Hi-rep bodyweight training, or high-rep calisthenics, doesn’t get enough respect in the strength training and bodybuilding community. There are reasons for this that do carry weight, but they overlook some of the incredible benefits of pushing repetitions into higher ranges - 200 to 500 total reps in a workout, or sets of up to 50-80 reps per set.
Walk with me…
A Top G is Released From Prison
Andrew Tate, 4 time world kickboxing champ and outspoken anti-feminist, was recently released from Romanian prison after three months of captivity on suspicion of human trafficking and organized crime. Oopsy. Stay safe out there kids!
That said, Tate came out of lockdown looking like wolverine, chest and arms proper swole, six pack abs, eyes clear and focused. He claimed to have done 7,417 push-ups. He also claimed he did 500 a day. I’m no math wiz, but those numbers don’t quite match.
Doesn’t matter too much, however, as I’m not trying to point out anything more than he did ALOT, by any measure.
His images spread like wild fire, as few people choose to build their bodies on high-rep calisthenics, believing there are limitations to the approach, and because there was a remarkable difference in his physique that made some wonder if he’d gone on steroids.
Before I detail the WHY of high-rep calisthenics training, I’m gonna quickly hit the limitations.
The Dice Club Punishment That Failed
For those who have read In Pursuit of Weightlessness, you’re familiar with The Dice Club - a rapscallion cohort of exactly two individuals, myself and Michael P. For years we met every Friday over burgers and beers after hard training sessions and rolled dice for progressively challenging life objectives, ranging from writing books (which I did) to extraordinary wealth accumulation (which he did).
While that chapter has provided some curiosity and interesting feedback from readers, some even taking on dicing for themselves, most avoid the constraints that truly made it work - penalties.
At the onset, for perhaps the first year, we allowed two penalties, one chosen by each of us. Penalties awful enough to disincentivize failure on our weekly objectives. Michael’s contribution was the kamikaze tequila - where one snorts the salt, drinks the shot, and squeezes the lemon in their eye. In public. It sucks.
Mine was 500 pushups.
After months of glory and pain, a problem arose. What initially required a few hours of frustration and discomfort to complete, condensed and condensed. 500 pushups, while not fun, became less awful. And when it became less awful, Michael and I had a board meeting, and elected to remove it from our penalties options, leaving only the one. Salt in the nose never gets easier. And tearing up in public from lemon in the eye is ten minutes of embarrassment one would rather do without.
It’s the getting easier part that makes the anecdote relevant. One way in which high-rep bodyweight training becomes easier is in the adaptations to slow and even fast twitch muscle fibers that occurs, depending on how one trains. As the body acclimates, it becomes increasingly difficult to realize significant gains without rep numbers entering the stratosphere. While this can still work, the efficiency factor dies, and makes a strong appeal for heavier, low-rep approaches.
The other shift is in the psychological perception of discomfort that one must grow through when executing high-rep calisthenics. Both of these have substantial impact on overall performance.
Ok, so the downside happens to be an upside - you can get a lot stronger (which makes bodyweight training harder to capitalize on). But how?
A Little Twitchy, Aren’t Ya?
Muscles are made up of slow and fast twitch muscle fibers. Most know this. What few understand and apply well, however, is that muscles are not exclusively slow or fast twitch, but a combination of the two.
Genetics and prior training have a lot to say about the composition of any given muscle, but ratio’s can be altered depending on the type of one’s training. That said, knowing that muscles like the deltoids (shoulders) and quads are predominantly fast twitch, while the abs and the calves are predominately slow twitch, should help inform how you decide to approach body part specific training.
While you can do high-rep training for the shoulders, it’s not what they’re built for. While you can do low volume, heavy weight training for the calves, it’s not what they’re built for.
Slow twitch fibers, for those unfamiliar, are built for stamina, and have greater aerobic capacity (rely on oxygen and fat for fuel). They tend not to grow (hypertrophy) as much as fast twitch fibers, but they can grow some. Fast twitch fibers are built for speed and power, and have greater anaerobic capacity (absence of oxygen, fueled by stored ATP and muscle glycogen).
