It’s a common trend to pit one training philosophy against another, in order to see how athletic a certain type of training might make you. For example, someone who trains for size would not be as strong as someone who trains for strength, or who trains to master a specific movement, or for muscular endurance. The sprinter will run faster than the marathoner but won’t keep up over distance. Someone who does calisthenics is likely lithe and fast – someone who does powerlifting would be stocky, slower, stronger. But they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. You can make calisthenics for powerlifting work quite well.
Training is all about challenging the body to overcome a limit, time and time again, yet specific limits can never be broken in training – for example, the limits of time and the body itself. Calisthenics is often seen as diametrically opposed to powerlifting – but ideally, you should bring the two together in the best of ways, and make calisthenics work for powerlifting.
Striking a Balance
An athlete who trains for speed won’t be as strong as someone who trains for strength, because the body loses abilities it does not maintain. We also have a limited time on this earth and need to conform to the rules of rest and recovery, otherwise our training only leads to injury and disability.
So, you choose how you train, and for powerlifters, the choice is clear – strength, above all else. But that mentality might make us forget that just because an athlete in a different discipline trains a different way, does not mean that some of what they do doesn’t have proper application in powerlifting. That’s where carryover comes into play – weighing the potential of an exercise based on how it ultimately benefits the end goal, that is, to get a better competition total.
Powerlifters may lift for strength, but they need to do some cardio to increase their overall work capacity, maintain a healthy cardiovascular system, and potentially reap the strength benefits of being able to train for longer periods of time. Similarly, there are certain movements that are almost universal in the benefits that athletes can reap from them – the squat is one such movement, but there are others, especially bodyweight exercises, that pretty much everyone should do (if they can).
Most people (myself included) probably stopped doing pushups once they discovered the bench. But the pushup is still a valuable tool if programmed correctly. Pushups are excellent prehab work to not only maintain healthy shoulders, but for a number of miscellaneous upper body muscles that aren’t worked quite as much during the bench press, such as the intercostal and serratus muscles. High-rep pushup sets also double as an anti-extension ab exercise, and building a stronger, more flexible core with better diaphragm muscles lets you get a bigger belly breath for your bench.
Pushups lose their value once you start trying to do less of them with more resistance. There isn’t much point to a one-arm pushup past the bragging rights or the anti-extension work on the core, and you’re better off doing a one-arm dumbbell press to recreate that sort of resistance with an easier progression.
Pullups are almost mandatory in every training program. While I wouldn’t say they’re the king of upper body exercises in every discipline – there are other movements that are much more effective at building an overall stronger upper body in a bang-for-your-buck sort of way, such as the power clean and press, or the axle clean – pullups are a very good way to build a stronger, bigger back, and they’re easy to program and progress in. All you need is a dip belt, some plates, and a bar.
The most impressive ab work is usually the stuff you see “street workout” dudes do. Front levers, back levers, flags and planks are by far the best way to build an unbelievably sturdy core. Throw in a few flexion and twisting moves, like windshield wipers, raises, and Russian twists, and you’ve got yourself a comprehensive ab routine using nothing but the bar and the floor.
Impressive doesn’t always mean effective, but there are plenty of gems in there. Many of the really effective ab exercises are calisthenics exercises (save for heavy cable crunches and farmer carries), so this one is a no-brainer. Ab calisthenics work for powerlifting with seamless integration.
If you want to push harder and push better, do more dips. It’s really simple – the bodyweight dip is the pushing equivalent of the pullup, yet I don’t see as many people rave about it. That’s probably because lots of beginner lifters find dips to be too harsh on the shoulders, and that can be true.
If performed incorrectly or with not enough mobility/flexibility, you may find dips uncomfortable. When it comes to what works best in calisthenics for powerlifting, the upper body dip is on-par with the pullup as the best no-weight accessory.
And even if you can easily perform bodyweight dips, there is an upper limit to the exercise. At some point, you’ll reach a level where strapping more weight onto yourself is just not a good idea for your shoulder joint, even if you can realistically press far more. But for most lifters, weighted dips and dips are excellent companions to the bench press, and if your weakness in the bench are your noodle arms, then you desperately need dips.
