There's a lot of talk this time of year about the importance of "sticking with" a training program, and rightly so. So let me throw my two cents in.
- Cent 1: The simpler your program, the more likely you are to stick with it.
- Cent 2: The clearer your goals, the more likely you are to achieve them.
When it comes to goals, I like to think in terms of actions rather than, say, scale numbers. But the two are definitely related.
For instance, achieving the goal of nailing my first clean chin-up rep changed my body composition more than anything else I'd done to that point, and it made me into a better athlete overall.
What more could you ask of a goal than that?
This year, free your mind from the idea that you need anything but your own body weight and some bars to get into the best shape of your life. Calisthenics exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, bridges, dips, and leg raises can be enough on their own! If you have a background in yoga, Pilates, or any kind of dancing, you will see a lot of carryover with these exercises, and your added strength and agility will help you get more out of these other activities.
Advanced calisthenics practitioners are just as graceful and agile as women who practice those other modalities, and they don't end up "bulky" or inflexible.
Life is already filled with complications, so why make training one of them? If you've already tried my routine "Beginning Bodyweight Strength Training for Women," this is the next chapter of the story. Let's get moving!
The push-up was the first exercise I listed in my beginner's calisthenics workout, and it's the first one here as well. No matter what your level is, push-ups are a good idea—and one that a lot of people get wrong.
Since push-ups are moving planks, they're great for improving your posture and teaching you how to brace your core to support your back. This is in addition to the well-known chest, shoulder, and arm strength they build. And yet, I often see women butchering push-ups at the gym, usually because they use too much momentum and not enough raw strength, or because they limit the range of motion. So don't "bust out" your reps. Slow them down to do and do them right!
Be warned: Correct push-ups aren't easier than bad ones—ust the opposite! But the payoff for getting stronger at them is far, far greater, too. Let's get systematic about it.
- Start by kneeling down and placing your hands on the ground around shoulder-width apart so the space in between your thumb and index finger line up with the crease in your armpit. Roll the pit of your elbows forward to lock your arms in position.
- Walk your feet back until you are balancing on your toes with your feet together in a plank position. Inhale into your abdomen to brace your core and squeeze your kneecaps, engaging your quads and generating tension throughout your entire body.
- Bend your elbows back, lowering yourself to no more than a fist-width from the ground. Your back should be straight, with your shoulder blades coming together at the bottom position. Exhale forcefully to press yourself back up, spreading your shoulder blades apart in the top position.
2. Bench Pistol Squat
Bodyweight squats are fantastic. So are pistol squats. But you can do plenty of the former and not be able to manage a single rep of the latter. Does that mean you "can't do" pistols? Of course not! Just start with what you can do, and get better.
Bench pistols are a great way to build toward the mighty single-leg pistol squat. They are perfect for developing unilateral strength and balance in each leg, along with the ankle flexibility you'll need to achieve the full-ROM pistol. Progressing these is easy; just steadily decrease the level of the bench until you are squatting the full range of motion.
- Stand in front of a bench or box of around knee height.
- Squeeze your palms together and extend one leg forward. Focus on keeping your extended foot flexed to help you generate tension in that leg and assist with balance.
- Bend the knee of your standing leg until your butt is on the bench. Lean slightly forward to engage your abs and press through your standing foot to return to a standing position.
Chin-ups are one of the best exercises any woman can do, hands down. I outlined a few reasons in "Ladies: Bring Pull-Ups to the Forefront," but here's a largely unappreciated one: The number of reps you can do is usually contingent upon how lean you are.
This can be a great way to gauge your weight without ever stepping onto a scale. My husband Al Kavadlo explained why in "Al Kavadlo's 20 Pull-Up Challenge." "Pull-ups keep you honest," he says. "If you're gaining weight and your reps on pull-ups are going down, you're getting fatter. If your reps stay the same or go up, you're getting stronger."
But we're talking about chin-ups here, right? Chin-ups are often laughed off as being easier than a standard pull-up, but just like the pull-up, they build a lot of strength in your upper body and abs. I got my first chin-up way before I was able to do a pull-up, and I always coach my female clients to do the same and focus on getting a chin-up first.
Anyone can sit in front of a lat pull-down and crank out reps, but a woman performing a chin-up will definitely turn heads!
- Hang from an overhead bar with an underhand grip, meaning the palms are facing you.
- Pack your shoulders by creating space between your ears and shoulders in a "reverse shrug."
- Tense your abdominals, flex your arms, and driving your elbows hard toward your hips. These actions are what launches your chin over the bar!
- Exhale and extend your arms slowly back to a dead-hang position before attempting another rep.
Try to keep your legs together during every part of every rep, in order to maintain tension throughout your entire body.
4. Hanging Knee-Raise
You want to rock that crop-top this summer and show off some sweet abs, right? Then don't be shy, let's hit the bar!
These are more challenging than most people think. If you're looking for a great ab exercise that will blow crunches out of the water, look no further. By practicing knee raises on a bar, you minimize the contact points to just your hands, thus adding an element of instability and making the exercise more challenging. They also strengthen your grip and give you a great stretch in your spine.
Be careful to maintain packed shoulders, and point your feet slightly ahead of your hips in the bottom position to minimize swinging. This "hollow body" position will better engage your abdominals and help you utilize the bigger muscles of your back—your lats—to assist in hanging.
- Get into position by hanging from a bar with an overhand grip.
- Come into a hollow-body position, crush grip the bar, tense your abdominals, and draw your knees toward your chest. Ideally, you want your knees to come past your hips on every rep before extending them back down again.
Try to avoid swinging at any point of the movement.
5. Parallel-Bar Dip
When I ask my female clients what areas they want to tone, a lot of them simply shake their arms at me, pointing to the flabby underside. Many women struggle with this exercise, but just as with the chin-up, your first clean rep is a victory worth aiming for. And yes, they're great for adding some firmness to your triceps!
- Get into the top position of a dip by holding yourself up between two parallel bars with your elbows fully extended.
- Bend your elbows back, and pitch your chest slightly forward between your arms. Lower yourself until your elbows are around 90 degrees before pressing yourself back up to the top position.
If you are new to this movement, you can always start with a partial range of motion to get a feel for the exercise. As you get stronger, work toward a deeper bend in your elbows.
6. Back Bridge
The bridge is an exercise that sadly gets left out of most people's routines, which is a shame. This is a move everyone should be doing—especially women! We also tend to be naturally better at this exercise than men, and it can be a great alternative to weighted movements like deadlifts for forging an iron spine.
Bridges strengthen your entire posterior chain, including your glutes, hamstrings, and back. They also provide an excellent stretch for the front of your body, can improve your posture, and build muscles in your upper back to help support the weight of your chest.
Instead of practicing this exercise as an isometric hold, which it often is, I prefer to make it a dynamic movement. Because of the intensity of this exercise, I recommend practicing it at the end of your training session when your body is completely warmed up.
- Lie on your back with your knees bent and your heels in front of your glutes. Place your hands by your ears, with your fingers pointing towards your shoulders.
- Press into your feet and hands, and squeeze your glutes to extend your hips upward as you lift your back off the ground. Ideally, at the apex of the exercise, your arms and legs should be fully extended. Be patient; with consistent practice, you will get it!
Grace's Full-Body Routine For Women
Now that you know the exercises, let's put them all together. This is a full-body routine you can do multiple times a week. Rest as needed between sets—after all, you're building strength!