Even ‘power muscles’ like the pecs, considered fast twitch dominant, still have a 60-40 fast to slow twitch ratio. This can potentially be altered with years of anaerobic or aerobic conditioning, but we’re still dealing with a muscle that has complex capacity.
Why does this matter?
It matters because when answering the question - “What kind of training is best?” - there’s no one right answer. Most will tell you five sets of five heavy reps for strength. Tate would tell you 7,000 pushups.
In Weightlessness we train the body’s capacities in different ways depending on one’s level of performance along the Strength Spectrum - from structural conditioning and strength training in the 8-12 rep range, to aerobic conditioning in the 30+ rep range, to limit strength in the 3-5 rep range, at levels 1-3 respectively.
These aren’t exclusive, mind you, each level generally has multiple approaches, but these do speak to prioritization at that level, to guarantee rapid, systemic growth.
Implementing high-rep calisthenics training can have ALOT of benefits, but if we neglect to account for the 3 core principles below, even high-rep pushup training can bear as little hypertrophy for the pecs as jogging does for the quads. Religious joggers can have great legs, but they’ll never balloon to pro-bodybuilder levels on jogging alone.
Most of the adaptations from this training come in the form of an increase in the number of capillaries and mitochondria within the muscle fibers, which enhances the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles, increasing their ability to produce energy aerobically and improving their endurance capacity.
So how do we get more out of high-rep training, and potentially impact fast twitch fibers that grow in size and strength?
We’ve got to understand these three principles:
- Fast twitch fibers are recruited by necessity - If you don’t need em, you won’t use em
- Intensity dictates recruitment - Once slow twitch fibers burn out, fast twitch fibers are recruited
- Failure Matters
Your Uncle With the Baseball Bat | On Necessity
Uncle Billy Bob is a no-nonsense kinda guy. But he’s lazy. He’ll get off the couch, but only if someone needs a beat down. And unless and until, he’s staying put.
Fast twitch fibers are similar. If they aren’t needed, they aren’t moving. The simple measure of necessity is whether or not slow twitch fibers can sufficiently perform the task. If they can, in matters of typing, walking, etc, they’ll do the job.
As soon as load or intensity exceeds the contractile capability of those fibers, fast twitch fibers are called off the couch with a baseball bat to regulate.
This is why most strength trainees lift heavy rather than do higher rep bodyweight training - it guarantees fast twitch fibers will be recruited, targeted, and damaged, with enough effort and intensity.
It’s also why those same guys often have crap cardio - their slow twitch fibers are being leap-frogged and neglected. So they gas out quick.
The Tortoise May Get There, But He Won’t Be Any Stronger | On Intensity
So, if the level of threat from neighborhood crackheads is sufficient, Billy Bob leaps into action. But what happens in the case of junior crackheads or less threatening neighborhood annoyances? Well, you gotta deal with them yourself. Not too much risk. Not much of a threat. You can manage.
But as soon as swarms start gathering, or a junior crackhead picks up steal pipes, well then its Billy Bob time.
This principle is overlooked even by many professionals, who don’t mind a workout dragging on for 2 hours. I even recall conversations back at Enso Temple in Shanghai where prospective clients said they wanted to hire a trainer for 2 hours a day. When I told them it’s unlikely they’d last 40 minutes with me a few days a week, and that exceeding an hour would be counterproductive, some would do an about face, and find someone that would appease their ignorance.
Duration and intensity are inversely related. By definition, the shorter you can last, the more intense it is. And intensity is what moves the mind-body growth needle.
An elementary error that many make is just doing more for longer, without asking how they can fail faster. This is the great dividing line for body transformation at large, but also a determining factor in muscle fiber recruitment.
Arnold Inhales the Universe | On Failure
Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his Mr. Olympia years, talked about breathing the universe into his biceps during biceps curls. To this day, one of the best visualizations I’ve come across, and one that speaks to his extraordinary level of mind body connection (mind muscle connection).
