a good start. All you need to do then is put the appropriate exercises in your programme.

    Exercise 3: Plan 3 x 4-6 week blocks of training and decide what the focus of each of those blocks needs to be based on the answers to exercise 2. Keep it simple. Use phrases such as: ‘Improve shoulder range of movement and basic pulling strength using a range of exercises’ or ‘focus on learning the transition phase of the ring muscle up by prioritising Movement Patterning.

    Another example would be ‘Train using Capacity Strength exercises to improve basic strength’. After every 4th or 6th week include a deload week where the total training volume is lower.

    Exercise 4: Write down how many sessions a week you can commit to and the duration of each of those sessions. Consider energy levels throughout the week so you can plan when the more difficult sessions might be best placed. Here are a few things to think about;

    Frequency: How many sessions do you want to do each week?
    Training Background: How much training and the types you’ve done in the past is important in understanding your starting point and where to focus your attention
    Minimum Dose: How often can you train a certain movement or muscle group?
    Duration: How long are your training sessions likely to be?
    Time Allocation: How much of your training time do you want to allocate to calisthenics or more specifically, a particular goal?

    Exercise 5: Decide on which days you’re going to train and what the overall session focus for that day is going to be i.e. Upper Body Vertical Push/Pull, Horizontal Push/Pull, Lower Body, or Total Body.

    Exercise 6: Select your exercises, write your programme for these sessions and incorporate the other things you’re working on throughout the week.

    Exercise 7: Write the programme in your notebook and during each session add the detail on how many reps you did, what band you used or how much weight you added. The following week you can refer back to it and try to improve. This is a simple and very effective way to guide progressive overload.

    Exercise 8: Go train hard and consistently.

    The following section will develop your understanding further if you need some more guidance:

    #1: Define your goal

    A common mistake is to focus too much on weekly session content without first defining the bigger picture.

    Write down the overall goal first and how long you think you need to achieve it. Then you can work backwards to structure how you’ll develop the physical attributes and skills needed to be successful.

    #2: Identify your weaknesses

    Now you’ve defined your goal, you need to understand what your weaknesses are.

    What’s currently stopping you from performing a well-controlled and executed muscle up, handstand, pull up or human flag? It could be a restriction in range of movement, a need to develop the skill or movement pattern or a strength deficiency, either in specific relation to the movement or just basic capacity.

    You just need to be brutally honest with yourself. If you find something hard, you avoid certain movements becaue you’re not good at them or a body position feels difficult or restricted then that’s a good indicator it may need some specific attention.

    #3: Plan the phases

    Within periodisation we break training down into periods of time and we use terms to define them. The macrocycle is the big picture. What do you want to achieve in the next 12 months. Within that period we can dial into some more specific adaptations (mesocycles) that we’ll train for in blocks of 2 to 4 months.

    The final time-period is the microcycle and that is what workouts you do each week. You can’t get this right unless you know what you’re working towards and the time frame you have to play with.

    Below is an example of periodisation for a Bar Muscle Up training programme

    GOAL: Be able to perform a well-controlled and executed bar muscle up in 6 months

    MACROCYCLE: 4 – 6 months


    Month 1: Foundation Development

    Movement Objective: Improve shoulder flexion and extension range of movement using self-massage and mobilisation techniques. Train the banded internal and external shoulder rotations to help increase shoulder function and robustness.

    Strength Objective: Train the ability to perform strict high pull ups from a dead hang position. Also improve strength in straight bar dips. Do not get distracted by trying to perform the complete movement during this phase.

    Train bodyweight rows to assist in pulling strength development and support the improvement or maintenance of upper body posture.

    Month 2: Basic Applied and Capacity Strength Focus

    Movement Objective: Continue to improve or maintain shoulder flexion and extension range of movement using self-massage and mobilisation techniques. Focus more training time on Applied and Capacity Strength adaptations. (Read more about the School of Calisthenics Framework)

    Strength Objective: Train the explosive high pull with specific attention on accelerating from a dead hang position and getting high above the bar. Use an assistance band if you need to.

    Introduce the full muscle up movement using assistance from a band ensuring that the intensity enables you to do it with good technique. Don’t sacrifice form at this early stage.

    Continue to improve straight bar dip Capacity Strength making sure you challenge yourself to work as close to the transition point as possible.

    Month 3: Specific Applied and Capacity Strength Focus

    Movement Objective: Continue to improve or maintain shoulder flexion and extension range of movement using self-massage and mobilisation techniques.

    Use Movement Patterning exercises to activate and reinforce neural connection before beginning the strength component of the training session.

    Strength Objective: Introduce Eccentric Muscle Downs focusing on high level control through the full movement. Do not allow yourself to fall through the transition.

    Introduce specific power training; Explosive High Pulls superset with a Band Assisted Hips to Bar.

