Ask Stew: How Can I Improve Strength and Calisthenics Scores at the Same Time?

Airman leads calisthenics exercise

Some of the most common questions come from people who like to lift weights but need to improve their calisthenics testing scores and overall muscle stamina. Too often, people overdo the process and fail to see any gains in strength or muscle stamina.

Success requires some planning in how you split your routines during the week and how you supplement other activities during a differently focused cycle.

Stew, I want to work on increasing my calisthenics numbers when I'm lifting heavy for future PFTs. Would you just do pull-ups and push-ups throughout the day? How do you program workouts to increase both strength and muscle stamina? Peter

Peter, there are many ways to accomplish this task, but success will require a different approach from most strength and conditioning programs. When the goal is to get good at everything required for a tactical athlete to do their job and endure challenging selections, it may take a few cycles of specific focus to improve one specific element of fitness while you work to maintain the others.

When balancing the needs of a tactical athlete, you must consider that they need to be good at strength, power, speed, agility, endurance (run, swim, ruck), muscle stamina, flexibility, mobility and grip strength.

Here are some recommendations as to how you do both and warnings about what not to do:

1. Get Strong and Maintain Calories

If you need to focus on strength and power, you should pursue a strength and power cycle to get stronger. In an athletic world, that may look like lifting, then doing some auxiliary exercises that pertain to your sport. Think sprints, agility, throwing, catching, grappling or other exercises that focus on technique and effort.

However, if you also want to build running miles per week and crush calisthenics fitness tests in preparation for military service events, you may want to warm up with calisthenics, then lift, then cool down with goal-pace running. Rucking or swimming with fins on leg day are other ways to top off leg days. If the goal is to focus more on strength, these warmups and cooldowns should not be longer than 20-30 minutes max on both.

2. Do Not Add Calisthenics on Day After Non-Lifting Days

This is a common error. Many will lift heavy on day one during the workout week and then do calisthenics the following day at a moderate to high volume. There is a serious problem with this approach. If you are working the same muscle groups on back-to-back days with heavy weight followed by high volume, you will not get the recovery you need to see improvements in either strength or muscle stamina.

When you lift heavy weights that involve your entire body, you need a recovery day that helps those muscles grow stronger. On that recovery day, you can still work on your mobility, flexibility and aerobic base in running, biking, swimming or other cardio events.

If you are going to add calisthenics, do them as warmups before or cooldowns after lifting. Make sure you use the same muscle groups exercised in that day's lifts. As an example, if you bench press, add push-ups that day as your warmup or follow-on training session.

3. Block Periodization Model

A method that also takes the guessing game out of how to add calisthenics exercises to weight training cycles is to make your deload week a calisthenics and cardio week. This approach works well and changes energy systems, allowing you to get into better overall shape while taking a recovery week from lifting.

Many come back stronger after this non-lift week placed in the middle of a strength cycle. I prefer to do this alternative deload every four weeks. It's three weeks of lifting focused on strength, power, speed and agility, followed by a week off that focuses on calisthenics and goal-pace cardio for timed run, ruck or swim events.

You can add the push-ups and pull-ups throughout the day mentioned in your question. However, you should only do that on upper-body lift days since the need for recovery from both are greater if you want to see improvements in both.

To be honest, maintaining calisthenics and cardio while in a lift cycle is considered a huge win for people needing all the elements of fitness for future military training programs and selection processes. To improve on everything requires a perfect balance of nutrition, split routines and sleep. If you are missing on any of those three pillars to training, you will not perform at your optimal personal levels.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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