Arnold was able to consciously dictate the degree of muscle engagement, a skill I dissect in Lightness-Level Strength Training. In so doing, he was looking for one core signifier of growth - failure.
In the documentary Pumping Iron Schwarzenegger hit home the necessity of training to failure, and emphasized that it’s the very last rep that does all the work. This is a point so critical to mind-body development it cannot be understated or overlooked. Failure is the prime mover of change.
It’s also the determinant factor that converts high-rep bodyweight training into an effective strength training method.
Muhammed Ali used to say that he wouldn’t even start counting his sit-ups until the burn set in. Similarly recognizing little value in working beneath one’s stress threshold, and the need to access windows of intensity that test limits. Early reps do their job in burning out slow twitch fibers and making space for fast twitch fibers to step in, but hitting numbers of reps that you can do, over and over, is a recipe for stagnation.
It’s the last rep, the one you cannot complete, that signals growth.
The stronger you get, the higher that number becomes.
Let’s Not Overlook the Back Door
When high-rep calisthenics are not done in exclusivity, but supplement heavy weight training, something interesting happens.
Not all benefits of targeted training are directly correlated with training-type. One such benefit is improved aerobic capacity (cardio) stemming from high-rep / high volume training. When someone isn’t exclusive in approach, but incorporates high-rep AND low-rep (heavy resistance) training, the antithetical capacity is enhanced somewhat.
This is not a short term benefit, which is why most people that take training seriously specialize. It could also impede core focus, as training of any kind can exhaust energy reserves and mandate more recovery.
It’s rare to see marathon runners bulk up, as anaerobic power potential doesn’t improve long duration running very much. Whereas endurance training doesn’t really affect limit strength power lifts. At the margins - types of training that optimize for one of these traits - payoff from cross training isn’t substantial. And these are the personalities that are often studied, because variables can be isolated.
But let’s take a hypothetical well-rounded athlete, one not optimizing for elite performance in these polarizing contests (long endurance or powerlifting). For such a person, high-rep training can provide incredible benefit for strength and muscle size indirectly - through a back door.
I write about The Power Index in In Pursuit of Weightlessness. This isn’t a complicated model, yet it’s overlooked by the vast majority of trainers, let alone trainees, who focus on set and rep numbers, but fail to track execution and rest times.
When catching up over drinks with friends and flexing your PR’s for the week, you might be surprised when someone hitting the same numbers as you looks twice as good, and their diet seems relatively similar.
Wam, bam, thank you…
When this goes on for weeks to months, you decide to hit the gym with them. After thirty minutes they’re packing their bag and heading home, and you’ve only completed half your sets. So you start wondering…
Let’s say I’m lifting 200 lbs with lift x for a total of 5 reps a set, for 5 sets. I know pushing up my total lift from 200 to 205 is a breakthrough, and should result in muscle gain. But I’ve been trying, and it’s not happening. So is that the only way to look at this? 200 lbs times 5 reps is 1000 lbs lifted per set. Multiply that by 5 sets, and that’s 5,000 lbs lifted in total for a vector / muscle group.
If that takes me 30 minutes to complete (5,000 divided by 30), that gives me a power index of 167. If Joe finishes in 20 minutes, that gives him a power index of 250… The total work done is identical while the amount of work done per unit of time is considerably higher in Joe’s case - he’s a stronger athlete.
But, reflecting on your session, you’re pretty gassed after each set, and really need that 3-5 minutes of rest between sets to recover. If only you had… better aerobic capacity.
Improving your oxidative pathway via high-rep training can dramatically improve recovery time, thereby reducing your total work time and improving your power index (work-to-time ratio). Without increasing your weight lifted by even a pound, you’ve figured out how to dramatically increase the applied stress, the intensity, and your overall performance.
But What About the Neighbors?
