Ask Stew: How to Structure Daily Calisthenics and Cardio Workouts

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Marine pull ups 3000
U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Maribel A. Castaneda, an aviation operations specialist with Drill Instructor School, Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego, conducts a pull-up before a physical training session at MCRD San Diego, May 23, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Julian Elliott-Drouin)

If you can find a structure for your workouts, it will make all the difference. My advice is to do a split routine that works with your abilities, goals, equipment, facilities, time per day and days each week.

If you use these requirements to build your own workout plan and see the results you want, then you have found what works for you. Here is a question from a young man who is losing weight, getting into shape and wants to make a useful split routine that only uses calisthenics.

Mr. Smith, I'm dropping weight. I've started doing calisthenics and cardio training while I don't have my normal weight room options this summer. I only have some dumbbells, a pull-up/dip bar and a bike. Here is how I split my week: Monday, I do push-ups, dips, abs and some biking. Tuesday, I do squats, lunges, shoulders and walk and run up and down hills and stairs. Wednesday, I do chin-ups, curls and bike. How would you structure calisthenics and cardio? Bobby

Bobby, that is a good system. There are so many ways to arrange your calisthenics, weights and cardio options that you could fill a book and still only touch on a small percentage of the types of split routines and workouts you can do with calisthenics and a few dumbbells.

My main question for you is: "Is this current plan working for you?" If it is, great. Keep going with it. If you just started it and have only done it for a week or two, be patient and see whether you get the results you want.

The system you are doing is more of a push/pull/leg split routine. That is one way to do it. If there were any changes, I would recommend for you to keep shoulders on your upper-body day.

It is common with the typical "bro" lifting split to do legs and shoulders on the same day, but it is not necessary in calisthenics, as so many of the upper-body movements will work the shoulders (pull-ups, dips, push-ups, plank, bear crawls, etc.). Just add the dumbbell movements of shoulders to the upper-body day. This way, you can give your entire upper body a "day off" when you train legs, core and cardio on the days between upper-body days.

The good news is that you are not doing daily calisthenics with the same exercises on back-to-back-to-back days. When you are doing workouts that accumulate a higher number of repetitions, you do need to rest those muscle groups, just like you would with weight training days.

Sore joints and decreasing performance tend to follow a high-volume routine when doing daily calisthenics. I also like the harder cardio options you place on your leg days like hills, stairs or bleacher running.

Some Split Routine Options

I typically do two types of split routines for high-repetition calisthenics and increasing weekly progressions of running mileage:

Upper/Lower Split

Monday: Push, pull, core, run, bike and/or swim (pull-ups, push-ups, dips, core variety and cardio)

Tuesday: Run or bike mixed with leg PT (squats, lunges, heel raises, jumps, hills or stairs)

Wednesday: Mobility Day. This is a great way to add in a recovery day, but also mix in more biking and stretching than normal. This one is life-changing for both longevity and overall fitness performance. Simply do five minutes of biking, followed by five minutes of stretching or foam rolling for 45-60 minutes.

Thursday: Push, pull, core, run or bike again.

Friday: Run or bike and leg day again.

Saturday is an optional day. You can decide to do another mobility day, a cardio and core-only day, or do a third upper-body day. One of my favorite training weeks is to do an upper-body pyramid on Monday, a Superset Sub-Max Effort PT on Thursday, and a Max Rep Set Upper-Body PT on Saturday.

Push/Pull/Leg Split

This is another option that I like, especially when I want to see individual upper-body exercise performance gains.

Monday: Pushing and core muscles, plus bike and/or swim (push-ups, dips, overhead press, triceps extension, core variety and cardio)

Tuesday: Pulling and oblique muscles, plus bike and/or swim (pull-ups, rows, biceps curls, side planks, etc.)

Wednesday: Leg Day. Run or bike mixed with leg PT (squats, lunges, heel raises, jumps, hills or stairs)

Thursday: Mobility Day. I still like to do a mobility day somewhere in the middle of the week, as it makes the next 2-3 workouts of the week much better with higher energy levels.

Friday: Push, pull, core, run or bike again. If you want a second full upper-body day, you can opt to mix them again or break them up with Friday push, Saturday pull and Sunday being an optional cardio leg day, mobility or recovery day, if needed.

Saturday: Longer cardio day mixed with legs. Do squats and lunges every five minutes of an hourlong cardio session.

As you can see there are countless ways to do this workout. My final piece of advice is to experiment for a few weeks with each option and see what you enjoy and see what produces the results you want. If you can find something that you both enjoy and gets results, then that is a win/win formula for you to get in shape and lose weight, too.

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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