A High Intensity – Low Frequency Approach to Calisthenics Training

There is a high intensity – low frequency (HILF) approach to Calisthenics training, gaining followers over the years. People claim to have really good results, both in terms of strength and skills, training as rarely as once per week!

Let’s break it down and see what the fuss is all about.

What does high intensity – low frequency (HILF) mean?

High intensity – low frequency (HILF) is a minimalist approach to training, and means spending the least amount of time, in order to get the widest range of gains.

However, unlike other minimalist training approaches, which include compound exercises (deadlifts for example), also targeting a lot of different muscles in very little time, HILF is about spending the least amount of time training, while getting the widest amount of carryover on other Calisthenics exercises and skills, such as the back leverhuman flag and L sit.

So, for example when you work on your planche push ups, you are simultaneously progressing in other skills like planche hold and one arm push ups. Similarly, when you work on one arm chin ups you progress on weighted chin ups too!

The time investment is small and the range of gains is big.

This is because, many skills in calisthenics use the same muscles and similar motor patterns. Hence, by improving one skill, you often get gains in another for free!

For example, pushing movements like the planche and handstand push-ups both rely heavily on shoulder flexion. Training either of these skills will improve shoulder flexion strength, that can be transferred to the other. Also, pulling elements share the primary action of resisted shoulder extension and rely heavily on the back and posterior shoulder muscles. Such exercises include the front lever rows and chin ups.

So, when skills share primary muscles or involve similar actions, gains will be transferable, despite being more specific to the one you train most.

Benefits of high intensity – low frequency (HILF)

Fundamentally, building strength and muscle is based on signaling a need for those capacities to your body. Your physiology doesn’t care about how that is signaled – exhaustion is exhaustion, regardless of your use of barbells, machines, or bodyweight exercises.

Conceptually, HILF training offers a very intense signal to your physiology, as training to absolute failure is far more intense than simply nearing failure. It then allows a lot of time off, for repair and recovery. On the other hand, LOW intensity – HIGH frequency approaches offer more sedated signals, which means that more volume/training sessions are required.

Moreover and due to it’s long recovery requirements, HILF training is preferable, as the necessary time investment is small, allowing more time for other interests and hobbies. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could skip working out without feeling guilty, or without necessarily reducing the desired strength and muscle gains?

Additionally, HIGH intensity – LOW frequency training approach reduces the probability of injuries to an absolute minimum. This is, also, due to the low frequency and fair amount of time off. On the contrary, if you use LOW intensity HIGH frequency training, you would eventually need to use anabolic agents or other pharmaceuticals, that can enhance recovery capacity. Otherwise, over longer time periods you overtrain and risk burnout and injury.

To conclude, there is no need for training every exercise or movement separately. When you train a few core movements and build strength in those, it results in strength capacity that generalizes to other movements.

This is called Free Gains!

The flip side

However, if you want to ensure you are maintaining a Calisthenics skill, while working on others, it is a good idea to include a few attempts of that particular skill each week, just in order to keep the motor patterns fresh.

Also, exercise isn’t only about strength and skills. It is a mood and energy booster, helps you control your weight, sleep better and improves your health in numerous ways.

Moreover, if you are a total beginner you would probably want to train as often as possible. Calisthenics training is highly neurological, so you need to start with greater frequency and a moderate intensity in order to train your cerebellum to get used to those new and advanced movements.

Finally, the ACSM and CDC recommend at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity and 2 resistance workout sessions per week.

So, even if you decide to follow HILF and train for your strength and skills once per week, you should definitely find some other activity to practice on your “off days”. Walking would be a nice example.

How to maximize Intensity

Now, lets examine the actual implication of the HILF training method.

While everybody knows how to lower their training frequency, when it comes to maximising intensity one of the following methods should be applied :

Accommodating resistance

This is the most important intensifying technique you could apply to your training.

  • Most movements have specific failure points. Lets take as an example a leg exercise like the back squat, where you almost always fail near the bottom of the movement. So, applying accommodating resistance to a back squat would aim to make the middle and upper ranges of the movement more difficult. This could be accomplished by adding chains, bands, or having someone provide resistance at particular points of the movement.
  • With bodyweight exercises like one arm chin ups, accommodating resistance could be applied by manipulating the leverage points.
Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Time-Under-Tension 

Refers to the manipulation of the time duration of the reps or sets.

  • This is particularly important for the eccentric portion of the movement. Instead of taking 1-second down on a chin up, you might lower yourself over a 5-second count.
  • Time Under Tension is well-linked to hypertrophy, so be sure to use this if gaining muscle is your primary goal.

Negative reps or eccentrics 

Involve performing only the “negative”/”eccentric” part of the repetition, as there are greater strength gains in this part of the movement.

  • For example, when performing pull ups (both concentric/eccentric portions of the exercise) and you can’t pull yourself up anymore, you would just jump up to the bar, in order to bypass the concentric part. But then lower yourself slowly, in a controlled manner, for the negative/ eccentric part.

Drop sets

Involve failing on particular movement, then regressing it or reducing the load to prolong the maximal exertion.

  • For example, when training assisted one-arm chin-ups, you incrementally increase the support provided by the other arm as you fatigue with the training arm. With weighted back squats, this might involve stripping weight from the bar, to decrease load and then performing more repetitions.
  • You can also switch from a movement’s harder variation to any easier one, like from pull ups to chin ups.

Cluster reps/sets 

Involve breaking up a set of reps with a break near the end, to allow more reps to be completed in the “just-before-failure” point.

  • For example, instead of doing 5 reps of bench press, you might do 4 reps and get near your failure point. You would wait 10 seconds, perform 2 more reps, wait 10 seconds more, perform 2 reps, and finally wait 10 seconds and perform 1 more rep. This prolongs the period of maximal exertion in a set, as the last few reps are always the most difficult.

Rest-pause reps 

Involve pausing the movement then resuming it.

  • As this breaks momentum it adds to the necessary exertion.
  • This can be best applied at the bottom of a movement, in order to mitigate the chance of a stretch reflex, or at points in the movement where it’s less challenging.

Increased Resistance/Load

Involves increasing the intensity of a movement, by increasing the load.

  • For example, if you’re performing a barbell back squat, an application of this would be increasing the weight.

Volume

Involves manipulating the sets and reps performed for a given exercise. Higher volume will result in greater signaling to a muscle.

  • For example, when you perform an extra rep of handstand push ups in each of your sets.
  • Volume is the last intensifying technique you want to use; firstly try to increase intensity through the other techniques mentioned above.

TO SUMMARIZE

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You can use Hight intensity – Low frequency training to program your workout more intelligently, speed progress and maintain skills, while you are chasing other fitness goals.

This is because most Calisthenics skills are similar to others and training one, will help the other. For example, planche and handstand push-ups rely on the same muscles. If you only train HSPU, your planche will still improve.

However, this method is more suitable for advanced Calisthenics athletes, as beginners need more skin in the game for a number of reasons.

Also, if you fall into the first category (advanced athlete), don’t forget to work each skill specifically from time time too! As they are improving, but not as much as if you directly trained them.

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