    Month 4 – 6: Integrate

    Movement Objective: Continue to improve or maintain shoulder flexion and extension range of movement using self-massage and mobilisation techniques.

    Use Movement Patterning exercises to activate and reinforce neural connection before beginning the strength component of the training session.

    Strength Objective: Start a block (4 weeks) of training with attempts at the full muscle up. Evaluate your performance and decide what you need to focus your strength training on. Some suggestions are included below:


    Two combined push and pull sessions each week with muscle up as the primary goal. Session content will change based on the phases of the microcycle explained above.

    These time periods are subjective and very much depend on your starting point. Therefore you may move through the phases faster or slower than outlined. We hope however that this example gives you some ideas on how a larger, progressive training block can be mapped out.

    #4: Create specific adaptation

    The body will adapt to whatever stress you place on it. You can manipulate this using repetitions, sets, intensity, tempo and rest, which are all known as the acute variables.

    There are many different options, formats and ways to structure sessions, but most will in some way fit into the broad categories below.


    If you want to be able to do more push ups, and we understand that the body responds to the stress we place on it, it’s logical that we need to do more repetitions. The acute variables below give broad guidelines for you to experiment with.

    Reps: 12 – 20
    Sets: 2 – 4
    Intensity: 67% – 50% of your 1 repetition max or the maximum weight you can lift and be able to hit the rep range you chose.
    Tempo: 2 – 0 – 2 to 4 – 2 – 1 (Eccentric – Isometric – Concentric)
    Rest: 0 – 60 seconds between sets


    Often people ask whether you can build muscle by training with calisthenics. The answer of course you can. The body does not differentiate between dumbbells, barbells or bodyweight. Resistance is resistance.

    The key is that the programme needs to be designed and performed appropriately. Increasing muscle mass requires a certain level of intensity which determines the number of repetitions you can physically perform. The speed at which you train is also an important component.

    Reps: 6 – 10
    Sets: 3 – 5
    Intensity: 87% – 75% of your 1 repetition max or the maximum weight you can lift an be able to hit the rep range you chose.
    Tempo: 2 – 0 – 2 to 4 – 2 – 1
    Rest: 60 – 90 seconds between sets


    Training with heavier resistance and lower repetition ranges leads to an increase in an athletes’ maximal strength ability. The physical adaptation is centred predominantly around neural changes as the central nervous system becomes more efficient at producing high levels of force.

    In many cases, max strength training requires the use of additional resistance by using a selection or combination of tools from The Locker. To increase strength in the shoulders, chest and triceps for example we might chose to do dips with a weighted belt to create sufficient overload and stimulate the adaptation.

    The increase in resistance will mean the speed of each repetition is slower. You can’t move heavy loads quickly however, the intention for each rep should be to move as explosively as possible. It won’t look quick but physically you’re trying to accelerate continually through the concentric (lifting) component. It’s also important to manage the eccentric phase well by controlling the deceleration (lowering).

    Longer rest periods are needed to allow your energy system to recover and limit the impact of fatigue. Max strength training primarily uses the phosphogen system that provides energy for short bursts of high intensity movement lasting up to around 10 seconds. Recovery of this system can take up to 5 minutes with it being 90% complete after about 2 minutes so rest periods of 3 – 5 minutes are usually suggested.

    Reps: 1 – 5
    Sets: 3 – 6
    Intensity: 85 – 100% 1 repetition max
    Tempo: x – x – x
    Rest: 3 – 5 minutes between sets


    Power training focuses on moving relatively lighter loads more explosively.

    Reps: 8 – 10
    Sets: 3 – 5
    Intensity: 40 – 60% 1 repetition max or 8 – 10% bodyweight
    Tempo: x – x – x
    Rest: 3 – 5 minutes between sets

    #5: Train hard and rest

    Once you have the plan stick to it. So often we see peoples’ progress falter because they get distracted by something else. Adaptation requires consistency, so plan your phases and see them through. Four weeks is a good starting point and means you can refresh the programme regularly. It’s also worth noting that if you’re training hard, one of those weeks should be planned as a deload or recovery week.

    Due to the intensity of calisthenics the demand is not just on your muscles, but also on the connective tissue, tendons and ligaments and nervous system (motor learning and movement patterning development). These systems and structures take varying lengths of time to recover and it’s important to get enough rest between sessions to allow adaption to occur.

    Wrap Up

    I know that it might seem like a lot to take onboard so let me summarise it and give you the key take away message:

    Don’t over complicate it. Write a plan. Do the plan. Be flexible when you need to be. Build in time to recover. Review it. Make improvements and repeat.

    Learning how to write a training programme takes practice and you will get better as you spend more time designing and adapting your plan.

    Class dismissed


    If you’re looking for a helpful starting point check out the programmes we have developed in the Virtual Classroom.

    These will provide you with a working template that you can adapt and individualise for your specific circumstances – meaning you can combine expert guidance from us and consider the most important factor in your training….YOU. 

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