How to Add a Lift Week to Your Calisthenics and Cardio Cycle

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Marine curls 50-pound dumbbell.
Lance Cpl. Christopher Talbot, with 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, curls a 50-pound dumbbell in Iraq. (Cpl. Ryan Tomlinson/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

If you are in an exercise cycle with a focus to improve muscle stamina and cardio endurance, break up the monotony of just doing high-rep calisthenics, running or other cardio with a lifting week every 3-4 weeks.

Maybe your joints need a rest from the higher repetitions and impact miles of adding more running progressively each week. Consider a form of block periodization that enables you to do an active recovery week from high repetition and running progressions while keeping a focus on strength and power maintenance.

Many who drop the weights for a cycle as they focus on improving calisthenics and running testing scores often feel a need to add in weights so they don't "lose their gains" in the weight room.

While this can be true for long-term calisthenics cycles with no lifting, this will be less of an issue when you break up the calisthenics and running cycle with a week of lifting, non-impact cardio and reduced running volume.

Volume Up and Volume Down

Block periodization is a systematic model that enables an athlete to control the volume of the workouts to maximize performance and recovery during a higher volume cycle. If your goal for the near future is to improve your scores in various testing calisthenics and grinder PT-type events, you may be doing a high dose of pull-ups, push-ups, dips, sit-ups and other core activities along with running, swimming and rucking.

Think of a week of calisthenics and cardio like a line of building blocks. Place a different lifting block during week 4 of the cycle (or when you need it). Though you may not need much equipment to do this type of high-volume calisthenics and cardio cycle, you may see improvements with strength and reduction in injuries.

This week of reduced volume can help with the recovery. The overall fatigued feeling may go away if you are also focused on your recovery of eating well and sleeping well..

Let's say your typical week of training looked like the classic military PT test week filled with a pyramid workout, superset and a max-rep set workout focused on your testing elements. The increased volume in calisthenics and running miles will soon take a toll on you, and you will need to do a deload week, or you could start to see negative results.

Instead of doing nothing or taking a week off, replace the type of workouts with something else. Replace high repetitions of pull-ups, push-ups, dips, sit-ups, air squats and lunges with a week of upper-body days with bench press, weight vest pull-ups or heavy pulldowns, rows and military press. For leg days, mix in a deadlift with squats and weighted lunges or leg presses. Both options offer fewer repetitions than calisthenics and will be a shorter workout overall, especially since your longer cardio sessions will be cut in half and mixed in with non-impact cardio options.

Here is a sample of how that upper-body and lower-body lifting day will work. Two of these days during the week should be mobility days. The goal is to recover during the week by reducing repetitions and decreasing your running impact for a week.

Upper Body Day

Warm up with PT Pyramid 1-5:

  • Pull-ups x 1
  • Push-ups x 2
  • (1 pull-up/2 push-ups, 2 pull-ups/4 push-ups, 3/6, 4/8, 5/10)

Repeat three times.

  • Bench press: 10
  • Dumbbell rows: 10 per arm

Repeat three times.

  • Weight vest pull-ups: 5-10 or heavy pulldowns: 5-10
  • Military press: 10
  • Biceps curls: 10
  • Plank pose: 1 minute
  • Bike: 10 minutes
  • Run: 1 mile

Cut the number of miles you ran last week in half and replace those miles with non-impact cardio events to help you maintain your aerobic base but with half the impact issues. The run listed above is for a day where you would have run two miles during the calisthenics and cardio workout.

Leg Day

For leg day, the same concept holds. Replace higher repetition squats and lunges with weighted versions of the exercise or similar movements.

Squat pyramid 1-10 with 100-meter run between each set warmup. Stop at 10 and stretch.

Repeat three times.

  • Deadlift: 5 or kettlebell Romanian deadlift: 10-15
  • Hanging knee-ups: 10-15

Repeat three times.

  • Front squats: 10
  • Farmer walks: 2 x 25 meters
  • Fireman carry: 2 x 50 meters
  • Ruck (optional): 3 miles or swim: 2,000 meters with fins

If your leg day typically ends with a long ruck or a long swim with fins, cut the distance in half and focus on faster pace this week. The distance listed above would be used if you did a five- to six-mile ruck or swam 4,000 meters with fins last week.

By the way, six-mile rucks and two-mile swims with fins are common occurrences in many spec-ops level selection programs. Scale the miles according to your personal goals and current fitness levels.

Don't Forget Mobility Days

During this week, adding a second mobility day will be helpful as you end the week and prepare for a return to calisthenics and cardio the following week. Depending on your needs and goals, the cycle of calisthenics and cardio can continue for many more weeks.

For more than 20 years, I have been doing and recommending a seasonal approach to cycles of training. See Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization.

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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