Calisthenics Aren’t Lifts
It might be painfully obvious, but yes, calisthenics work is never meant to outclass or replace an actual lift that you’re training for – and to further bring that argument to some sort of point, it’s never going to be on par with other accessory lifts usually used to help someone improve in a competition lift. You can make calisthenics work for powerlifting, but you still need to lift. A lot.
To understand how exercise selection works when building a powerlifting program, it’s important to know how exercise tiering works. A program will always constitute of tier 1, 2, and 3 exercises. The different tiers represent the primary movement for a particular training goal, a secondary lift to increase volume in a particular movement, increase muscle mass or overcome a sticking point, and finally, accessories that act as prehab/rehab, or as “powerbuilding” work. As an example:
Tier 1: Primary lifts and variations thereof that you can train within the 85-100% 1RM range. This includes your big three, but it also includes variations such as high-bar versus low-bar squats, sumo versus conventional deadlifts, paused (competition) bench versus touch-and-go.
Tier 2: This includes other variations usually performed in the 70-85% 1RM range. This can also include your alternative deadlift (sumo if you pull conventional, and vice versa), deficit or banded deadlifts, floor pressing, overhead pressing, close grip press, incline press, paused squats, front squats, heavy split squats, and more.
Tier 3: This includes exercises meant to help you improve on your Tier 2 exercises, and target weaknesses that you may have, or increase size. Machine exercises, from leg pressing to extensions or curls, pullups, rows, lat pulldowns, dips, and more – these all fit in Tier 3.
Calisthenics in Tier 3
Exercises are tiered this way based on their relevance towards your ultimate goal: a bigger bench, deadlift, and squat. Tier 1 exercises are meant to immediately carry over to a bigger bench, deadlift, or squat. As such, your primary Tier 1 exercises are going to be the bench, deadlift, and squat. Tier 2 are meant to help you improve upon Tier 1 exercises, while Tier 3 can be isolation work to get past sticking points in Tier 1 and 2.
Calisthenic work can be excellent for Tier 3 work, but it’s not meant to replace Tier 1 or 2. Some argue that dips and weighted are the greatest chest builders out there, but your T1 and T2 exercises for the competition bench press should still revolve around the press and its many different variations. Others say that you can build a powerful back doing tons of pullup variations, but pullups are nothing more than a way to keep the back healthy and improve on your strength for the pull, press, and squat.
As a powerlifter, you need to prioritize your exercises accordingly but always keep an eye out on the usefulness of incorporating different movements into your training to test them for potential carryover. Athleticism – that is, speed and power generation – might not traditionally have much to do with force production, but if you can get bigger muscles by doing something different, then maybe incorporating sprints, box squats and heavy lunges into your training might give you results that trickle up into your overall squat number.
In the same way, however, taking the focus off your T1 and T2 lifts too much can be detrimental to your progress, and can even send you losing gains.
The Bottom Line
If you find yourself getting weaker due to a shift in training, it’s important to be able to shift back, and know what you did before. This is another reason why documenting your workouts is so crucial. Always keep backups of what you used to do and how much progress you made, so you can always track and double-check what methods worked best for you, and what you should generally avoid.
This brings us back to the age-old battle of muscle confusion versus specificity. Training nothing but squats versus utilizing a variety of exercises to build your squat. In both theory and practice, both are viable ways to improve upon a person’s squat. No matter how you slice or dice it, if you train your legs a lot and squat often, you’ll build the muscle size and the necessary neural pathways to execute an efficient, proficient squat for your overall lean mass. With patience and a little genetic luck, you can squat over three times your own bodyweight.
But some individuals respond better to training almost solely the squat, while others might benefit from expanding their training and tiering their exercises. That depends on how far along you are with your training, and what you best respond to both physically and psychologically. Sometimes it takes more than just muscle stimulus to keep you training – getting bored can make you stall or stop lifting.