One of the downsides of heavy strength training, and only heavy strength training, is that some of the supporting and stabilizing muscles that contribute to structural balance and integrity get bypassed due to their intensity threshold getting blown out. Made of predominately slow twitch fibers, many muscles lay dormant as the workhorse Billy Bob’s are called into action.
When we start at the other end of the spectrum via high-rep training, those fibers not only get addressed before and until fast twitch fibers must take over, but the distribution of stress also shifts across a wider range of muscles. During pushups for example, it’s common for people to be either chest or tricep dominant.
When doing enough reps via high-rep bodyweight training, your dominant muscle will get burnt to toast. What happens then if your target reps for the day aren’t finished? The neighbors get called in to support. A chest dominant trainee will wind up calling heavily on their triceps, and perhaps even deltoids to squeeze out a few more reps. They may even need additional stability, and find sharp contractions in the abs, serratus, obliques, or even the traps and lats, if tension / effort is great enough.
When you sufficiently fatigue the prime movers, stabilizers and supporting muscles engage to pick up slack. Which is one of the reasons high-rep calisthenics training (and long-hold isometric training like the horse stance) is psychologically confronting - failure is a series of progressive steps, and not a one and done, binary event as it is with the deadlift - the weight moves or it doesn’t.
New Levels of Dig
Not only does high-rep bodyweight training provide improvements to stamina and recovery, but it changes the way you view and approach lower rep, heavy weight training. What once may have felt like a grueling 5 x 5 strength session, now feels a heck of a lot more tolerable.
When you learn to push through that burn and fight to true failure, training that often leads to muscle failure quickly before significant burn sets in can feel almost pleasurable. It can also become a far more alive and connected process, once mind-body connection is improved through high volume work.
Mind-Body Connection Blossoms
In low-rep, heavy weight training there isn’t a lot of time or space to explore what’s going on in the body. Intensity often reduces awareness to a few focal points, and for many, only one thought remans - PUSH!
But when you’re working through higher reps there’s time to survey the muscles you’re engaging, study your technique, and even shift the location of stress to various muscles through alignment or conscious effort. In so doing, the same vector being trained with high reps (pushups) and low reps (bench press) can generate very different levels of mind-body connection and awareness.
Performed frequently enough, one gets skilled at discovering dormant or un-recruited fibers. From this new vantage of mind-body connection, strength training is not only amplified, but becomes a process of increasing self-discrovery.
Fighting to squeeze out those remaining reps, new neural pathways must form to recruit additional motor units previously unengaged. With more repetition, that becomes a point of conscious control, and not merely a convenient accident.
One can actually breathe the universe into their muscles.
So how can we distill these principles into an effective approach?
Tips for High Rep Bodyweight Training
- With the exception of warm up reps, target failure with each set attempt
- Make sure sets aren’t uniform. If I give a client a number like 200 pushups, I do not expect them to complete that in one set. I don’t expect them to complete that in 10 sets. But if they come close, it should not look like 10 uniform sets of 20 reps. Each set should reach failure at a lower set point, otherwise you’re not working hard enough and are unlikely to get Billy Bob off the couch. For someone well trained, the first five sets to failure might look like 61, 37, 23, 13, 8… That indicates no convenient stoppages (on round numbers) and a natural decline in energy reserves that should accompany high intensity training. This is the key to maximizing slow AND fast twitch fiber recruitment.
- Don’t rest long - revisit the power index discussion above. Rest times matter. Total training times matter. Don’t make this a casual jog in the park, rather a series of sprints fleeing a lion.
- Consciously connect with prime movers, calling as many fibers as possible into play, and maximizing muscular tension.Fail faster. This isn’t a workout approach that benefits by length. And in fact, bragging about how long you worked out is akin to celebrating laziness. Explore positions that improve muscle targeting and intensity of contraction, and use that to burn your muscles out quickly.
Hope this exploration of high-rep calisthenics training provides a bit of inspiration to go out and explore your high-rep potential. Be attentive to your tendons and joints - they are first to signal when stress is misallocated. And don’t be afraid to face the burn.