Calisthenics and 1RM

Nowadays, humans as a species, are largely used to instant gratification and being able to take shortcuts to results. This, however, does not work with fitness as physical adaptations take time, therefore the only way to reap the benefits is to put in the work. While exercising for general fitness and longevity, gymgoers will start to see results in weeks and months, yet chasing certain calisthenics skills can take a figurative eternity for even the most motivated athlete. Due to the relative novelty of this sport, it is hard to perceive a timeline over which improvements can be made towards specific skills, therefore it is easy to become discouraged or give up. I would like to show you how changing your perception of certain skills can help you be more patient and to keep the joy in your training.

1RM and ‘rising through the ranks’

‘1RM’ is used to address maximal effort. My favourite example to bring when discussing this topic is the mighty deadlift, but you can also think of a squat or clean & jerk etc. When a beginner athlete starts their lifting journey, light weights are used in order to move safely until good movement patterns have been established. Once solid technique is ‘unlocked’, a dopamine-fuelled period of exponential growth follows when the top set may increase by 5-10kg each session. Provided that the athlete has adequate sleep, rest and nutrition, progress is easily seen on a weekly basis due to the central nervous system undergoing great adaptations.

This initial growth phase lasts around a few months and brings visible changes to the person’s performance and, of course, physique. However, progressing from beginner to intermediate athlete means less frequent improvements to ‘top sets’. It’s not that the adaptations suddenly start to take longer but the fact that you are starting to near optimal performance. New PRs are now achieved monthly or less often, improving by 2-5kg at a time. This is the phase where most gym goers – everyday athletes – will stay to maintain their hard earned strength and to keep fit and strong in the long term.

In the advanced/elite athlete stage, central nervous system adaptations are far less obvious and lifts might improve by a mere 1kg after many months. Once this figurative ceiling has been reached in an athlete’s training, accessory work is then used to hone skills to “perfection” as is decided by different federations or governing bodies. At this point, I’d like to remind everyone that perfection doesn’t exist and when it comes to everyday movement, we want to be able to move well in lots of different directions. Elite fitness often comes at a cost – overtraining, injuries, poor rest to work ratio etc – essentially always asking the body for the absolute most.

Do take a moment to consider the goals you might set when working on optimising your big lifts. There is really no way of knowing what your heaviest deadlift of all time will be – 100kg? 140? 160? Provided that you enjoy the journey, you will be simply looking forward to seeing your improvements in the next session, which means that you are also more likely to celebrate every bit of success on the way whether it’s 2kg or 10kg added to your previous best – hooray!

To sum up chasing 1RM in lifting – the skill becomes immediately accessible (skill ≠ 1RM) and athletes are able to visibly improve while having the full skill at their disposal. As we grow stronger through consistent training, we start the climb towards the yet undiscovered 1RM and simultaneously, increase our potential even further as our bodies adapt to the progressive overload.

Calisthenics – perfectly achievable superhuman skills

Upon starting one’s calisthenics journey, most skills are beyond maximal effort (skill > 1RM), which is why the sport is so awe inspiring and desirable in the first place. So, how does one acquire such strength? Unfortunately, a fallacy has been perpetuated in calisthenics by many ‘old timers’ and lesser knowing athletes, which essentially means stating: “You have to be able to do the move to train for the move.” This mindset is kept alive by insecure athletes who try to keep the sport more exclusive by diminishing everyone’s achievements until the skills are performed to ‘perfection’. This status quo, of course, is completely ridiculous and is exactly what I set out to change with‘Cali with the Amazon’. I will elaborate on this in future posts.

I believe that, just like an athlete would lift lighter weights to achieve something greater further down the line, everybody deserves to have immediate access to impressive calisthenics skills. This can be done in two simple ways: by breaking skills down into manageable chunks or by using aides to assist our training. Over the years, resistance bands have become the new calisthenics equipment. Bands help us scale our workouts and practice even the toughest of skills from day one. This method allows for all beginners to enter the same initial endorphin-fuelled training phase where we practice regularly and are excited to see weekly progress on our climb towards impressive skills.

However, there is something lurking in the shadows – expectations and impatience. As unlocking certain calisthenics skills requires a combination of flexibility, coordination and strength, these adaptations take time and simply cannot be rushed. This is why even the best intending athletes have to ‘wait it out’ and trust the process while training consistently towards their goal skills. Progress looks different here – different coloured bands, just like different coloured plates, are a good sign of progress as are improvements to technique. Movements become more refined and controlled over time, requiring less effort as the weeks and months pass. However, these methods are harder to track and therefore, we might have fewer dopamine-boosting milestones on the way.

To help put all this into perspective, I posted a short clip of my ring muscle-up journey on my Instagram this morning. It’s a skill that I have barely worked on over the years yet somehow in the back of my mind, I have always expected to just be able to do it. I practised the skill frequently in the summer of 2019 but quit out of frustration due to the discomfort of false grip training on my wrists and elbows. I officially reintroduced ring muscle-ups to my training in the beginning of 2022 and despite feeling that ‘I’m not there yet’, the difference in performance is extraordinary and any self doubt I’ve had becomes laughable.

What I perceive as ‘struggle’ today is actually a sign of incredible strength gains made over the years and I need to take a moment to talk to my 2019 self and encourage her to notice the little changes on the way. My clips side by side display the most obvious progress – 2019 shows me using purple and black bands and a lot of momentum with no ability to maintain a false grip. Although I cannot give an actual percentage as to how far away from my maximal effort I was at the time, it is obvious that in 2019, muscle-up meant ‘skill > 1RM’.

Fast forward to 2022 (I have not filmed my workouts this year), you can see me working with the lightest band, fully controlling my reps while in false grip and nearly completing an unassisted repetition. I am just around the corner from ‘skill = 1RM’ and it’s clear that huge adaptations in strength have indeed taken place over time. Therefore, instead of being frustrated with myself for not having progressed quicker, I am feeling amused that I improved this much without ‘hammering’ the same skill weekly. The only thing missing from my journey was perhaps a pat or two on my own back and the acknowledgment that I was gradually getting stronger and making progress regularly.

I would like to encourage you to find any old videos of the skills you might be currently getting frustrated with and take in the vast difference from your first attempts and where you are now. It’s very encouraging, I promise. Calisthenics opens a whole new world to those of us ready for an adventure. Hundreds of skills to choose from, all with different intensities where you can simultaneously be a beginner and an advanced athlete. But no skill is worth getting frustrated over. What is most important is having fun while training, taking pride in every improvement and perhaps also recording yourself occasionally so you have something to look back at and smile in realisation on how far you have come.

Rahel xx